Resource: Communication Styles

One of the most effective ways to get what you need is to give it – to your partner, to the people in your life and to yourself especially. When you meet your own needs for yourself (as much as possible) then you are better able to receive what the other person is giving to you and the way it is shared. Check out the love languages for some perspective on the different ways your partner may express love and observe your tendencies too. You don’t have to really do a whole lot here, just get a better understanding of your couple dynamics. It’s a lifetime practice!

There are 4 main communication styles that a partner can exhibit:

1. Assertive
If there’s an ideal communication style this is it. It’s the sweet spot between submissive and aggressive. Not surprisingly this style isn’t used as often as the others.

2. Aggressive
With this style, you’re focused on “winning” by all means necessary. This means the other person’s feelings are disregarded.

3. Passive
A passive communicator avoids conflict and wants to keep the peace. They’re hesitant to speak up or give their opinion.

4. Passive-Aggressive
The passive-aggressive communication style is displayed by showing anger in an indirect way. The person is trying to harness control by using sarcasm or by using the “silent treatment”.

Solutions for different communication styles

Different communication styles in relationships only become a problem when partners don’t understand their differences and fail to accommodate one another. But partners can absolutely learn to relate more positively. Here are some tips:

1. Choose to interpret the problem as a problem with communication styles.It’s easy to make assumptions about your partner’s intentions or blame them for dealing with issues differently. Try not to assume negative intentions like “she’s attacking me” or “he’s always abandoning me.” Rather, try to view what’s happening as a simple difference in communication style.

2. If your partner has a “hot” conflict style, let them know you’re truly interested in talking about things, and that if you’re taking time out right now, it’s not because you don’t want to resolve the issue, but because you need to think about it and cool down. (And to prevent the conflict from escalating, be sure to get back to them when you say you will.) If you need to stop the conversation, say something that shows you care—for example, “I love you and I’m sure we’ll find a way to resolve this.”

3. If your partner has a “cold” style, give them more time and space. After you say your piece, let them take time to think about it for a few minutes and only then respond. Understand that they might need time to get to what’s really bothering them. Don’t immediately continue to talk or make your next point. Take it one point at a time, and be sure to monitor your tone of voice and speed. If things get too heated, they will back away—and if they do, apologize and take a minute to regroup before moving on.

4. Stretch your comfort zone a little. It’s useful for both partners to acknowledge their partner’s style of communicating and to make allowances for this. If you’re the “hot” partner, try to tolerate a little more “coolness” by slowing things down and taking a breath. Allow your partner the space they ask for. On the other hand, the “cold” partner can try to tolerate a bit more “heat.” Perhaps you can try dealing with the issue as it arises (a good start is to identify your own feelings) and allow for a little intensity in your partner.

5. Use more structured conversation. When you’re finding yourselves in an argument, try to turn it into a conversation. This will help you both feel more heard, which will already go a long way toward the resolution you both need.

Examples of Ineffective Communication

Mark is hurt and angry because Beth ignored him at a party, even after he asked her to stick with him since he didn’t know anyone.

  1. Passive-aggressive: “I’ll show her how it feels. I’ll ignore her at my work party next week,” Mark decides.
  2. Aggressive: Mark walks up to Beth during the party and says quietly, but in an enraged tone, “You are so self-centered! I’m never going to another party with you again.”
  3. Sarcastic: As soon as Beth gets into the car to drive home, Mark says angrily, “Well, I hope you had fun at that party because I sure didn’t.”


Passive-aggressive actions are actually not so much communication as retaliation. Mark thinks his tit-for-tat approach will teach Beth a lesson, but it will not.

When Mark ignores Beth at his work party one week later, chances are high that Beth will never connect Mark’s party behavior to her own. But, even if she does, she will resent him for it.

Passive aggression is essentially trying to make a right out of two wrongs, but over time this method simply weighs down the relationship with negativity.


In the aggressive example, Mark communicates in an accusing and attacking way, and his timing to do so is poor. His words, tone, and choice to speak his mind during the party all ensure that Beth will not want to do anything to fix the problem. Instead, she will feel attacked, hurt, and possibly embarrassed. Mark’s needs will, unfortunately, be even further thwarted.


In the sarcastic example, Mark waits until it’s too late for Beth to fix the problem in the moment by changing her behavior. He does not communicate his feelings directly or with care.

Sarcasm is like a jab that comes at you from the side. Beth will feel accused and attacked, and her defenses will immediately rise. And once Beth’s defenses are up, Mark’s message is lost.

