Types of communication styles leaders should know about

By Simpplr Marketing
Communication styles - male and female employee collaborating and communicating with each other
Communication styles are not innate. We are not born with them—we learn them. If you would like to learn how to communicate better at work or at home, or if you would like to teach employees, managers, or leaders how to use better communication styles to ease tension and inspire confidence, you can do that.

This article will walk you through a few of the most common types of communication styles, including how to recognize them, concrete examples, and how to work with people who tend to skew toward each one in their personal communication style.

What is a communication style?

A communication style is a unique combination of verbal habits and nonverbal cues that defines the overall approach and manner in which an individual communicates with others. It encompasses a person’s tone, body language, facial expressions, choice of words, level of formality, and other factors that influence the way someone conveys information, expresses emotions, and engages in conversation.

We tend to think of a person’s communication style as an ingrained aspect of that individual’s personality—as though an aggressive communicator is an aggressive person by nature, or a passive communicator is simply a passive person. But this is not necessarily the case.

While communication styles do tend to match other aspects of a human being’s personality, an aggressive communication style or a passive communication style is simply a learned behavior that has become a habit. This is especially important for teams because communication styles can be the glue that holds a cohesive team together or the source of conflict that rips it apart.

Why are communication styles important?

Imagine a work team of five people. One person has an assertive communication style. Another communicates aggressively. The third doesn’t like aggression, so he starts giving her the silent treatment. The fourth person reacts to the tension with sarcasm. The fifth person is triggered by sarcasm, so they start trying to undermine that person’s position on the team.

Given just one aspect of each person’s behavior—their communication style—the team is falling apart. In fact, when people say they don’t like someone’s personality, what they often mean is that they don’t like their communication style. If we think someone is hard to work with, what we often mean is that their style of communication is hard to work with.

Different individuals have different communication skills and styles. Understanding and adapting to these styles is the key to building healthy relationships—both personal and professional.

Effective communication styles can help avoid misunderstandings, conflicts, and misinterpretations, leading to better collaboration, productivity, and overall success at work and at home. Being aware of communication styles also helps us become more empathetic and understanding of others, enhancing our ability to connect and build rapport with different types of people.

5 Basic communication styles

Although communication styles are learned, not innate, different personality types tend toward particular styles of communication. People may also favor one style over another when feeling stressed, when dealing with certain people, or when faced with certain situations. The more you know about the different types, the better you’ll be at managing interpersonal relationships, both personally and professionally.

Effective communicators know how to interpret and manage different types of communication styles to ease tensions, inspire confidence, and steer conversations toward understanding and collaboration.

1. Assertive communication

Assertive communication involves expressing your thoughts, feelings, and opinions in a clear and respectful manner. It allows you to advocate for yourself and your needs while considering the needs of others. Assertive communicators are confident, direct, and open to feedback. This style is highly effective in negotiations, problem-solving, and building trust.

While some people maintain assertive communication in most situations, others may only be assertive communicators in situations that make them feel safe or with people they trust.

How to recognize an assertive communication style:

  • Calm, relaxed tone of voice
  • Steady, even speaking pace with natural variations
  • Range of emotion that feels appropriate to the conversation
  • Relaxed, open posture

How assertive communicators make others feel:

  • Calm and confident—in both themselves and in the other person
  • Safe to be honest and express conflicting opinions
  • Heard, understood, and respected

When to use it:

Use an assertive communication style as often as you can. Assertive communicators tend to make other people feel safe and lead teams into calm, easy collaboration.

How to do it:

Assertive communicators show respect to both themselves and others. They set reasonable boundaries and expectations, and they try to help others without dismantling the boundaries they’ve set.

Example: A colleague asks you to meet during the only unscheduled hour you have all day, and you have a report due that will take an hour to complete—that “free” hour isn’t really free.

❌ “Sure. I’ll just work late. It’s fine.” (This is not assertive communication because it fails to set a clear boundary.)

