Communication styles

After reading this guide, you will know about the many different communication styles, which will lead to a better understanding of how people communicate.

This will help you improve communication between your employees, enhance the training, hiring, and many other processes in your organization.

As you engage with this article and think about the communication styles you encounter in your organization, and the styles that you wish to see more of, it is worth thinking about how communication is a large part of both management styles and conflict management styles.

These three concepts are foundational when it comes to good management and creating a successful business environment.

By learning more about them, and applying them in your organization, you can create a dynamic, positive environment, leading to better business outcomes.

Discover:

5 Types of Communication Styles

Some situations will call for certain styles, or you might find that one style is particularly effective with one employee, while another works better for someone else.

Styles can be combined, and people use styles different than their default one based on who they are communicating with.

There is no point in inflexibly using only one style to communicate with every single person you encounter throughout the workday, though some styles are generally more effective than others.

1. Assertive communication style

This is considered to be the most effective communication style.

A person using this style is confident in their convictions but makes sure that they do not belittle or steamroll others in the conversation.

They do not resort to manipulation or pushing limits, rather they seek compromise and consensus through active listening and clearly expressing their wants or needs.

Assertive communicators tend to have naturally high self-esteem, and they do not veer into passive or aggressive communication.

A hallmark of assertive communication is the use of "I" statements, such as "I feel as though you interrupting me during the client meeting undermined my expertise," rather than "You need to be quiet during client meetings since you insist on interrupting constantly".

This style of communication is recommended in most business settings.

Calm, measured, and positive, many situations can be handled, and problems solved, by proactively using assertive communication.

How can you become a more assertive communicator?

  • Speak from a place of confidence. If you’re not a naturally confident person, fake it ‘till you make it! You know best what you need to be successful, trust in yourself.
  • Consider both your needs and the needs of those you are communicating with. Try to be solution-oriented, positive, and sensitive to the other person’s point of view.
  • Take a look at your verbs. Don’t sugarcoat things or soften them. Say "will" instead of "could" or "should". Think of how different these two sentences sound: "I will take the lead on this project." vs. "I could take the lead on this project."

How can you effectively work with an assertive communicator?

  • Give them the space to talk. They will let you know their ideas and their solutions, you just need to listen and give them the chance to communicate.
  • Ask them what they think, and do not dismiss them if they are critical. If they think you are wasting their time, they will not bother being helpful to you.
  • Expect them to ask for your thoughts as well. They want a conversation and are solution-oriented. Bring your own solutions and criticisms and expect there to be a respectful conversation.

2. Aggressive communication style

This communication style can be hostile, threatening, and comes from a place of wanting to win at all costs.

An aggressive communicator behaves as if their contribution to the conversation is more important than anyone else, and the content of their message is often lost because of the tone of their delivery.

This type of communication can result in people feeling belittled, steamrolled, and intimidated.

In some cases, they may reactively push back at an aggressive communicator, not because the communicator is incorrect, but simply because the delivery of the message is so unpleasant that they instinctively disagree.

This type of communication has been observed in some business leaders, who can control their style enough to come across as bold, rather than domineering, but that takes skill.

In day-to-day operations, this is not a style that will endear someone to their colleagues, and it is advised that this style is avoided in most cases.

How to adjust your aggressive style to communicate better

  • The confidence of an aggressive communicator is very close to the self-assurance of the assertive communicator. The big difference is that an assertive communicator values the other person’s feelings, where an aggressive communicator does not. Switch your style by considering how your request - and the way that you deliver it - will affect the person you’re speaking to.
  • Take a look at your body language. Aggressive communicators use physical proximity, tone of voice, and gestures to underline their power in the conversation. This is not going to help your communication succeed. Step back, and tone it down. Colleagues will respond much better to a new, calmer conversational style.
  • Change your point of view. You don’t want to ‘win’ the conversation, you want to solve the problem. There’s a much better chance of doing so if you work with others.

How can you effectively work with an aggressive communicator?

