Communication Styles

Communication difficulties are probably the number one cause of conflict, breakdown of relationships, and resulting stress. There are a variety of types of communication, some more effective than others. Poor or ineffective communication can lead to more than just miscommunications and disagreements, but can also lead to internal distress including feelings of being inadequate or angry. The four styles of communication are assertive, passive, passive aggressive and aggressive.


Assertive Communication

Assertiveness is a helpful way of communicating that is clear, direct, and constructive. It’s built on the understanding that your own needs and another’s needs are both important to consider and that both deserve to be respected.


Assertiveness doesn’t come easily for many people, but it is an important skill for everyone to learn. Why is assertiveness so important? It helps you do the following:

  • Strengthen relationships by showing respect for self and others
  • Reduce “power struggles”
  • Resolve conflict in an effective way
  • Build confidence in expressing needs, wants, feelings, and making requests
  • Build self-esteem
  • Reduce feelings of anxiety, resentment, or helplessness

Learning to communicate assertively takes practice, but anyone can learn to be more assertive. Here are some tips for assertive communication:

  • Describe the situation at hand using “just the facts.”
  • Share your feelings on the matter or the impact that other’s behavior is having on your feelings.
  • Use “I” statements. When you do this, you make clear where you’re coming from, and show that you’re taking ownership of your own needs and behavior. It also makes it harder for the other person to feel criticized or attacked.
  • Express yourself directly and clearly — whether sharing an opinion, asking for something, or turning someone down.
  • Be a “broken record” and remain firm. Sometimes you have to express your needs and wants more than once before they’re acknowledged and respected by others. Staying firm and consistent can help without becoming aggressive.

The assertive communicator will say, believe, or behave in a way that says:

  • "I am confident about who I am."
  • "I realize I have choices in my life and consider my options."
  • "I cannot control others, but I can control myself."
  • "I respect the rights of others."
  • "I am 100% responsible for my own happiness."

Passive Communication

Silence and assumptions are the hallmarks of the passive communication style. Passive communicators often lack respect for themselves, disregarding their own opinions, feelings, needs, and desires. Passive communication places one’s own needs and desires below those of others. Passivity takes away one’s power and allows others to decide the outcomes of situations.


Passive communicators will often:

  • fail to assert themselves
  • allow others to deliberately or inadvertently infringe on their rights
  • fail to express their feelings, needs or opinions
  • tend to speak softly or apologetically
  • exhibit poor eye contact and slumped body posture

The impacts of a pattern of passive communication is that these individuals:

  • often feel anxious because life seems out of their control
  • often depressed because they feel stuck and hopeless
  • often feel resentful (but are unaware of it) because their needs are not being met
  • often feel confused because they ignore their own feelings
  • are unable to mature because real issues are never addressed

Aggressive Communication

Aggressiveness, on the other hand, is a way of communicating where you try to control the behavior of others. You put your own needs first, without any consideration for the other person’s needs. Aggressive communication can include making demands of someone without listening to them. Sometimes it involves shouting, interrupting, or talking over others. Bullying is also a form of aggressiveness. Because aggressive communication doesn’t respect other’s needs, it usually hurts feelings and can damage relationships.


The aggressive communicator will say, believe or behave like:

  • "I'm superior and right and you're inferior and wrong."
  • "I'm loud, bossy and pushy."
  • "I'll get my way no matter what."
  • "You're not worth anything."
  • "It's all your fault."
  • "You owe me."

Passive-Aggressive Communication

Passive-aggressive communication is a style in which individuals appear passive on the surface but are really acting out of anger in a subtle, indirect, or behind-the-scenes way. People who develop a pattern of passive-aggressive communication usually feel powerless, stuck, and resentful. They often feel incapable of dealing directly with the object of their resentments. 


Passive-aggressive communicators will often:

  • mutter to themselves rather than confront the person or issue
  • have difficulty acknowledging their anger
  • use facial expressions that don't match how they feel
  • use sarcasm
  • deny there is a problem
  • appear cooperative while purposely doing things to annoy and disrupt
  • use subtle sabotage to get even

The passive-aggressive communicator will often say, believe or behave like:

  • "I'm weak and resentful, so I sabotage, frustrate and disrupt."
  • "I'm powerless to deal with you head on so I must be more sneaky."
  • "I will appear cooperative, but I'm not."
Healthy Communication: How to Use "I" Statements

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

Setting boundaries is an important part of establishing one’s identity and is a crucial aspect of mental health and wellbeing. Boundaries can be physical or emotional, and they can range from being loose to rigid, with healthy boundaries often falling somewhere in between. Healthy boundaries are those boundaries that are set to make sure mentally and emotionally you are stable. Healthy boundaries can help people define their individuality and can help people indicate what they will and will not hold themselves responsible for.


