Our relationships at work are complex. Things often end up in confusion, misunderstandings, fights, and gossip—not to mention the added stress.
We all face conflict in the workplace, and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. You probably have a go-to style of your own.
Perhaps you frequently end up getting angry, or maybe you keep saying ‘Yes’ even when you feel like saying ‘No’. Maybe you choose to simply keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself and not share them with your colleagues.
But here’s the catch: with the wrong style of communication, even a petty issue can ruin a friendship. On the other hand, the right style can ensure your needs are met.
So, what are the six good and bad communication styles in the workplace?
An assertive person is neither a bully nor a pushover. It’s all about balance.
For a long time, I didn’t understand what it really meant to be assertive, so I think it would be helpful to spell out what it is and what it isn’t. Being assertive means that you care about your needs, but it doesn’t mean that you walk all over the other person. Similarly, being assertive requires you to stand up for yourself, but it doesn’t guarantee that things will always go your way.
Ultimately, assertiveness is an expression of your self-esteem and respect for your colleagues.
Assertiveness in Action
Imagine a situation in which a team member has been regularly late for meetings. Here is an example of an assertive way of dealing with the situation:
‘You have been late for the last five meetings. I feel it’s disrespectful towards your teammates. Can you please be on time from now on?’
Don’t Be Aggressive
A lot of people confuse being assertive with being aggressive.
Crucial Conversations calls aggressive behaviour ‘violence’ and describes it with these words:
We act like we know everything, hoping people will believe our arguments. We discredit others, hoping people won’t believe their arguments. And then we use every manner of force to get our way. We borrow power from the boss; we hit people with biased monologues.
Aggression, however, will not help you resolve the underlying issues, and they will keep coming up again and again. Plus, it will ruin your relationships.
If you happen to find yourself uncontrollably angry, it’s best to take a timeout to cool off. And once you are back in control of your behaviour, you can return to an assertive dialogue about the issue.
Aggression in Action
Here is an example of an aggressive way of dealing with a team member who is constantly late for meetings:
‘You’re ALWAYS late! Is this what we are paying you for?’
To be expressive means that you are willing to express the facts of the matter, along with your thought process and feelings.
The best at communication are able to speak their mind frankly, suggests Crucial Conversations, and remain completely respectful at the same time. With practice, you can learn to do it too.
The opposite of being expressive is to assume that everyone around you is a mindreader. Sadly, most people are not mindreaders. Your conclusions may be blindingly obvious to you, but others might still see things differently.
Finally, keep in mind that the goal of being expressive isn’t to force a particular outcome, but to communicate what is on your mind.
Expressiveness in Action
Here is an example of an expressive way of dealing with a team member who is constantly late for meetings:
‘You have been late for the last five meetings. I worry that you may be missing out on important discussions and updates. Plus, it sets a bad example for your colleagues. I want you to be on time from now on’.
Don’t Be a People-Pleaser
People-pleasers know all about the pain caused by anger and aggression, and they have come to the desperate conclusion that all conflict is bad.
In The Disease to Please, the psychologist Harriet Braiker tells us that people-pleasing ‘is not about nice people who occasionally go too far in trying to make others happy’. On the contrary, it is about people who would go to any length to be liked by everyone, including sacrificing their personalities and values. It makes them say ‘Yes’ to every request and never voice their true opinion about anything.
People-pleasing will eventually lead you to resentment and one-sided relationships. (I know, because I’ve been there.)
The truth is that there is nothing evil about conflicts. ‘[A]ll relationships—both good and bad—are characterized by the occurrence of conflict’, writes Braiker. ‘The key difference lies in how conflicts are handled.’
You can handle your conflicts in a constructive way by being assertive and expressive.
People-Pleasing in Action
When faced with a team member who is constantly late, a people-pleaser will not say anything at all. She will keep her concerns to herself until the problem gets too severe to ignore any longer.
In a lecture, the social psychologist Matthew Lieberman tells us one of the fundamental principles of his subject: we often don’t know why people do what they do.
That’s why empathy is so helpful. To be empathetic all you need to do is invite the other person to share his point of view. Sure, his views may be wildly different from your own, but that’s okay. The intention is simply to understand why he is acting the way he is—you don’t necessarily have to agree with him.
Crucial Conversations points out the importance of ‘safety’ in such situations: people will only share their views if they are feeling safe. If they feel threatened, however, they will either become aggressive or withdraw from the conversation.
Empathy in Action
Here is an example of an empathetic way of dealing with a team member who is constantly late for meetings:
‘You have been late for the last five meetings. I am worried about you—is everything alright?’
Don’t Be Passive-Aggressive
Crucial Conversations calls passive-aggressive behaviour ‘silence’ and describes it with these words: ‘[W]e rely on hints, sarcasm, innuendo, and looks of disgust to make our points. . . . Afraid to confront an individual, we blame an entire team for a problem—hoping the message will hit the right target.’
Acting in this way won’t lead to change or a positive outcome. You will only make the people around you confused and hurt.
An out-of-control people-pleasing habit can ultimately lead to passive-aggression. As resentment starts to build, you will start to show your unhappiness in indirect ways.
As you are aware by now, the antidote to being passive-aggressive is to be assertive, expressive, and empathetic, instead.
Passive-Aggression in Action
Here is an example of a passive-aggressive way of dealing with a team member who is constantly late for meetings:
‘Wow! You’re only ten minutes late today’.
Over to You
Don’t worry if you find yourself using some of the bad styles of communication from time to time. We all make mistakes when it comes to difficult conversations. The point is to be aware of our mistakes so that we can do better in the future.
One last time, here are the three good communication styles in the workplace: be assertive, be expressive, and be empathetic.
As you would have noticed, I’ve referred to Crucial Conversations several times—it’s one of my favourite books. It has many ideas that I haven’t covered here, so I recommend that you read the book as well.