The Five Communication Styles

The Five Communication Styles Image by: Danielle Scott

Learning to identify the different communication styles - and recognising which one we use most often in our daily interactions with friends, family and colleagues - is essential if we want to develop effective, assertive communication skills. But how can we tell the difference between the styles, and is there a time and place for each one in certain situations?

Being assertive means respecting yourself and other people. It is the ability to clearly express your thoughts and feelings through open, honest and direct communication.

Becoming more assertive does not mean that you will always get what you want - but, it can help you achieve a compromise. And even if you don't get the outcome you want, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you handled the situation well, and that there are no ill feelings between you and the other person or people involved in the discussion.

Communicating assertively is not a skill reserved for the very few – anyone can do it - but, it does take time and practice if it is not how you are used to communicating. Fortunately, it is a technique you can practice and master at home in your own time – either by yourself or with a friend you can trust to give you honest feedback. Remember to also think about how the person you are talking to may react and how best you might cope with this.

Before deciding that you would like to communicate assertively, you need to have an understanding of what your usual style of communication is. There are five communication styles, and while many of us may use different styles in different situations, most will fall back on one particular style, which we use as our 'default' style.

The Five Communication Styles

  • Assertive

  • Aggressive

  • Passive-aggressive

  • Submissive

  • Manipulative

Different sorts of behaviour and language are characteristic of each.

The Assertive Style

Assertive communication is born of high self-esteem. It is the healthiest and most effective style of communication - the sweet spot between being too aggressive and too passive. When we are assertive, we have the confidence to communicate without resorting to games or manipulation. We know our limits and don't allow ourselves to be pushed beyond them just because someone else wants or needs something from us. Surprisingly, however, Assertive is the style most people use least.

Behavioural Characteristics

  • Achieving goals without hurting others
  • Protective of own rights and respectful of others' rights
  • Socially and emotionally expressive
  • Making your own choices and taking responsibility for them
  • Asking directly for needs to be met, while accepting the possibility of rejection
  • Accepting compliments

Non-Verbal Behaviour

  • Voice – medium pitch and speed and volume
  • Posture – open posture, symmetrical balance, tall, relaxed, no fidgeting
  • Gestures – even, rounded, expansive
  • Facial expression – good eye contact
  • Spatial position – in control, respectful of others


  • "Please would you turn the volume down? I am really struggling to concentrate on my studies."
  • "I am so sorry, but I won't be able to help you with your project this afternoon, as I have a dentist appointment."

People on the Receiving end Feel

  • They can take the person at their word
  • They know where they stand with the person
  • The person can cope with justified criticism and accept compliments
  • The person can look after themselves
  • Respect for the person

The Aggressive Style

This style is about winning – often at someone else's expense. An aggressive person behaves as if their needs are the most important, as though they have more rights, and have more to contribute than other people. It is an ineffective communication style as the content of the message may get lost because people are too busy reacting to the way it's delivered.

Behavioural Characteristics

  • Frightening, threatening, loud, hostile
  • Willing to achieve goals at expense of others
  • Out to "win"
  • Demanding, abrasive
  • Belligerent
  • Explosive, unpredictable
  • Intimidating
  • Bullying

Non-Verbal Behaviour

  • Voice – volume is loud
  • Posture – 'bigger than' others
  • Gestures - big, fast, sharp/jerky
  • Facial expression – scowl, frown, glare
  • Spatial position - Invade others' personal space, try to stand 'over' others


  • "You are crazy!"
  • "Do it my way!"
  • "You make me sick!"
  • "That is just about enough out of you!"
  • Sarcasm, name-calling, threatening, blaming, insulting.

People on the Receiving end Feel

  • Defensive, aggressive (withdraw or fight back)
  • Uncooperative
  • Resentful/Vengeful
  • Humiliated/degraded
  • Hurt
  • Afraid
  • A loss of respect for the aggressive person
  • Mistakes and problems are not reported to an aggressive person in case they "blow up'. Others are afraid of being railroaded, exploited or humiliated.

The Passive-Aggressive Style

This is a style in which people appear passive on the surface, but are actually acting out their anger in indirect or behind-the-scenes ways. Prisoners of War often act in passive-aggressive ways in order to deal with an overwhelming lack of power. People who behave in this manner usually feel powerless and resentful, and express their feelings by subtly undermining the object (real or imagined) of their resentments – even if this ends up sabotaging themselves. The expression "Cut off your nose to spite your face" is a perfect description of passive-aggressive behaviour.

