I heard Bill Sandoval on his Catholic radio show last week describe The Five Communication Styles, a concept explored through the work of psychologist Claire Newton. Recognizing these styles and how we tend to communicate can help us become more effective communicators with our spouse and kids, and help us guide own kids in developing more effective communication skills, especially when dealing with difficult people.
Here are the 5 styles of communication:
The aggressive communicator is demanding, abrasive, intimidating, and explosive. They tend to be very sarcastic or they threaten, blame, and insult the other person. “You are crazy.” “Don’t be stupid.” “You make me sick.” “That’s about enough out of you.” “Stop OR ELSE.” These are things an aggressive communicator might say.
Newton says, “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.”
People on the other end tend to become aggressive in return or they avoid any kind of confrontation with the aggressive person out of fear. So clearly this communication style is ineffective, because the other person actually avoids us or they want to attack us back.
Hollywood promotes aggressive communication too much and parents should be aware of it. Pay attention to the discourse in movies and popular television shows: the “hero” often has an aggressive communication style and this is portrayed as cool or admirable in some way. I’ve even seen some children’s cable television programs that portray families communicating with one another sarcastically and rudely, and too often the writers try to make it seem normal or funny.
I think many of us are drawn to empathic, gentle parenting partly because we experienced aggressive communication in our childhood and we know it is scary. Children in the long run absorb our message better if we speak to them respectfully and without threats. Teenagers often rebel against aggressive communicators.
2. Passive Aggressive
I have to say that this communication style scares me the most. Newton explains: “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.”
Passive-aggressive types can be very sugary sweet on the surface, even touching the person’s arm to communicate warmth, but they are manipulative, tend to gossip, and are two faced – they are nice to your face but spread rumors behind your back or they sabotage your efforts without you knowing it. (This sounds eerily like some behaviour in my dorm at an all-women’s college!)
I suspect that some children of aggressive parents become passive aggressive as they mature. They have to find some way to protect their sense of dignity, but they are too fearful to confront the parent or speak their mind. But when this coping strategy becomes a habit, the child is harmed even more because it affects their other relationships which could have been a source of healing and love.
Newton explains: “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.”
What Newton is talking about here is different from the self-giving love that we frequently talk about on this blog. As the heads of our domestic church, parents have to consider the vulnerability of family members in determining whose needs are met first. A young baby’s needs are more urgent than a teenager’s, because the teenager has the emotional ability to postpone getting his need met in order to meet a higher good. A baby is not cognitively capable of adjusting their own expectations or conceptualizing when their need might be met, so they become legitimately distressed when they are hungry, tired, or even bored.
Newton is talking about a person who puts the needs of another person before their own out of fear of rejection. They apologize any time they are asking for what they need, they always do what others want to do and act like what they want to do doesn’t matter, they brush off compliments, and avoid conflict at all costs. People on the other end actually end up feeling frustrated and distant from the submissive person. You can’t have true friendship with a submissive communicator.
A manipulative communicator tries to control you, but they don’t do it directly. Instead, they say things that leave you feeling guilty or sorry for them. One of my relatives had a mother-in-law who would say things like “Oh, you two go off camping. Don’t worry about me. If I have a stroke I’m sure somebody could find you to let you know . . .” This is a classic manipulative communication style. Newton explains: “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.” Of course my relative felt badly for her mother-in-law and guilty for wanting to camp with her husband, but if she canceled her trip she would in the end feel resentful toward her mother-in-law.
While toddlers rarely have tantrums that are motivated by manipulation, older children can sometimes develop manipulative tantrums. In fact, if this communication style can become a bad habit for them. They may cry in the middle of a store when asking for a treat because they know you’ll be embarrassed and give in. It’s important to guide older children in expressing their needs and desires honestly, assertively, and respectfully. We should never “give in” to manipulative tantrums.
The most effective communication style is assertive. Newton says that when we communicate assertively, “[w]e 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.”
Assertive communicators have a high self-esteem and are capable of perceiving the experiences and feelings of others. They protect their own rights and recognize that they, too, have needs, but they also consider the rights and needs of others. They ask for what they need, but they do it respectfully. For example, they would ask, “Could you please turn down the volume on the television? I am having a hard time studying” rather than screaming and cursing at the t.v. watcher (this is aggressive communication) or accidentally-on-purpose unplugging the t.v. (passive aggressive) or walking around pouting because they can’t study well (manipulative). They just ask for what they need, but they do it with a respectful tone. When you are dealing with an assertive communicator, you feel like you can trust their word and you can offer your own opinion without being attacked.
It’s interesting to note that the attributes of the assertive communicator are shared by folks who possess a secure attachment disposition. Securely-attached children and adults have self-confidence, recognize the needs and experience of others, and expect to be treated with respect. But even our securely-attached children need guidance in communicating assertively. We can give them lots of practice during conflicts with siblings and friends, and by providing a good example ourselves!
Image credit: artur84, freedigitalphotos.net