❌ “Are you kidding? That’s the only hour I have!” (This is not assertive communication because it fails to consider the other person’s feelings.)

✅ “I’m sorry, Jim. I know this meeting is important, but I just don’t have time today. You know what, though—you can ask Terry if our 3:00 meeting can wait until tomorrow. If we can push that one, then you could have that time.”

This sets a clear boundary while also trying to work with the other person to solve their needs too.

How to work with someone using this style:

The best way to respond to an assertive communication style is to adopt the same style yourself. The more people make the effort to communicate in a calm, assertive style, the more those around them will match that behavior, leading to professional relationships of trust, creativity, and collaboration.

2. Aggressive communication

Aggressive communication is an ineffective form of communication as it involves expressing thoughts and feelings in a forceful and demanding manner. Aggressive communicators often disregard the feelings and perspectives of others, resulting in conflicts and strained relationships. This style can be intimidating and unproductive, as it focuses on winning rather than finding mutually beneficial solutions.

How to recognize an aggressive communication style:

  • Loud, domineering tone of voice
  • Fast, speaking pace
  • Emotion feels angry or stressed
  • Body language and facial expressions display hostility

How aggressive communicators make others feel:

  • Fight or flight mode: angry, intimidated, nervous, or frightened
  • Defensive
  • Disrespected or even bullied

When to use it:

There are very few times when an aggressive style is appropriate, especially in the workplace, but people may not always realize they’re coming across that way. Some cultures stand closer than others, for example, which can feel like an invasion of personal space. Other cultures tolerate more interruptions or more overt emotional outbursts.

How to handle it:

If someone is adopting an aggressive style, the best way to respond is usually with calm assertion. Remember, aggression may be masking underlying fear or stress. Do not match their tone, and do not shy away from it. Instead, lead the conversation to a calmer place.

Example: Your team is discussing a new product concept, and an argument breaks out. One person loves the idea, but the other is shaking their head dismissively. “No!” they say loudly. “We can’t do that! It’s a terrible idea! Terrible!”

❌ “Calm down and hear them out! We’re just trying to talk about it!” (This matches their aggressive tone instead of applying calm assertion.)

❌ “Okay, okay. Look, it’s fine. We won’t do it.” (This shies away from the aggression, attempting to pacify them by giving in instead of responding with calm assertion.)

✅ “Okay, I hear you. I hear the stress, and I hear the frustration. Tell me why you’re feeling that way. Let’s talk about it. What, specifically, are you concerned about?”

When stated calmly, in an even pace and tone, this kind of response will make the other person feel heard without giving in to the aggression. It is curious rather than reactive, leading the conversation toward a more productive path.

How to work with someone using this style:

In many cases, verbal aggression will need to be met with calm assertion several times before the situation is defused. If you start feeling triggered yourself, acknowledge the feeling inwardly, but don’t let it change your behavior. Hold your ground and continue to emote calm confidence.

Remember, they might not even know that they’re coming off aggressively. Ask about their specific concerns—to turn the conversation from yes-no into a more nuanced discussion of opportunities and issues—and be sure to give others the floor as well so everyone on the team has a voice in the conversation.

3. Passive communication

Passive communication is characterized by a reluctance to express personal thoughts and feelings. Passive communicators avoid conflict at any cost, suppressing their own needs, and prioritizing the needs of others. This style, also known as a submissive communication style, often leads to misunderstandings and unmet expectations, especially in the workplace. While it may reduce conflict in the short run, passive communication can undermine trust and collaboration in a team that doesn’t know how to recognize and address it.

