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Reduce Stress, Transform Your Communication Style

Good communication is the foundation of any healthy, long-term relationship. In both personal and professional relationships, from marriages and family members to supervisors and coworkers, the ability to communicate effectively is essential for a healthy and happy relationship.

Last week I shared that conveying a message effectively is an art as well as a skill developed after continuous practice and experience. This week will review communication styles and identify some tips for transforming your communication style. There are four main communication styles that we will discuss: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. Learn to identify these styles in your own relationships then make necessary changes to reduce damaging your relationships.

Passive Communication: When being nice backfires

As the oldest child in a large and chaotic family, Tammy learned from an early age that playing nice and letting people have what they wanted kept from being rejected and out of trouble. This seemingly made her life less stressful and overwhelming. However, while this strategy worked for her as a child, when she first came to me for therapy, it was wreaking havoc on her relationships as an adult, especially her relationship with her husband.

When Tammy first came to therapy, she expressed feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness towards her partner. She was confused and did not know what to do. Afterall, her husband was nice guy, but she was unhappy in the relationship because she was increasingly angry with her husband and harboring unrelenting guilt toward herself. As I learned more about their relationship, it became clear that Tammy was a classic passive communicator; always putting of what she wanted, preferring to be nice to avoid conflict and keep everything nice and tidy. From how to raise the children to her preference for dinner or vacations, Tammy always went along with her husband’s ideas.

It is wonderful to be nice to others, but chronically ignoring your own needs, wants, and desires is not nice, it is dishonest. A relationship that is built on dishonesty about thoughts, feelings, and preferences will not last.

Passive communicators ignore or mask the truth about how they feel or what they want to avoid conflict and keep the peace. They treat the needs of others as more important than their own needs. They behave as if the other person has more rights and more to contribute. They are apologetic because they feel as if they are imposing when they want something. They try their best to avoid any confrontation and will yield to preferences of other people. They feel like the victim and they refuse compliments. They do not express their desires or how they are feeling.

They use a soft volume and try to make themselves as small as possible, damn near invisible. They tend to fidget a lot and will portray submissive behaviors. People on the receiving end will feel guilty, frustrated, exasperated, and do not know what they want.

While passive communication may feel good in the moment because it makes you look like a martyr, self-sacrificing, and generous (at least to you-LOL!), this approach is bound to fail over time because you are being fundamentally dishonest. A relationship built on lies-even nice ones-will never last and ultimately fall apart at the seams. Why does this style of communication end in disaster? The passive communicator eventually becomes resentful because their needs are not being met. Guilt will also settle in because on some level the passive communicator knows that they should be honest.

What is the key to overcoming a passive communication style?

The fear of conflict is overrated, it will not harm you, face your fear of conflict. Tell your inner child that everything will be ok, you can be honest about what you want and what you need. Then become honest with yourself about your wants and needs. Next, believe in your heart and mind that being honest about what you want, and need does not have to lead to conflict or disrespect to others. Communicate with truth, respect, and confidence, you will see your relationships flourish. Start small by expressing your preference to little things that you would normally shrug off as unimportant.

Aggressive Communication: Intimidation works-until it no longer works

Derrick, a successful white-collar worker, came to see me in therapy through his employee assistance program. He was a formal referral, which meant his manager made a direct referral for services because of the interpersonal conflict Derrick was experiencing with his colleagues. As I got to know Derrick, he disclosed that in addition to the interpersonal conflicts at work, his wife was upset with him and threatening to leave with their 2-year old son if he did not seek help. The more Derrick shared it appeared that he had frequent disputes in most of his personal and professional relationships.

In Derrick’s opinion these problems stemmed from external factors rather than his reaction to these circumstances: the result of a stressful work environment, a newlywed with a toddler, and interactions with incapable people. It took Derrick a while to see it, but in therapy he learned that he has used aggressive and intimidation all his life to get done what he wanted done. He was never physically abusive to anyone, but he was mean. Now, Derrick was learning a hard lesson, being aggressive toward people may get you what you want in the short-term, but you will destroy meaningful relationships along the way.

Aggressive communicators express their wants and needs without regard for the rights and preferences of others. This communication style focuses on winning even if it is at the other person’s expense. They behave as if their needs are more important, as if they have more to contribute, and have more rights than other people. In this communication style the content of the message tends to get lost because the receiver is too busy reacting to the way it is delivered.

This communicator is frightening, threatening and hostile. They are out to win, and they use methods such as bullying, intimidation, abrasiveness, demanding, unpredictability, and belligerence to get a desired outcome. Their volume is loud, their posture is overbearing, they invade other people’s spaces and try to stand over them. Their facial expressions can be glaring, frowning, and scowling. The other person is likely to feel defensive, hurt, humiliated, resentful, afraid, and ultimately lack respect for the aggressive communicator.