Behavioural Characteristics

  • Indirectly aggressive
  • Sarcastic
  • Devious
  • Unreliable
  • Complaining
  • Sulky
  • Patronising
  • Gossips
  • Two-faced - Pleasant to people to their faces, but poisonous behind their backs (rumours, sabotage etc.) People do things to actively harm the other party e.g. they sabotage a machine by loosening a bolt or put too much salt in their food.

Non-Verbal Behaviour

  • Voice – Often speaks with a sugary sweet voice.
  • Posture – often asymmetrical – e.g. Standing with hand on hip, and hip thrust out (when being sarcastic or patronising)
  • Gestures – Can be jerky, quick
  • Facial expression – Often looks sweet and innocent
  • Spatial position – often too close, even touching other as pretends to be warm and friendly


  • Passive-aggressive language is when you say something like "Why don't you go ahead and do it; my ideas aren't very good anyway" but maybe with a little sting of irony or even worse, sarcasm, such as "You always know better in any case."
  • "Oh don't you worry about me, I can sort myself out – like I usually have to."

People on the Receiving end Feel

  • Confused
  • Angry
  • Hurt
  • Resentful

The Submissive Style

This style is about pleasing other people and avoiding conflict. A submissive person behaves as if other peoples' needs are more important, and other people have more rights and more to contribute.

Behavioural Characteristics

  • Apologetic (feel as if you are imposing when you ask for what you want)
  • Avoiding any confrontation
  • Finding difficulty in taking responsibility or decisions
  • Yielding to someone else's preferences (and discounting own rights and needs)
  • Opting out
  • Feeling like a victim
  • Blaming others for events
  • Refusing compliments
  • Inexpressive (of feelings and desires)

Non-Verbal Behaviour

  • Voice – Volume is soft
  • Posture – make themselves as small as possible, head down
  • Gestures – twist and fidget
  • Facial expression – no eye contact
  • Spatial position – make themselves smaller/lower than others
  • Submissive behaviour is marked by a martyr-like attitude (victim mentality) and a refusal to try out initiatives, which might improve things.


  • "Oh, it's nothing, really."
  • "Oh, that's all right; I didn't want it anymore."
  • "You choose; anything is fine."

People on the Receiving end Feel

  • Exasperated
  • Frustrated
  • Guilty
  • You don't know what you want (and so discount you)
  • They can take advantage of you.
  • Others resent the low energy surrounding the submissive person and eventually give up trying to help them because their efforts are subtly or overtly rejected.

The Manipulative Style

This style is scheming, calculating and shrewd. Manipulative communicators are skilled at influencing or controlling others to their own advantage. Their spoken words hide an underlying message, of which the other person may be totally unaware.

Behavioural Characteristics

  • Cunning
  • Controlling of others in an insidious way – for example, by sulking
  • Asking indirectly for needs to be met
  • Making others feel obliged or sorry for them.
  • Uses 'artificial' tears

Non-Verbal Behaviour

  • Voice – patronising, envious, ingratiating, often high pitch
  • Facial expression – Can put on the 'hang dog" expression


  • "You are so lucky to have those chocolates, I wish I had some. I can't afford such expensive chocolates."
  • "I didn't have time to buy anything, so I had to wear this dress. I just hope I don't look too awful in it." ('Fishing' for a compliment).

People on the Receiving end Feel

  • Guilty
  • Frustrated
  • Angry, irritated or annoyed
  • Resentful
  • Others feel they never know where they stand with a manipulative person and are annoyed at constantly having to try to work out what is going on.

Source: The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 2nd edition. Edmund J Bourne. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 1995.

The Benefits of Understanding the Different Styles of Communication

A good understanding of the five basic styles of communication will help you learn how to react most effectively when confronted with a difficult person. It will also help you recognise when you are not being assertive or not behaving in the most effective way. Remember, you always have a choice as to which communication style you use. Being assertive is usually the most effective, but other styles are, of course, necessary in certain situations – such as being submissive when under physical threat (a mugging, hijacking etc.).

Good communication skills require a high level of self-awareness. Once you understand your own communication style, it is much easier to identify any shortcomings or areas which can be improved on, if you want to start communicating in a more assertive manner.

If you're serious about strengthening your relationships, reducing stress from conflict and decreasing unnecessary anxiety in your life, practice being more assertive. It will help you diffuse anger, reduce guilt and build better relationships both personally and professionally.

Remember the first rule of effective communication: The success of the communication is the responsibility of the communicator.

This article was published on my website in July 2011.

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