Healthy Workplace Communication

Angry Woman by Lara604, Flickr

We’ve looked at communication and learning styles from the perspective of the VAK and VARK models. And we’ve considered the construct which identifies communicators as Relators, Socializers, Directors and Thinkers. In this post we look at communication styles from another angle and discuss Passive, Assertive, Aggressive and Passive-Aggressive ways of interacting. While earlier discussions of communication styles have focused on understanding and working with different communication preferences, this construct is based on healthy and unhealthy communication styles rather than simple preferences.

Passive Communicators

Passive communicators tend to put the rights of others before their own and avoid conflict at all costs. They internalize discomfort rather than risk upsetting others. This style tends to result in a lose-win situation, and results in feelings of reduced self-worth, victimization, resentment, and a loss of a sense of control. Passive communicators often have a low sense of self-esteem and have a hard time recognizing their own needs and setting boundaries.

Aggressive Communicators

Aggressive communicators create a win-lose situation, using intimidation and control to get what they want and need. Often disrespectful and hurtful to others in communications, aggressive communicators operate on the belief that power and control are the most effective means of achieving their goals. Aggression is the most commonly identified form of workplace bullying. Aggressive communicators may be acting from an actual desire to hurt, from a sense of inadequacy and fear, or may simply lack empathy and be unaware of their impact.

Passive-Aggressive Communicators

Passive-Aggressive communicators often function under the radar—appearing passive on the surface while deliberately sabotaging things behind the scenes. They may use procrastination, forgetfulness, and intentional inefficiency to express disagreement, rather than directly sharing their concerns. Passive aggressive communicators may “smile at you while setting booby traps all around you.”[1] This approach to communication tends to result in lose-lose, since there is often no clear indicator that communication is even happening.

Assertive Communicators

Assertive communicators stand up for their own rights and opinions while respecting the rights and opinions of others. In each interaction, they aim for a win-win situation and take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. Assertive communicators believe that people are responsible for solving their own problems and that moving forward is more important than winning at all costs.

The following table provides an overview of these four communication styles, how they present and common outcomes and consequences of each style.

Interpersonal Communication Styles*

Style Dimensions






Others choose for you.
Emotionally dishonest.

You choose for others.
Inappropriately honest.
Direct, critical.

You choose for others.
Emotionally dishonest
Indirect way of getting own way. (Guilt-trips.)

You choose for self.
Appropriately honest.
Direct, self-respecting.




with spikes


Belief System

“I should never make anyone upset.”

“No one should make me upset.”

“I should never let anyone know I'm upset.”

“Let's talk over what we're upset about.”

Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior

Moves back: 
under reacts, silent, soft

Moves forward: overreacts, blames, accuses

Moves around, hides reaction, sarcastic, procrastinating

Stands firm: acts, 
uses “I” language

Response to Conflict

Avoids, gives in

Attacks directly

Attacks indirectly

Works for win-win solutions


Protect self from losing


Prevent others from winning


Your Feelings in the exchange

Now: anxious, ignored, helpless, manipulated. 
Later: resentful

Now: self-righteous, superior, powerful. 
Later: guilty, lonely

Now: self-righteous, in control.
Later: Misunderstood

Now: confident, self-respecting, goal oriented.
Later: accomplished

Others' feelings in the exchange

Superior, guilty, frustrated

Angry, afraid, resentful, hurt

Taken, distrusting, mislead, angry

Valued, respected

Others' view of you in the exchange

Don't know where you stand

Obnoxious, pushy, controlling; Know and dread your stand

Superficially pleasant, but sneaky; Oppositional, Don't know where you stand

Honest, trustworthy
Know where you stand

Usual Outcome

Others get what they want at your expense. 
Your rights are ignored.

Get what you want at others' expense.
Others' rights are ignored.

Get what you want, but at others' expense. 
Both rights are unclear.

You get what you want. 
Your and others' rights are respected.

*From: B. Robinson & J. Alexander, Interpersonal Communication Handbook, © 2004, Pearson Custom Publishing, Boston, MA.


How each of us communicates depends on a number of factors, including self-esteem, personality, socialization, educational experience, and the role models we’ve experienced in our personal lives and in the media. Regardless of our natural or learned style, assertive communication is considered the healthiest and most effective approach to communication.

Cultivating an Assertive Communication Style

Communication is made up of a variety of verbal and non-verbal components. Cultivating an assertive communication style is as much about your body language and tone of voice as it is about your words. To cultivate an assertive communication style, focus on the following:

  • Adopt body language that conveys openness and receptiveness.
  • Make appropriate eye contact (aim for connection not domination).
  • Be aware of and respect personal space.
  • Ensure that your tone of voice is clear and calm with no undertones of anger, contempt, sarcasm, or coldness.
  • Think before you speak to make sure your meaning is clear.
  • Express your opinions with directness and confidence, but not in an argumentative or threatening way.
  • Respectfully listen to and acknowledge other people’s point of view.
  • Be open to new perspectives while retaining belief in yourself.
  • Learn to embrace feedback. Accept compliments with a sincere “thank you.” Strive to accept constructive feedback the same way, recognizing it as valuable input.
  • Take responsibility for your decisions and actions—both positive and negative.
  • Apologize only when it is warranted.

Assertive communicators feel connected to others, feel in control of their lives, continually grow and develop because they address issues and problems as they arise, and foster a respectful environment for others to grow and develop. In the workplace, assertive communicators create a sense of inclusion and belonging that supports a strong, high-performance culture.


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Additional References:
B. Robinson & J. Alexander, Interpersonal Communication Handbook, © 2004, Pearson Custom Publishing, Boston, MA.
Photo: Angry woman by Lara604, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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