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We need to talk (about communication styles in the workplace)

August 25, 2022 - 16 min read


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Why learn the different communication styles?

What are business communication styles?

The 4 types of communication styles (and how to talk to them)

Master your workplace communication style

It’s too easy to misinterpret an email. 

You spend an hour carefully crafting your message so the recipient understands what you’re asking them. You pick the right punctuation to avoid sounding rude while conveying the task’s urgency. Satisfied with what you’ve written, you click “Send.”

A few minutes later, they reply. And they completely missed your point.

Communicating effectively at work can feel like a balancing act. The message sent isn’t always the message received, and how a person hears you often depends on their communication style.

This is true whether you’re leading a team from home or in person. If you’re communicating primarily through email or Slack, you must carefully construct your message with the perfect words and proper punctuation to avoid miscommunication.

And, as the world slowly returns to in-person work, you may have to re-learn how to deal with difficult team members when you can’t hide behind your screen.

Understanding the communication styles in the workplace can help you get the most out of your team. Here’s everything you need to know. 


Why learn the different communication styles?

If you want the most effective communication style in the workplace, be adaptable. Read other people’s behaviors, practice emotional intelligence, and meet your team members where they are.

This will help you in a few ways:

  • It encourages a healthy work environment. Adapting to your staff’s communication styles will contribute to a positive work culture. Everyone feels heard and performs at their best in these environments.
  • It reduces conflict. Understanding the different types of communication will make you more conscientious of other people’s feelings and prevent potential misunderstandings. This helps reduce frustration for all parties involved.
  • It makes you a better leader. Leadership is all about self-awareness and adaptation. If you’re aware of your communication style and learn to adapt to others, you’ll position yourself as a skilled team leader.
  • It boosts employee engagement. Whether making small talk or setting project timelines, your personal style can help people feel comfortable and included.

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What are business communication styles?

Communication styles shouldn’t be confused with communication types. 

A communication type is the physical aspect of sending a message, such as tone of voice or non-verbal communication, like body language. Even with friendly, welcoming words, crossing your arms or speaking in a firm voice can communicate aggression. 

A communication style, on the other hand, refers to the more abstract qualities of communication. It’s how a person responds emotionally to a message, sets their boundaries, or shares ideas. It’s the energy someone has when talking to others, underlying all their interactions.

These characteristics speak to the importance of communication styles in the workplace. Some people are comfortable speaking up in meetings and making quick decisions. Others prefer more time to think before committing to a course of action. You have to adapt if you want to benefit from all of them.

Adapting your personal communication style takes work and self-reflection. Talk it through with BetterUp. Our coaches can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses to sharpen your communication skills.

The 4 types of communication styles (and how to talk to them)

Reading people’s communication styles can be difficult. People don’t usually advertise it on their foreheads, so it’s up to you to look for social clues.


Everyone will have their own needs and preferences when working with others. But as a rule of thumb, most people will identify with one of four different styles of communication:

  • Passive
  • Aggressive
  • Passive-Aggressive
  • Assertive

Sometimes, though, you might switch between communication styles depending on the situation. Here’s how you can identify and interact with each.

1. Passive communication style

Passive communicators tend to be quiet and don’t actively seek attention. They rarely take a stance and assert themselves, share their feelings, or express their needs. Their lack of communication makes it difficult to know whether they’re uncomfortable or need help.

Look for these traits to identify a passive communicator. Usually, they:

  • Say yes to everything. This can be particularly harmful if they’re endorsing a bad idea or taking on more work than they can handle.
  • Appear easy-going. Sometimes, this laissez-faire attitude is genuine. Other times, it masks discomfort, concern, or anxiety.
  • Avoid eye contact. There are many possible reasons for this. But often, it’s due to shyness or discomfort around loud, assertive people.
  • Are apologetic. This could be a sign of social anxiety. Anxious people often believe they’re in the wrong, so they’re more likely to apologize for minor things.
  • Fidget. This might include foot-tapping, twirling a pen in their fingers, or constantly readjusting themselves in their seat.
  • Speak softly. Although this doesn’t always mean they’re passive, being soft-spoken is a common indicator of passive communicators. They often can’t compete in a room filled with loud people.