  • This is a tough one. Aggressive communicators are notoriously difficult to work with. If you are unable to help them adjust their style, then prepare yourself for their blunt tone and unpleasant delivery.
  • If you are in a position that you can advise the person on their behavior, introducing them to the communication styles, and the advice given above on adjusting it, could be a fruitful conversation.
  • Get them down to business immediately, and try to streamline the conversation so that it doesn’t wander off into unpleasant or irrelevant topics.

3. Passive communication style

This type of communication is also known as the submissive communication style. Another way of describing it is the "people-pleaser" type.

This type of communication is self-effacing, conflict-avoidant, and easy-going.

That’s not to say that a passive communicator is always happy - in fact, this style of communication can lead to resentment building up over time because the person is unable to clearly communicate their opinions, needs, and wants.

Passive communicators tend to step back and let other, more assertive or aggressive, people lead the way.

They can find it difficult to effectively express themselves, and want to avoid confrontation at all costs. This can directly lead to their good ideas never being heard, or for miscommunications to come up.

In business, this style of communication can be used in reaction to aggressive communication, especially when handling a client or other person with whom other styles of communication are not working.

However, within a team or department, managers should work to help passive communicators access a more assertive style, so their valuable insights and ideas do not get passed over.

How to adjust your passive style to communicate better

  • Be confident in the value of your contributions. If this is difficult for you, try the fake it ‘till you make it advice we gave above for those hoping to become more assertive. Start small and build your confidence.
  • Learn the value of "No". You can only take on so much work, and being able to set healthy workplace boundaries will help you be able to make sure your plate is not being overloaded by those looking to take advantage of your people-pleasing nature.
  • You’re already good at compromise, but make sure that you are not compromising everything. Look for solutions where everyone can win, and offer them up.

How can you effectively work with a passive communicator?

  • Directly ask their opinions on subjects. Give them space within the conversation to offer their views, and allow them the time to properly express them.
  • Do not dismiss their ideas. They are working hard to build their confidence, if an idea won’t work, point out the value of the idea and highlight the positive aspects of it, rather than cutting them down with a short "Well, that won’t work."
  • Keep conversations positive and solution-oriented. Don’t be angry or confrontational, that will cause them to shut down completely.

4. Passive-aggressive communication style

This style of communication, like the name suggests, combines aspects of both passive and aggressive communication styles.

The passive exists on the surface, while the aggressive simmers beneath.

Outwardly, the communicator seems sweet and easy-going, but they are operating from a place of anger and resentment.

This bubbles up and can be shown through using sarcasm, being patronizing, starting rumors, or gossiping.

Their frustration comes out through these indirect routes, but they will have the same effect as someone who is straightforwardly aggressive; colleagues will not want to work with them.

This style tends to be very toxic in the workplace, spreading discontent and resentment throughout the team or department.

There are no times that this style of communication is appropriate in a business setting. If there are communicators in your organization that default to this style, it is key that they are helped to readjust to a less disruptive style.

How to adjust your passive-aggressive style to communicate better

  • Pinpoint where your anger comes from. Do you feel like your team doesn’t listen to you? Do you feel like your contributions are overlooked? Find out the issue, and communicate this with your manager.
  • Look at your motivation when communicating. Are you coming from a place of wanting to help solve the problem, or are you lashing out? Adjust how you approach conversations and try to focus on positive, solution-oriented statements instead.
  • Understand that business relationships can be complicated. Confidently and consistently approaching conversations in a positive and pleasant manner can improve your work life dramatically. You can’t control how people act towards you, but you can control how you react to them. Changing the style of communication can bring a sea change to your relationships at work.

How can you effectively work with a passive-aggressive communicator?

