Communication Styles

23.07.2021 |

Episode #5 of the course Mastering your conversations by John Robin


Welcome back to the course!

Yesterday we talked about the anatomy of a good conversation. Today we’re going to explore another crucial aspect of mastering your conversations—communication style.

Not everyone communicates the same way. To make things more complicated, many times the same person will communicate differently on different issues.

Fortunately for us, these styles can be broken down into four main areas. Once you learn to recognize them, you’ll be able to start assessing if the given topic of a conversation with a certain person brings out one style or another, and how to navigate this toward a masterful conversation. It will also prepare us for how to navigate difficult conversations, which we’ll be covering in the final lessons.


Passive Communication

The first style of communication is called passive communication. In this style, the individual prefers not to speak up for their needs for various reasons. Often it occurs because the other speaker is domineering, intimidating, or easily offended. Passive communicators often prefer to avoid conflict.

Passive communication is so well-known it is often stereotyped. We usually think of passive communicators as those who say, “Everything’s fine” when it’s not. They will remain unhappy, not knowing why they’re unhappy.

However, passive communication is not a label that we can give to any one person. The reality is that there are times when we are more passive than at other times.

For example, I don’t like offending people. If a friend wants me to sit with him and wants to give me a tour of his video game, and I’m not interested, but have learned from past conversations he can fly off the handle depending on his mood, I might sit and watch the game, and feign interest, rather than saying, “Sorry, I’m not interested.”

Not wanting to offend people, then, is my passive communication weak spot.

You can try to figure out what your weak spots are. This then gives you a sense of where you’ll need to do some work, with the skills we are going to learn in the coming lessons.


Aggressive Communication

Aggressive communication is pretty self-explanatory. It is a form of communication wherein you put your needs above the other person, often in an intimidating way.

However, it can be subtler than the usual stereotypes make it.

While throwing a chair across the room and shouting is a giveaway display of aggressive communication, the truth is that aggressive communication can be delivered verbally, without raised voice or any threatening language.

Here is an example:

[You] “I really think we should go out for dinner tonight.”

[Your partner] “I’m not really in the mood for that.”

[You] “But we have to go out, because it’s dinner night. I love dinner night! Don’t you want to?”

[Your partner] “Well … I guess.”

In this example, the person who wants to go out for dinner is being aggressive. While this kind of conversation might be familiar to many long-term couples, this just goes to show how easily aggressive communication can take shape.

Just as we should try to find our passive communication weak spot, we should also try to discover our aggressive communication weak spot. In the above example, the person who wants to go out for dinner, if they are trying to deepen their relationship by improving communication, would realize that here, their partner tends to be passive, and it’s because their partner doesn’t like to disappoint them.

Being aware of your aggressive communication weak spot is difficult because it often involves letting go of your ego. But it is critical to developing deep, meaningful relationships, because it allows you to open up parts of conversation to both parties. Here’s how that conversation might have gone if the first person was aware of their aggressive communication weak spot:

“I really think we should go out for dinner tonight.”

“I’m not really in the mood for that.”

“But … well, I mean, I’m excited and love our dinner nights. What are you in the mood for?”

[response is not PG so cannot be shared]


Passive-Aggressive Communication

This style of communication is also likely one you’ve heard of. There’s a well-known stereotype, and it goes like this:

Someone gets you angry, but rather than telling them you’re angry, you pretend to be unoffended then, when they aren’t looking, you slash their tires.

While this might be far from anything you’d ever imagine doing, just as we learned in our examples of passive and aggressive communication, the more common forms of it are subtler.

In passive-aggressive communication, you are passive by not communicating your needs, and this leads to anger or resentment, which leads to you lashing out in some aggressive form. Whether it’s something as direct as an unexpected outburst, or something sneaky of the tire-slashing variety, will depend on how much you prefer to avoid conflict.

If we apply our conversation pillow concept, imagine that with passive-aggressive communication, you see someone else hogging the conversation pillow, and instead of waiting your turn, finally, in an outburst, you either rip the pillow out of their arms, or engineer some secretive way to have the pillow ripped out of their arms.

Just as we have passive communication weak spots, and aggressive communication weak spots, we also can learn to spot passive-aggressive communication weak spots.

• Is someone really pissing you off but you’re holding your tongue and ready to lose it with them?

• Does someone offend you but they’re so unapproachable that instead you resort to talking gossip about them behind their back?

• Did someone just raise their voice at you unexpectedly after being so nice up to that moment?

All of these situations are moments of passive-aggressive communication. However, because these often arise from situations where negative emotions are high—usually within the framework of toxic relationships—it’s much harder to tame this one. We will be discussing a bit more about this though in our final lesson on endships.


Assertive Communication

Assertive communication is the gold star. In assertive communication, you fairly communicate your needs, and do so in a way that respects the other person’s needs.

In fact, for the previous three communication styles we covered, we will see how to try and shift toward assertiveness. But that’s for tomorrow’s lesson!


Tip of the Day: More Wisdom from the Conversation Pillow

There is no end to how much the conversation pillow can teach us.

To become more aware of your passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive weak spots, try to imagine the different ways you might be “holding” the pillow in your imagination, and pay attention to what this feels like when you’re in either mode.

For example, I often find:

• When I’m being passive, my arms feel empty

• When I’m being aggressive, my arms feel tight from clutching the pillow

• When I’m being passive-aggressive, I’m plotting how to steal the pillow

That’s all for communication styles. Stay tuned for our next lesson, where we’ll be exploring more on how to shift to gold-star assertiveness.


Recommended book

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McGIllan, and Al Switzler


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