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Passive Communicators, Elements That Weaken Your Messages

Passive communicator, are you aware of the elements that weaken and undermine your communication?

We all aim to develop a more assertive communication style and, some of us are quite successful at it; most of the time.

Remaining assertive at all times is a real challenge that requires constant effort. No matter if we like it or not, most of us will find ourselves being more passive at times.

In this article, I will help you understand the elements that can weaken and undermine your messages when you are trying to be more humble and modest.

Why are you a passive communicator?

We may be a passive communicator all the time or on some occasions. A low level of self-esteem, and/or self-confidence is often leading to passive communication styles. With a focus on modesty and humbleness, many people are navigating social situations and events with anxiety and the fear of hurting people or making a "faux-pas".

For passive communicators, the focus is on others: their needs, desires, and expectations, and it is often at the expense of their own needs and desires.

We may also find ourselves becoming more passive with people who are more senior or experienced than us, with people we don't know, or when discussing a topic we are not familiar with.

To find out more about the 4 styles of communication, read our series: how to develop more assertive communication?

Passive communicator elements that weaken messages

What are the signs to recognise passive communicators?

Many signs will help recognise a passive communicator which I will share in detail in the next chapter. For a quick assessment, we can identify passive communicators through 5 visible elements:

  1. They apologise too much

  2. They are fast at self-deprecating

  3. They hardly say no, or push back and overcommit

  4. They go through a long decision-making process

  5. They hardly end up getting what they want or need

The elements that weaken and undermine your communication

In this article, I will list and explain the different elements that will undermine and weaken passive communicators' messages. If you recognise some of those communication habits in your communication, you will want to change those habits. You will find at the end of the article some ideas to get there. Use the following elements as a checklist and highlight everything you need to watch for.

The apologise habit

As stated above, passive communicators tend to apologise too much.

“Sorry to interrupt”, “I am sorry but”, “Sorry”, “Sorry, if I can add something”, “Sorry to bother you”.

When someone apologises, consciously or not, we think that they are at fault and that the apology is legit. If something ends up going wrong, we will most likely think that they are responsible for it.

Do not apologise unless you have done something wrong!

Devaluing language about self and achievements

As passive communicators are fast at self-deprecating, they are excellent at minimising their achievements, efforts, and skills. Accepting a compliment and believing it, is not natural for passive people. Quite the opposite actually, they tend to think that it is not right, that the person paying them a compliment is trying to be nice or probably lying.

For the same reason, they will be fast at sharing the credit or minimising the time and effort a project requires. When trying to come across as humble, they simply make people think that what they did was not that great and does not require credit or reward.

Accept compliments and say thank you + take the credit that is yours (your time, effort, energy)

Submissive body language

Soft voice, interrogative or unsure tone, up talking, low shoulders, agitated hands or self-contact (like playing with a ring), little to no eye contact, nervous laughter or smile are some of the non-verbal signs of passive communication. To showcase assertiveness, one needs to use the space, open their body language and stand/sit straight and tall. It is important to develop an awareness of the non-verbal cues that can reveal a lack of confidence. For example, raising your pitch at the end of your sentences results in a statement sounding like a question. It makes you sound like you are questioning your own ideas and you may not be taken seriously.

Watch yourself and take your space!

The just habit

As passive communicators don’t want to impose themselves or intrude, they often use the “just” habit to minimise their intervention.

“I just wanted to ask/add/say”, “Just an email to let you know”, “I am just checking in to see”, “I just want you to know”…

When they think they are coming across as humble or modest, they actually minimise and undermine their entire message and come across as not confident. The “just” habit gives us the impression that what comes after “just” is not important, relevant, or worth our time.

If you don’t use the “just” habit, do you use the “actually” or “I mean” or ‘You know” habit?

Remove "just" from your sentences.

Permission to speak

Because of self-consciousness mixed with impostor syndrome, it is common to hear a passive communicator requesting permission to speak.

“Can I just add”, “Do you mind if I just say something here”, “May I clarify something here”…

This communication habit shows little confidence in yourself and positions you as a subordinate more than as an equal collaborator.

If you want to speak up, speak up.