The Worst Thing About Ineffective Communication

If you recognize even just a little bit of yourself or your partner in these examples, you can safely conclude that one or both of you did not learn effective communication skills in your childhood home.

As a therapist who specializes in the effects of childhood emotional neglect, I do see that, without a doubt, the communication of many, many couples is affected greatly by the way emotions were addressed in their childhood homes.

Some families address the feelings of their members openly and directly and display comfort with discussing problems and emotions. Others are deeply uncomfortable, or completely unaware of, the feelings of their members. These emotionally neglectful families fail to teach their children the vital emotion communication skills they will need to have a happy marriage.

If you or your partner grew up in an emotionally neglectful family, there is a high likelihood that your marriage is being held back by a lack of communication skills. In addition to being frustrating and divisive, there is one more less-recognized negative result of ineffective communication: Your messages, your feelings, and your needs go unheard. So, they will likely not be fulfilled.

Examples of Good Communication Skills

Mark is hurt and angry because Beth ignored him at a party, even after he asked her to stick with him since he didn’t know anyone.

  1. Mark puts his hand on Beth’s shoulder at the party and whispers into her ear, “Remember, I don’t know anyone here. Don’t forget to stick with me.”
  2. Mark waits until they are driving home and then says, “I thought we were going to stick together at the party tonight, Beth. What happened?”

In the first example, Mark communicates perfectly. He expresses his needs to Beth while they are still at the party, which allows her to fix the problem in real time. He does it in a nonblaming way by simply reminding her. In this way, he is not only giving her the benefit of the doubt (that she’s not purposely ignoring him), but he also reminds her in a way that will make her want to solve the problem.

In the second example, Beth does not have the opportunity to fix the problem at the party. But Mark is still communicating in a nonblaming, nonaggressive way.

Asking questions is an excellent way to avoid accusing the other person. It also gives your partner a chance to explain themselves. And it opens the problem up for conversation, as opposed to setting up an automatic angry or defensive clash. Because, as I said before, the second your partner’s defenses are up, you have lost their ability to attend to your feelings or needs.

The Best Thing About Effective Communication

When it comes to good communication skills, there are many advantages. Not only do they help you be honest with each other, but they also enable you to constantly get to know each other better, even if you have been together for 20 years.

And, just like poor skills, there is one more thing that most people forget about: When you say things in the right way so that your partner can hear them, you have the opportunity to get what you want and need.

If you or your partner grew up in an emotionally neglectful family and did not have the opportunity to learn these skills, it’s important to realize that it’s never too late. As long as you are capable of learning, you can develop them.

Conflict is inevitable in any intimate relationship. However, couples differ greatly in the way they communicate with their partners during conflicts.

In the case of happy couples, each person likely states their case firmly but respectfully, and they also listen to what their partner has to say. Although negative feelings may be intense in the moment, they soon fade, since each person now has a better understanding of their partner’s feelings and point of view.

In contrast, unhappy couples may let loose a tirade of insults and trot out a long list of grievances every time they have a fight. Rather than listening to each other, they shout past one another. In the end, they have no better understanding of each other, but instead, their negative attitudes toward their partner are reaffirmed. The sting from such a fight can linger for days.

This observation has led both relationship scientists and couples therapists alike to the conclusion that more positive communication styles yield greater relationship satisfaction. In therapy, couples are coached on using “I” statements rather than “you” statements—“I feel so angry when you…” rather than “You make me so angry when you…” They’re also taught to avoid absolute terms like “always” and “never.”

Increasing Positive Communication

But do positive changes in communication style actually lead to improvements in relationship satisfaction? This is the question that University of Alberta (Canada) psychologist Matthew Johnson and his colleagues sought to answer in a study they recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

For this project, Johnson and colleagues made use of data from three different longitudinal studies that measured communication styles (positive or negative) and level of relationship satisfaction in over 4,000 couples on multiple occasions spanning from 16 months to 5 years. On each occasion after the first, the researchers considered whether the couple’s communication style had become more positive or more negative and whether their relationship satisfaction had increased or decreased.

If adopting a more positive communication style leads to better outcomes for the relationship, we would expect to see a positive change in communication style at Time 1 leading to an increase in relationship satisfaction at Time 2 and vice versa. However, this isn’t what Johnson and colleagues found.

