Interpersonal Communication Styles

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn the difference between personality and interpersonal communication styles.
  • Learn how to use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator types to think about how your personality type might influence the ways in which you communicate interpersonally.
  • Learn how to use the Interpersonal Circle to adapt your interpersonal communication style to the situation.


“They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” —Carl Buechner


Do you notice that you act in different ways around certain people? Perhaps you act inhibited around your advisor, but you wish you could act assured like you do around your students. Perhaps you act deferent around your labmates, but wish you could act more sociable like you do so easily around your friends. These descriptors: inhibited, sociable, assured, and deferent are all examples of interpersonal communication styles. This module is designed to address the interpersonal communication styles that you bring to a communication interaction. The more you know about interpersonal communication styles, the more you can deliberately choose to use a style or not, depending on the situation.

Interpersonal Communication Styles and Personality

The concepts of interpersonal communication styles and personality overlap, but they do not mean the same thing. People often say “that’s just the way I am”. However, interpersonal communication styles are actually changeable and more in your control than you might think.

Think about a time in which you communicated with someone and by virtue of the initial interaction you developed a new approach that you tried the next time. For example, perhaps when talking with your advisor you were submissive and didn’t speak up when someone was getting recognition for your work; the next time the topic of work credit came up you were more assertive and spoke up for yourself. The fact that you are able to change your approach, and essentially the impression you make (see The Impression You Make), is very different from personality. Personality is much more stable and enduring and is most often viewed in terms of traits—a stable, enduring quality that a person shows in most situations (i.e., who we are)—rather than a behavior (i.e., how we act).

One of the interesting things about interpersonal communication styles is that they can be specific to a situation (e.g., you are deferent around your advisor) or defined by how you behave in most communication situations (e.g., you are sociable with most people). Since they are not as consistent as personality, you can choose when to use the interpersonal communication style that best serves you in the situation. Over time, recognizing and selecting which interpersonal communication approach you wish to use in a particular instance will become easier. With practice the ability to choose will help you break the patterns that don’t work for you.

The Myers-Briggs Indicator Types

There are several approaches to trying to predict a good interpersonal fit between two individuals. Two of those approaches have already been mentioned in this module, personality and interpersonal communication styles; another is psychological type

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is an inventory that was created to make a specific theory of psychological types understandable and useful in people’s lives. Psychological types refer to people who have several traits in common.1 Examples of types used in common language include the extroverted type, the introverted type, or even more casual types like the athletic type or the executive type. Similarly, the MBTI types are not personality types nor are they the same as interpersonal communication styles—they can be thought of as a kind of middle ground between the two: not as rigid and overarching as personality and applicable to more than communication interactions.

The MBTI is made up of 16 dichotomous types:2


Favorite World Extraversion (E) Introversion (I)
Information Sensing (S) Intuition (N)
Decisions Thinking (T) Feeling (F)
Structure Judgment (J) Perception (P)
Favorite World: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world (e.g., social interactions or external stimuli) or the inner world (e.g., your own thoughts)? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).
Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S)—paying attention to physical reality; what you hear, see, touch, etc.—or Intuition (N)—paying attention to the impressions or the meaning and patterns of the information you receive.
Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T)—weighing the pros and cons, and then applying logic in order to make decisions—or Feeling (F)—using the points of view of others and values to make decisions about what is best for the people involved in order to make decisions.
Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J)—an inclination toward a planned and orderly life—or Perceiving (P)—an inclination toward flexible and spontaneous way of life.
Your MBTI Psychological Type: When you decide which end from each dichotomy fits you best, you have your own MBTI psychological type, which can be expressed as a code with four letters.
The creators of the MBTI claim that, depending on your four-letter personality type, you can predict how well you will fit with other types. To get information about which types pair well with yours, you will first have to take the MBTI. However, using the information provided here, you can begin to think about what your own type might be and how it might be compatible/incompatible with other types.
To learn more about the MBTI and where you can take it, visit the following website:

Interpersonal Communication Styles

The MBTI uses a psychological-type approach to explain how people might be more or less compatible when they are communicating. Another approach is through Interpersonal Communication Styles.

If you do a web search, you will see that there are pages upon pages dedicated to defining interpersonal communication styles; however, most of these are not widely endorsed and have little to no research support. Fortunately, there are a number of theories about how to define interpersonal communication styles that have ample research support. A couple of these research-supported theories and models are described below, including the Interpersonal Circle and its accompanying theory, “Complementarity.”

The Interpersonal Circle

The Interpersonal Circle3,4,5 was created to understand the ways in which people relate to each other interpersonally.

