The 4 Types of Communication Styles in Workplace Messaging

Resources > 4 Communication Styles

Help your team break through personal communication styles for a happier, healthier workplace

By Rachel Kaplowitz, CEO of Honey

Four types of communication styles can dominate your Slack channels, just as they do the hallways and meeting rooms at your office. Without guidance for your staff, these communication-style differences can turn what should be a productive team into a dysfunctional group of unhappy people.

Thanks to technology’s impact on communication at work, your team swims in constant messages all day. Consider all the places people now use bite-sized comments to communicate — in cloud-based documents like Google Docs and Quip, in groups on your company intranet, through text messages on phones and apps, and, of course, via email. Every one of those comments introduces the potential for communication to go off the rails.

One style of communication can act as a catalyst for your team’s messaging to create a positive, balanced, and productive workplace: assertive. The other three styles — passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive — can wreak havoc. With guidance that takes into account these communication styles, you can help bring harmony to how your team gets things done.

We’ve put together a downloadable resource that gives your team guidance for how they communicate with each other in writing. Get it now: The Honey Workplace Messaging Guidelines.

1. The assertive communication style

Of the four types of communication styles at work, assertiveness is the standard for healthy communication. Assertive communicators manage to convey their needs while also considering the needs of others. Their interactions with teammates tend to create win-win situations and move work ahead efficiently.

The key characteristics that you’ll observe in an assertive communicator’s workplace messaging include the following:

  • They are deliberate in their word choices, making sure their meaning is clear.

  • They use “I” statements. This indicates ownership of their thoughts and feelings and avoids placing blame on other people.

  • They ask questions and clarify details before providing input.

  • They think carefully about how a comment could be received before sending it.

  • They give credit when others have contributed to an idea.

  • They can deliver bad news clearly and sensitively.

  • They say “no” when they need to enforce a boundary, but they can say it with grace — and suggest an alternative solution, too.

Assertive communication can provide a blueprint for improving the other three communication styles, which are ineffective at best and often harmful. Let's take a look at some ways you can help your team members, who use passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive communication, assert themselves effectively.

2. The passive communication style

A passive communicator puts others’ needs ahead of his or her own, accepting decisions without participating in discussions. They may appear indifferent, unengaged, or selfless. How can you know you’ve got a passive communicator on your hands? Look for these key characteristics in your written channels at work:

  • They rarely ask questions or push back when asked to do something.

  • They may not respond to comments or threads when you would expect them to contribute.

  • When they do, they leave rambling, indecisive comments that can confuse others.

  • They may overuse emojis or ellipses to soften a message.

  • They are reluctant to use channel-wide notifications even when appropriate, avoiding drawing attention to themselves.

While a passive communication style can appear to help create a harmonious workplace on the surface, it can cause a host of problems for your team.

How the passive communication style hurts your team.

It’s healthy — for the person and the business — when a team member can push back or say no when the situation calls for it. Passive communicators have trouble with this.

Folks with a passive communication style usually look to avoid conflict, and this also includes discussions where they may be called on to express an opinion. You’re unlikely to see passive communicators jumping into a Slack thread, for example, even when you tag them. This means your team often loses out on the ideas and thoughts they could contribute.

When they do comment, a passive communicator may overexplain to compensate for their indecisiveness and lack of confidence. But leaving lengthy comments in a channel that’s better used for quick, concise points places a burden on teammates. The recipient is forced to decipher a lot of information, and this can leave them confused about the next step or the takeaway.

As a manager, you will want to create a safe, encouraging environment that helps your passive communicators assert themselves confidently.

How to draw out input from passive communicators.

If you want to encourage your quieter team members to open up and participate more, you need to be sensitive to the reasons behind their lack of participation. If they lack confidence, criticism will only add anxiety. When you speak with the person, avoid the label of “passive” and instead focus on the behavior and how your team needs and values their input.

During your next one-on-one meeting, you can work together to set goals. A naturally passive communicator can improve how they relate to others in text-based messaging channels by:

  • Reviewing a message before hitting send to make sure the point is clear. They can ask a trusted co-worker to read it over for them. To help improve clarity, they should look to remove any unnecessary words, use more definite verbs (use “will” instead of “may” or “could,” for example), and put the most important part of their message upfront.

  • Taking steps toward contributing and pushing back. While they may be reluctant to contribute in public discussions, they could express themselves through direct messages to a specific person, for example. It may be as simple as learning to ask questions before saying yes.

  • Knowing they are expected to address all comments within a specific time frame. This provides an objective measure that you can check in on periodically.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from passive communicators, you will find your aggressive communicators.

3. The aggressive communication style

Aggressive communicators focus on what they want or need without considering others. The tone, body language, and words they use can make others feel belittled and disrespected. An aggressive communication style can come across in writing like this:

  • Their comments are emotionally charged and may make others feel attacked.