The three datasets led to conflicting results, and only one finding was consistently robust among all three. Namely, when couples reduced the amount of negative communication during a conflict, they also felt more satisfied with their relationship at that time, but not necessarily at future times. Furthermore, increases in positive communication didn’t predict greater relationship satisfaction, either at that time or the next.

Decreasing Negative Communication

In short, decreasing negative communication helps in the moment but not necessarily long term, while increasing positive communication doesn’t necessarily improve the relationship either now or later. So, are therapists wrong to teach their clients to use more a positive communication style, especially during conflicts? Not necessarily so.

Hurling insults and voicing unrelated grievances do nothing to solve the issue at hand. Instead, they stoke the flames of anger and disappointment, perpetuating the unhappiness each partner feels in the relationship. To the extent that each of you can hold back on negative communication, the more likely you both are to find a workable resolution to the current problem.

And even in non-conflict situations, it’s best to avoid teasing, sarcasm, and other verbal barbs. This is because they leave your partner with lingering psychological wounds that can fester, causing them to doubt your commitment to the relationship as well as their own.

In contrast, positive communication styles can merely sugarcoat problems without fixing them. For instance, “I” statements are more for the benefit of the speaker than the listener. They remind me that I have control over my feelings—I don’t have to get angry because my spouse tosses their wet bath towel on the floor instead of putting it in the hamper.

Of course, from the listener’s perspective, it may not matter whether the speaker says “I feel so angry when you…” or “You make me so angry when you…” In either case, it’s a complaint about their behavior. Just switching to a positive communication style isn’t necessarily going to lead to a solution to the problem.

Negative Outweighs Positive

I think there are two take-home messages from this study. First, it’s far more important to cut down on negative communication patterns than it is to practice positive ones. At the very least, they’ll make dealing with conflicts less unpleasant than they would be otherwise.

Second, adopting a positive communication style alone isn’t enough to improve the relationship, in either the short or the long term. A positive communication style in which you clearly express your concerns to your partner and actively listen to theirs is the first step toward resolving conflict. But once the issues have been laid on the table, the real work of finding a solution you can both live with is still a challenge.

If it feels like talking to your spouse can be difficult, differing communication styles may be to blame. Your communication style determines how you approach conflict in conversation, and certain combinations can make it difficult to find a middle ground. Keep in mind that these are not innate, fixed qualities. A person’s communication style can change over the course of a single conversation, and many people are a mix of different styles depending on how they feel in the moment. Most people do generally lean towards one style of communication, though. In this article, we’ll cover some strategies you might use to deal with communicators who are passive, aggressive, and everything in between.

What are the 4 types of communication styles in relationships?

  1. 1Passive—where you shy away from expressing yourself to avoid conflict.If this is you, conflict makes you uncomfortable so you avoid it whenever possible. Passive communicators may apologize even when they don’t think they were wrong, or deliberately guide a conversation away from an uncomfortable feeling. Since these feelings build up, passive communicators can be prone to massive outbursts when they’ve reached their boiling point.[1]
    • This often takes the form of a long-term problem in a marriage. Since passive communicators rarely express their needs and wants, they may become resentful or depressive and act out in other ways.
    • This is also a problem for the non-passive partner, who may feel like they aren’t being reciprocated in conversation, or like their partner isn’t telling them the truth.
    • In a discussion on house chores, a passive communicator might say something like, “I’m sorry I didn’t do the dishes. I know I’m really bad at remembering to do them,” while averting their eyes.
  2. 2Aggressive—where you advocate for yourself in an unhealthy way.Aggressive communicators are what they sound like—they’re aggressive. Someone opting for this kind of communication style is approaching a conversation like a competition, and they’ll criticize, humiliate, interrupt, or talk over the other person to get what they want.[2]
    • At it’s absolute tamest, this can be insulting to deal with. At its worst, an aggressive communicator is being abusive.
    • Aggressive communicators will use a lot of “you” language when they talk about how they feel.
    • In the same house chores conversation, an aggressive communicator might say, “You always want me to do the dishes. Why don’t you do them for once? It’s not like you help out around here as much as I do anyway.”
  3. 3Passive-aggressive—where you use subtle jabs to feel like you’re in control.If you’re being passive aggressive, you’re pretending like you’re being passive while indirectly insulting, undermining, or critiquing the other person.[3] A passive-aggressive communicator will come off as hostile, uncaring, and rude, even if the words coming out of their mouth aren’t necessarily over the line.[4]
    • People act passive-aggressively because they don’t feel powerful. It’s a defense mechanism. The problem here is that it makes authentic communication functionally impossible. If one person isn’t saying what they actually mean, it can make it extremely difficult for two people to solve anything.
    • A passive-aggressive communicator might say, “Oh, I know I didn’t do the dishes. You know, it’s so hard for me to remember when you remind me all the time. I guess I’m so forgetful it just slipped my mind, kind of the like the laundry you were supposed to do.”
  4. 4Assertive—where you express yourself in a healthy, measured way.Assertive communicators express what themselves without infringing on the needs and wants of other people. They’re respectful, they listen carefully, and they compromise when it’s appropriate. Assertive communicators use clear language and try to build the self-esteem of others—even when they’re saying something they may not like.[5]
    • Picture someone cutting in front of you at the grocery store. An assertive communicator might say, “Excuse me, but there’s actually a line here! It’s easy to miss, but the back of the line is over there.”
      • In contrast, a passive communicator might not say anything at all, while an aggressive communicator might say, “Hey. Buddy. What’s your problem?” A passive-aggressive response might look like, “Are you happy with your spot in the line?”
    • An assertive communicator might say, “You’re right, I should have done the dishes. I apologize for that, but please don’t snap at me for forgetting. It’s not the end of the world.”

