Passive, Assertive, Aggressive: How to Tell the Difference

Communication StylesWe hear the term passive-aggressive tossed about on a fairly regular basis. It is usually used to describe people who back-handedly get their point across using sarcasm or sharp words. In communication, passive-aggressive is only one form of speaking on a continuum. People converse in one or a combination of three main types of communication: passive, aggressive, or assertive.

Passive communication: This is a form of communication in which the person does not share his or her wants, needs, desires, or opinions. Here are a few examples of passive communication. A man orders a steak medium well and it arrives at the table medium rare. He cuts into the steak and as it bleeds on the plate and the waitress asks him if everything is to his liking he says, “Yes, things are fine.” Another example is when a girl is going out with a guy for the first time and he asks, “Where would you like to eat?” She knows she doesn’t want to eat Italian (spaghetti is too messy for a first date), but when he suggests Olive Garden, she says, “Sure! That’s fine.” Each example shows a person who has an opinion who doesn’t share it, for whatever reason. This is passive communication. We also see it every day when we’re walking by someone we know and we say, “How are you?” and they answer, “Fine.” Are they really fine? Many times there are things going on we don’t even know about and yet the person tells us things are fine.  While we can’t usually spill the beans about our recent cancer diagnosis or depression on the sidewalk between appointments, our common answer of, “Fine” is a form of passive communication masking the truth. The problem with passive communication is it leaves you feeling as if your opinion doesn’t matter and you do not have a voice. It can lead to the build-up of resentment and trains other people to treat you like a doormat.

Aggressive communication: This is a form of communication opposite on the spectrum in which a person shares his/her wants, needs, desires, or opinions at the expense of someone else’s wants, needs, desires, or opinions or right to be treated humanely. Let’s examine the first example above. The man gets an undercooked steak and the waitress asks him how he likes his meal. He explodes, yelling at the waitress about her inadequacies regarding remembering his order and demanding that he get a free meal because of the horrible service and incompetent wait staff. That’s aggressive. Let’s think of another example. Your roommate is a slob and you’ve asked him five times to wash his dirty dishes in the sink and take out the trash in his bedroom. The apartment is beginning to smell like a landfill. He comes home from work and flops down on the couch, excited to have “an evening with nothing to do.” You erupt, going into a tirade about how lazy he is and how he must be a pig to be comfortable to sleep in a room with that stench coming from under his bed. The problem with aggressive communication is it very rarely solves problems. Usually, after verbal explosions, there are hurt feelings, walls are built in relationships, and the problem resurfaces later. People learn to avoid others who are aggressive because they don’t want to get caught in the line of fire. Those who are aggressive may feel better in the moment (they have a voice and have let their needs, wants, and desires be known), but they often lose relationships and may have difficulty making new ones.

Passive-Aggressive Communication: This is a combination of the two previously outlined communication styles. It is often characterized by sarcasm or “joking,” but it often has a kernel of truth embedded in it that can sting or cause you to question the real meaning of the comments. It is passive, because the person’s opinion, wants, or needs are not shared directly-they are hidden. It is aggressive because the opinion, wants, and needs are often conveyed through biting sarcasm or flippant comments that can be hurtful to the person on the receiving end. This form of communication can have both hazardous effects of passive and aggressive communication. It can make the person using this communication style feel as if they don’t really have a voice and it can put distance in relationships because people become suspicious about the person’s underlying meaning in their words.

The best way to communicate with others is by using Assertive Communication. This form of communication is characterized by honesty and a direct approach. Let’s take the example of the man with the undercooked steak. An assertive response to the waitress’ query would be to say, “I’m afraid my steak is undercooked. I asked for it medium well and there is too much pink for me. Would you please take it back and have the chef cook it a bit longer?” The needs and desires are stated, but not at the expense of the feelings or self-worth of the waitress. Let’s consider the example with the messy roommate. Rather than coming unglued, an assertive response could be, “The dirty dishes in the sink and the trash in your bedroom are causing the entire apartment to start to stink. Tonight, would you please take care of those things?” The problem is stated and a solution is requested.

For some, asking the waitress to take back the steak and requesting the roommate clean up seem “too nice.” However, this should be the first approach and it suggests a solution. By using this technique, odds are the problem will be solved in a congenial manner. If you demand something of someone else, it may cause them to be defensive and boarders on aggressive communication. If this approach doesn’t solve the problem, further steps could be taken. The man with the undercooked steak could request to see a manager and quietly and firmly ask for a refund of his meal. The clean roommate could decide to calmly tell his messy roommate that if he doesn’t begin to clean up after himself that the search for a new roommate will begin.

For some, the assertive communication feel to forward. When we have been wronged by someone, it is hard for many of us to speak up for ourselves. However, with practice, it becomes easier, we are happier, and the people around us are usually relieved to learn what it is we really want and need in a healthy fashion. It actually ends up putting others at ease because they know what to expect. Give assertive communication a try next time you’re in a situation in which you need to make your needs known. You might be surprised!

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