Behavior Styles in Communication

Assertive behavior style

Behaving assertively isn't about overriding or offending others. It's about communicating clearly and effectively. You communicate assertively with others when you

  • express what you think confidently and positively to others
  • speak honestly and directly by saying what you really mean and feel
  • demonstrate respect for others and their perspectives, and
  • speak your views distinctly enough so that people will listen to and understand you

An assertive attitude is demonstrated through assertive behavior, which takes several forms. In conversation, it involves keeping an open and relaxed posture; speaking in a pleasant, conversational tone; and making appropriate eye contact. It involves participating in the discussion, rather than withdrawing from or dominating it.

When you're assertive, you are able to

  • begin, change, and end a topic of conversation without being rude or overriding others
  • express your opinions and feelings honestly so that others can take these into account
  • ask for the cooperation and help of others without feeling guilty or anxious
  • decline requests politely and confidently if you feel they are too demanding or that you won't be able to meet them
  • question rules and guidelines that you feel are unfair and stand up for your own rights, and
  • accept compliments and constructive criticism from others

Benefits of assertive behavior

When you're the other party in a conversation with someone assertive, the benefits you'll experience are that you

  • feel good about the encounter
  • feel respected
  • know the interaction won't have wasted your time
  • understand what's being said
  • have space to make your own decisions because an assertive person won't push you around, and
  • are exposed to an effective communication model that you can learn from

Communicating assertively yourself is beneficial to you because you

  • get what you want or need more often
  • gain respect from others, for yourself and your position
  • feel less powerless and so reduce your stress in workplace situations
  • solve problems more efficiently
  • feel more productive and positive, and
  • develop more open, honest relationships

Other behavior styles

People who don't communicate assertively may instead be aggressive, trying to force their points on others and ignoring their views. Or they may be passive – failing to make their own voices heard or hiding what they feel. Both of these approaches have disadvantages for everyone involved.

Aggressive behavior

People who are directly aggressive in the way they communicate are easy to spot. They may interrupt you often or talk over you. They're likely to come across as rude and inconsiderate and may push other people around. Aggressive behaviors include glaring and staring, crossing arms defiantly, invading others' personal space, and speaking loudly.

Passive-aggressive behavior

A variation, which can be less obvious, is passive-aggressive behavior. This involves reacting to others aggressively but not actually expressing the aggression – at least not verbally. For example, someone may use only facial expressions or sarcasm to demonstrate anger or annoyance. This person avoids open conflict but still gets the point across that she's angry or annoyed.

Passive-aggressive people usually intend to get even with the people they disagree with, but not directly. Instead, they hope those people will suffer some consequence of their actions, figure out on their own what they've done wrong, and "learn their lesson."

Sometimes, passive-aggressive people will manipulate circumstances or people to make sure their point gets across. Or they'll talk about the problem with other parties instead of with the person they're in disagreement with. What they won't do is confront the problem directly.

Passive behavior

Behaving passively can be just as problematic as being aggressive. It indicates that you're not confident enough to express your opinions or feelings. Very passive people have trouble keeping eye contact. They hesitate to contribute in group discussions and have trouble sticking up for themselves. They often speak softly, slouch, and appear withdrawn.

So whereas an assertive person sticks up for his rights, a passive person is more likely to keep quiet or even accept being pushed around. Often, passive people are trying to avoid confrontation or embarrassment. They want others to like them, so they treat others' needs and wants as more important than their own. But behaving passively can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness in the long run.

People may behave passively for different reasons and in different ways. Generally, you can classify this behavior in either of two ways:

  • Indirect behavior is characterized by passive communication that is evasive, uncertain, and indecisive. Someone who is indirect lacks the confidence to state his view or say how he feels. Instead he talks around the issue, using weak and unclear language. Or he keeps quiet and doesn't state his opinions at all, often for fear that he'll be unpopular.
  • Giving-in behavior is used when someone who is unable to say "no." Even if she isn't comfortable doing what is asked, she does it anyway. A person who displays capitulating passive behavior doesn't have the confidence to stand up for her own rights.

You're assertive when you express your opinion confidently and positively, speak directly and honestly, remain respectful while expressing your views, and make yourself heard and understood. Being assertive helps you develop good relationships with your colleagues. Assertive behavior is a win-win situation because both parties feel good about the encounter. Aggressive behavior is overbearing and intimidating, while passive behavior is indirect and submissive. Both are ineffective and have a negative impact on the communicators and their relationship.