Consider these methods when speaking with a passive communicator:

  • Focus on one-on-one interactions. Private conversations are usually more comfortable for passive communicators. Group settings may cause greater discomfort for them.
  • Address them directly. Allow them to speak since they won’t seek that opportunity themselves. Try to make them feel confident.
  • Use open questions. Avoid “yes” or “no” questions, as they’ll likely answer you with little elaboration. Keep your questions open-ended and give them plenty of time to answer.

2. Aggressive communication style


Aggressive communicators love dominating a conversation. Without realizing it, they often express their thoughts and feelings without hesitation — maybe even at the expense of others. They may also react before thinking, causing tension, conflict, and low productivity in the workplace.

Watch out for aggressive characteristics such as:

  • Interrupting others who are speaking. When an aggressive communicator is in the room, others can barely get a sentence in.
  • Lack of respect or awareness for personal space. They’ll force people out of the way by pushing through or standing uncomfortably close. They might get too excited or emphatic and encroach on your personal space.
  • Aggressive body language. They may cross their arms, place their hands on their hips, or make forceful hand gestures. 
  • Intense eye contact. They can use direct, piercing glances to intimidate others. They may also look at you expectantly, waiting for you to agree to what they want. Even if they don’t mean to, an intense gaze can make people uncomfortable. 

Here’s how to deal with aggressive communicators:

  • Be calm but assertive. Control the tone of the conversation. Focus on the issues and try not to feel defensive or escalate the conversation into an argument.
  • Keep things professional. Be wary of emotional language or personal grudges. Steer the conversation away from emotionally charged topics and focus on the big picture.
  • Walk away if you have to. If the aggressor becomes too demanding and the conversation stops being productive, you’re free to walk away and try again when they’ve calmed down.

3. Passive-aggressive communication style

Passive-aggressive people might appear agreeable at first. But behind your back, they’ll quietly manipulate situations to benefit them or say things with double meanings. They may also try to hide their true feelings when speaking to you or influence you through guilt-tripping or gaslighting.


Pay attention to passive-aggressive communicators’ cues, such as: 

  • Sarcasm. Their words sound agreeable, but their tone suggests dissatisfaction, condescension, or general disagreement.
  • Denial. They may deny any number of things, including their involvement in a mistake or whether an issue is truly something to worry about.
  • Pretending to be happy when they’re not. If something doesn’t go their way, they may say they’re fine. But then they’ll give you the silent treatment for the rest of the week, indicating a layer of aggression they skillfully hid.

Here’s how you can adapt:

  • Make clear and specific requests. Try not to leave room for misinterpretation. Otherwise, they may twist your words against you.
  • Confront their negative behavior. Set up a private meeting and call out their behavior. Follow-up with a manager if the behavior still doesn’t improve.
  • Welcome their feedback. Taking the high road might be difficult, but it could open the door to an honest conversation. Ask for feedback and give them space to air their grievances.

4. Assertive communication style

An assertive style is the most effective communication style in leadership and across teams. People in this category share their thoughts confidently but always kindly and respectfully.

They aren’t afraid of challenging themselves or setting healthy boundaries at work. They are also intuitive communicators, making others feel comfortable and facilitating productive discussions.

Here are some common assertive behaviors:

  • Collaborating, sharing, and motivating: They happily share their ideas but always end by asking, “What do you think?” They naturally cultivate healthy interpersonal relationships.
  • Friendly eye contact. They use eye contact to read facial expressions and make a connection with their conversation partner.
  • Open body language. They seem relaxed but not slouching. They face the people they’re talking to. They use active listening and offer affirming nods.

You don’t have to “deal” with assertive people. Rather, you should:

  • Encourage them to share their ideas. They’re a positive voice of the team. Give them space to communicate their thoughts.
  • Put them in leadership positions. These are the folks who will inspire and carry your team. They can also help you communicate with your passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive colleagues.


Master your workplace communication style

The workplace is filled with many types of personalities and communication styles. As a leader, it’s your job to adapt to their different styles of communication and ensure everyone has a voice. 

Some will be more difficult to deal with than others. You'll often feel frustrated when they’re passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive. In these moments, it’s important to take the high road. When you keep your cool, you encourage everyone else to reach your level instead of stooping down to theirs.

And, if you’re fortunate enough to have a star on your team, tell them how much you value them. Help them shine. At the end of the day, they’re your biggest allies when trying to get people on your side.

For more communication styles in the workplace training, try working with BetterUp. Our coaches are here to support your pursuit of excellence and help you sharpen your skills to become the best version of yourself.

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Published August 25, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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