When I was in seventh grade, my friends and I developed a pattern of sulking, almost on a monthly rotation. We’d take turns getting upset about something relatively minor — one friend wouldn’t call when she said she would, another would flirt with that cute boy we’d all been crushing on.
Whatever the origin of the sulk, the aggrieved party would insist, “I’m not mad.” Resolving the conflict became impossible, because no one would ever admit they were angry.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that behavior is a classic example of passive-aggressive communication — and it’s an ineffective way to get your point across.
So why do some people persist in long sighs, insincere denials, and other hallmarks of passive aggression? It’s not that they’re stuck in middle school, experts say. It’s just one of the four basic communication styles: passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive, and assertive.
Our communication style can be a powerful tool in building meaningful connections with others. Though our way of communicating may vary depending on the situation and the individual, we all tend to gravitate toward one dominant mode — and sometimes get entrenched in bad habits.
Research suggests the assertive style is the healthiest and most effective, although it’s normal to use one of the other types on occasion. When communication breaks down, it’s often because of conflicting styles.
“Communicating effectively is a good way to lower the amount of stress we’re experiencing individually and collectively,” says psychologist Randy Paterson, PhD, author of The Assertiveness Workbook. “As we think about the pain in the world, think about how much stems from people feeling profoundly alienated from one another.”
Understanding your own communication style — and learning how to identify the types of those around you — can foster more compassion and mutual respect in your most important relationships.
The passive style of communication resembles a limp noodle — there’s no resistance. Passive communicators avoid making decisions. “I don’t care,” they say, whether the question is what to have for dinner, where to spend a vacation, or how to tackle a work project.
Passive looks like a shrug or hands up in the air, says Loriann Oberlin, MS, LCPC, coauthor of Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger From Spoiling Your Relationships, Career, and Happiness. You may appear physically smaller when adopting a passive communication style, by rotating your shoulders forward or dropping your chin.
Most of us communicate passively from time to time, especially when we’re ambivalent about the outcome. It allows us to avoid conflict. But problems arise when passivity prevents us from expressing our needs, which invariably leads to those needs remaining unmet.
“The person who’s passive may seem incomprehensible, inscrutable, mulish, or stubborn,” says Zen Buddhist priest Ben Connelly, author of Mindfulness and Intimacy.
Passive communicators are always saying yes to other people’s priorities. “These people are often busier than everyone else,” Paterson says. Habitual use of the passive style, he adds, could be a sign that you have trouble setting interpersonal boundaries.
The passive-aggressive style may seem as indifferent as passive, but it hides anger. It’s aggression with plausible deniability. “We know it as the veiled barb,” Oberlin says.
This could be someone who claims not to care about a decision, but later grumbles about the outcome or says, “I knew this wouldn’t work.” Perhaps they agree to a task but then “forget” to complete it or perform it so badly that they’ll never be asked to tackle it again. They complain about you behind your back.
Physically, you can spot passive aggression by the eye roll, crossed arms, or words that don’t match up with the speaker’s body language.
People adopt passive-aggressive habits to avoid conflict, but when used consistently over time, they’re actually ineffective. Eventually, the anger or underlying disagreement catches up with them. “People are going to pick up on that negativity,” Oberlin explains. “People are going to be confused by the mixed messages.”
If you recognize yourself in this style, you’re in good company. Often, we find ourselves in environments where it’s not safe to express open disagreement, whether it’s work, a religious community, or a larger culture that prioritizes cooperation and conviviality over honesty. Or maybe we’re still learning to identify and express our own needs, using passive aggression as our natural default.
Perhaps the easiest style to identify, aggressive communication is what it sounds like: angry, confrontational, in your face. “It can have a cringe factor to it,” Oberlin notes.
Aggressive communicators often crowd people, using their energy to win an argument or control a situation. They sometimes descend into cold anger.
“They calm down, they speak quietly, and say things like, ‘What I really want is for you to do your job, competently, right now,’” Paterson says. “That kind of icy, in-control aggression — people often are more afraid of that.”
Aggressive communicators also seek power over others, regardless of their boundaries. But reckless pursuit of power often comes at a cost.
“Ultimately, trying to control things is frustrating and painful,” Connelly says. “It’s more rewarding and feels better if you can rest in being clear about your needs, making your statement, and then moving on.”
The ideal — and most challenging — communication style to master combines a calm expression of boundaries with acceptance of other people’s limits and needs. Assertive communicators respect other people’s opinions while firmly expressing their own.
“You’re in control of your behavior and you leave others in control of theirs,” Paterson explains. “You’re relaxed, clear, and unthreatened because you’re speaking from a position of power. You’re not exerting power over them. The one human being in the world you do have power over is you.”
