Article | 12 min read

Understanding the 4 types of communication styles in the workplace

Communication differences often cause confusion and frustration. Learn how to identify and collaborate with each communication type in the workplace and with customers.

By Stella Inabo, Contributing Writer

Last updated September 7, 2023

Effective communication in the workplace goes beyond just listening to what your customers and colleagues say. You also have to recognize how they express themselves and adapt your responses accordingly. Understanding different communication styles, as well as the way you communicate, can help you create meaningful connections through seamless conversational experiences.

Our guide to workplace communication details different styles of communication, how to identify them, and actionable tips on how to adapt your style to specific situations in customer service.

What is communication style?

A communication style describes the different ways people communicate. This includes verbal and non-verbal methods of communication, the words people use, their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.

Recognizing cues and using the appropriate communication style can help you navigate tough conversations with coworkers and deal with difficult customers in challenging situations.

4 types of communication styles in the workplace

There are four different types of communication styles: passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive, and assertive. Below is a description of each communication style and tips on how you can work with each type of communicator.

1. Passive communication

Passive communicators don’t want to rock the boat, even if they have an opinion. They try to avoid conflict or confrontation and typically go with the flow. They’re afraid of rejection and are even apologetic when they’re not at fault. They prioritize the wants and needs of others over their own and may agree to things they don’t want to do to avoid having to say “no.”

Passive communicators may use phrases like:

  • “I’m fine with whatever the team decides.”
  • “I don’t have an opinion on that.”
  • “I don’t care one way or the other.”

2. Passive-aggressive communication

Similar to passive communicators, passive-aggressive communicators find it difficult to directly convey their true feelings. They often use sarcasm or backhanded compliments and may withdraw instead of asking for help in difficult situations. They often use nonverbal communication when irritated or dissatisfied, like sighing, annoyed body language, or silent treatment.

Passive-aggressive communicators may use phrases like:

  • “I’ll just take care of it.”
  • “If you really want to.”
  • “Per my last email.”

3. Aggressive communication

Aggressive communicators are vocal about their moods and opinions, often using antagonistic, abrasive, or forceful language. During disagreements, these types of people often become defensive and talk over others. They prefer to control conversations, ignore input from their teammates, and intimidate others by maintaining intense eye contact. They can talk down to and insult others to put themselves in a position of power.

Aggressive communicators may use phrases like:

  • “I am right and you are wrong.”
  • “Just do things my way.”
  • “End of discussion.”

4. Assertive communication

Assertive communicators are polite, direct, and honest. They can clearly and confidently express themselves and state their thoughts and feelings without fear or disrespect. They usually speak in a calm voice and maintain good eye contact in a face-to-face conversation.

Assertive communicators may use phrases like:

  • “I understand your point, but have you considered …?”
  • “I believe the best way to move forward is to …”
  • “I like that idea, but a more effective approach could be to …”

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What is the preferred communication style?

Assertive communication is a preferred communication style when responding to customers and coworkers and is often one of the most effective communication styles in leadership. It displays empathy and active listening skills. You acknowledge the problem so people feel validated and heard while clearly and confidently stating expectations.

If an assertive style doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t worry. There are ways to adjust your communication patterns to connect better with customers and colleagues. According to Peter Neels, the Senior director of customer experience at Zendesk, the best communication style depends on the situation and audience.

“Every situation and audience can be very different. The key is listening and asking clarifying questions, to ensure you and the audience are on the same page.”

While most people may prefer working with assertive communicators, certain situations may benefit from passive or aggressive communication. For example:

  • A passive communication style can be an asset to help team leaders avoid micromanaging teams, especially those with a variety of personality types.
  • An aggressive communication style can come in handy during negotiations or when underperforming employees need motivation to improve.

Why is it important to understand different communication styles?

Understanding different styles of communication helps you navigate situations and communicate more effectively. Peter Neels believes it is beneficial for businesses to have employees with different communications.

“It allows you to understand different learning styles and how they intake information,” Neels says. “Some folks are analytical while others need to have high-level overviews. The key is to learn from others so you know the best way to share information.”