  • Try to understand their motivations, if possible. If there is an outside force causing them to communicate this way, then it could be within your power to help solve that problem. Do they consistently use this style when dealing with an aggressive communicator? Does this only happen when they are faced with short deadlines? Think about what is causing this to happen.
  • Don’t meet them with the same style. It can be tempting to respond in kind, but that continues an unhealthy cycle of communication. Instead, focus on assertive communication. If you offer responses that highlight their contribution, offer win-win solutions, and do not belittle them, they will see the value of a different type of communication style.
  • Focus on their message and rephrase it in an assertive manner. Change the tone while demonstrating the communication style you would prefer their message to be delivered in.

5. Manipulative communication style

This style of communication uses cunning, deceit and influence to control the outcome of the conversation, and thus the actions of the people around them.

Manipulative communicators rarely say what they mean, instead they will bury their real goals within layers of obfuscation to get their way without the other person even realizing it.

This style is often characterized as insincere and patronizing, and when people realize that they have been played by a manipulator, they will not respond well to that person in future communications.

While some manipulation could come in useful in a customer-facing role where there is a need to calm down an irritated client, this style will lead to some clashes within teams or departments if one employee is using it consistently.

Where possible, a manipulative communicator should be steered into assertive communication.

Manipulator knows what they want to achieve and has clear goals, they are just not taking the best path to get there. By prioritizing everyone’s needs, not just their own, they could achieve better results without upsetting colleagues.

How to adjust your manipulative style to communicate better

  • Work on being more direct with your wants and needs. Practice asking directly for what you would like, and having grace if the answer is not what you would like.
  • Understand that this style of communication quickly breeds resentment among colleagues. As you adjust your style, expect them to be a bit wary of your motivations! Be consistent in your change, and remember to look for solutions that benefit everyone, not just you.
  • Stay away from using emotional arguments. Be factual, precise, and direct in your communication.

How can you effectively work with a manipulative communicator?

  • As with an aggressive communicator, you should endeavor to steer them into assertive communication. You could try redirecting them when they try to use emotional arguments, not allowing them to derail the conversation towards their own goals and doggedly sticking to the topic of the conversation.
  • Don’t respond to them with criticism, rather use the assertive restating tactic to clarify what they are saying while demonstrating the way you wish them to say it. You will have to be vigilant with these types of communicators that they do not sneakily introduce their agenda into conversations.
  • Use your patience and stay calm during conversations. Stand strong in your convictions and they will see that you are not an effective target for their communication style. By firmly but politely refusing to allow them to manipulate you, they will adjust their approach.

How your communication type can affect your message

These styles focus more on how the speaker communicates information within the conversation.

Each person will have a preferred method of communication, and endeavoring to use it can help make sure that you are effectively getting your message across.

No matter what your style is, you can adjust it to fit these four types, depending on the style of the person you are communicating with. It may take some practice, but it will make you a much more effective communicator.

1. Analytical

An analytical communicator favors data and hard numbers.

They want quantifiable information and disregard emotional statements as too vague or unimportant.

This means that they would prefer a statement such as "this quarter, sales are up 8.2%, and we are going to exceed our projections by 1.4%" rather than one like "we’re killing it on sales this month!".

When communicating with this type of person, do your research first! Lay out the numbers, then follow up with your request.

The upside of this is that an analytical communicator is good at looking at issues logically. There won’t be any problems with emotions getting in their way. If an analytical communicator is not performing well, you could bring them the numbers that show where they are lacking, and they will accept that they need to improve in those areas.

The downside is that they can be perceived as cold or emotionless. They may make colleagues feel uncomfortable, or dismiss those who do not communicate in the same way. This can cause some issues within teams who have disparate styles of communication, such as personal communicators. They also might take too much time analyzing, calculating, and checking details, leading to a slow response time to issues, and resulting in lost opportunities.

2. Intuitive

An intuitive communicator is all about the big picture.

This is the type of person who doesn’t like getting bogged down into the nitty-gritty details of a project, they prefer to get the general overview.

They are quick to see the broad picture and can easily leap to the conclusion, sometimes offering great insights as to how best to complete a project.