It is important to note that aggressive communication is not usually the result of malice or lack of empathy; instead it is a reaction to fear and security (are you noticing a trend-fear shapes unhealthy communication styles). People with an aggressive communication style have learned to use anger and aggression to deal with their insecurities and fears. Unfortunately, this style of communication is harmful to others, causing strain to relationships, leading to additional fear, insecurity and ultimately alone.

What is the key to overcoming aggressive communication style?

Self-awareness is imperative to overcoming this communication style. Learn to recognize your behavior, understand why your behavior should change, check your perceptions, give yourself time to change old patterns and reactions, realize that anger is ok, be assertive not aggressive and have confidence in your ability to acknowledge your fears in a non-aggressive and healthier manner.

Passive-Aggressive Communication: Stuck between fear and anger

Sarah came to therapy for depression symptoms after her girlfriend of 2 years left her. She presented with obvious grief and depression over the loss of the relations. However, what Sarah was not quite ready to acknowledge was her anger. Sarah disclosed in sessions the various frustrations and arguments she had with her former girlfriend. Sarah’s description of the events indicated that she did not deal with the dissatisfaction in the relationship directly, but instead indirectly with sarcasm and passiveness, i.e. giving the silent treatment.

In therapy Sarah discovered that she was afraid (there it is again, fear) to be honest about her feelings and too angry to be quiet, so she resorted to veiled threats and sarcastic humor to express herself.

Passive-aggressive communicators are too angry to keep quiet and too afraid to be honest. This is a communication style where a person appears to be passive on the outside but are indirectly acting out their anger. People employing this style of communication usually feel powerless and undermine the object of their resentments subtly to express how they feel, even if it means sabotaging themselves. A good expression that can be used to describe them is “cutting off your nose to spite your face” or drinking poison with the intent of harming the other person.

They are indirectly aggressive and sarcastic. They are not reliable and can be dubious, sulky, gossips, patronizing, and complainers. Their expressions are inconsistent with their true feelings and will be pleasant to your face but poisonous behind your back. They have a sugary sweet voice and an asymmetrical posture. They have a sweet and innocent facial expression. People on the receiving end will feel confused, resentful, angry, and hurt. This communication style is a combination of passive and aggressive communication: dishonest to yourself and disrespectful to others.

What is the key to overcoming passive-aggressive communication style?

With passive-aggressive behavior it is important to create an environment where this communication style cannot thrive. Address both your anger and fears in a healthy and productive manner. Be authentic and speak your truth, doing this will build trustful and respectful relationships where passive-aggressive communication is not the first communication style of choice. Finally, be open to healthy confrontation. If you are experiencing hostility towards a person’s unacceptable behavior, address the issue in a manner that honors you while respecting the other person.

Assertive Communication: Honesty & Mutual Respect

Assertiveness, the one communication style that is always healthy and productive no matter what the situation or relationship. Unfortunately, this is the least used style of communication.

This is the best style of communication. It is the most effective communication style. It is born of high self-esteem and is neither too passive nor too aggressive. People using this style of communication have the confidence to communicate without having to employ games or manipulation. They know their limits and do not allow people to push them beyond the limit just because the other person needs or wants something from them. Assertive communication means having the courage to speak your mind, express your wants, and do it in a way that is respectful to others.

This type of person strives to achieve their goals without hurting others. They are emotionally and socially expressive, they make their own choices and take responsibility for their actions. They ask directly and accept the possibility of being rejected. They go with a medium pitch, speed, and volume. They have good eye contact, are relaxed, have an open posture, and do not fidget. The way they communicate builds trust, and the other person feels they can take them for their words.

Tips to help you become a more assertive communicator:

  • Assess your style of communication-understand your style before you begin making changes. Do you voice your opinion or remain silent; do you say yes when your plate is already full; are your quick to judge or blame?

  • Use ‘I’ statements-express to others what you are thinking or feeling without sounding accusatory. For example, “I disagree” rather than, “You are wrong.”

  • Practice saying “No”- “No” is a complete sentence.

  • Rehearse what you want to say

  • Keep emotions in check

  • Start with small and sustainable changes

Remember, Passive, Aggressive, and Passive-Aggressive communication styles never work in the long-term. Although the use of each style feels right in the moment, these toxic styles of communication lead to poor self-esteem, poor self-confidence, broken relationships, and ultimately loneliness. If we are unable to connect with other people in a meaningful, honest, and respectful manner we will not have satisfying relationships. Happy relationships are built on trust, trust is built on honesty and respect, which comes from the ability to communicate assertively.

As always,

Stay Well, Be Empowered, Live Boldly and Fully!!

Dr. Terra!!

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