When you know how to handle each communication type, you can create better interpersonal relationships, build trust, and minimize conflicts with coworkers and customers. Good communication also boosts morale and fosters a positive work environment internally, while improving customer satisfaction and loyalty with your customers.

Communication styles example

Now that you have more background on the types of communication styles, let’s see how they compare side by side in an example scenario.

Customer support scenario
An angry customer calls to complain about the email automation tool he just paid for. The customer claims the tool is complicated and isn’t giving him the results he wants. While trying to clarify his complaints, he becomes irritated and makes disparaging comments about you.

  • Assertive response: “I’m sorry our tool doesn’t meet your standards, and I understand that you’re dissatisfied. I can help resolve the issue more effectively if you speak calmly.”
  • Passive response: “Let me transfer to someone who can help you better.”
  • Passive-aggressive response: “That’s not my responsibility.”
  • Aggressive response: “I’m trying to help you, but you’re not letting me speak.”

How would you respond? Compare your response to the communication style examples above and learn more about identifying your own personal style below.

How to deal with different communication styles

Dealing with different personal communication styles requires you to pivot your approach from person to person, depending on an individual’s style. Becoming an expert in managing these styles makes collaboration more effective, boosts productivity and efficiency, and builds better relationships.

How to handle passive communicators

Dealing with passive communicators can be frustrating. Think about a time when you asked a friend or partner where they want to eat dinner, and they simply say, “I don’t care.” They rarely say what they’re truly thinking or feeling, often agreeing with dominant opinions or remaining a neutral party, especially in difficult situations. Not expressing their true thoughts and feelings can lead to pent-up resentment and miscommunication.

Because passive communicators may feel uncomfortable speaking up in group conversations, use these tips to communicate with them more effectively:

  • Be clear and concise so the passive communicator doesn’t have to translate subtle messages.
  • Engage with them in one-on-one settings, alleviating the stress of communicating in groups.
  • Be patient and create a safe space for them to communicate and express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions without fear of judgment or negativity.

How to handle passive-aggressive communicators

The passive-aggressive communication style is often subtle and indirect and can make for uncomfortable situations in the workplace. Understanding the tendencies of passive-aggressive communicators can help you identify when this type of communicator is feeling a certain way. Reading their body language and tone of voice will alert you so you know how to approach them.

These tips can help you communicate with them clearly and effectively.

  • Stay calm and avoid getting defensive.
  • Use direct language that requires clear responses.
  • Repeat their message to confirm you are understanding them correctly, but rephrase it in a positive way.

How to handle aggressive communicators

These communicators have big personalities, and working with them consistently can be challenging. It’s best to avoid matching their energy to keep communications from escalating. It’s important to note that it’s never okay to tolerate abusive communication in the workplace. If an aggressive person crosses the line, it’s okay to follow your company’s processes when involving management.

These tips can help you manage the conversation peacefully and professionally.

  • Avoid matching their energy by staying calm and assertive.
  • Set boundaries with clear repercussions to keep them from crossing any lines.
  • Define roles and responsibilities to keep everyone in their lane.

How to handle assertive communicators

In addition to being strong communicators, assertive speakers also excel at active listening. They take the time to understand people with different viewpoints, which helps ease tension. Even during a disagreement, assertive communicators listen without interrupting and acknowledge the opinions of others before stating theirs. They also use “I” statements to avoid sounding accusatory.

Play off the cues from this kind of communicator to create an effective conversational experience. Here are a few additional tips to help enhance communication.

  • Mirror their positivity and body language to create a better connection.
  • Practice active listening and ask open-ended, engaging questions.
  • Create a welcoming environment that encourages collaboration.

How to become an assertive communicator

Among the top customer service skills and communication styles at work, assertive communication is one that businesses look for. Because assertive communication is rooted in respect, compassion, and empathy, this type of communication makes it easier to connect with customers and coworkers. It’s a healthy communication style that conveys high character and professionality.

Communicate more effectively with coworkers

As a support agent, you’ll be part of a bigger team. Using assertive communication with your teammates helps you convey honesty and transparency, set boundaries, foster conflict resolution, and navigate difficult conversations.

