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Understanding and Adapting to Workplace Communication Styles

Lisa Ardill

Content Editor at Workvivo

18 Jun 2023

Communication is important in all areas of life – and if you’re trying to improve your employee experience and drive business growth, workplace communication becomes especially key. 

Poor communication costs U.S. businesses over $12,000 per employee, per year. But when employees do feel connected at work, their productivity and overall well-being will increase.

Everyone has different styles of communication. Some mesh naturally, but others don’t. Throw aggressive or passive-aggressive communication into the mix and it becomes even harder to collaborate well.

Here, you’ll learn about the four major communication styles, what each one might look like in the workplace, and how you and your employees can communicate more effectively with one another. 

A breakdown of the four communication styles

A communication style is the way you communicate with others, and it informs how you act or react in different circumstances. 

How do you approach someone when you have something to communicate or receive them when they approach you? When you understand communication styles, it’s much easier to interact with people who operate with different styles.

There are four main types of communication styles, which we’ll explore in detail in the sections below: assertive, aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive.

#1. Assertive communication style

Many people consider assertive communication to be the ‘best’ type of corporate communication

Assertive communicators strike the best balance between those who are aggressive and passive. They communicate clearly and directly, but not in a way that’s overbearing or harmful. An assertive communicator is respectful and helpful. However, they are capable of setting boundaries when needed. 

An assertive style communicator is approachable and makes others feel safe. In the workplace, this fosters engagement, productivity, and overall business growth as your employees work together more effectively.

Common assertive communication behaviors

  • Uses a calm, clear tone with friendly eye contact
  • Listens and hears you out before responding
  • Shares and collaborates with ideas and feelings.

How to adapt to this type of communication

Communicating with an assertive communicator should be much easier than communicating with people who lean more aggressive or passive. Work to become a more assertive communicator yourself through these tips:

  • Use “I” and “we” statements
  • Be open to feedback
  • Listen to others’ ideas, feelings, and opinions.

#2. Aggressive communication style

It’s easy to tell when someone with an aggressive communication style is in the room. Aggressive communicators are very vocal about their opinions and feelings – even at the expense of others. If you are interacting with an aggressive communicator, you might feel intimidated or even violated. 

Aggressive communication isn’t all bad. Someone with this communication style may be able to take over in crucial moments or emergency situations. However, aggressive communicators can all too easily dominate their coworkers in a negative way, which often affects productivity and morale. 

Warning signs of aggressive communication

  • Interrupts others
  • Gets in your personal space
  • Uses a loud, confident, firm tone of voice
  • Relies heavily on gestures and intense eye contact while speaking.

Ways to combat aggressive communication

  • Stay calm and professional – don’t reciprocate the aggression
  • Loop in a third person to act as a mediator if needed
  • Walk away from the conversation if the other person is becoming too heated.

#3. Passive communication style

A passive communicator tends to be a wallflower. They’re quiet, soft-spoken, and don’t want to start or participate in conflict. Instead of speaking up to assert their needs or opinions, someone with a passive communication style is more likely to sit back and keep their mouth shut – even if they disagree with you or feel uncomfortable in a situation. 

Like other styles of communication, passive communication has both pros and cons. Passive communicators tend to be adaptable, and they aren’t going to start an office fight. But it’s all too easy for them to become a doormat, too. 

Common traits of a passive communicator

  • Acts soft-spoken and apologetic
  • Fidgets or doesn’t make eye contact
  • Struggles to say no.

Tips for speaking with a passive communicator

  • Approach them one-on-one rather than in a group
  • Ask open-ended questions that don’t need a direct answer
  • Give them time to process what you’re asking
  • Don’t dismiss their thoughts or ideas.

#4. Passive-aggressive communication style

If someone has a passive-aggressive communication style, they might appear to be a passive communicator – but elements of an aggressive communication style will be underlying all of their interactions. 

This kind of person might communicate their anger or discontent using more subtle methods like tone of voice, body language, or behavior. For example: “Sure, have it your way,” or “Gosh, I was just kidding.” Sarcasm is one major indicator of passive-aggressiveness. 

This communication style can be harmful because it hurts teamwork and group projects. It also creates a breeding ground for resentment, as passive-aggressive communicators generally don’t like to address problems directly and instead leave them unresolved. 

Passive-aggressive warning signs to look out for

  • Relies heavily on sarcasm
  • Gives you the silent treatment or the cold shoulder
  • Mutters under their breath.

Ways to adapt to passive-aggressive communication

  • Call out or confront negative behavior 
  • Don’t slip into passive-aggressive behaviors yourself
  • Hold all employees to the same boundaries and expectations. 

How to overcome workplace communication barriers

With so many different communication styles at play, it’s no wonder that communication in the workplace can easily get twisted around. Trying to improve the way your team communicates? Here are a few common obstacles you might experience, plus solutions to get around them.

Overcoming cultural and language barriers

Cultural differences can affect communication. Our cultural backgrounds inform not only how we communicate with others, but how we perceive and interpret their communication to us. 

This means that a single message – even one you thought was clear and simple – can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) in many ways. And if you’re a native English speaker talking to someone who speaks English as a second or third language, communication gets even more complex.

Words, phrases, and body language are examples of cultural differences in communication. One way to help mitigate any potential issues is simply by diving in. Practice makes perfect: the more you communicate with employees from different backgrounds, the better at it you’ll become. 

If needed, simplify your language to avoid slang or jargon, or consider writing things down. Active listening (asking questions and summarizing what the other person said to ensure understanding) is also key.

Each of your team members brings something unique and invaluable to the table – not in spite of their cultural background but because of it. Putting in the time to foster meaningful communication across cultures is always worth the effort.

Remote communication challenges (+ solutions)

Face-to-face communication is often challenging enough. Put a screen in between your team members, and it gets even more difficult. Remote communication can be hard because:

  • Employees can find it harder to engage with each other and build that real-life trust
  • Internal communication channels can glitch or may not be used correctly 
  • Important physical context (like body language and facial expressions) is often missing
  • Employees often get less feedback.

Help your remote team connect by making it fun. Use icebreakers during video meetings, schedule a virtual happy hour, or create space for the kind of watercooler conversations that in-person employees take for granted. 

And of course, the right communication tools are crucial, too. Look for a dedicated employee experience platform like Workvivo that drives collaboration with features like a personalized activity feed, real-time chat, and options for live video streams.

Lack of clarity and misinterpretation

One final communication challenge: clarity. If you don’t communicate clearly, employees might misinterpret your meaning. Interpersonal relationships between team members may be damaged, projects might go unfinished, and your business growth and revenue could take a hit. 

This is where self-awareness and developing an assertive communication style come into play. Someone with an assertive communication style can be direct and upfront, but in a way that doesn’t hurt any feelings or step on any toes. As an assertive communicator, you can say what you need to say – but your manner will remain courteous and friendly as you speak.

Another helpful tip is to ask someone to restate what you’ve just told them. For instance, after giving an employee a task to do, say something like, “To make sure we’re on the same page, could you please tell me what the plan is?” 

Elevate corporate communications with Workvivo

Developing effective communication skills isn’t easy. Factors like cultural differences,  remote work environments, or misunderstanding non-verbal communication can all come into play. One of the most helpful things you can do is understand the main communication styles and how you can develop your personal communication style to mesh with everyone.

Improve your team’s overall communication and employee engagement with Workvivo. As an employee experience and communication platform, Workvivo is packed with features to help your employees engage with one another. 

From an activity feed to push notifications to pulse surveys, every corner of the platform is designed to foster the most effective communication among your teams. Book your demo today to get started!