Five types of communication styles: which is yours?

Communication is key to navigating our lives, from big presentations to important family chats.

Good communicators easily get their point across, avoiding confusion and ensuring everyone knows what’s on their mind. Poor communicators send mixed messages through their words, body language and tone, which can cause friction and damage relationships. 

Let’s discover what communication styles are, which apply to you and why they matter. 

Why do communication styles matter?

Healthy, effective communication is one of the most valuable life skills. It bridges gaps, ensures people understand you and makes life much easier. With a solid communication style, you can present information, share your opinions and give unwelcome feedback with minimal conflict.

Poor communication skills can lead to conflict and confusion. This can damage team relationships and lead to big mistakes in the workplace. But a good communicator can save the day and be a valuable member of any team.

But why care about your communication style? Understanding the styles means you can:

  • Compare your communication habits and learn if you have a good communication style.
  • Improve your communication habits and strengthen interpersonal relationships.
  • Discover other people's communication styles and speak with them more effectively.

Beyond these, you can also practice tactics for communicating with people who lack effective communication styles. This essential skill minimizes disagreements and makes you invaluable to others inside or outside the workplace.

Identifying which actions align with different communication styles is a great skill, as it allows you to work effectively with communicators as they are in the moment.

The five communication styles

Let’s start by clearly understanding the five main communication styles. Some research focuses on assertive, passive, aggressive and passive-aggressive styles. There's also a fifth one to watch for: Manipulative. 

Manipulative communication can be a mix of the other styles, and it’s crucial to be able to spot it. We’ll go over some examples later. 

Before you start learning about communication styles and assigning people to different camps, remember that styles change. 

You might be an assertive communicator unless you're outside your comfort zone. Here, you may become passive. A coworker is usually assertive too, but a recent Slack conversation about responsibilities revealed some manipulative behavior. 

Perhaps your manager is a passive communicator until their manager pressures them. As a result, they become aggressive. 

People change in different circumstances and across communication channels. Many people aren’t self-aware, so always take responsibility for your communication. 

Let's get into the five types and examples. 

1. Assertive communication style

If you've already researched communication styles, you know an assertive style is the “good” one. People aspire to be assertive and effective communicators. 

But what exactly is assertive communication? 

Asana describes assertive communicators as "highly functional." Their skills extend to verbal, nonverbal and text-based communication. 

Assertive speakers clearly and concisely share their views with minimal confusion or unnecessary conflict.

These great speakers: 

  • know what to say and how to say it, 
  • mirror others,
  • engage in active listening and
  • can effectively explain and express emotion over text channels. 

They also know what type of communication to use in different situations. A delicate conversation with feedback is more likely to be more effective in person than via text. 

While there's always room for improvement, assertive communicators don't have much refining to do. 

Instead, they can focus on advanced-level communication skills like storytelling, presenting in front of a crowd, training others to be better communicators and mastering sales tactics.

Examples of communication with assertive communicators

Not sure if you or someone in your workplace is an assertive communicator? Look for these hallmarks:

  • Politely giving positive and negative feedback, like using an authentic "sandwich" style
  • Actively listening by making eye contact, empathizing, mirroring gestures and summarizing others’ key points
  • Using neutral or positive body language rather than closed-off or aggressive cues
  • Speaking calmly in all scenarios
  • Staying focused and maintaining their opinions or stances despite pushback
  • Being able to defuse situations without simply agreeing or deflecting

2. Passive communication style

Passive communicators maintain the status quo and don't argue or present contradictory opinions. 

This can be useful in some organizations. Many enterprise organizations don't need innovation during day-to-day operations. And some managers have a very top-down or hierarchical style. But pure compliance has its issues. 

Passive communicators don't feel comfortable causing conflict or raising problems, which can be bad news if they uncover an issue in the workplace. 

On top of that, people can easily dissuade them from speaking. Passive people fold at the first sign of pushback, so organizations miss out on potential contributions. 

They can even hesitate to ask clarifying questions, so they could be doing work incorrectly. 

Passive communication isn't just bad for the workplace — it's bad for passive communicators. It leads to more stress and uncertainty, less work satisfaction and less career advancement.

If you recognize this style in someone, consider giving them an alternative way to express themselves. Communicating in writing can detach them from emotions or worries and get a discussion going.

You may already know if you or someone at work is passive. Identifying the signs can help you: 

  • reduce passive communication qualities, 
  • help coworkers who are naturally passive and
  • create corrective or supportive communication strategies for your team.

Examples of communication with passive communicators

Signs of passive communication include:

  • Crossing arms during conversation, acting as a shield to protect their personal space
  • Minimal eye contact
  • Rarely stating their opinion and even more rarely maintaining their view after pushback
  • Doesn't speak often in group settings, either in-person or on digital channels
  • Very stressed at work but doesn't complain or give negative feedback
  • Can be steamrolled by aggressive, passive-aggressive and manipulative communicators; even assertive speakers may not notice a problem

3. Aggressive communication style

Aggressive communication styles are also common in the workplace. 

It's easy to think of aggressive communication as the opposite of a passive style. However, they both come from the same thing: A feeling of dissatisfaction and lack of support. 

While passive communicators withdraw because they feel no one is listening, aggressive communicators override others. They often feel people won't listen to them if they aren't forceful.

Watch for combative, accusatory or patronizing communications that try to keep the aggressor on top. 

This is particularly problematic because it quickly makes other coworkers passive, passive-aggressive or even aggressive in return. 

Team communication can quickly break down and lead to tension and conflict.

Examples of communication with aggressive communicators

Sometimes, professionals are aggressive communicators all the time. But most often, specific topics or conversations trigger aggressive behavior.

