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David Yardley

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The five styles of human communication that consultants need to know


The well-known business adage, ‘people choose to do business with people they like’, should remind us all that whilst the consulting profession may be many things to many people, it is above all and hopefully, forever will be, a people business. 

It should come as no surprise then, that successful client outcomes are most often achieved when consultants consistently demonstrate the professional behaviours and values that are fundamental to the concept of consulting excellence such as integrity, fairness, honesty and respect.

Collectively, these attributes help define a consultant’s personal brand and represent what clients can expect to get when they use their services. The successful consultant therefore is the one that recognizes the need to sell the ‘who’ well before selling the ‘what’.

Excellence through effective communication

Throughout the course of their engagements, consultants will often need to assume a number of different roles in order to provide the service that their clients actually need.

In practice that means being able to lead, coach or follow depending on the situation and consequently, being able to explain or inform, challenge, educate or persuade.

If consultants are to succeed in these roles, they will need to possess excellent communication skills.

Clarity, completeness, timeliness and relevance, the key principles of effective communication, will be paramount - but if they are to develop open, honest and enduring client relationships they will also need to understand the psychological aspects of human communication.

Communicating professional behaviours and values

The way in which consultants communicate with their clients and other stakeholders is just as important as the message itself; with every message passed, so too is a part of the consultant.

Simply put, when consultants communicate, the way they communicate reflects their principles, beliefs and values.

Non-verbal communication is a prime example of how individuals communicate their feelings either consciously or sub-consciously through their body language, tone, gestures, facial expressions and postures.

It is an important concept within human communication and not surprisingly, features highly on many consulting training programmes.

Communication style however, is altogether less well-known, yet for consultants, the way in which they communicate is an important factor in defining their personal brand.

Consultants will therefore need to recognise that the style of their communication will have a significant bearing on how they are perceived by others.

The five styles of human communication

From the world of psychology we now know that there are five different styles of communication that individuals can choose to adopt: assertive, aggressive, passive aggressive, manipulative and submissive (Bourne, 1995).

Each of these styles is characterized by a particular type of behaviour, language and non-verbal communication and whilst these may change depending on the situation, individuals are likely to have their own ‘default’ style.


Being assertive demonstrates high self-esteem, and as a communications style, is both balanced and effective. Assertive communicators are confident and able to balance the need to achieve and the need to respect the views of others. Their style (and therefore their behaviour) is neither aggressive nor passive, enabling them to have the confidence to communicate without resorting to games or manipulation.

Being assertive however, does not mean individuals will always get what they want - but, it can help them achieve a compromise. Even if they don't get the outcome they want, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they handled the situation well, and that there are no ill feelings that might exist as a consequence of their communication. Surprisingly, however, the assertive style of communication is the one most people use least.

Example: “I’m sorry, but I can’t attend the workshop as I already have a meeting planned for that time”.

Recipients are likely to:

  • Feel that they can raise their concerns with this person
  • Trust this person to do the right thing
  • Respect this person


Not surprisingly, this style is about winning and often winning at someone else's expense. Aggressive communicators behave as if their needs are the most important and their rights and opinions are more important than everyone else’s. They are also unlikely to deliver their message effectively as people will be reacting to the way it has been delivered rather than concentrating on the message itself.

Example: “We’re doing it my way. I’ve looked at your options and frankly, found them embarrassing.”

Recipients are likely to:

  • Be fearful of mentioning bad news (such as reporting project delays, or problems that will affect them) just in case they are blamed
  • Feel under pressure to agree with what is being proposed even if they do not agree with it
  • Feel that they are being bullied


This is a style in which people appear passive on the surface, but are actually acting out their anger in indirect or covert ways.

Individuals exhibiting this style of communication are often resentful and motivated to undermine the contributions made by others, even if this ends up negatively affecting their own situation.

The expression ‘to cut off your nose to spite your face’ is a perfect description of passive-aggressive behaviour.

Example: “Don’t worry, I’ll sort out the problems caused by the third party, after all, that’s what I always end up having to do”.

Recipients are likely to:

  • Feel angry and resentful
  • Feel as though they are being undermined
  • Feel they should retaliate in some way to teach them a lesson


Individuals exhibiting submissive behaviours focus on pleasing other people and avoiding conflict. Submissive communicators will treat the needs and rights of others as more important than their own and seek to play a minimal part during meetings or discussions.

Example: “I’ll let you decide what’s best”.

Recipients are likely to:

  • Feel that they have told ‘what they want to hear’ rather the facts
  • Feel that that their time is being wasted
  • Feel like they no longer want to help this person


Manipulative communicators exhibit shrewd and calculating behaviour to achieve the outcomes they need. They are likely to have strong influencing skills or indirect power which enables them to control others to their own advantage. Their spoken words hide an underlying message, of which the other person may be totally unaware.

Example: “I’m going for promotion this year and will be expecting some good feedback. By the way, I’m glad your boss liked that report I helped you with’.

Recipients are likely to:

  • Feel unwilling to engage with this person
  • Feel they are being ‘used‘
  • Feel unable to trust this person

Adopting a professional communications style

Consulting success should not be measured by status nor personal reward, but through the achievement of mutually-beneficial outcomes for all parties.

Integrity, honesty, fairness and respect should therefore, be present in every action and decision taken by consultants.

Achieving consulting excellence must therefore mean ensuring the communications style adopted by consultants does not compromise any of these values, but instead, conveys the professional behaviours and values they uphold. 

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