  • They may make insensitive comments, call out others’ mistakes, or post offensive jokes.

  • Their comments intimidate with strong punctuation and frequent capitalization.

  • They tag people in questions and then follow up persistently even for relatively non-urgent issues.

Aggressive communicators have plenty of confidence, and this can make them effective when a quick decision is needed. But a pattern of aggression can harm the team’s effectiveness.

How the aggressive communication style hurts your team.

Aggressive communicators often trample others and damage relationships as they work toward what they see as the right course of action. This causes a loss of morale and makes others less inclined to collaborate. You may see others pull back from discussions or start shifting to private channels. This communication style has a tendency to bring out other negative communication styles. The passive communicator becomes even more passive, and those who normally communicate in a healthy, assertive manner may shift toward aggression themselves, for example.

Because an aggressive communicator frequently shuts down any discussion, the team loses out on ideas that might otherwise have been shared. The work output can begin to disproportionately reflect the views of the aggressive communicator as others pull back and become less engaged. As a manager, you need to intervene and help moderate this behavior.

How to help aggressive communicators dial it back.

Unlike with the passive communicator, you will want to be very direct. Tell this communicator that their comments are coming across as overly aggressive and inappropriate. Focus on a few examples and show them the results and what they lost because of it. For example, point out that their comments will make it harder for them to get input from others in the future when they need it.

Encourage them to do the equivalent of “listening before speaking” to help them relate to others more positively by:

  • Taking time to think the issue through from a few different angles rather than responding right away

  • Asking questions to make sure they understand the situation better

  • Considering how the other person will feel when they read the comment

  • Using “I” statements rather than “you” statements

  • Confining comments to the idea being discussed, not the person who had the idea

You should also recognize that this person needs public attention and find healthy ways to channel that need. Perhaps you call on their opinion specifically or recognize their efforts publicly.

4. The passive-aggressive communication style

Passive-aggressive communicators may appear on the surface to accept ideas or to have no opinion, but their follow-up actions or words suggest otherwise. This can leave co-workers confused and frustrated, damaging morale and productivity. Indicators include:

  • Their comments contain little digs that to some people may appear completely normal.

  • They use sarcasm and emojis that signal annoyance, and then say they’re joking.

  • They consistently miss important parts of their work that impact others, and later apologize or make excuses to sound like the victim.

  • They say yes when asked to do something, but then don’t do it.

  • They don’t respond even when you tag them or reach out directly. Or they answer too late.

  • They use subtle changes in communication patterns to make a point rather than saying what they really feel. For example, they may use punctuation that strays from the norm to make a point, such as adding a period to the end of a text message.

  • They deliver underhanded praise that slyly criticizes the recipient at the same time.

How the passive-aggressive communication style hurts your team.

The passive-aggressive communication style casts a gloomy shadow over your team. People feel they can’t rely on the person and second guess their input, which results in extra work for others. It also leaves others with low morale after comments with a negative tint. The mixed signals make it difficult for teammates to trust the person, which is really important if you are to create a healthy, happy workplace. The passive-aggressive communication style makes others feel powerless because the insidious comments appear unharmful on the surface. It then becomes difficult to make a case that there’s anything out of the ordinary happening.

If you recognize the passive-aggressive communication style in someone you manage, you’ve likely felt they were insubordinate at times. The person may be friendly and compliant when you speak, but then they make subtle comments or actions that suggest they are upset.

How to help passive-aggressive communicators write more assertively.

Because the cues are difficult to call out, it can be hard to provide guidance to someone who uses passive-aggressive communication at work. It’s important to avoid labeling the person as passive-aggressive and instead focus on their behavior. Even then, you may be met with denial or excuses.

Building your relationship with this person, as with all your direct reports, is extremely important. The stronger your relationship is with them, the easier it will be to find the reasons behind their communication choices. If there are unresolved issues or resentments, you can then work toward clearing them up.

Because this style is a combination of passive and aggressive, the following guidance may be needed if the behavior persists. In particular, confirm that they are:

  • Taking time to think the issue through from a few different angles rather than responding right away

  • Considering how the other person could interpret a comment before posting it

  • Addressing all comments within a specific time frame

Perhaps most important of all, to help your team improve communication, you need to be clear in your expectations. That includes letting them know the consequences for those who regularly show a lack of support for the team through how they communicate.

Make your expectations clear with a set of communication guidelines.

Good communication is the glue that holds your team together day in and day out. As a manager, it’s important to help the whole team work well together. Once you can recognize the four types of communication styles and the needs that lay behind them, you will be equipped to take on more of a moderator role. When you can base your feedback around the guidelines for communication you’ve established, it helps keep the feedback objective.

Need help coming up with guidelines for your team? We’re happy to share with you our guidelines for keeping communication clear and healthy. Get The Honey Workplace Messaging Guidelines.