To someone accustomed to passive communication, assertiveness may seem uncomfortable, Oberlin admits. But it’s the healthiest mode because it allows all parties to share their perspectives.
If you think of people as theater actors, says Paterson, the passive communicator avoids the stage. The passive-aggressive person bounces other people off the stage but makes it look like an accident, while the aggressive person shoves others off the stage. The assertive person believes everyone is allowed onstage — everyone is entitled to express their needs and opinions.
Because it encourages open, honest dialogue, assertive communication is typically considered the most effective style. If you find yourself stuck in passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive communication, try the following techniques to adopt a more assertive stance.|
Assertive communicators stand by their beliefs and feelings, even when they’re challenged. Though compromise is a vital element of healthy relationships, assertive communicators are clear on their reasoning and don’t give in to the pressure to please others.
This can be challenging if your go-to style is passive communication. “I’m fine with anything” feels like the right thing to say — and saying no might seem unpleasant.
To become comfortable saying no, ground yourself in your body during a conflict. Notice your physical response, whether it’s a rapid heartbeat, quick breathing, or sweaty palms, says Femi Akinnagbe, MD, MSc, a Los Angeles–based family-medicine resident and meditation instructor. The more you practice tuning in to your body during nonstressful times — with a meditation and mindfulness practice, for example — the easier it will be to say no when you’re under pressure.
“Being able to use awareness of the body is a huge tool in our process of communication and forming harmony with ourselves and others,” says Akinnagbe. “It’s hard for the mind to place its finger on where the problem is, but the body always knows.”
Akinnagbe begins with his toes, feeling them on the floor and traveling up in a full-body scan. He asks what’s triggering him in the situation and seeks to move from fight-or-flight to a calmer, wiser response.
Once you’re physically comfortable, set a boundary. Use the word: “No.” You can smile, if that helps. Or extend the phrase: “No, that won’t work for me,” “No, I’m afraid I don’t have time,” or simply, “No, thanks.” (For more on learning how to artfully decline, go to “The Freedom of No”.)
Expressing your desires and opinions clearly, without hedging or apology, is an important part of practicing assertiveness in conversation. Learning to do so will build your confidence — so the more you communicate this way, the easier it becomes. It will also increase people’s trust in you, because you’re creating an environment in which both parties can communicate openly and respectfully.
People who rely on passive-aggressive communication may not realize they’re doing it. This could be you if you feel more comfortable using sarcasm or a backhanded compliment than directly expressing frustration or disappointment. For example, you may say, “I’m glad you finally finished that report, before the client noticed we were past the deadline.”
You need a redirect that’s more assertive. First, identify what you’re really feeling. It’s not gratitude, so don’t say thanks. Are you frustrated that your colleague was late with the work? Are you scared that your team will lose a client? Or are you making assumptions about someone else rather than trying to understand?
Seek compassion before you communicate. Maybe your colleague is buried in another project or simply lacks time-management skills. “The litmus test as to whether your communication is promoting your well-being and the well-being of people around you is whether you are trying to connect rather than control,” Connelly says.
Once you identify your own feelings, you can use an “I” statement to communicate them. For example: “I feel anxious when we’re running late on a project because I worry the client will be angry.” That honesty can open the door to the two of you solving the problem together.
Aggressive communicators need to listen more than talk. Practice active listening by paying attention to the other person’s words and restating them to be sure you understand. Rather than pushing your own perspective, get curious about theirs.
“When you’re listening, just listen,” Connelly advises. “Set aside your own internal narrative in order to deeply hear the other person.”
Body language is important, too. Maintaining eye contact demonstrates that you aren’t shying away from conflict, and that you’re focused on the other party and considering their words. Lean toward them and relax your posture.
“Listen with your whole body and to your whole body,” Connelly adds. “It’s about paying attention.”
You may be surprised by how quickly a conflict can dissolve when you listen to someone and accurately repeat what they’re saying. For example, if you’re planning a family vacation that means a lot to you, your aggressive tendency might be to insist, “We should stay together in a larger house so we can save money and share cooking duties.”
When you listen to other family members, you may learn that they need space away from the group to enjoy the vacation. As you hear their concerns, you may discover that you’re open to other options that would allow everyone to retreat when they need a break.
As you learn to be assertive, you’ll find that it’s contagious. Before long, says Paterson, your family, coworkers, and friends may be more comfortable saying what they mean and respecting other people’s boundaries.
“You can create an atmosphere where assertiveness becomes the norm.”
This article originally appeared as “Good Talk” in the March 2021 issue of Experience Life.