Effective communication skills

The communication style we use depends on the situation we’re in. Most of us communicate differently at work than we would at home or with friends. The way in which we communicate is also influenced by the person we’re speaking to, our physical environment and how confident we feel about our position. It can be challenging to develop a consistent and effective communication style and it may feel uncomfortable at first, but these tips will help you along the way.

Basic communication styles

The three basic communication styles can be defined as aggressive, passive and assertive, and we may use all three within one conversation. However, we are most effective when using assertive communication skills. Assertiveness is a very misunderstood style and many people associate it with aggression. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

1. The aggressive style

  • Puts others on the defensive
  • Makes it difficult to take the aggressor’s points or views seriously
  • Demonstrates a belief that others don’t have the same rights
  • Is close minded, monopolising and lacking in listening skills
  • Minimises other people’s needs and wants
  • Demonstrates dominance at the expense of others
  • Includes non-verbal cues such as pointing, glaring, shouting or smirking, while language might be along the lines “You will” or “Just do it”.

2. The passive style

  • Demonstrates hesitancy and a lack of clarity around the points being made
  • Is apologetic or self-doubting
  • Makes it more difficult for others to meet our needs
  • It shows others that they have the power to make all of the choices
  • This style usually includes non-verbal cues such as fidgeting, nodding too often and avoiding eye contact, while language tends to follow a pattern: “You have more experience than I do”, “I have a silly idea, but…”, “No problem – whatever you need”.

3. The assertive style

This style is a healthy and direct way of communicating that isn’t aggressive or confrontational.

  • Using this style demonstrates that you and others are equally important
  • The style is effective, demonstrates good listening skills and sets healthy boundaries between people (no-one is taking advantage of anyone else)
  • It allows needs to be expressed directly and honestly and takes into account other people’s views
  • Is a non-judgmental, confident and action-oriented way of communicating
  • This style usually includes open and natural gestures, interested facial expressions and direct eye contact while language may include statements that seek resolution (“What alternatives can you suggest?”, “How can we work together to make this happen?”)

Things to consider when communicating assertively

Assertive behaviour doesn’t always mean that one person gets what they want while the other leaves empty handed. Creating outcomes that benefit both parties is easier than you may think and allows each person to feel respected. Do keep in mind that a win-win outcome isn’t always possible in every situation, but looking for opportunities that allow you to build bridges with others is always positive.

  • Do check your understanding of the other person’s needs or requests by asking them to give you more detail if you’re unclear.
  • If you can identify an approach that allows both of you to come away with needs met, let them know this in direct terms (i.e. “I see your point and I think that we can both get what we need. I’ll do X part of the project to free you up to start the report that’s due tomorrow”).
  • If you feel as though you’ve ‘given away’ more than you originally intended to, remember that part of your needs are being met even if not exactly as you’d planned. Sometimes, this is the only possible outcome.
  • Ask the other person for their ideas on how to create a win-win outcome. This encourages them to consider the options themselves and have equal input. And they may also come up with ideas that you hadn’t thought of.

Choose a role model

Developing effective communication skills takes time and practice but when you use them habitually, you appear more open to other’s ideas and views which in turn builds trust and mutual respect. Remember that others are more likely to approach us when their previous experience with us has been positive.

Think of someone in your personal or professional life whom you consider an effective communicator – perhaps it’s your manager, a friend or a family member. Write down what it is that they do specifically and how others regard them. Are they calm, unflappable and patient? Do they use specific words or gestures when communicating? Do they assert themselves but still seek a win-win outcome for all parties? It’s not about being exactly like them but picking and choosing those aspects of their style that are both effective and feel natural to you.

You can learn more about effective communication by visiting:

Skills you need

A useful guide to all aspects of communicating effectively, from developing verbal and non-verbal skills to hints for improving listening skills.

Work communication

A website dedicated to a range of work issues including effective communication and listening skills. 

Click here to access further guidance on simple approaches you can take to develop assertiveness.