Humans have needs, and humans like to have their needs met. In relationships, we have to communicate our needs to those we interact with.
Speaking up about our needs can be difficult. Expressing a need can come with some complex emotions–anxiety, guilt, anger. The way people learn to manage these uncomfortable feelings over time can become a style of communication.
When someone says, “Dinner is ready,” the speaker is communicating a fact–the dinner is ready. Communication happens in a context, however. Imagine that the listener is in their room, playing video games, and the speaker steps into the doorway, arms crossed, and speaks in an annoyed voice, “Dinner is ready….” In that context, the speaker is communicating more than the simple fact. The speaker may be implying something, or communicating some need.
There may be a second message, encoded into the spoken message, that the listener is being put in the position of decoding. In this case, the speaker may be implying that they want the listener to stop playing video games and come down to eat together. However, they are being passive-aggressive; they are trying to communicate that they want something by showing that they are upset without coming out and saying what they are feeling or what they want. They are making the other person feel anxious or upset as a way of influencing their behavior to get what they want.
In therapy, we work on helping our clients more clearly communicate their needs to the people in their lives. Our goal is to help people communicate in an assertive way. When someone is assertive, they are taking responsibility for their needs and communicating them clearly. They accept and manage the anxiety of speaking up. They can make a request and manage any unnecessary guilt from potentially inconveniencing another person. They are not putting the responsibility for the interaction on the other person, and not trying to intentionally make the other person feel bad. When someone is assertive, they are showing that they care for the feelings of the person they are communicating with, while at the same time valuing their own feelings.
Someone communicating passive-aggressively, on the other hand, is making their needs known at the expense of the other person. They use sarcasm and anger to cue to the other person that there is a problem, without clearly communicating what the problem is. This makes the listener feel guilty and puts the expectation on them that they have to figure out what the speaker’s need actually is and meet it. Passive-aggressive communication is a manipulative way for the speaker to protect themselves from the anxiety of speaking up by putting that anxiety onto the other person. It also protects the speaker from the responsibility of starting a conflict–if the listener reacts with anger, the passive-aggressive speaker can defensively blame the listener.
A passive communication style doesn’t communicate needs at all. In passive communication styles, the speaker puts the listener’s needs first, and in so doing puts the responsibility for figuring out their needs on the other person. The speaker could potentially feel anxiety or guilt for bringing up their needs, so they avoid it entirely. As a result, people who rely on this communication style tend to be more likely to be taken advantage of and risk burning out themselves or the relationship. By putting their needs second, or ignoring them entirely, they don’t get what they need to thrive.
People who use an aggressive communication style take the opposite approach, putting their needs first at the expense of the other person. They use anger to cover their anxiety about speaking up, and end up trying to bully or force the other person to take care of the speaker’s needs. This tends to damage the relationship between them, hurting the listener’s self-esteem and causing frequent conflicts and arguments.
Not everyone can be assertive all the time in every relationship. Some situations call for being passive, or occasionally even aggressive. Sometimes it’s not safe to be assertive, so passive-aggressive is the only option available to get one’s needs met.
Being assertive is probably the most healthy style however, so it’s the one we aim for in most relationships. We strive to find a healthy balance of respecting one’s own needs and feelings while respecting another person’s needs and feelings, and taking the responsibility for clearly articulating what you feel, need and want. It takes a lot of time, effort, and practice to be assertive, but a healthy communication style increases self-esteem and contributes to a healthy relationship.