How to recognize a passive communication style:

  • Quiet, soft tone of voice
  • Overly apologetic
  • Tend to look down, hunch, and avoid eye contact
  • Body language expresses hesitance or submission

How passive communicators make others feel:

  • Confident in the short run—because others are being told what they want to hear
  • Frustrated in the long run due to unmet expectations
  • Guilty or frustrated that the workload is not being distributed fairly—passive communicators take on too much

When to use it:

The passive or submissive communication style can sometimes defuse anger in a hostile situation, especially if it is used well—and sparingly. For day-to-day work, passive communication tends to cause more problems than it solves. Because some families and cultures expect or even demand submissive behavior, passive communicators often feel significant anxiety about the idea of speaking up or communicating more assertively.

How to handle it:

When working with a passive communicator, you’ll need to reassure them often, through both words and actions, that it’s okay for them to disagree and that it’s safe for them to set boundaries.

Example: An executive meets with your team and asks for a volunteer to take on a difficult project. When no one replies for a few moments, the passive communicator says, “I guess I could do it,” but you know their workload is too high for that to be realistic.

❌ “Okay, great.” (This leaves the team in a bad situation. A workload that’s too high will result in expectations that aren’t met or the overloaded worker becoming disengaged—or both.)

❌ “No. You don’t have time for that.” (This is likely to make the passive communicator feel that they look wrong or foolish in front of the others, driving them even further into their shell.)

✅ “Thank you for volunteering, but I think we need to talk it over as a team. You’re doing a lot of important work right now, some of it with critical deadlines. We’ll look at everyone’s workload and figure out the best way to distribute the work.”

A reply like this lets you move the conversation to a different time, when the executive isn’t present, while making the passive communicator feel seen, appreciated, and safe.

How to work with someone using this style:

The most important thing when working with a passive communicator is to be patient. Give them gentle encouragement and plenty of time to learn that it’s okay to set boundaries and that it’s safe to share their ideas.

4. Passive-aggressive communication

Passive-aggressive communication is a combination of both passive and aggressive styles. It involves indirect expressions of anger, resentment, and frustration. Passive-aggressive communicators may use sarcasm, subtle insults, or nonverbal cues to convey their displeasure. They may also choose to air their grievances indirectly, complaining to one person about someone else. This style can create tension, confusion, and a lack of trust within relationships.

How to recognize a passive-aggressive communication style:

  • Sarcasm and a biting sense of humor
  • Aggressive comments that are disguised as humor
  • Complaining to people who can’t help address the situation
  • Refusing help when it’s offered, despite their complaints

How passive-aggressive communicators make others feel:

  • Attacked and confused—because the attacks are subtle rather than overt
  • Unsettled—because behavior tends to switch between friendliness and jabs
  • Frustrated—because clear, direct communication can be hard to establish

When to use it:

The passive-aggressive communication style is almost never appropriate in either personal or professional relationships. People who communicate this way would usually like to be more direct, but they don’t feel comfortable setting clear boundaries or sharing ideas openly.

How to handle it:

The best way to manage passive-aggressive communication is to respond to the underlying concern with direct, assertive communication.

Example: You tell your team that you’re installing new tools that should help the team raise productivity by at least 25%. One of your team members responds by saying, “Oh, sure. That sounds fantastic. Why don’t we just double our production while we’re at it? I mean, who needs sleep, right?”

❌ “Ha ha, you’re such a kidder.” (This fails to address the underlying concern being expressed.)

❌ “You know, I’m sick and tired of your attitude.” (This is aggressive communication rather than calm, assertive communication.)

✅ “I hear your concern, and I want you to know that I’m not setting 25% as a goal. I’ve seen other teams have real success, and I’m hoping the increase in productivity can ease our workload on day-to-day tasks, giving us more room to breathe in our production schedules.”

Addressing the underlying concern directly encourages the team to state concerns directly and ask questions.

How to work with someone using this style:

Remember that passive-aggressive communicators feel a lot like passive communicators internally—they don’t feel comfortable communicating directly. Encourage them to set reasonable boundaries and express their concerns more directly, but expect the process to take time.

5. Manipulative communication

Manipulative communication uses deceptive or manipulative tactics to influence or control others. It leverages emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping, withholding information, and similar behaviors to gain power or advantage. Manipulative communication can be harmful and damaging—it undermines trust, creates confusion, and can lead to unhealthy personal or team dynamics.

