In a leadership workshop I delivered recently, we talked about different communication styles that people can adopt when relating to people they work with, and the question came up: If you’re being selective about the things you tell one person versus another, aren’t you being manipulative in your communication?


My initial reaction was: No, of course not. Then I stopped and thought: Well, maybe. Now, as I’ve thought about it some more, I believe it depends on your intent. And despite my initial reaction during my workshop, the question of whether you’re being strategic or manipulative is certainly one worth asking yourself when you communicate at work.


In that workshop I mentioned, we talked about 5 communication styles:

  1. Assertive
  2. Passive
  3. Aggressive
  4. Passive-Aggressive
  5. Manipulative

You can observe these styles when people try to address their needs as they transact business—whether they’re solving problems, negotiating outcomes, or resolving conflict.


Assertive communication is what you want


Ideally, you want to use an assertive style at work through which you communicate your needs in a respectful, healthy, confident way. Someone using an assertive style will convey their needs clearly without assuming that others are responsible for meeting those needs.


Someone using a passive style won’t communicate their needs and will just stand back and take whatever others give them. They won’t get their needs addressed and they’ll likely feel resentful eventually.


Someone using an aggressive style will forcefully knock everyone else down trying to get what they need. They’ll clearly state their needs, but they’ll do it in a way that also communicates that the needs of others are less important than theirs.


Someone using a passive-aggressive style will recognize that their needs are at odds with those of others, but instead of actively addressing those differences, they’ll do things (often by letting things happen to them) that indirectly work in favor of their needs. Maybe they’ll not quite get to that paperwork that they said they’d finalize by the end of the day because “things got crazy busy,” and by the way, it so happens that the person who didn’t get the paperwork done doesn’t think they should be the one doing it in the first place.


Manipulative communication seeks to control


Although a passive-aggressive style can border on manipulative, the two styles differ in that someone using a manipulative style will actively do things in a planned and unscrupulous way to make sure their needs get met. Maybe they selectively withhold information from one party that they provide to another one because they can anticipate the conflict that will cause and how it’ll result in things going the way they want them to go. It’s a controlling style in which the manipulator places themselves above everyone else—like a puppet master pulling the strings that make all the puppets move according to their master plan.


As I mentioned above, an assertive communication style is what you want to shoot for pretty much all the time. Conversely, a manipulative style is the one you should avoid at all cost, which is why, when I got the question in the workshop about whether strategically providing certain information to some people while providing different information to others is “manipulative,” I instinctively took exception.


Strategic communication seeks to benefit everyone involved


After thinking about it, it all comes down to intent. Are you strategically selecting what to say to people based primarily on getting your needs met, or are you doing it because you think that what you’re saying represents the best way for each of them to understand a situation? After all, people value different things, and the way people process information varies widely, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t say the same thing to everyone.


Intent makes all the difference between being strategic and being manipulative. When I’m communicating assertively and strategically, my intent is a win-win outcomeLet me tell you what’s important to me, and let me tell you what I understand is important to you so that, ideally, we can both get our needs met. If I’m being manipulative, my intent is to look out only for my needs, so I’ll tell you what I think you need to hear to get you to go along with what I need.


In the end, I acknowledge that there can be a fine line between assertive, strategic communication and manipulative communication. A conversation about a particular subject might sound very similar in both cases. But I’m a firm believer in humility when it comes to relationships, and a manipulative communication style doesn’t come from a place of humility—it comes from a place of entitlement. Manipulators feel entitled to control others, and they think they know better than others do. If you’re communicating from a manipulative mindset, even if you happen to share the same information and use the same words in a conversation as someone who’s communicating assertively and strategically, your manipulative intent will eventually come to light and start eroding the trust you may have built up in your work relationships.


Spend a few minutes this week taking stock of your own communication. Which of the 5 styles are you predominantly using? What can you do to more consistently use an assertive style? And when you’re being strategic in your communication, is it coming from a place of helping others understand a situation better or from a desire to get your way? There’s some gray area in there, so make sure you’re clear on your intent.


Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.