Encouraging a Passive Communicator

  1. 1Your tone and energy matter a lot when it comes to dealing with a passive communicator.While it can be frustrating to talk to someone who seemingly refuses to say what they mean, do not get angry and give them plenty of space to work out what they want to say. If you do get frustrated, try to keep it to yourself or tell them in a way that doesn’t involve blaming them.[6]
    • Smile a lot when you’re talking to a passive communicator, and nod when they speak to signal that you’re actively listening.
    • If you start getting angry at a passive communicator, they’re very likely to shut down and stop sharing.
    • Language choice matters a lot with a passive communicator. Always opt for the softer, kinder version of whatever you mean. For example, instead of saying, “It’s fine,” you might say, “It’s totally not a big deal.”
  2. 2Encourage them to say what they actually feel.If you see them stutter, pause, or catch themselves, remind them that you really want to hear what they have to say, even if it may not be something you want to hear. The more encouragement they get, the more comfortable they’ll be standing up for themselves and sharing how they feel.[7]
    • If you see them curbing their responses, use phrases like, “It’s okay, you can tell me,” and “I know it may not feel like it, but I really do want to know how you feel,” can go a long way.
    • It’s very important to not lash out if you encourage them to speak and you don’t like what they have to say. As hard as it may be, try to thank them for being honest about things that make you uncomfortable.
  3. 3Take your time and don’t force them into responding.Passive communicators often need time and space to process what they’re feeling and put it into words. Their pace and tempo in a conversation likely differs a great deal from yours, but don’t push them to respond if they aren’t ready. They’ll just shut down. You need a good deal of patience with a passive communicator, but if you can give them that consistently over a period of time, they’ll learn to assert themselves.[8]
    • Passive communicators can learn to express how they feel and what they need if you give them enough time and space to practice. They need to learn how it feels to communicate openly, and they need reassurance that nothing bad will happen when they share.
    • You might tell a passive spouse, “It’s okay to take a break here if you want to think about everything we’ve talked about,” or, “It’s alright if you don’t know what to say right now.”

Working with a Passive-Aggressive Speaker

  1. 1Keep your cool and don’t respond to sass with anger.It’s easy to get very angry when you’re talking to a passive-aggressive person, but responding with anger will just encourage them to double-down on the subtle behavior. Passive-aggressive people do what they do because they feel powerless, and your outward anger will just cause them to feel even less in control, like they’re in a fight.[9]
    • An easy way to disarm passive aggressive behavior is to intentionally interpret their responses literally (when they aren’t meant to be taken that way). If they say “Oh, sure, I don’t want you to do the laundry,” you might reply, “Are you sure? I really don’t mind doing it.”
    • A lot of passive aggressive communicators aren’t even acting this way on purpose. They’re doing it because they don’t feel like they have agency. Getting angry at them will reinforce this feeling like they’re being punished for making choices.
  2. 2Be straightforward and honest—avoid sarcasm and quick jabs.Do not fight fire with fire here. Avoid loaded language; be so straightforward and genuine that it’s impossible to interpret your language any other way. The more clarity you have in your communications, the more they’ll realize that their passive-aggressiveness doesn’t work.[10]
    • For example, if they say, “You don’t want to actually hang out with me tonight, do you?” you might look them right in eye and say, “Honey, I absolutely want to hang out with you. I was hoping we could watch a movie together!”
  3. 3Use the pronoun “we” frequently and frame things around the problem.In arguments, don’t let the conversation devolve into personal attacks and the blame game. Remind your spouse that you love them and try to orient the conversation to focus on any external element of the problem. This will alleviate the pressure they feel to wrangle control from you, and remind them to put their guard down to solve things.[11]
    • For example, let’s say you and your spouse are arguing over household chores because they never clean up. Saying something like, “You never clean up,” will make them feel attacked and trigger more passive aggressive behavior.
    • However, saying something like, “I know you work hard to help! I’m not saying otherwise. But what can we do to keep our kitchen tidier?”

