Communication Styles as Self-Expression: Which One Is Yours?

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Most writing on communication style focuses on how people make decisions together, in homes and workplaces. All too often, conversations in those settings don’t move forward as well as they might. Some people dominate the discussions, others hold back, and still others snipe or plot behind the scenes.

A worthy goal for all of us then is to become more “assertive.” Assertive people have their say in situations, but they do so in ways that respect the rights and feelings of others. They listen as well as talk. They understand themselves to be members of a group.

This pattern contrasts with the “aggressive” style that some people adopt. Aggressors say what they think, regardless of what listeners want. Conversation is often confrontation. Shouting, glaring, and other forms of intimidation are parts of the act.

Also problematic is the “passive” communicator, who refrains from expressing their thoughts and feelings. Minimizing their responsibility for the decision-making process frequently means accepting subordination and swallowing pride.

Communications advisors sometimes add two types to the list. “Passive-aggressive” communicators superficially accept the directions of the conversation, but they also engage in sly jokes, sarcasm, and innuendo. When they believe themselves superior, they patronize. Finally, there are “manipulative” communicators. Relying on cunning and deceit, they pursue the only thing that matters to them: self-advancement.

I respect this tradition of counseling. Surely, all of us can become better communicators, especially when confronting the difficult decisions that groups and organizations make. However, most conversations don’t focus on decision-making. Much of the time, we circulate information, asking and answering questions. Routinely, we request and give emotional support. We give and take orders. We engage in collective recollection and musing about the future. We tell jokes and stories. We gossip. What kinds of communication styles describe our approaches to these many ways of being together?

I believe there are some very basic forms of self-presentation. More than that, each of us has a preferred or dominant communication style that carries us through life’s moments. Although most of us can adjust that dominant style to the situation we’re in, it is largely an expression of personality and, more broadly, our understandings of self. Communication style is marked heavily by social factors but not “determined” by them. Once established, it is difficult to change.

In that light, consider four kinds of communicators: the expressive, the insistent, the inquisitive, and the reticent. Do any of these describe your dominant approach to conversations?

The Expressive Communicator

Many people I know are in this category. Expressive communicators enjoy talking, especially about their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. (One friend is honest enough to admit that when she asks someone to get together, this means she herself wants to talk.) Communications researchers note that women are more likely to share their personal concerns and thinking processes; men favor “report talk”—essentially, summaries of things they have witnessed or done. That said, most of us know talkers of both genders who transcend those characterizations.

To be sure, there is something satisfying in “holding the floor,” or otherwise occupying the attention of listeners. One way to do this is to tell lengthy stories, commonly accounts of the experiences of the speaker or those near and dear to them. Some men like to give fulsome accounts of projects they are working on. Listeners know well they should not interrupt an expressive speaker during a story. Doing so only means that the tale will resume shortly, from the very point where it was cut off.

Be clear that expressive communicators deserve praise for their openness and magnanimity of spirit. Frequently, they seek out companions and thus initiate and reinforce relationships. They can be counted on to fill the dead spots or lulls that cause social awkwardness. If these typically good-hearted people have a challenge, it is to be attentive to their listeners, to ask questions of them, and to consider their answers. Ideally, conversation is a two-way street.

The Insistent Communicator

Expressive people want to tell their story and receive acknowledgment for doing so. Insistent communicators have grander designs. They want to influence their listeners, perhaps getting them to sign on to some joint venture or otherwise change their behavior. I call them “insistent” both because they have some behavioral outcome they insist upon and because they keep after their listener until their objective is achieved.

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There are different ways of insisting. As noted above, aggressive communicators try to dominate their audience. Manipulative ones operate cunningly behind the scenes. Who isn’t familiar with another type, the whiner or complainer, who can’t keep themselves from prosecuting their grievances? Add to this the teaser, instigator, and provocateur. Seemingly dissimilar, all exhibit a common goal: to disorient and then reorient their listeners.

Doubtless, demanding people can be troublesome. After all, most of us have our own visions for how to live; we can take only so much nagging, teasing, and cajoling. Remember though that insistent people are also the instigators and architects of social changes, both great and small. Many of their claims are legitimate, if uncomfortable for us to adopt.

Prodders have their merits. Their challenge is to influence people in the right ways—and for the right reasons. That means understanding that other people’s ideas may be better than their own.

The Inquisitive Communicator

Some jobs require workers to ask questions of others. Therapists, lawyers, and researchers come to mind. However, that question-and-answer format is a much more general pattern of human relating—and some people adopt it as their principal strategy in getting to know people and maintaining relationships.

My mother was of that sort. Not a talker by inclination, she focused on getting the best out of people. That meant asking them to talk about themselves, moving the conversation forward on those terms, and adding her own insights to the mix. People liked her because she actively listened to them and encouraged them to be their better selves.

Pointedly, some inquisitors are less generous. Like a parent questioning a teenager about their late-night escapades, they want to get the goods on people and decide what consequences should ensue. Some interrogators employ Machiavellian techniques—flattering, cajoling, and rumor-mongering—to loosen their subject’s tongues. In such ways, they prey on our desires for positive attention and respect.

Commonly, inquisitors finish their conversations with the awareness that the other person learned almost nothing about them. By choice perhaps, inquisitors avoid the spotlight, but they also receive little in personal terms for their efforts. At best, they get recognition as a wise counselor. At worst, they are deemed rude or nosey. And their seemingly subordinate role may cause others to believe that the inquisitor’s life is relatively uninteresting.

The Reticent Communicator

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet says to Darcy: “We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room….”

Few of us have the golden qualities of Austen’s famous pair. Still, we may choose to hold ourselves apart from the fray of human discourse. Most people, or so the reticent communicator thinks, race about exulting and complaining. Their emotions get the better of them. Living vibrantly, they spend too little time pondering who they are and what they are doing.

If unwarranted exuberance is a human failing, then the reticent communicator suffers from the opposite affliction. Their judgments—sometimes harsh—may prevent them from interacting freely with other people. Shunning social feedback, they commonly lose sight of their own qualities and character. Remember that Darcy and Bennet were guilty of “pride and prejudice,” because they would not take other’s experiences of them into account.

It is easy for reticent communicators to believe themselves superior and withhold themselves on those terms. They speak civilly if spoken to; beyond that, they restrict themselves to comments that inevitably emerge as judgments. Be clear, though, that there are other sources of reticence. Sometimes, people feel so different from others that they believe their comments would not be welcomed. “Newbies” in organizations learn quickly they should keep many concerns to themselves so as not to appear stupid. Cranky and eccentric people know to “bite their tongue” in social situations or, indeed, to avoid those situations entirely.

Ideally, reticent communicators receive praise for their discretion and judgment. But they can also be deemed haughty, inappropriate, and irrelevant. And the more pervading danger is loneliness. To be above the fray is to be out of the mix that supports our common humanity.

Readers may peruse these four types and say that no one approach binds them. Each is just a style or role to be assumed as the occasion demands. Those who know them well are much more likely to assign them a dominant pattern. Regardless, the challenge is to understand the way one orients to others and to consider its consequences.

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