Turtles, Tigers, and Owls, Oh My! What’s Your Communication Style?

I know what you’re thinking. Ain’t it ‘pose to be “lions, tigers, and bears”? Only if you’re referring to the Wizard of Oz or that Jazmine Sullivan song…but not for this blog post. Turtles, tigers, and owls are a peculiar assortment of animals with characteristics comparable to three communication styles: passive, aggressive, and assertive. It is important to have an awareness of one’s communication style to increase effective communication with others. By the end of this post, you should be able to identify your communication style and learn a few skills to improve communication overall. 

Understanding Communication Styles

So, what are communication styles? According to Lyn Christian at Soul Salt, Inc., communication styles are defined as “broad ways in which people tend to communicate with others.” What does our communication styles say about us? It displays how we think and behave. Communication styles are developed over time through interactions with others, which determines our perceptions and responses to various situations. 

Christian describes mannerisms within each communication style as the following:

  • Passive communicators have difficulty expressing themselves and tend to give in to others.
  • Aggressive communicators dominate conversations, issue commands, and has poor listening skills.
  • Assertive communicators have open and honest dialogue while considering the needs of others.

Exploring Our Inner Communication Animal

When I was counselor-in-training, I worked as a home-based therapist. Communication issues were one of the most common problems presented by my clients. Scouring the Pinterest boards for therapeutic ideas, I found Judith Belmont’s worksheet on communication styles. The worksheet had pictures of three animals and their corresponding communication styles listed as the following: Turtle: Non-Assertive (Passive), Tiger: Aggressive, and Owl: Assertive. Similar to Christian, Belmont noted that each communication style has a goal. For passive communicators, the goal is to “play it safe.” Aggressive communicators seek “to be right.” The assertive communicator, however, attempts to “express oneself honestly and kindly.” 

Turtles, Tigers, and Owls…Who’s You? 

I would present Belmont’s worksheet as an exercise for clients to help them discover their communication style. Before reading the worksheet details, I would encourage my clients to give descriptors of each animal. Then we would review the worksheet together to identify the client’s communication style. Listed below are a few examples of each animal.

The Passive Turtle

  • Hiding/Avoiding Confrontation with Others
  • Keeps Your Feelings Tucked Inside
  • Sensitive to Disapproval/Rejection
  • Pleasing Others More Than Accepting Self
  • Feeling Isolated and Misunderstood
  • “It doesn’t even matter”.

The Aggressive Tiger

  • Rude, Bossy, Controlling
  • Disrespectful and Violates Rights of Others
  • Uses Verbal and/or Physical Force
  • Feels Superiors to Others Yet Hides Insecurities Inside
  • “My way or the highway”.

The Assertive Owl

  • Wise, Calm, and Observant
  • Respectful to Self and Others
  • Expresses Feelings Tactfully
  • Feels Secure, Confident, and Loved
  • Uses “I statements”: “I understand what you are saying but I have to disagree”. 

What About Passive-Aggressive Communication?

According to Christian, passive-aggressive communication “seems passive on the surface but reveals a hidden resentment that comes through in subtle, indirect ways.” On Belmont’s worksheet, passive-aggressive communication is not addressed, yet many of my clients often complained about encountering persons who utilized this communication style. I would describe passive-aggressive communication to them because the passive turtle got tired of hiding from the aggressive tiger and decided to bite the tiger on the paw. It won’t kill the tiger, but it’ll damn sho’ hurt! Characteristics of passive-aggressive communicators are the following:

  • Sarcastic
  • Words Not Aligning with Actions
  • Facial Expressions Not Matching Words
  • “Fine, whatever”.

Using Communication Style for Effective Communication

After looking at these lists, you may be thinking, “I have some characteristics of all three animals. How do I know my communication style?” That’s not uncommon. Even in my own life, there are instances where I communicate more aggressively, while other times are more passive. Yet, I strive to become more assertive in my communication with others because it is the most effective. Assertiveness allows you to “say what you mean and mean what you say” while also being empathetic to the needs of others. Also, passive, aggressive, or even passive-aggressive people in their communication styles are not bad people. Remember, communication styles are influenced by life experiences and later develop into communication patterns. Yet, those patterns can be changed. 

So how does one become an assertive communicator? According to the Mayo Clinic, here are a few tips to incorporate assertiveness into your daily life:

  • Use “I statements” – Using “I statements” let others know how you think and feel without sounding accusatory.
  • Practice saying no – If you feel bad turning down requests, practice saying “no, I can’t do that now”.
  • Keep emotions in check – Your feelings are valid. If you feel too emotional to resolve a conflict, take time to calm down, and reengage when you feel better.
  • Start small – Assertiveness is a skill that requires practice. Try it out on low-risk tasks with a trusted friend or partner before tackling difficult situations.

No matter how you identify, whether it be as the passive turtle, the aggressive tiger, the assertive owl, or a combination of all three, your communication style is important because it is your way of interacting with the world around you. Hopefully, this has shed some light on your communication style to grow in assertiveness and promote effective change in your communication with others. 

Catina Batts
Millennial, Counselor, SophistiRatchet, Latte w/Oatmilk

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