communication style

What’s Your Communication Style?

The Nystrom & Associates provider consulted for this article is Dr. Karin Ryan, PsyD, LP, Clinic Director, Outpatient Therapist.        Minnesotans are known for the ability to "be nice" and/or passive-aggressive. “We have opinions, but we can be scared to state them directly,” says Minnesota-based provider and clinic director Dr. Karin Ryan. In this article, we hope to change that and empower you to stop being passive-aggressive (if you are) and instead, be assertive.   There are four main communication styles: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. It can be helpful to be aware of them and recognize how you communicate. After all, our communication style affects the quality of our relationships.  Related: How Interpersonal Effectiveness Improves Your Relationships

Nystrom & Associates on Twin Cities Live  

Watch Dr. Karin Ryan on Twin Cities Live as she discusses these four main communication styles.  

What’s a Passive Communication Style? 

Passive communication with an individual negates their own needs for the needs of another. They avoid expressing their feelings, protecting their rights, or identifying their wants and needs. Passive communicators allow annoyances or grievances to build up into frustration or anger. They may sometimes blow up, feel guilty, and return to being passive.   A passive person can often feel anxious. They lack control, resent their unmet needs, and feel confused because they ignore their feelings. Passive communication can look like speaking softly, apologizing often, or poor eye contact. For example, passive communication could look like an employee getting increased tasks and not telling their boss that they are overwhelmed.   

What’s an Aggressive Communication Style? 

On the other hand, aggressive communication is when the individual thinks about their wants and needs and often disrespects the wants and needs of the other person. In an aggressive communication style, individuals express their feelings and opinions and advocate for their needs in a way that violates the rights of others. This can take the form of criticizing, blaming, or attacking. Aggressive communicators may be impulsive with low frustration tolerance. They can be loud, bossy, controlling, and pushy.  Dr. Karin Ryan says, "Aggressive communication is often loud and demanding, with threatening or demanding body language (pointing, arms crossed, standing, flailing arms, angry facial expression). It can also be more subtle with sneaky puts downs." Related: How Anxiety & Panic Can Feel in the Body An example of assertive communication includes a group of friends at a concert, and one says, “This is horrible music, let’s get out of here,” and walks away without any discussion. Another instance of assertive communication could include this scenario. An adult yells from the kitchen, “Why am I the only one who ever does anything around here? Why are you all so lazy!” 

What’s a Passive-Aggressive Communication Style? 

In passive-aggressive communication, the individual appears passive or puts the other's needs first and then shows subtle, indirect anger later. People usually feel powerless, stuck, and resentful when communicating in a passive-aggressive style. In addition, passive-aggressive communicators tend to express their anger by subtly undermining the object of their resentment. This can look like muttering to themselves, a facial expression that does not match what they are saying, the use of sarcasm, appearing cooperative while purposely doing things to disrupt, or subtle sabotage.   For example, this could look like two individuals talking about where to go to dinner. One asks the other, saying they don’t care and agree with a suggestion. Then, at dinner, say, “Uh, this restaurant is always so loud and crowded.” Another example includes someone planning a party; one person takes charge and says they have the time and are willing to get the supplies. At the party, they make a side comment, “I was so busy today having to get everything organized.”   

How Can You Be Assertive? 

Assertive communication with individuals honors their wants and needs and the wants and needs of others. They clearly state their opinions and feelings and advocate for their rights and needs without violating the rights of others.  These individuals tend to value themselves, their time, and their emotional, spiritual, and physical needs while respecting others. It tends to look like calm, clear, direct communication. This includes calm body language, good eye contact, feeling in control of themself, and feeling connected to others. Assertive communication can look like this:  
  • "I want to have this conversation with you, but if you keep swearing, I will hang up the phone.” 
  • Someone asks, “Where do you want to go for dinner?” An assertive response: “I would love Italian. Does that work for you?” 
  • Someone asks, “Can you watch go to the store for me?” An assertive response: “No, I do not have time tonight, but I can go tomorrow.” 
Related: 3 Emotional Regulation Mindsets to Adopt in 2022

Why Are People Passive-Aggressive

“We can get stuck in passive-aggressive communication when we feel insecure and are not comfortable with conflict. This can be from an underlying fear and avoidance of conflict and tends to come with a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. The passive-aggressive person has learned that expressing anger is bad and that they are bad for feeling it. We can learn this from family and our environment.”
Related: 4 Conflict Resolution Skills for Better Relationships  Dr. Karin Ryan offers these tips for those struggling with passive-aggressive communication:
  • Recognize your behavior.  
  • Take a few minutes to assess if you are avoiding conflict and being passive-aggressive.  
  • Understand why your behavior should be changed: It is not passive or kind; it is an indirect form of aggression.  
  • Realize that it will take time to change. Just change it when you can. Otherwise, it will build.  
  • Practice being assertive after that fact.
  • Permit yourself to be angry.  
  • Remember that no emotions are bad; you can be a loving, kind person and still be angry or assertive.  
  • Be open to conflict. Conflict is not bad. Confrontation and conflict can be direct and respectful.  
  • Believe in yourself and face your fear.  
  • Affirm that you have a right to have wants and needs and to express them.  

A Word From Nystrom & Associates 

Remember, communication styles are not set in stone. Most people do not always use one communication style, and they can be changed. If you're looking to improve your communication style, therapy can help. Talk with us at 1-844-NYSTROM or request an appointment online.   Related: 10 Tips to Make Therapy More Effective

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