This model is based on a system of similarity and dissimilarity and is meant to explain and predict the ways in which two different people may interact in a given situation. In this model, 16 interpersonal styles are positioned around a circle.

The model represents a system that charts interpersonal communication across two dimensions: Power and Affiliation. In the model, the Power axis runs vertically through the A and I styles. On this dimension, those interpersonal styles positioned directly across from each other (e.g., A and I, P and H, etc.) are viewed as complementary to each other. In practice, this would mean that in a given interpersonal interaction, individuals who act in a dissimilar manner on the Power axis would likely get along well with each other. For example, if one individual were to act in a dominant manner, then the behavioral response that would likely lead to the best outcome would be for the other person to respond with submissiveness. This makes sense if you consider how the alternative might play out—that is, two people competing for dominance.

The Affiliation axis runs horizontally through the E and M styles. Contrary to the Power dimension, similarity is complementary on the Affiliation dimension. For example, if one person acts in a friendly manner, then the responses that would likely predict the best outcome would be for the second person to respond in an equally friendly, warm or sociable manner.

There are multiple reasons why the interpersonal circle is relevant to your life. Using the interpersonal circle is a relatively simple way to identify your own tendencies toward particular styles with certain individuals. There is evidence that those who view the social world using a structure similar to that of the interpersonal circle report fewer interpersonal problems and higher levels of satisfaction with life, self-confidence, and self-liking.6


A powerful theory that arose from the Interpersonal Circle is complementarity.6,7,8,9 Complementarity is the idea that individuals interact in a manner that elicits a restricted class of behaviors (e.g., dominance requests submission and friendliness invites similar behaviors) and you have the choice to either act in a complementary fashion or not. The degree to which another individual complements those behaviors has some predictive utility in measuring how well the relationship will go. The deliberate choice to complement or not is called Complementarity.

A real-life example of complementarity could be that your professor treats his students in a dominant manner. This dominance sends the message that the professor sees himself as having power and that he expects his students to submit to his behaviors. If you understand this dynamic and view his interpersonal behavior in this manner, you can make a deliberate choice to complement this behavior or not complement this behavior.

In this case, complementing would mean that you validate the professor’s interpersonal message by submitting. Not complementing might mean responding in an assured manner by communicating that you have opinions or knowledge about the topic, work, etc. and you will not merely submit to the professor’s interpersonal message. Neither response is inherently bad, but each response above carries consequences with it. If you submit, you may not have your voice heard or you may not have important decisions go the way you’d like. However, if you do not submit, it might lead to a power struggle with your professor, which is never an ideal situation for any graduate student. The point is to recognize the interpersonal messages people send and to make deliberate decisions about when to complement those messages and when not to do so.

Be aware: if you are redefining your interpersonal approach with an individual who is used to you acting in a particular manner, there might be a period of discomfort, or even backlash, as they adjust to your new way of conducting yourself. Although the time of adjustment is often uncomfortable, it is quite normal—stick with it.


Consider the example of a professor who spouts orders and asserts himself as being powerful and expects his students to be subservient. He considers his research assistants to be personal assistant and sends them on personal errands and expects them to be available at all hours of the day and night.

Which graduate student response would be complementary to his behavior?

Best Answer: A. Complementarity occurs when individuals interact in a manner that elicits a restricted class of behaviors (e.g., dominance requests submission and friendliness invites similar behaviors) and you have the choice to either act in a complementary fashion or not.

Complementarity Exercise

Think of someone with whom you have trouble communicating. Once you have that person in mind, use the interpersonal circle to identify that individual’s interpersonal communication style. How would you choose to complement or not complement his or her style? Is there anything you want to change about how you would approach your communication with that person? How does the model help you think about this?

Complementarity in Action

Marissa works in a lab with three labmates. One labmate, Liang, treats Marissa as if she were the lab mom—he asks her to order supplies, to clean up, to order lunch for the group during working meetings, etc. Marissa usually complies with Liang’s requests—that is, she usually complements Liang’s Dominant interpersonal communication style with a Submissive interpersonal communication style, However, she wants very badly to change her dynamic with Liang so he stops bossing her around. The following interaction is one in which Marissa deliberately chooses not to complement Liang’s interpersonal style with her own, in order to change their interpersonal dynamic. Remember, when thinking interpersonally, the way in which you deliver the message through nonverbals and the words you choose are equally if not more important than the content of the discussion. Let’s see how Marissa does.