Some indications of an aggressive communication style are:

  • Many "you" statements, such as "you don't understand," "you're not doing it right" or "you're not listening"
  • Frequently interrupting other speakers or ignoring other people's input
  • Making confident or even combative eye contact
  • Finding flaws in other people's work
  • Often stepping outside of their role to manage or correct others

4. Passive-aggressive communication style

Just like passive and aggressive speakers, people with a passive-aggressive communication style often feel like people will ignore any ideas and not support them 

Because of this, they often avoid being assertive or authentic, defaulting to a passive-aggressive routine. 

Communication will often be contradictory. Body language may conflict with their verbal messages, or you'll see different wording across various communication channels.

Many professionals use a passive-aggressive communication style in specific contexts rather than all the time. 

You may see more passive-aggressive behavior when: 

  • there's a mismatch in expectations, 
  • a team member lets the passive-aggressive communicator down on a task or 
  • the speaker feels uncomfortable.

Generally, there's always a reason for passive-aggressive behavior.

However, that doesn't mean it's not incredibly harmful to team dynamics. It can cause personality clashes and result in direct conflicts over misunderstandings. 

Passive-aggressive styles can cause communication breakdowns and set the stage for dodging responsibility.

Examples of communication with passive-aggressive communicators

  • Procrastinating on assignments, especially if the tasks involve other people
  • Giving others backhanded compliments or triggering their tempers on purpose
  • Keeping score of imagined or real slights against them without addressing the problem 
  • Using the silent treatment instead of actual interpersonal communication
  • Giving different answers to different people, especially in vague terms
  • Using a sarcastic tone of voice (even when not being sarcastic)
  • Pretending everything is fine when directly asked about problems or group dynamics

5. Manipulative communication style

Manipulative communication styles are a new addition to the list, but they’re important to understand and identify. 

On the surface, it can look like passive-aggressive and even assertive styles. But, the communicator uses behavioral cues from the other communication styles to disguise their intentions and trick people. 

This isn't inherently malicious, as people can be manipulative with good intentions. Still, it can quickly hurt team dynamics and lead to no one trusting the coworker with a manipulative style.

Examples of communication with manipulative communicators

In the workplace, manipulative styles are often self-serving:

  • Pressing others to ask awkward questions to prevent risk to the manipulative speaker
  • Triggering emotions and tempers of other coworkers for fun or trying to make them look bad in front of others
  • Coercing others into doing unpleasant tasks, especially passive people
  • Acting nice to people's faces and spreading lies or creating friction behind their backs
  • Being very charismatic when they think they can get what they want before turning aggressive or passive-aggressive when they don't get their way
  • Acting superior to everyone and allocating tasks even if it's not their responsibility

If you suspect manipulation, listen to your gut. Gather information from people other than the manipulative team member, maintain your boundaries and keep your emotions in check. 

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to pinpoint when someone is using a manipulative communication style. And often, the manipulation only becomes clear to the victim after the fact.

It can be just as hard to be honest with yourself and take note of when you might have been manipulative.

What's the most effective communication style?

An assertive communication style is most effective in the short and long term, so try to make it your default personal style. 

Assertive communication styles use the best tactics for speaking and listening. They speak directly and consistently but also listen to other people's opinions. 

While assertive speakers can be self-serving, they often have everyone’s interests in mind. 

An assertive style is valuable for resolving work-related challenges, especially for project managers, consultants and decision-makers. 

It's even more valuable when it comes to people dynamics: Assertive speakers are direct when there's a problem instead of playing games.

But assertive communication isn’t just good in its own right. It’s the most effective style because it lacks the harms of other communication styles:

  • It doesn't involve the withdrawn silence or anxiety of passive communication.
  • It doesn't create the conflict and combativeness we see in aggressive communication.
  • There's no kept score or vindictiveness of passive-aggressive styles.
  • There's none of the game-playing and deceit we see in manipulative styles.

How to communicate with other types of communication styles

If you collaborate with people of all communication styles, you’ll want to use certain techniques to speak to people. Active listening is one of our favorite tools as it works with every style. But it also helps to have a playbook of tactics for each style.

To get started, identify the communication styles of those around you. As you get to know your coworkers, you'll understand their default styles and how they change in different contexts.

Once you know what you're working with, try these tactics for more effective communication:

Assertive

Be more trusting with the information they share, and let assertive speakers govern themselves. The last thing you want to do is make an assertive speaker less assertive or prevent honest communication.

Passive

Default to their preferred communication channels. Depending on your role, schedule one-on-one or small meetings where they feel more confident. Also, praise their good ideas to boost their confidence.

Aggressive

Be very clear about their role in different projects, and firmly maintain those boundaries. 

Just like with passive speakers, publically note their contributions to build rapport. It's easy to fall into the habit of only giving aggressive speakers negative feedback.

Passive-aggressive

Create clear, open conflict resolution channels, and require clear communication style training. 

The best way to reduce passive-aggressive behavior is transparent communication. 

Also, if you're a manager, schedule more team-building activities to strengthen positive, healthy relationships in your team.

Manipulative

Coach manipulative communicators on being direct regarding their true intentions and accepting unfavorable answers. 

You can also assess different scenarios with frequent manipulative behavior to identify and remove underlying causes.

The last card

An assertive communication style is the best way forward, whether you want to develop your career or nurture better interactions.

But being assertive doesn't always come naturally. The good news? Assertive communication isn't a personality trait— it's a learned skill and behavior. 

To improve your communication style, identify when you’re assertive and when you’re using other styles. Work on developing your active listening, direct speaking and conflict resolution skills. 

Ready to go further? If personal development is your focus, work on your speaking and personal communication style with our Storytelling Tactics Deck.

Prefer to help your team uncover healthier communication approaches? Try our Team Tactics Deck. Whatever you need, we’ve got a solution that’ll work for you. 


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