Communication is the process by which we exchange information between individuals or groups of people. It is a process where we try as clearly and accurately as we can, to convey our thoughts, feelings, intentions and objectives. Communication is successful only when both the sender and the receiver understand the same information. Often times when client’s aren’t satisfied with their relationships they start questioning if their current relationship is healthy, strong, fulfilling and growing. After this reflection one might come to the conclusion, “yes my relationship could use some improving.” However the struggle then becomes, what areas need to be improved. This is often the time when I get a client who wants to know if they should engage in couple’s therapy. Most times I reply, “Well maybe not just yet... Tell me a little about how you are currently communicating in your relationship?” I find it useful to help clients understand their communication style since we know that “communication is the key to success.”
Communication styles have most commonly been divided into four different types: Passive, Passive-Aggressive, Aggressive, and Assertive. Let’s have a look at each.
Passive - Passive people often don’t communicate verbally. They tend to bottle up their emotions instead of expressing how they are feeling. People who display passive communication styles tend to avoid confrontations and fear having to have in depth discussions. They tend to try to keep the peace at all cost and try not to rock the boat, and usually sit back and say little. Perhaps this type of communicator is fearful that their response might hurt the other person’s feelings or that their emotions will cause conflict. This form of communication has negative impacts over time, as this person will resent not having their needs met.
Passive Aggressive - Like passive communicators, those with a passive-aggressive style fear confrontation and don’t like to express themselves directly. However, because they do also have aggressive tendencies, their goal is to get their way but they do so in an indirect way, such as a subtle express of emotions like sarcasm, using characteristics of manipulation, or the silent treatment. They tend to get their message across but not typically by saying it. For example, saying they will do something but then all of a sudden “forgetting.” This form of communication can be very confusing to others, because the person says one thing but their actions send another type of message. The act of using any of the techniques mentioned is an unhealthy way of trying to get one’s needs met.
Aggressive - Aggressive communicators attempt to control others. They are concerned about getting their way, regardless of the cost to others. These people tend to be direct, forceful, demanding and tend to leave the other person feeling resentful, hurt, and afraid. This type of style tends to be more about winning than listening to the other person’s point of view. After they have gotten the result they want this type person usually feels guilty, ashamed, and regretful for how they behaved. This form of communication is very unhealthy and toxic to the relationship because the other person usually won’t tolerate the abuse and disrespect for very long.
Assertive - Assertive people express their wishes, thoughts, feelings and beliefs in a direct, honest, and respectful way, despite what the result may be. They listen and negotiate with others and try to get their needs met but also try to meet the needs of others as well. These people recognize they have a right to express their opinion and feelings and feel others have a right to express their opinions as well. They tend to see communication as a two way street and are open to hear the opinions of others even if they don’t agree with them. Others tend to feel respected and valued when speaking with an assertive communicator.
Despite what we notice to be our primary communication style, it is not uncommon to use different styles depending on the situation or the person whom we are talking with. The point is not to diagnose ourselves but more so to increase our awareness of our patterns of communication so we can choose to communicate differently if we wish. Inability to communicate effectively will hold you back in all areas of life from career to social and personal relationships. Assertive communicators tend to have healthier relationships and have more open discussions, but like all skills it takes practice. However, being assertive does not always mean that you will get what you want but more so that you will express how you are feeling and try to negotiate in a healthy manor. Changing from your default style won’t always feel comfortable, for example if you tend to be a passive person, the act of being assertive might make you feel that your are instead acting aggressively. This is because you are not comfortable yet with the act of asking for what you want. Gradually you will learn that this is the healthiest way of communicating and begin to see positive changes in your relationships. All new skills take time to refine; however, with effort and practice you can develop good, even exceptional, communication skills.
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Written by Sonya Molina, LLMSW.