LIANG: [walking up to Marissa, while she’s working] Marissa, we are out of toner and paper and I need to print these results. Go to the department secretary and see if they have some we can use and then order more. [Liang’s interpersonal communication style is best defined as dominant: he is making demands and bossing Marissa around]

MARISSA: [continuing to work] Sorry, Liang, I’m busy. You’re going to have to go yourself. [now making eye contact with Liang] Also, I think it’s time someone else in the lab besides me orders supplies. If you need help figuring it out, I am happy to help, but I’m relieving myself of the responsibility of ordering things for everyone. I have a lot of work to do before I graduate and I’ve done my fair share—it’s someone else’s turn. [Marissa’s interpersonal communication style here is assured].

LIANG: [caught off guard and looking perplexed] What is this? Are you upset because I didn’t say “please” and “thank you”? [Liang meets Marissa’s assured interpersonal message with a stronger form of dominance]

MARISSA: [stopping what she’s doing, turning to face Liang and deliberately using a calm voice that does not convey hostility] Liang, a “please” or a “thank you” would have been nice, but this isn’t a reaction in the moment. I’ve given it some thought and I have decided it’s time someone else takes care of ordering things around here. [Marissa continues to use an Assured interpersonal communication style and stays on message]

LIANG: [now clearly frustrated] We’ll see how this goes. I don’t have time for this [Liang walks away]

MARISSA: I don’t either, Liang. That’s the point.

Let’s demodule:

Marissa deliberately chose to not complement Liang’s Dominant interpersonal communication style, both in the words she chose (e.g., I have decided it’s time someone else takes care of ordering things around here.) and the nonverbals she conveyed (e.g., making eye contact instead of staring down at her work). In the face of Liang’s persistence that she do what he wanted, Marissa stuck to her message while also sending a message that she wasn’t looking for a hostile confrontation.

There are some elements of this interaction that would likely play out in most similar situations:

  1. When people send an interpersonal message that is not validated by the other person, they usually try to send the message again, only this time with more intensity. Liang did this by becoming even more dominant and attacking Marissa on an interpersonal level, when he said, “is this because you didn’t get a “please” or “thank you”?
  2. When Liang began to send a stronger dominant message, Marissa likely felt uncomfortable. When faced with this type of discomfort, most people give up and return to submissiveness or, conversely, they meet the other person’s attempt at dominance with hostility or a dominant message of their own—essentially, they tell the person, “you are not in charge,” but they do so in a hostile or confrontational way. Marissa anticipates this and stays on message while also sending a message that she is not looking for a hostile confrontation.
  3. Marissa was also very effective at keeping the interaction in the “here and now” instead of talking about past incidents.
  4. Marissa also used “I” statements such as “I can’t do this” and “I’ve made a decision.” Many people unintentionally sabotage their interaction by putting things on other people by making statements like, “you’re bossy” or “you just want to boss me around.” These types of accusations are almost impossible to prove in the moment and usually turn into an argument. By avoiding these types of statements, Marissa avoids a whole other area of interaction that would most likely turn into an argument.

CareerWISE Point

By knowing how your personality and interpersonal communication style(s) influence the way you communicate, you can think about how your style complements other styles. You can also be more deliberate about whether and how you can change or not change your approach to suit your needs.

CareerWISE Tip

Like verbal communication, the way you present yourself interpersonally sends a message. Be deliberate about the messages you send through your interpersonal behaviors and be equally deliberate about validating or not validating the interpersonal messages that others send you.


  1. Potkay, C. R. & Allen, B. P. (1986). Personality: Theory, research, and applications. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
  2. Myers and Briggs FOUNDATION (2003), MBTI Basics. Retrieved September 23, 2010, from
  3. Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: W.W. Norton.& Company
  4. Leary, T. (1957). Interpersonal diagnosis of personality. New York: John Wiley & Sons
  5. Kiesler, D. J. (1983). The 1982 interpersonal circle: A taxonomy for complementarity in human transactions. Psychological Review, 90(3), 185-214, doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.90.3.185
  6. Tracey, T.J.G., Rohlfing, J.E. (2010). Variations in the understanding of interpersonal behavior: Adherence to the interpersonal circle as a moderator of the rigidity psychological well-being relation. Journal of Personality, 78(2), 711-746, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00631.x
  7. Carson, R. C. (1969). Interaction concepts of personality. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.
  8. Orford, J. (1986). The rules of interpersonal complementarity: Does hostility beget hostility and dominance, submission? Psychological Review, 93(3), 365-377, doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.93.3.365
  9. Wiggins, J. S. (1982). Circumplex models of interpersonal behavior in clinical psychology. In P. C. Kendall & J. N. Butcher (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in clinical psychology (pp. 183-221). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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