Time limits

Giving a time limit to your communication plants the idea that this topic is not worth our time or is not important.

“Do you have 2 minutes”, “Can I quickly say something”, “Can we look at that, it won’t take long”, “I only need a minute”…

This time limit gives the idea that the discussed topic or the communicator is not important and is not worth our time.

Request for validation

Some passive communicators will use these questions as a filler word:

“Do I make sense?”, “Do you know what I mean”, and “Right?”

By using those too often, people tend to think that the speaker is not confident or does not know his topic well. At times, it could also come across as condescending as if the audience does not have the skills to decode the message successfully.

It will be the same with the filler word “you know”.

The “fake” questions

The use of “fake” questions consists of asking questions when you know the answer already.

“Do you think it would be possible for your team to do…”.

The goal of such questions is usually to come across as more collaborative and not too aggressive when the result is not quite that.

“I need that and that from your team; how much time do you need to deliver” is assertive and will offer better and faster results. In the second example, we showcase confidence and assertiveness while in the first example, we come across as unsure and more passive.

Note that this is different from the use of rhetorical questions that are excellent for engaging presentations (e.g. Have you discussed with a passive communicator before? I can assure you that you will recognise some of those elements in their communication).

The filler words

Filler words are the words you add to your sentences without noticing them. From hesitation to proper words, we all have different verbal habits:

“Um”, “well”, “you know”, I think”, “just”, “like”, “in fact”, “uh”, “actually”, “honestly”, “really”, “literally”, “so”…

Recognise the filler words you are using and decide to replace them with a silence. Asking the people around you may help you find out your filler words.

Note that you may have successfully overcome your filler words in one language and find them coming back when transitioning to a second language! It happened to me when transitioning from French to English.

The use of negation

Passive communicators will use negation to undermine their skills and remove the attention put on them:

“I am not an expert”, “I am not sure but”, “It may not be the best idea”…

The use of those negations is making the speaker come across as unsure, unconfident and not trustworthy.

For a greater impact prefer “I know”, “I recommend”, “In my opinion”, “In my experience”, “I am confident”…

The softer verbs

The softer verbs are those verbs that show little confidence or assertiveness in your messages and recommendations. When starting a sentence with

“I think”, “I guess”, “I feel”, “We could”, “We may”, the speaker gives the impression that they are still thinking about it or that they are not sure about their statement.

As above, you will come across as more convincing if you start your sentences with “I know”, “I recommend”, “We will”, “I advise”, “We should”, “I expect”…

The modifiers

Modifiers are words we add to reinforce a point or soften a message. They often result in making people sound unsure. Modifiers are filler words such as

“very”, “definitely”, “quite”, “actually”, “really”, “probably”, “basically”, “truly” which make people appear less confident.

Think about it: saying "I’m definitely ready to speak in public" is less strong than "I am ready to speak in public."

And much more

Additional elements that will undermine or weaken your messages would be talking too much, too fast, using too much jargon…

Develop your assertiveness

Do you recognise yourself in some of those communication habits? Well done, the first step towards assertiveness is self-awareness. Developing this awareness is not about feeling bad about it and beating yourself up for it. It is about deciding to change to make your life easier!

Now, assess which communication habit is impacting your assertiveness the most and start with this one. From now on, you will want to consciously transform your verbal habit with the new one. Trying to address a few habits at the same time is a risk of becoming self-conscious and freezing in important situations.

Example 1:

For example, if you are guilty of the "just" habit, you will need to develop an awareness of all the times you add "just: into your communication (starting with the writing communication is often easier such as emails and texts) and then decide to replace the "just" with a silence.

Example 2:

If your habit is to add "I think" at the beginning of your sentences, here again, you will want to start with self-awareness, before deciding to remove the word "I think" or to replace it with a stronger one such as "I know", "I recommend", "In my opinion", "In my experience"...

Changing thinking habits to adjust our communication habits can take time but it is doable! All it requires is the decision to change and a few conscious efforts. Once you feel you have evolved around 1 element that weakens your messages, it is time to review the list and pick the next one until you are done and already more assertive!

Maud Vanhoutte

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