7 Communication Styles

In communication theory, there are a few generally recognized communications styles: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. These terms are widely familiar, but a quick overview of the exact meaning can help us determine the best approach for tutors.


When someone uses a passive communication style, they do not speak up for their needs. They generally go along with the group opinion. They might be described as “easy going.” A passive communicator might feel that they have no control over a conversation, and that their ideas and opinions are being overlooked. This person does not get their needs met, and this can lead to tension.1 As tutors, if we’re too passive in our communication, the student might feel as if the session lacks direction. We will be unable to steer the session in the best direction for the student. The session will feel uncollaborative, with the student calling all the shots while the tutor does not assert their opinions and ideas into the mix.


An aggressive communication style swings too far in the other direction. An aggressive communicator controls and dominates the conversation. They may do this by interrupting or talking over others. They tend to focus on their own needs in an exchange, ignoring others’ needs and ideas.2 Aggressive communication is filled with more statements, rather than questions to facilitate mutual understanding. Additionally, aggressive communicators tend to make a lot of “you” statements, which can subtly (or not-so-subtly) signal that they blame the other person for problems in the conversation.

In a tutoring session, aggressive communication can derail a session, with the tutor taking too much control over the conversation and not paying adequate attention to the student’s needs. A student in this scenario can leave feeling unheard and un-validated. This goes against the very idea of creating safe, welcoming, supportive tutorial experiences we discuss in earlier chapters.


Passive-aggressive communication is an odd mix of the two previous styles, but it’s hardly a harmonious blend. We don’t want to adopt this style either. Like the aggressive style, it undermines the thoughts and needs of others, but does so in an indirect fashion. Passive-aggressive is a style often adopted by a person who has been a passive communicator for a long time. Over time, they become frustrated by not getting their needs met in conversations, and this passive person lets out their frustration in aggressive bursts. Passive-aggressive people do not actively dominate conversations, but they will steer the conversation away from the needs of others and toward their own in a more passive way.2


Assertive behavior is the best approach for most tutorial sessions. Assertive communication is more direct than a passive approach, but it is not as overbearing as an aggressive approach. Communication theory often calls this a win-win approach, because it is the only one that acknowledges the needs of both parties.

In an assertive style, we can stand up for ourselves but still make space for the opinions of others.3 We can (and will) disagree, but we do not disrespect others or marginalize their voices. We listen without interrupting, but we retain the right to form our own thoughts and communicate our own values.

Let’s highlight some of the specific behaviors that can help us be assertive in tutoring sessions:

  • Use “I” statements. This emphasizes our view without casting blame or assuming the view of others.4
  • Maintain eye contact and keep an open posture. This shows we are listening and willing to hear the student out.
  • Maintain a neutral facial expression. This can be tricky, since we often make faces without thinking about it. But we try to be mindful, and not frown at statements that we dislike or when we disagree.
  • Speak evenly and calmly. Even if you’re saying the right things, a loud voice or accelerated pace can signal aggression.


Remember, our goal is to retain our voice without silencing the student’s voice. If a student has misconceptions about tutorial processes, or if they mistakenly believe their instructor is “out to get them,” we cannot force them to change their mind—and we shouldn’t try. Instead, we can voice our thoughts on this subject but respect their voice. You can acknowledge what they are saying, but add your take on the situation. Whenever possible, use these moments to gradually redirect to the work, focusing on areas where you can both agree. Maybe the student will always dislike their current instructor, and you can’t change that fact, but what you can do is help make their homework experience more comfortable and manageable in the Tutoring Center. So maybe this is a good time to encourage the student to take a fresh look at that last homework problem. Redirection can de-escalate without aggressively silencing a student.


Quickwrite Reflection

Think about a time when you had to assert your opinion, even if it was unpopular or others disagreed with you. How did you handle the situation? Did you use any of the assertiveness techniques listed above? How might you handle the situation differently in hindsight? Lastly, how can you adapt your assertive approach to fit within a tutorial context?

There are times when alternative approaches are needed. For example, we want to strongly defend the Tutoring Center’s status as a safe space. In this example, if a student makes a racist comment toward another student, a good tutor will unequivocally denounce that statement, using an aggressive communication style to shut down the comment. But in typical tutoring sessions, we want to stay away from those extremes.

Conflict Resolution

Now that we’ve covered assertiveness and hinted at some ways to redirect, we need to address another prong: conflict. Even if you handle most tricky situations well, there will always be moments of conflict. In formal Tutoring Centers, supervisors can be called in to deal with conflict, but there are still some practical tips we can take into sessions to reduce conflict.

