6.5 Communication Styles

Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate approaches to communication
  • Explain passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive behaviors.

The Passive – Assertive – Aggressive Continuum

Most of us tend to have a consistent way we approach communication. Our “default” style is not the only style we may use but when we are not strategically communicating, we will engage more in that style of behavior. In this section, we will explore common communication styles: passive, assertive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive communication.


Passive Communication

Nonassertive or passive approaches ignore disputes in the hope that they will go away soon. Passive communications may hope by their silence or non-involvement and that the dispute will “solve itself.” Passivity is failing to express honest feelings, thoughts, and beliefs or expressing one’s thoughts and feelings in such an apologetic, self-effacing manner that others can easily disregard what they have to say. The basic message of passivity is “My feelings don’t matter – only yours do. My thoughts aren’t important – yours are the only ones worth listening to.” Passive people live in a Lose/Win situation. They lose while others win. The goal of passivity is to appease others and to avoid conflict at any cost.

Nonassertive or passive people may complain, but usually do nothing to gain control in their argumentative environment, because they fear they will lose from additional conflict encounters. For example, you go into a restaurant and order a steak dinner. You ask for the steak to be cooked medium, but when the meal is served, the steak is rare. Instead of sending the steak back, the nonassertive person will eat it (but not like it), pick at it, or let it sit. When asked by the server if everything is okay, the nonassertive person will respond by saying yes. The passive person does not want to risk engaging in conflict by complaining about the meal. Nonassertive people can rationalize that it was their fault the steak was served incorrectly; they must have not made their order clear; or that it is not important because they don’t have to come back to the restaurant again.

Aggressive Communication

On the other end of the behavioral scale is the aggressive person.

Aggressive people directly stand up for what they believe by expressing thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a way that is often dishonest, inappropriate, and violates the rights of others. The basic message of aggression is: This is what I think – you’re stupid for believing differently. This is what I want – what you want is not important. This is what I feel – your feelings don’t countThe goal of aggression is domination and winning, forcing the other person to lose. Winning is ensured by humiliating, degrading, belittling, or overpowering other people so that they become weaker or less able to express and defend their needs and rights.

Aggressive arguers see conflict from a win-lose perspective. Aggressive behavior usually involves reacting to situations by trying to overpower a person (opponent) through verbal abuse. They do not want to be on the losing end and will do anything to win. Aggressors may use name-calling and high-intensity language to intimidate the other party. If the aggressor was served a meal he or she didn’t like, he or she would call the server and verbally berate him or her for serving such a lousy meal.

Assertive Communication

In between Aggressive and Non-Assertive or Passive behavior is Assertiveness.

Assertive approaches are a combination of the two ends of the behavior spectrum. Assertiveness takes the ability to stand up for one’s position, but in a way that does not hurt the other person. The goal is long-term resolution. Here a person stands up for personal rights and expresses thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in direct, honest, and appropriate ways that do not violate another person’s rights. The basic message of assertion is: This is what I think. This is what I feel. This is how I see the situation. But it does not deny that the other people involved have a right to their point of view.

The goal of assertion is communication and mutuality; that is, to get and give respect, to ask for fair play, and to leave room for compromise, weighing the rights and needs of both parties. Assertive people feel that they are active agents for change. As such, the assertive person wants to resolve conflict in a positive way by engaging in a conflict and argument. The assertive communicator’s objective is to set up a win-win or no-lose approach to problem-solving. The assertive approach seeks a long-term, cooperative resolution to any conflict situation.

If the assertive person is served a meal they didn’t like, he or she would politely call over the server and explain that the meal was not prepared per the order. They may ask that another meal be served. The goal is to have an enjoyable meal, not to hurt or make someone, like the server, feel bad.

Passive Assertive Aggressive
Definition Communication style in which you put the rights of others before your own, minimizing your own self-worth Communication style in which you stand up for your rights while maintaining respect for the rights of others Communication style in which you stand up for your rights but you violate the rights of others
Implications to others My feelings are not important

I don’t matter

I think I’m inferior

We are both important

We both matter

I think we are equal

Your feelings are not important

You don’t matter

I think I’m superior

Verbal styles Apologetic

Overly soft or tentative voice

I statements

Firm voice

You statements

Loud voice

Nonverbal styles Looking down or away

Stooped posture, excessive head nodding

Looking direct

Relaxed posture, smooth and relaxed movements

Staring, narrow eyes

Tense, clenched fists, rigid posture, pointing fingers

Potential consequences Lowered self-esteem

Anger at self

False feelings of inferiority

Disrespect from others

Pitied by others

High self-esteem


Respect from others

Respect of others

Anger from others

Lowered self-esteem

Disrespect from others

Feared by others

Passive Aggressive Communication

Different from the previously discussed communication styles is Passive Aggressive or Indirect aggression. The behavior expresses hostility in obscure ways that usually cause more anger and conflict. Indirect aggression avoids direct confrontation. Instead, the individual will vent his or her anger at the other person in an indirect fashion (Adler and Towne, 2002).

Examples of Indirect Aggression

  • Guiltmakers: They make the other party feel guilty to get them to agree with their point of view.
  • Subject changers: They avoid your topic in favor of one they can win.
  • Jokers: They try to turn every argument into a laughing matter.
  • Blamers: They believe conflict is always someone else’s fault.
  • Backstabbers: They talk negatively about someone behind their back.
  • Withholders: They refuse to reveal what they really feel or wan
  • Trappers: They set verbal traps to create a fight they feel they can win.
  • Kitchen-sink fightersThey throw everything into an argument, causing the argument to lose focus.

If an indirect aggressor was served a meal he or she did not like, he or she might leave no tip or bad-mouth the restaurant to others by spreading rumors about the lack of quality in food preparation or service. The indirect aggressor hopes to get even with the restaurant for serving him a bad meal by discouraging others from going there. If an indirect aggressor was upset with a friend, they may gossip to other friends about the behavior instead of directly addressing the transgression with the person they are upset with.


Which communication style is best? Actually, there is no one best style. Each style may be appropriate or inappropriate to the goals of the situation. It would be an overstatement to say that the assertive style is always the best way to deal with conflict resolution. If the time is short, there is an emergency, and you are dealing with a dogmatic individual, then using an aggressive style might be appropriate. If the other person has heightened emotions or is intoxicated and behaving unreasonable, a passive approach may be best. In most situations, however, it is suggested that an assertive approach should be the critical thinker’s first choice in responding to a conflict situation. Critical thinkers have nothing to lose by trying the assertive approach first. If it fails, they can always move to different communication approach. However, one of the drawbacks to no-lose conflict resolution is that the process usually requires a rational sender and a rational receiver. Without both, the assertive approach can be challenging.


Key Takeaways

  1. People tend to approach communication with passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, or assertive behaviors.
  2. Each style may be appropriate for different contexts.
  3. While assertive communication is the goal in most situations, it may not be feasible.



The material in this chapter has been adapted from “Human Relations” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Adler, Ronald B and Neil Towne. Looking Out Looking In. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Exploring Relationship Dynamics Copyright © 2021 by Maricopa Community College District is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book