Handling an Aggressive Speaker

  1. 1Call out aggressive behavior as soon as it starts.You have two reasonable options when someone is aggressive—stand up to them, or disengage. If you want to stand up, you can put your foot down hard, or try a softer, friendlier approach. It really depends on your spouse and how they tend to react when someone sets boundaries.[12] You shouldn’t let this kind of communication slide, though. The longer you let this go, the worse it tends to get.[13]
    • For a softer call out, you might say, “Do you think it’s fair to talk to me like that? You’re really not making me feel loved right now, and I know you do.”
    • For a harder call out, you could try, “Hey. I will not put up with that kind of language or behavior. If you’re going to talk to me, you need to change your tune. I’m sorry you’re upset, but you can’t do that.”
    • Do not tolerate abusive behavior under any circumstance. If they’re screaming at the top of your lungs, threatening you, or degrading you, get some distance and find help.
  2. 2Take frequent breaks to avoid letting things get out of hand.If you feel the aggression developing and bubbling up under the surface of the conversation, pause. Nobody says you need to finish the conversation you’re having right now. Create some distance for the two of you to calm down and then return when moods are improved. Aggressive communicators often cool off when they have some time and space to themselves.[14]
    • There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “I’m not in the best headspace right now and I just want to get some air. I love you very much, but let me cool off for a few.”
    • Schedule your arguments! Literally pencil them in on your calendars. When people know they’re going to have a tough conversation, they have time to prepare mentally and emotionally.
  3. 3Seek marriage counseling to fix aggressive cycles.It’s extremely hard for an aggressive communicator to actually change in the context of a marriage because they’re already viewing their partner as an opponent—which limits the partner’s options. A professional therapist or counselor will be able to work with the aggressive communicator to help them reframe the way they view their marriage and speak to their partner.[15]>
    • This is especially key if you and your spouse are trapped in an aggressive cycle where their aggressive behavior triggers your aggressive behavior and vice versa. You two need a neutral third party to calm things down.[16]

Encouraging Assertive Behavior

  1. 1Be an assertive communicator yourself.When one person in a relationship express themselves in a healthy, productive way, it encourages the other person to adopt that communication style. Studies have demonstrated that when one spouse asserts themselves (by expressing how they feel and explaining what they need), the other spouse is more likely to do the same.[17]
    • Assertive communicators use “I” pronouns to avoid sending the message that they’re critiquing the other person. In other words, you wouldn’t say, “You don’t care about me,” you’d say, “I feel a little neglected.”
    • If you’re being assertive, you’re being honest and respectful. That means sharing harsh truths in a kind and nonconfrontational way. It also means you show them the love you feel for them when things are good!
    • Assertive communicators compromise. If there’s a middle ground to be found, do your best to meet your spouse there! Don’t draw hardline boundaries where they don’t belong.
  2. 2Don’t get defensive when they share negative feelings or say no.Assertive people don’t keep quiet when something upsets them. If your spouse shares something they’re annoyed or upset by, don’t lash out. Tell them you appreciate the honesty and do your best to work with them towards a solution. If you did something wrong, apologize. If you didn’t, share your perspective respectfully.[18]
    • By showing that you won’t react negatively when your partner asserts themselves, you encourage them to continue doing that in the future.
    • When it comes to hearing things you don’t want to hear, remember—what’s the alternative? Your spouse just doesn’t tell you when they’re upset? It can really hurt to hear unpleasant truths, but it’s better than pretending they don’t exist.

Here are some great communication exercises. It’s awesome to get into the habit of giving each other a neutral, safe way to express yourselves now, while life is not so complicated. Think of the little things as training wheels for the big ones…

Resource: Communication Styles