First, we need to avoid escalation.5 If a student is getting visibly upset, we need to be especially attuned to our communication styles. Even the slightest hint of an aggressive communication style can escalate the tension. Do not use “you” statements. Do not cross your arms, scowl, or avert eye contact. Don’t try to aggressively control the conversation—that might only make the person defensive and escalate further,

Second, don’t take it personally. If a student is upset, recognize that it’s probably not about you. The student might have just received a failing grade. Maybe their financial aid was denied. Perhaps they have a sick kid at home. Maybe they got fired from their job. You have no idea what is going on with this person, so don’t internalize their anger. You cannot control how they feel, but you can keep an eye on your own emotions. Nobody likes being part of an aggressive conversation, and it’s okay to feel personally attacked—just try to avoid being reactive and turning those feelings into an aggressive response. We have a right to our own feelings, but if we’re trying to resolve the immediate conflict, it’s best to remember that this isn’t all about us. Empathy goes a long way, as we mentioned in our Philosophy Chapter.

Third, practice your active listening skills.6 Hear what the person has to say. In a conflict, some people just want to be heard. Don’t try to problem-solve for the student. Don’t minimize or trivialize. Just listen for a moment. Ask questions to seek understanding. Again, remember what we covered in the Roles & Responsibilities chapter—we are not therapists—so we can’t just sit and listen to student concerns all day. But we can signal that we’ve heard and acknowledged what they have to say, then redirect toward a resource.

Flow chart illustrates the three steps of conflict resolution.
Figure 2.1: This figure illustrates the three steps to conflict resolution when dealing with conflict and heightened emotions in a tutoring session.

Many campuses have free or low-cost counseling for students. An easy referral tactic is simply saying “Do you need somebody to talk to about this?” With the previous statement, we haven’t promised that a tutor will be the somebody this student talks to, but we have opened the door for broader conversation. If the student says “Yes.” Then we can follow with “Okay, the campus has some excellent counselors who you could talk with. Do you have a minute to walk with me to counseling? We can set up your first appointment.” This not only redirects to an appropriate resource, but it normalizes the process of talking to a counselor when needed, which is something we should all remember is a valuable tool for working through school-related stress.


1. A student got a failing grade on a paper. They are visibly upset and say the failing grade is all the tutor’s fault.

What’s a tutor to do? We know that becoming a better writer takes time and patience; we know that it’s important to learn from mistakes; we also know that the student is responsible for their own work, and the tutor cannot be blamed for the student’s performance. However, if we say all this to the tutor, it will sound like we are invalidating their concern, and that could trigger an escalation.

Instead, we could say something like “This must be frustrating. I’m sure this grade is a disappointment. When we worked together, I felt like I offered constructive criticism and guidance to the best of my ability, but I am open to feedback on my tutoring. What do you think I can do differently to ensure you get the support you need? Do you have any suggestions for how our sessions can better meet your needs?”


2. A student doesn’t want to participate in the tutoring process. They toss their math homework on the desk and demand “Can’t you just do it? I don’t want to.” The tutor says the student must complete their own work, and the student get’s angry. The student says “You’re good at math. I know you can do this. You’re being a jerk.”

Our first impulse is to defend ourselves in this situation. The tutor isn’t really being a jerk; they are simply being academically honest! Arguing about this won’t help the situation—it could even make things worse.

Instead, we can use our active listening skills. We can ask questions and listen to what the student is really saying. We can say: “Why do you feel like you can’t do it? Please help me understand.” This line of questioning gets to the root of the problem. The student might reveal an academic area of confusion, or perhaps they will disclose a lack of confidence in mathematics, or perhaps their schedule is too hectic for homework and they need some time management assistance. There are multiple avenues for this conversation, but we only get to the root issue if we open ourselves to constructive dialogue.

Something to Try

In your next session, pay attention to how the student communicates with you. Were they passive? Aggressive? Assertive? What was your response?

After the session is over, consider the interaction and jot down some ideas for how you can be more assertive in the future. Remember, assertiveness makes space for both you and the student in the conversation.


  1. Alvernia University (2018). 4 Types of Communication Styles. Alvernia University. https://online.alvernia.edu/articles/4-types-communication-styles/
  2. The Trustees of Princeton University (2021). Choosing Your Communication Style U Matter, Princeton University. .https://umatter.princeton.edu/respect/tools/communication-styles
  3. Hulbert, J. E., & Hulbert, D. (1982). The value of assertiveness in interpersonal communication. Management Review, 71(8), 23.
  4. Montemurro, F. (n.d.). “I” Messages or “I” Statements. Boston University Ombuds. https://www.bumc.bu.edu/facdev-medicine/files/2011/08/I-messages-handout.pdf
  5. Shonk, K. (2020). 5 Conflict Resolution Strategies. Program on Negotiation, Daily Blog. Harvard Law School. https://www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/conflict-resolution/conflict-resolution-strategies/
  6. CLIMB Professional Development and Training (2019). How to Handle Conflict in the Workplace. Portland Community College. https://climb.pcc.edu/blog/how-to-handle-conflict-in-the-workplace


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Tutor Handbook Copyright © 2021 by Penny Feltner and gapinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book