How do you lead if you have a passive communication style? Learn how to tackle it and when to embrace it

Jul 30, 2023

Do you ever think to yourself how did I end up in this situation?

As someone who has developed an awareness of my passive communication style, I do!  And its normally a result of not saying no, or being clear on my needs or boundaries at the start that lands me there.


What is passive communication?  Simply put someone who has a tendency to defer decision making to others or avoid having input.  It can show up as a tendency to go with the flow or not speak up.  Why we adapt a passive communication style can be due to a range of different reasons such as a lack of psychological safety that leads to an internal dialogue telling us not to rock the boat or make waves, to avoid disagreement or conflict, or a preference to engage in 1 on 1 conversations.


Where does a passive communication style leave you as a leader?

The problem with passive communication is that it can lead to you becoming caught up in poor decision making because you didn’t explicitly express your disagreement.  It can also create misunderstandings with others.  Not clearly saying no can create an impression of agreement or compliance.

Not speaking up in the moment can also mean we miss out on opportunities that we should be grabbing with both hands.


No-one wins from passive communication.  Its more likely to create a lose lose situation.

Often passive communication does not create clarity.  It can leave the other person with an impression of what is going to happen next which may or may not be in line with your intention. 

Not having the ability to voice your opinion in the moment is likely to lead to more work later, especially if you have to circle back to a conversation that made you uncomfortable in the first place!

If you are waiting to be asked for your input, it can end up feeling like you are not being considered by others and can lead to being resentful or feeling undervalued.


How often are you the self appointed peace maker?  If your passive communication comes from a place of avoiding conflict or confrontation adopting the role of peacemaker can become a default position.  Trying to keep everyone happy and maintain harmony can be exhausting and remove the opportunity for others to have robust conversations and grow.  This is not a bad thing!


So what can you do instead? 

Start with self awareness and gaining an understanding of your patterns of behaviour. 

Ask yourself what is the cause of you defaulting to a passive style? 

What are the internal thoughts, feelings and behaviours that accompany that?


Once you know what it looks, feels and sounds like, then ask what could you replace that with.

If the thoughts come first, learn to recognise them.


Then know what your passive language looks like.  Is it simply agreeing, or withdrawing from the conversation and saying nothing?  Are you being non-committal because you don’t agree or you need more time to analyse and determine what you think is the best way forward?  Simply communicating this is a way of staying in the conversation and voicing your thoughts and needs, and leaves others with clarity on your position.

Try being clear and direct: Passive communicators often beat around the bush or use vague language to avoid direct confrontation or commitment.   When it comes to creating accountability, a passive style can also lead you to take on extra responsibilities that aren't yours (think of all of the back-and-forth communication that goes along with being the peacemaker).  If this is really uncomfortable start with something simple, like I’m not available at that time or who is the person that you really need to speak to about that?


Saying "no" can be tricky for passive communicators. Practice saying "no" politely but firmly when you don't agree or when it goes against your values or boundaries.  Remember you don't have to explain your reasoning to everyone you say no to.


It wont always go right: You cant control how the other person responds or reacts, thats up to them.


Its important to remember that passive communication is not always a bad thing.  There are places we can adopt this approach that creates an opportunity for others to develop and grow.  For example, if you are really comfortable in a certain meeting and tend to dominate the conversation, is there an opportunity for you to take a more passive approach that can give an emerging leader the space to take the floor and share their ideas.


There is no right or wrong communication style, or one style that gets us the best outcomes 100% of the time.  If you recognise your primary communication style as being passive understand when to challenge it and adopt a different style and when to embrace it.  Where its not working use this as an opportunity to put another tool in your toolkit that will support you to develop your communication and your leadership.

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