4 Communication Styles We Use & How to Understand Them
How do you handle conflict? Does it stress you out to tell your friends or significant other that you’re upset with them? Growing up, a lot of us aren’t fully taught how to navigate conflict, how to deal with getting across our desires, needs, and feelings. It makes sense then, that when the going gets tough, the tough… struggle.
Personally, I don’t enjoy conflict — no one does. But I used to hate it. I’d get flustered and frustrated, easily defensive, and quick to cry. And though I don’t actively like it now, I’ve learned to welcome it when it does occur.
In recent years, thanks mostly to things I’ve learned in therapy and beyond, I’ve become more able to calmly and clearly get across what I’m feeling. So instead of stressing about what’s bothering me, and then stressing about how I’ll respond to my own upset feelings in the middle of a tough conversation, I’m more able to cope and communicate without losing my proverbial sh*t. At the same time, I’ve also learned how to be more receptive to what the other party needs, to listen to others’ needs without internalizing them as a reflection of my being a bad friend or girlfriend. Something that’s helped me most in going from being easily overwhelmed and reactionary to more responsive and calm is an understanding of communication styles: being able to understand and then categorize my own ways of communicating, as well as those of others.
Put simply, communication styles are just different ways of, well, communicating. You probably use one or two as your go-to when you’re put in the throes of conflict, but you might show some variation from one relationship to the next. Chances are, the way you handle conflict with a sibling isn’t the same way you handle it with a close friend or partner. Here are four main communication styles:
Aggressive communication is often loud. Think of behavior reminiscent of bullying: there’s a lot of name-calling, glaring, and demanding involved. People on the receiving end who are dealing with a person behaving aggressively may feel hurt or defensive, or they may even be pushed to respond aggressively themselves in an attempt to feel heard.
Passive-aggressive communication is often indirectly aggressive, cunning, and controlling. If you feel powerless and also angry or resentful, you might respond with sarcastic or sulky ways of speaking. You may also behave in a way that could be described as two-faced — saying that nothing is wrong, but acting maliciously behind the other person’s back whether it be through gossip or other intentionally hurtful behaviors. Someone dealing with your passive aggression will probably feel hurt, confused, and resentful.
Passive behavior is submissive. Someone who feels as if they are powerless or can’t “win” will behave passively by avoiding conflict altogether. Passive communication correlates with feeling like a victim, being unable to express true feelings or needs, avoiding confrontation, and apologizing without feeling like you are actually in the wrong. In other words, you might not want to bring up why you’re upset about something, and if you finally muster up the courage to do so, and the other person isn’t immediately seeing your side, you give up. Passive communication is placating, and can leave you feeling even more powerless or guilty — a vicious cycle. People on the receiving end are more likely to take advantage of this kind of behavior and more likely to discount your needs, which just perpetuates the cycle of you feeling powerless.
Assertive communication is the ideal style and strikes a balance between passive and aggressive communication. It is the healthiest and most effective way to communicate, and it’s also the best way to ensure no one gets hurt — no one is yelling, and you’re making an effort to openly say what you need. To communicate assertively, it is important to ask directly for what you want — take ownership of your feelings, and then tell the other person what they are. This doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get what you want of course, but it will preserve respect for you and for the other person. Keep your voice calm and at a normal pitch, your posture open and steady, and make good eye contact. The person on the receiving end will hopefully feel respected, and will likely respect you more as well. If you communicate this way, your friend or partner is most likely to understand what you need, and more able to consider your side with some clarity.
Understanding communication styles has helped me at work and in both platonic and romantic relationships. At work, I hesitate less to ask to take on certain projects, and I’m more likely to respond honestly if I have too much on my plate. This ease and confidence are what assertive communication is all about — it shows a clear understanding of self, as well as the ability to establish boundaries. In my personal life, it’s an ongoing learning process.
Learning to communicate assertively isn’t just a switch I’ve been able to turn on, of course. It’s like a muscle, and the more I exercise this muscle, the easier it gets. More often than not, my loved ones now understand what I need from them. Introducing healthy communication — even if it can be described as conflict — into a relationship sets a dynamic and an understanding that both parties care about each other, that both want to make sure each person has their needs met. This doesn’t mean everyone gets exactly what they want, but rather than fight and sulk, we find a solution together that works best for us as a team.
(It’s worth mentioning that just because you learn how to behave assertively, doesn’t mean everyone else does, too. You may encounter someone who is aggressive, for example, in which case it can help to use the communication styles as a tool to understand their particular motives and behaviors. It might be an option to bring up communication styles with them, to work harder at having healthy conflict and at finding a cooperative solution together.)
(It’s also worth considering when to back out — “winning” a conflict isn’t everything, of course. You’re allowed to protect your mental and emotional energy rather than forcing a solution to a conflict that may not be fairly solved, or that involves someone who isn’t capable of having healthy conflict at the moment. Sometimes self-care is knowing when to back out rather than trying to convince someone who is committed to misunderstanding you.)
Ideally, though, the best kind of conflict is where you both learn more about your own needs as well as each others’. And you also learn how much you matter to the other person: a close friend and I recently got into a conflict that nearly ended our friendship. Luckily, we were ultimately able to talk things through, to communicate effectively and assertively, as a result of which we’ve come to better understand how much we both mean to each other. At the end of the day, neither of us wanted to cause hurt to the other — we were just having trouble navigating how to have conflict in a fairly new relationship. And we both walked away feeling more understood and cared for. Assertive communication is a great way to show value — who respects your needs, as well as whose needs you prioritize. Understanding this allows conflict to become a catalyst for strengthening relationships rather than weakening them.
I think we’re taught to hate conflict — silence anger when we feel it, assume that expressing our needs automatically marks us as being needy. But guess what? We’re all humans — we all have needs and want to feel loved and respected. Instead of seeing conflict as something to avoid, we can use it as a tool to better understand ourselves and strengthen our relationships. I think my strongest relationships are those in which both parties can openly communicate, wherein both needs are considered. In understanding how to communicate effectively, we can all navigate our relationships with a bit more ease and clarity.
Virali is a writer, plant lady, and Drake enthusiast based out of Los Angeles. She is a west-coaster by birth and again by choice. You can find some of her previous work at The Ringer and Girlboss.