When you communicate with this type of person, give the Cliff’s Notes version: "This new marketing project is going to use a new algorithm to target potential customers with even more precision!" rather than "First, we are going to A/B test the new algorithm, next we are going to develop three levels of tailored content, then we are going to deploy the project, then we are going to use these metrics to measure our success."

The upside is that this type of communicator understands ideas quickly, and is already proposing solutions to possible challenges. They don’t need to have their handheld, they are already off and running. They can often come up with out-of-the-box ideas and enjoy challenging themselves and others.

The downside is that this impatience can lead to mistakes. Intuitive communicators hate having to sit through the boring details, but by skipping that, they risk missing crucial information. They also will chafe at communicators who need to explain ideas or projects step-by-step, like functional communicators.

3. Functional

The functional communicator lives on the other side of the spectrum from the intuitive communicator.

They prefer to walk through the steps of the process, outlining each one until they reach the conclusion and can tie it all up in one neat package.

They are detail-oriented, good at understanding which processes will be the most helpful to ensure success, and they can be trusted to create functional timelines, allocate tasks, and run projects.

When speaking with a functional communicator, make sure that you are prepared!

They will want to know the full details of the project, you don’t want to get caught up with metrics, feelings or big picture thinking, you must instead come with the project laid out and ready to inspect.

Using a sentence like "We want to create an improved user manual. We would like you to write the outline, consult with the developers, hire a technical writer, and edit the finished product." will serve you much better than "Don’t you think the user manual could use some improvement? Can you take care of that?"

The upside of a functional communicator is their detail-oriented mind will be sure not to miss any important steps. They find it easy to focus on implementing projects and have a native understanding of what it will take to accomplish. Their thorough nature will make sure that the project runs successfully.

The downside of this is that their dogged focus on the process, improving each step and stage, can sometimes lead to them losing sight of the big picture and not accomplishing the actual goals of the project.

Their plodding, step-by-step style can also bore the audience, especially if a functional communicator is paired with an intuitive communicator. These two styles are a bit like oil and water; neither appreciates the other’s communication very much. However, if done well, a functional communicator can take on the minutiae of a project while the intuitive communicator deals with the big picture.

4. Personal

The personal communicator is opposite to the analytical communicator on this spectrum of communication styles.

They prefer to use emotional language and value the human connection, seeking to know how their colleagues are feeling as well as what they are thinking.

This type of communicator tends to be a diplomat, helping solve conflicts and seeking peaceful solutions to inter- and intradepartmental issues.

For this type of communicator, you want to lean into the emotional component. Something like "Do you feel like our customer success team is feeling burnt out recently? Their numbers have dropped. Please explore this further, and see if they are feeling like they need more support." will net you much more success than "Our customer satisfaction scores have dropped 11% this year and we are not in line to meet our targets. We need to find and fix that problem, bringing the scores back up this quarter."

The upside to this style is that a personal communicator will effortlessly build deep bonds within their team. They are focused on building cohesion and often will step into a problem-solving role when others are having difficulty in their communication.

The downside to this style of communication is that it might become too emotional for other communicators. Analytical communicators especially will not appreciate this approach, and may well disregard what personal communicators say, which can lead to hurt feelings or resentment.

Summary

All of these communication styles exist on a spectrum. People will rarely be 100% of one style, rather they will have primary and secondary, and sometimes even tertiary, styles.

A person might be primarily analytical, but secondarily functional. You will see people switch between styles as necessary, based on the situation, the person they are speaking with, and many other factors.

In general, you will find that having a mix of all of these communication styles will result in a better team.

Each style offers its own advantages and disadvantages, and having a solid mix of all four will ensure that you don’t have massive blind spots.

If you had a team of only analysts, then you will find yourself behind schedule as your team checks and rechecks data but never takes action. The same goes for a team of only intuitives, your big picture would be perfect but your process to get there would be incomplete, abandoned by your team as uninteresting and unimportant.

When you have all of those people in the team, you can have your ideal mix of people who generate ideas, analyze them, implement them, and help to solve problems if needed.