  • Be solution-oriented: When having difficult conversations with a coworker, calmly and confidently state your point. Remain solution-oriented, positive, and sensitive to the other person’s point of view.
  • Avoid hedging sentences: Ambiguous language can cause unnecessary confusion. Instead of saying something like, “You should hear from me by the end of the day,” say “I will reach out to you by the end of the day.”

Working remotely can present major communication challenges. For example, written communication might be missing the right tone and sometimes can be misconstrued. More talkative coworkers can dominate Zoom meetings and make it difficult for passive communicators to contribute to the conversation.

How can you handle these different conversation styles while communicating virtually?

  • Make your written communication clear: Much of remote communication is written. Be clear and intentional when expressing your opinions over email or Slack.
  • Engage confidently: It’s easy to disappear into the sea of faces on a Zoom call, so try to stay visible by contributing to the discussion. Don’t interrupt or talk over others—and when it’s your turn, speak confidently and look into the camera.

Clearly communicate with management

Being transparent and assertive with management can unlock a new level of communication. It can help you avoid being taken advantage of and convey that you demand respect, even if you are below them on the corporate ladder.

  • Learn to say no: Pushing back might seem rude, but it is sometimes necessary in order to avoid burnout, work overload, or requests to work outside of business hours. Politely express why you can’t take on a task or project, making sure to use “I” statements.
  • Provide an alternative: When you can’t accommodate a request, provide an alternative solution. For example: “My current workload doesn’t allow me to execute the quarterly reports by Friday. Let’s shift other tasks into next week so we can prioritize the report.”
  • Ask for what you want: Assertive communication can benefit you during salary negotiations, asking for a promotion, or requesting time off. A passive approach won’t stress to your manager what you want to achieve, and they may overlook your subtle request without realizing it.

Improve communication with customers across channels

In most cases, you want to be assertive with customers—empathic but still direct. Assertive customer communication might look a little different depending on the channel. However, most communication methods and skills apply, no matter the channel. Here are a few ways to improve communication across channels to deliver an exceptional customer-focused experience.

How to be assertive over the phone

When communicating with customers over the phone, you often need to think quickly to respond appropriately. Staying professional is key as knee-jerk reactions and angry replies will only escalate the situation. Here are a few tips on how to speak assertively during a phone conversation.

  • Remain calm and confident: It can be challenging to keep a cool head, especially when responding to angry customers. Speak calmly and empathetically, and use a call script to guide your responses.
  • Don’t take negative comments personally: An angry customer might be unpleasant to you but it’s only because you represent the brand. Stay solution-orientated and positive, and don’t take their negativity to heart.
  • Practice active listening: Show customers you’re truly paying attention by repeating their words back to them. To ensure you understand what they need, ask questions to clarify details, especially when speaking with passive communicators.

How to be assertive through live chat

Communicating assertively via live chat requires strong writing and communication skills. Live chat support allows you to take a beat and draft an appropriate, assertive response.

  • Develop probing skills: Ask deep questions to get to the heart of what the customer needs. Although probing may entail some back-and-forth communication, it allows you to better understand the issue so you can provide more effective support.
  • Use quick and agile responses: The best live chat writers are fast and concise. Focus on relaying the most important details and cut out unnecessary words or information.

How to be assertive via email

An email can be taken several ways if the message isn’t framed thoughtfully. Empathize with your recipient and choose clear, compelling language that makes the customer feel understood and valued. Sending a prompt response can also go a long way when dealing with an angry customer.

  • Understand pain points: A passive or passive-aggressive customer might struggle to articulate their concerns. You might need to read between the lines to fully understand the issue and respond properly.
  • Acknowledge the problem: In your reply, it’s important to address the pain point and apologize if necessary. After this, move on to finding the customer a solution.
  • Use an appropriate subject line: Keep it professional, concise, and personalized to the customer. Avoid using all caps or negative language, and use words that are relevant to the topic, so the customer knows what the email is about.