Boundaries can be thought of as stop signs in a person's life. Where you place your stop signs and what you consider crossing the line varies based on your beliefs, values, cultural customs, and family traditions. When setting boundaries, a few things to consider include:

  • Goal-setting: Ask yourself, what is the goal in setting a boundary or needing to set a boundary?
  • Start small: Setting boundaries may be uncomfortable. The key is to start small and focus on one thing at a time.
  • Be clear: Focus on what you want as clearly as possible.
  • Practice: If thinking about setting a boundary makes you nervous, write out what you want to say beforehand or practice in the mirror.
  • Keep it simple: This is a time when less is more. Rather than overloading someone with too many details, pick the main thing that is bothering you and focus on that.

Benefits of Setting Boundaries

Setting limits can provide balance in a person's life. Some of the benefits of setting boundaries include:

  • Avoid burnout: Doing too much for too many is an easy way to burn out. Setting boundaries can prevent burnout.
  • Less resentment: Giving and helping others is a strength, but when it turns into doing too much for others, you may begin to feel resentful. Setting boundaries around what you are able to do can reduce or eliminate resentment.
  • More balance: Sometimes the boundaries we need to set are with ourselves. For example, while it can feel like a nice escape to binge-watch a favorite show, staying up too late on work nights can lead to exhaustion. Setting a boundary with yourself to go to bed earlier may provide more balance.

Setting Boundaries With Partners

Setting boundaries with your partner ensures a healthy relationship that supports you both. It can also prevent a toxic relationship from developing. Here are some tips for setting boundaries in an intimate partnership:

  • Resist reactivity: Set the tone for the talk by being calm. If you're angry, upset, and aggravated, it may trigger your partner to become reactive. Pick a time when you're both relaxed and receptive to the conversation.
  • Avoid saying "You": It can sound accusatory and put your partner on the defensive if you start every sentence with, "You did" or, "You do." Think about your choice of words and use a calm, even tone.
  • Put down the phone: Be fully present with your partner. It may be best to put your phones on silent and flip them over for a few minutes. Incoming messages and notifications can be tempting to check. Give your partner your full attention and they will be more likely to do the same.

Setting Boundaries With Parents

Studies show that addressing problems with parents can be stressful. Some suggestions on setting boundaries with parents include:

  • Be respectful: You have the power to set the tone for the conversation by being respectful. Think of it as an opportunity to come to them as a confident adult.
  • Have the discussion vs avoiding it: One study indicated that when adult children took a passive approach of avoiding or accepting a problem with parents, it increased their depression. Instead, sitting down and having a calm, rational discussion helps.
  • Stay cool and calm: Your parents may react or get upset during the conversation. While you can't control the choices they make, you can control your own response. If you stay cool and calm, they may too.
  • Keep it simple: Pick a small number of things to address, such as the one that is most bothering you and focus on that.

Setting Boundaries With Friends

Some ways to set boundaries in friendships include:

  • Set the tone: Stay calm and be kind when communicating. This sets the standard for the conversation and will hopefully lead to positive outcomes.
  • Avoid "ghosting": While it can be hard to deal with something directly, avoiding a friend (ghosting them) prevents them from knowing the issue. Avoiding the issue altogether means they can't grow from the experience and it doesn't allow you the opportunity to practice healthy boundaries.
  • Avoid gossiping: While it can be tempting to discuss your friendship frustration with mutual friends, this can get back to your friend and potentially hurt them.

Setting Boundaries at Work

When it comes to setting limits with colleagues, managers, or supervisors, here are a few tips:

  • Set a boundaries for yourself: With telecommuting, teleworking, and the use of smartphones, the boundary between work and home has become increasingly blurred. Set a distinguishable stop time, close your computer, and take a break.
  • Chain of command: Be mindful of the chain of command at work. If you are having a problem with a colleague or manager and you can't speak to them directly, look for your organization's chain of command, usually through human resources (HR).
  • Avoid gossiping: It can be tempting to discuss the problem with other colleagues, but this can backfire. It's better to address the issue directly, but calmly with the other person. If possible and appropriate, involve a manager or supervisor.
Setting Boundaries
Tips for Healthy Boundaries

By taking care of myself I have so much more to offer the world than I do when I am running on empty.

~Ali Washington

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