How to recognize a manipulative communication style:

  • Changing opinions depending on who is present
  • Lying about their own behavior
  • May use exaggerated body language and facial expressions
  • Tend to speak adamantly, especially when denying something they said or did previously

How manipulative communicators make others feel:

  • Confused by rapid changes in opinions and behavior
  • Frustrated and angry once the manipulation is recognized
  • Cautious and guarded when communicating with them

When to use it:

The manipulative style is not recommended. This personal style is often used by people with high emotional intelligence who have found effective ways to get what they want by manipulating other people’s opinions and emotions.

How to handle it:

A manipulative style can be one of the toughest personal styles to work with. Remaining calm and approaching them directly is your best chance of altering that behavior.

Example: You’ve been asked to work on a project with a colleague who keeps refusing to schedule time with you. Now, the deadline is looming. Instead of scheduling a work session, they ask you to put something together for their approval, implying that you need to do it because your manager is going to be upset with you if the project isn’t finished on time.

❌ “Fine. I’ll send you something tomorrow.” (This does not address the manipulative behavior and does not set the reasonable boundaries you need.)

❌ “You’re the one who won’t schedule time with me. You do it.” (This is not calm, assertive communication. It reacts from an emotional place and escalates the potential conflict.)

✅ “I agree that the deadline is getting close. We were asked to work on this together, and we need to schedule a working session. When can you meet?”

If they continue to refuse, repeat yourself calmly and firmly until they agree. Manipulative communicators are not used to people simply standing up to them with calm, assertive behavior, making this your best chance of success.

How to work with someone using this style:

One of the best things you can do when faced with a manipulative communicator is to put your conversations and agreements in writing and include other people, whether it’s an email chain or a series of direct messages. If they agree to do something verbally, a thank-you email confirming their agreement makes it much harder for them to change their position. Don’t back down, and don’t let them get under your skin. Maintain a calm, assertive demeanor and be willing to address their behavior directly.

Advice on developing a flexible communication approach

Understanding these different communication styles can help you adapt your approach depending on the situation and the individuals involved. While calm, assertive communication is almost always the best option, an aggressive communicator might require a firm tone and stance while a passive communicator needs a gentle one.

Developing effective communication skills is an ongoing process that requires self-awareness, empathy, and practice. By recognizing and utilizing different communication styles, you can enhance your ability to connect, collaborate, and succeed in both personal and professional settings.

Tips to improve your communication style

Listen actively

Be fully present in your work and personal relationships, taking care to listen attentively when others are trying to communicate. Pay attention to the verbal conversation as well as nonverbal cues, and ask open-ended questions that show your interest.

Engage in honest communication

This doesn’t mean you should say everything you think the moment you think it, but it’s best not to lie to people either. Be truthful in your communication while thinking about how to be kind in presenting what you’d like to say.

Cultivate confidence

Everyone, no matter how shy or inexperienced, can learn to be a calm, assertive communicator. If you tend toward passive communication, start building the habit of setting boundaries, even if they’re small ones at first. If you’re seen as aggressive, start by opening up your posture and speaking more softly.

Practice, practice, practice

Like any other learned behavior, adopting a new communication style takes practice. It’s natural to stumble a bit and return to old habits, especially when you’re under stress. Expect that, and don’t give up. If you stick with it, building a new habit is just a matter of time.

How Simpplr can help

Changing your own communication habits or transforming a small team is one thing, but helping employee communication evolve across a large organization takes a different level of intervention. You need a tool that’s designed for managing corporate culture at scale.

Simpplr’s intranet platform can help you build and maintain a cooperative, collaborative culture across your entire enterprise—one that celebrates healthy communication and gives everyone a voice. Bring employees together across time zones and silos with a modern, digital workplace. Learn more about our modern intranet.

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