How to be assertive on social media

Providing great customer service through social media needs to be handled with extra care because the conversations are usually public. One wrong move can spiral into a social media firestorm. Protect your brand’s reputation by following these tips.

  • Take the high road: You should never mirror the tone of angry customers complaining about bad service on social media—it’s a losing battle. Always respond with empathy and do what you can to make things right with the customer.
  • Move the conversation to a more effective channel: If you can’t resolve an issue out in the open, take the conversation offline and reach out to the customer privately on a more effective channel.

How to be assertive in person

Communicating assertively with customers in person requires you to convey confidence through both non-verbal and verbal cues.

  • Display good posture: When speaking to customers, stand or sit up straight. Maintain eye contact, as looking away can make you seem uncertain and unreliable.
  • Adopt the right tone of voice: Keep your voice at an even level and express yourself with confidence. You don’t want to speak softly and sound timid, but you also don’t want to talk too loudly and sound harsh.
  • Listen without interrupting: Let the customer speak and practice active listening skills. Ask follow-up questions to get to the root of their problem, especially when interacting with passive communicators.
  • Stay patient and calm: Always keep your feelings in check, especially when speaking with more expressive customers, namely aggressive and passive-aggressive communicators. If the situation with an angry customer escalates despite your best efforts, involve your manager.

How to identify your conversation style

Determining how you interact with people during a conversation can help you understand where to improve as you work towards becoming an assertive communicator. Identify your conversation style by:

  • Learning the communication styles to understand which traits best define you
  • Observing how others react to you in conversation
  • Using tools like assessments, tests, and quizzes

Tools to identify team communication styles

Every business is a melting pot of personalities full of various styles of communication. Finding out how people communicate within your organization can create a healthy work environment that fosters collaboration, so you can more effectively reach your business goals. The following three tools can help you identify communication styles for your teams.

True Colors personality test

Established in the late 1970s, the True Colors personality test sorts personality types into four color-coded categories. Each color represents different personality traits but isn’t absolute. It also exists on a spectrum, blurring the boundaries of where your personality falls.

  • Orange represents adventurous, exciting, and fun-loving personalities.
  • Gold represents practical, dependable, and organized personalities.
  • Blue represents empathetic, emotional, and spiritual personalities.
  • Green represents logical, philosophical, and analytical personalities.

DiSC assessment

The DiSC assessment is a tool used to help people better understand their behaviors, emotional tendencies, and communication styles. The assessment helps teams improve teamwork, recognize how individuals respond to conflict, and identify skills that can be improved.

The DiSC assessment has four personality types:

  • Dominance (D): Assertive, decisive, and results-oriented
  • Influence (i): Outgoing, optimistic, and enthusiastic
  • Steadiness (S): Patient, caring, and supportive
  • Conscientiousness (C): Analytical, logical, and systematic

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator helps teams identify communication styles, strengths, and weaknesses of both teams and individuals. The test is made up of four preference pairs, detailing 16 different personality types.

  • Extroverts (E) prefer to work in groups.
  • Introverts (I) prefer to work alone.
  • Thinkers (T) make decisions based on logic.
  • Feelers (F) make decisions based on personal values.
  • Sensors (S) make decisions based on facts and details.
  • Intuitives (I) prefer fast-paced environments.
  • Judgers (J) prefer following plans, structures, and rules.
  • Perceivers (P) prefer to be spontaneous and keep options open.

Bring assertive communication to your organization

Mastering an assertive communication style can help you build healthy relationships with customers and team members, and understanding the communication styles of others can make your workplace and customer interactions even more effective. You don’t want to lose a loyal customer because of a communication breakdown.

Zendesk customer experience software can enhance conversations and create stronger connections with your customers. Agents have access to a customer’s history, data, and insights all in one place, empowering them to personalize each interaction. Our platform can help you learn how customers interact with your business so you can engage in rich conversations.

Customer service email templates: The key to fast, consistent conversations

Our free customer service email templates help customer service teams speed up email communication and provide a consistent messaging experience.

Customer service email templates: The key to fast, consistent conversations

Our free customer service email templates help customer service teams speed up email communication and provide a consistent messaging experience.

Free templates