The way we communicate with each other is usually based on our perceptions of a situation that tell us how we need to express ourselves to get what we want from that situation. Communication “styles” (or approaches) can be broken down into four categories: “passive,” “assertive,” “passive-aggressive,” and “aggressive.” You can see from the names of the categories, they progress from least intrusive to most intrusive, at least to the outside observer. This post will discuss the reasons we choose these categories, their impact on our relationships, and how to use that knowledge to move toward more healthy ways of choosing to communicate.
To get started, I’ve created a table below that provides a way of “seeing” how each of the four communications styles fit into a whole picture.
|External Appearance:||Silent||Statement||Silent/Statement with Glare||Yell|
|Inner Experience:||Let it go, not important||Need to say
|Anxious or angry, conflict-avoidant||Angry|
|Healthy:||GenerallyHealthy||Generally Healthy||AlwaysUnhealthy||Generally Unhealthy|
Some of the boxes in this table are probably pretty self-explanatory. For the others, take a look at the first column, which describes each row. Let’s go through the first column to the left of the table. I’ve already mentioned the four categories of “styles” at the top of the table. The next row, “External Appearance,” is how each of the four communications styles look to the outside observer. For instance, when someone is being assertive with us, they are simply telling us something about their wants and needs. They aren’t yelling (that would be aggression), and they aren’t saying it while also glaring at us (that would be passive-aggressive). Silence as just silence indicates a passive, nonchalant, I don’t really care approach. Probably the hardest distinction to make for the observer is whether someone is acting passively or passively aggressive. In both cases, the person communicating passivity may not want it known how they feel about a given situation. The difference is in how they feel or experience the situation internally. I will address that issue next.
The third row in the table, “Inner Experience,” is designed as a short-hand way of describing how someone choosing each of the four communication styles might make the decision about which style to use. So, let’s say Jim and John are sitting in their living room, trying to decide where to take a hike on a Sunday afternoon. Jim really wants to hike near the river. John doesn’t want to drive that far, but doesn’t really care. He is “passive” about it because he recognizes it is more important to Jim than it is to him and wants to respect Jim’s wishes. He agrees to go to the river. But now let’s say John remembers he wants to get back fairly quickly from the hike because he has other plans later. He tells Jim, “I don’t think the river will work for me today. It will take too long to drive there and back along with the hike.” He’s being assertive, stating his needs, without yelling, without any other observable or intended message that goes along with his assertion. Jim, however, is annoyed, more than a little annoyed. He feels like lately John has been regularly prioritizing other things over him (including the plans John has later that day). He says “fine, tell me where you are willing to hike, and I guess we will go there!” with just a little too much emphasis. He doesn’t wait for a response, but just leaves the room. I think we can all recognize this as at least mildly passive-aggressive. Note that the difference here is that Jim does care where they go—that the location of their hike, and John’s response to that location, is perceived by Jim as being about something more than the hike itself. Jim perceived that John’s response says something about Jim’s importance to John, and he feel hurt. Now John is mildly angry, maybe a little “pissed off” at Jim for what he considers Jim’s immature behavior and response. John walks into the kitchen where Jim is “sulking,” and says with a raised voice, “Why do you always have to be so sensitive? It is just a hike. Now, I don’t want to go on a hike at all anymore. You can just go by yourself!” Jim doesn’t say anything, just glares at John. John goes upstairs and jumps in the shower. Here we have gone from passive, through assertive, passive-aggressive to aggressive all within a couple of minutes.
The choices we make about which style to use often come far faster than we even realize. We may not be consciously aware of either the reason we are choosing some specific style, or which style we are using in any given moment. The reason we choose a particular communication style has to do with two primary motivators. The first one is illustrated by Jim and John’s interaction—we choose a communication style based on how important we perceive our needs in any given situation (how important we consider what we want from the person we are communicating with). The second primary motivator is the point of the fourth row in the table above: do we want to take responsibility for what we communicate. This can be a little confusing, so let me explain what I mean for each communication style. When we are being truly “passive” (and not passive-aggressive) we have no strong emotional reaction about what is being said by the other person, at least in terms of feeling the need to respond, so there is no need to take responsibility for saying anything. When we are being “assertive,” we have decided that there is a need to communicate our want or need in response to a given situation, that what we want is important enough to justify taking “a position,” even if it might mean the possibility of conflict. When we are assertive, we know we will be partly responsible for causing the conflict by making the assertive statement, but the risk of conflict is either small, or justified by our need to state our position.
Passive-aggressive communications are the result of feeling like we need to take a position, but we don’t want to be held responsible for the position, or the conflict it will likely create. Think about sarcasm. I’m sure you’ve had the experiences of someone saying something sarcastic, in which they are pretending to be funny, but saying something that has some real feeling in it, maybe even offensive. So, you tell the other person you found their comment offensive, and they say, “c’mon, don’t be so sensitive, I was just kidding.” They’ve made a statement, taken a position, which has now caused conflict, but are stating the conflict is entirely your responsibility for the way you’ve reacted to their “joke.” Or a more simple example, taken right from the table above, is the “silent glare.” Which says, “I am not saying anything, but I think we both know I am saying something pretty serious.” No matter how you react, you are the one who has caused the problem, because, after all, they didn’t say anything, and might even deny they were glaring. Or maybe you yourself have given the sarcastic remark or the silent glare, and can relate to the experience in that way.
