An angry boss of an internet start-up firm is repeatedly coercing his employees to work long hours with the threat of losing jobs and the potential for vast riches if the company succeeds. If this man were to express his needs in a more respectful manner rather than through mandates, would he get more from his employees?
A recent report on NPR revealed that two-thirds of doctors say they do not discuss losing weight with their patients, even though the vast majority of Americans are obese or overweight. If doctors were clear and more direct about the dangers of being overweight, would this help their patients lose pounds and avoid diabetes?
A middle-manager in a major pharmaceutical company is talking behind another manager’s back with derogatory statements about her character, which undermines advancement opportunities for both. If this middle-manager were to speak directly to the other manager about the character concerns, would it help build a more honest relationship between the two and improve their advancement chances?
Communication that is aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive cripples our ability to understand each other and work together well. And poor workplace communication results in conflict that can create uncertainty, resource hoarding, ineffective teamwork, and spreading rumors and gossip.
There are many descriptors for communication styles, but they typically fall into four categories: aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive and assertive. Rarely do any of us stay in one style all the time, but instead move in and out of them continually, though we may remain in one longer than the others.
When using an aggressive style there is manipulation involved. This often means hurting others through guilt or anger, and using intimidation and other control tactics. Though this style may be effective in the short term like when playing sports or fighting in a war, it will fail if used repeatedly in relationships in or out of the workplace.
The passive style of communication is one of compliance with the hope of avoiding confrontation at all costs. Using the passive style means speaking very little and questioning even less. With this style of communication very little is accomplished and needs are unlikely to get met. In the workplace, this can stifle understanding and get in the way of moving forward.
Those in a passive-aggressive style avoid direct confrontation by remaining passive, but then use aggression—often behind someone’s back—in order to get even. This harmful communication style also uses manipulation and may lead to office politics and spreading negative rumors. It is also the most difficult to detect and deal with because it switches back and forth so often.
The most effective and healthiest form of communication is the assertive style. We all naturally communicate in this way when our self-esteem is intact because we have confidence. When using the assertive style we are able to communicate our needs with clarity and often look for win/win solutions with others.
Surprisingly, assertive communication is the style people use least often. This is unfortunate because when using assertive communication you:
- express your wants, needs, and feelings clearly, appropriately, and respectfully
- use “I” statements
- listen well without interrupting
- feel in control of yourself
- have good eye contact
- speak in a calm and clear tone of voice
- have a relaxed body posture
- feel connected to others
- feel competent and in control
You may notice that many of these are associated with being emotionally intelligent and thereby being able to navigate your relationships with self-reflection, self-regulation and empathy.
Assertiveness is based on mutual respect, and it’s an effective and diplomatic communication style. When you are assertive, you’re willing to stand up for your interests and easily express your thoughts and feelings. It also demonstrates that you are aware of the rights of others and are willing to work on resolving conflicts.
With assertive communication, a boss’s urgency could be better communicated to motivate his employees in a healthy manner, doctors could make a clear and compelling case for overweight patients at risk of getting diabetes, and middle-managers could stop sabbotaging careers by being more straight-forward with each other.
If you’re in conflict with someone at work, notice what kind of communication style you are using as well as the other person. See if you can make a conscious effort to change your style to be assertive. You may find that the other person will begin to reflect that same direct approach back to you and help resolve the conflict.
Using this direct assertive communication style more often in the workplace can dramatically improve engagement, teamwork and productivity.