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Assertiveness and the Four Styles of Communication
Those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families may have never learned to communicate effectively in relationships. We may be passive and not advocate for ourselves, aggressive and attempt to run roughshod over others, or passive-aggressive and smile while sabotaging others behind their backs. No wonder we have so many problematic relationships and feel so isolated! In order to build healthy relationships, we must learn to be assertive - that is, to be clear, direct, and respectful in how we communicate. In other words, we must learn to "Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't say it mean."
The Four Basic Styles of Communication
1. PASSIVE COMMUNICATION is a style in which individuals have developed a pattern of avoiding expressing their opinions or feelings, protecting their rights, and identifying and meeting their needs. Passive communication is usually born of low self-esteem. These individuals believe: “I’m not worth taking care of.”
As a result, passive individuals do not respond overtly to hurtful or anger-inducing situations. Instead, they allow grievances and annoyances to mount, usually unaware of the build up. But once they have reached their high tolerance threshold for unacceptable behavior, they are prone to explosive outbursts, which are usually out of proportion to the triggering incident. After the outburst, however, they feel shame, guilt, and confusion, so they return to being passive.
Passive communicators will often:
- fail to assert for
The impact of a pattern of passive communication is that these individuals:
- often feel anxious because life seems out of their
A passive communicator will say, believe, or behave like:
- “I’m unable to stand up for my rights.”
2. AGGRESSIVE COMMUNICATION is a style in which individuals express their feelings and opinions and advocate for their needs in a way that violates the rights of others. Thus, aggressive communicators are verbally and/or physically abusive. Aggressive communication is born of low self-esteem (often caused by past physical and/or emotional abuse), unhealed emotional wounds, and feelings of powerlessness.
Aggressive communicators will often:
- try to dominate others
The impact of a pattern of aggressive communication is that these individuals:
- become alienated from others
The aggressive communicator will say, believe, or behave like:
“I’m superior and right and you’re inferior and wrong.”
3. PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE COMMUNICATION is a style in which individuals appear passive on the surface but are really acting out anger in a subtle, indirect, or behind-the-scenes way. Prisoners of War (POWs) often act in passive-aggressive ways to deal with an overwhelming lack of power. POWs may try to secretly sabotage the prison, make fun of the enemy, or quietly disrupt the system while smiling and appearing cooperative.
People who develop a pattern of passive-aggressive communication usually feel powerless, stuck, and resentful – in other words, they feel incapable of dealing directly with the object of their resentments. Instead, they express their anger by subtly undermining the object (real or imagined) of their resentments. They smile at you while setting booby traps all around you.
Passive-Aggressive communicators will often:
- mutter to
themselves rather than confront the person or issue
The impact of a pattern of passive-aggressive communication is that these individuals:
alienated from those around them
The passive-aggressive communicator will say, believe, or behave like:
- “I’m weak and resentful, so I sabotage, frustrate, and
4. ASSERTIVE COMMUNICATION is a style in which individuals clearly state their opinions and feelings, and firmly advocate for their rights and needs without violating the rights of others. Assertive communication is born of high self-esteem. These individuals value themselves, their time, and their emotional, spiritual, and physical needs and are strong advocates for themselves while being very respectful of the rights of others.
Assertive communicators will:
- state needs and wants clearly, appropriately, and respectfully
The impact of a pattern of assertive communication is that these individuals:
- feel connected to others
The assertive communicator will say, believe, or behave in a way that says:
- “We are equally
entitled to express ourselves respectfully to one another.”
Click below to watch Carl's 8-minute YouTube video explaining Assertiveness and the Four Communication Styles
To view all of Carl's YouTube videos on communication skills, click here.
Assertiveness allows us to take care of ourselves, and is fundamental for good mental health and healthy relationships. For a related topic, see healthy boundaries. If you would like help in learning to be more assertive, then click on the photo below to see if online therapy might be right for you.
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All Text and most photos by Carl Benedict
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