The reasons we don’t want to take responsibility for our position when we are passive-aggressive can vary pretty widely, but generally come down to these three: we are insecure about whether the position we are taking is justified, we do not trust the other person will take our position seriously, or we have a fear of conflict that is related to previous conflicts with this person or some other historical pattern that might predate this relationship (e.g. family history of poor conflict resolution). I will address how to move away from passive-aggressive behaviors below. For now, though, if you are interested in limiting passive-aggressive behavior as much as possible, it will be important for you to examine why you are conflict-avoidant, either in general, or in particular relationships and situations.
The bottom row on the table is kind of interesting. Note that the only column that I consider “unhealthy” (meaning always unhealthy) is passive-aggressive. I will come back to that. The “passive” approach is “generally healthy” because most of the time, if we are being passive because the issue at hand is not all that important to us, it is a good idea to just let it go, to pick the battles that are important to us, to let things roll off when they should. Passivity is not always healthy though. If you are avoiding assertiveness, for instance, due to either fear of conflict, or some kind of self-worth issue, being passive can actually make this worse, and you may end up digesting negative feelings, building resentments, and then “blowing up” later because you’ve been holding all these things in. Assertiveness is “generally healthy” when well chosen due to the need to take a position, for which you are willing to risk conflict, if it occurs. About the only time I can see assertiveness being unhealthy is when a passive approach might be better, when we make the mistake of thinking something is more important than it really is, when we feel the need to take a position, and maybe we’ve just created or risked conflict with someone for no good reason. In general, though, assertiveness kind of assumes that you are saying something in a reasonable manner (as opposed to passive-aggressive and aggressive communications), so even if there is conflict, it is likely mild and not problematic.
As an aside, but one related very much to this topic, I do not view conflict in a negative light. I often tell couples in therapy that conflict in a relationship is like breathing, it is always there, always necessary, and need not be difficult. For a more in-depth discussion of how my views on conflict, conflict-avoidance and conflict resolution, I have written several chapters on these topics in the book,“Firewalking on Jupiter.”
You might find it puzzling or surprising that I consider the “aggressive” style of communication “generally unhealthy” and not always “unhealthy.” In very rare circumstances, I think it is necessary to be aggressive in our communication. A good example is when a parent is unloading their car, has their hands full of grocery bags, and their toddler Emma, who has been told to come toward the house, is instead about to meander into the street. An aggressive shout, “Emma, come here, right now!” might be absolutely necessary to avert the looming danger. As a general rule, however, aggression is almost never a good communication style. It is almost never, except in extreme situations like the example above, necessary or beneficial. It can lead to a level of conflict or pain or emotional injury that is not only unwarranted, but simply wrong. From a strategic point of view, aggressive behavior is rarely successful in getting a person what they hope to achieve, unless all they hope to achieve is rejection, mistrust, fear, and pain. This is why it must be limited to circumstances in which those kinds of responses are worth the risk of getting your point across (e.g. in an emergency).
I’ve saved until the end the passive-aggressive communication style because it is the only style which I consider “always unhealthy.” I had to think about this for a while, but I still can’t come up with a scenario in which it is healthy to be passive-aggressive. Maybe for no other reason than it is, kind of by definition, disingenuous—pretending to be passive, while actually being aggressive. Like aggression, it is also strategically kind of dumb because it so rarely gets you what you probably actually want. I mean, it might be successful in the moment. For instance, if what you want is attention to a certain issue, or to get “your way.” Passive-aggressiveness never results in conflict resolution that puts the matter behind you, though. It comes with the residue of mistrust, of indirectness, of not really getting to the issue that underlies the issue at hand.
Let’s go back to Jim and John. Jim goes upstairs, tells John he’s sorry, but could they please still go for a hike, to the river. John doesn’t want to, but concedes to avoid further conflict. He goes. They have a nice hike. John is pinched for time later. He resents it, but makes it on time to his other plans that evening. Jim resents that John didn’t really hear that it wasn’t about the hike, it was about Jim feeling like John doesn’t prioritize him. They resolved the conflict in the moment, but might have actually made things worse because they buried the issue of trust and priority by both acting like they resolved the conflict about the hike. The conflict never really was about the hike, but Jim’s behavior made it seem like it was about the hike because he didn’t want to engage in the conflict resolution about the trust and priority problem he perceived in the relationship. It is likely Jim doesn’t trust his own motivation for the conflict, he think he might be overreacting to John having other plans later in the evening, so he avoids that conflict, while still making his point.
If Jim were able to examine what is really bothering him (feeling devalued) and were able to trust himself and John enough to want to talk about it directly, they might not have had any conflict about the hike at all, and their evening would not have been spent resenting each other for what was never communicated directly. If Jim had chosen to be more direct, more assertive with John, rather than passive-aggressive, he would maybe have been able to also pinpoint the source of his insecurity, some of which may very well be justified, and then addressed by himself and also by John, resulting in real conflict resolution and greater satisfaction for both of them.
I suppose I could have called this blog post: “how to recognize and avoid passive-aggressive behaviors” because our reliance on the passive-aggressive communication style and behaviors is by far the most problematic in the conflict resolution strategies I see with couples in therapy. I am guessing this is because outright and repeated aggression quickly dissolves relationships (as it should), whereas passive-aggression can be just as problematic in its failure to actually resolve conflict, though not so immediately destructive. The thing to avoid is wanting to take a position, without wanting to take responsibility for the position you’ve taken (passive-aggressive). Moving away from the passive-aggressive style to the more healthy passive and assertive styles requires a greater self-awareness of the motivations for your responses in the moment, and whether you think you are willing to take responsibility for taking a position (assertive) or that it isn’t worth taking responsibility (passive). Moving in this direction will help you gain a stronger sense of self, a greater trust in your ability to resolve conflict, and can have an amazing healing effect toward greater understanding and mutual consideration in most relationships.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.