Interpersonal style refers to the way individuals interact and communicate with others. It encompasses various aspects such as verbal and non-verbal communication, emotional expressiveness, listening skills, and conflict resolution. A person’s interpersonal style can greatly influence their relationships, both personal and professional.
We biologically are drawn to others. We depend on others in a variety of ways. As much as we shout and clamor for independence, underneath our wellness largely depends on filling our need to belong. I overheard a worker sitting in the back office of an establish I recently had business with proclaim, “In the end, you must do what is best for yourself.” Perhaps, he is correct. But often, what is best for ourselves is to build healthy relationships. And this requires sacrifice of immediate desires for self gratification in service of building better relationships.
Waldinger and Marc Schulz Ph.D., wrote that, “good relationships are significant enough that if we had to take all eighty-four years of the Harvard Study and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a wide variety of other studies, it would be this: Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period” (Waldinger& Schulz, 2023). We go about building these ‘good relationships’ in a variety of individual ways, matching our interpersonal styles.
Interpersonal style is the patterned behavioral ways (verbal and non-verbal) an individual interacts and communicates with others.
Self, Others, and Mental Resources
However, not all interpersonal style are effective means for building and maintaining intimate and healthy relationships. Our brains have evolved to connect. We utilize many means to connect with others. Some of these methods are adaptive and healthy; other methods maladaptive and destructive. Even the narcissist, seeks ways to steal mental resources. However, their particular style often relies on deception and manipulation.
Daniel Goleman wrote “neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into the intimate brain-to-brain link-up whenever, we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with just as they do us.” He continues, “during these neural linkups, our brains engage in an emotional tango, a dance of feelings. Our social interactions operate as modulators, something like interpersonal thermostats that continually reset key aspects of our brain function as they orchestrate emotions” (Goleman, 2007).
Recruiting Others to Serve Our Personal Purposes
Some researchers strictly view interpersonal interactions as a process to gather resources through manipulation of others. Weinstein, Wiley, and DeVaughn wrote, that in their research they view “interactive behavior as efforts by one actor to control the responses of another.” They theorize that “one of the main ways people attempt to influence how others behave towards them is to project an identity for others to assume in the situation, an identity which is congruent with their own purposes” (Weinstein, Wiley, & DeVaughn, 1966). They refer to this process as altercasting.
Weinstein, Wiley, and DeVaughn’s concept of projecting an image likely to control others to satisfy personal purposes in not original. It basically is only a slight twist to the defensive mechanism of projective identification. Projective identification is a complex process that integrates a basic defense mechanism (projection) with a interpersonal systemic process (Murphy, 2023). Arthur C. Nielson explains that projective identification is “an interpersonal defense mechanism by which individuals (inducers) recruit others (recipients) to help them tolerate painful intrapsychic states of mind” (Nielson, 2019).
Perhaps, the unknown office worker is right on point. We attempt to control others to serve our own purposes. Yet, in our selfish pursuits, through selfish interpersonal styles, we may unintentionally damage our narcissistic aims by alienating, hurting, and biassing those who would otherwise most likely continue to work with us as an ally against the harsh and difficult environments of life.
Complexity, Roles, Personality, and Insecurities
While some of the components of our interpersonal styles of interactions are amazingly resilient, our interpersonal interactions are complex. We take on different roles, depending who we are communicating with. Each role tends to have its own colorful shade of our interpersonal style. Not only do we tend to adapt our communication style depending on our role, we also fluctuate interpersonal style to our current situation. Situational environments may create a very different look to our interpersonal style.
Our personalities, attachment styles, and short and extended situational environments combine to create complex expressions of interpersonal styles. For example, I have an underlying feeling of inferiority. According to Alfred Adler, this is a common state for most people. Under certain circumstances, such as during a divorce, these feelings of inferiority were magnified, lacing some of my interpersonal interactions with more attachment insecurities than I normally experienced during other times of my life.
Self-complexity is the norm. Accordingly, labelling interpersonal styles through a few dozens question in a inventory questionnaire will provide a crude idea of interpersonal tendencies but fall woefully short in identifying the complex construction of an individual’s style. However, research needs generally agreed upon structure with definitions. And thus, psychologists have created models for defining personality (the big five) and models for identifying differences in interpersonal styles.
A circumplex is created by measuring traits or characteristics on two orthogonal axes, which naturally create four quadrants. The scores can then be plotted on a graph, with the results placing the individual in one of the four quadrants. The circumplex can be divided into broad segments (such as fourths) or narrow segments (such as sixteenths), but most interpersonal circumplex inventories partition the circle into eight octants. As one moves around the circle, each octant reflects a progressive blend of the two axial dimensions.
Over the last several decades research has presented many circumplex models to define interpersonal styles. One of the early models is known as the Leary Circumplex developed by Timothy Leary in 1957. Leary’s model consisted of intersecting axes of power and love. The opposite sides of power were dominance and submission. The love axis was defined by love and hate. From these two axes (power and love) Leary constructed a sixteen variable category circumplex with multiple degrees to define and measure interpersonal behaviors.
He slightly simplified the sixteen variable categories into eight general categories:
- Competitive—Narcissistic (Leary, 1957).
Like any measurements of personalities, basic traits are neither good or bad. However, extremes on any trait usually are maladaptive. Accordingly, one may fall in the octant Docile—Dependent or Aggressive—Sadistic but still engage in healthy ‘normal’ relationships as long as the measurement is not on the extreme outer edges of the circumplex. The octant provides a general description of our interpersonal style.
A More Common Circumplex for Interpersonal Styles
Most interpersonal research continue to use similar axes as the Leary model. The modern interpersonal circumplex is defined by two orthogonal axes: a vertical axis (of status, dominance, power, ambitiousness, assertiveness, or control) and a horizontal axis (of agreeableness, compassion, nurturant, solidarity, friendliness, warmth, affiliation or love).
A person placed on the extremes of the vertical axis (y-axis) displays clear messages of dominance or submissiveness. And a person placed on the extremes of the horizontal axis (x-axis) expresses distinct messages of warmth or hostility. Most of us fall closer to the center on both of the axes, showing slight tendencies or styles to act one way or another during interpersonal interactions.
From these two measurements (dominance and friendliness), researchers created an eight octant circumplex.
Placing a person near one of the poles of the axes implies that the person tends to convey clear or strong messages (of warmth, hostility, dominance or submissiveness). Conversely, placing a person at the midpoint of the agentic dimension implies the person conveys neither dominance nor submissiveness (and pulls neither dominance nor submissiveness from others). Likewise, placing a person at the midpoint of the communal dimension implies the person conveys neither warmth nor hostility (and pulls neither warmth nor hostility from others).
For a diagram such as the interpersonal circumplex to have research value there must be common agreed upon terms for evaluating individual styles to plot them on the graph. This is accomplished through inventories or psychological tests. There exist a variety of psychological tests designed to measure these eight interpersonal circumplex octants.
- the Interpersonal Adjective Scales (IAS; Wiggins, 1995)
- the Inventory of Interpersonal Problems (IIP; Horowitz, Alden, Wiggins, & Pincus, 2000)
- the Inventory of Interpersonal Strengths (IIS; Hatcher & Rogers, 2009)
- the Circumplex Scales of Interpersonal Values (CSIV; Locke, 2000)
- the Person’s Relating to Others Questionnaire (PROQ),
- the Impact Message Inventory-Circumplex (IMI; Kiesler, Schmidt, & Wagner, 1997)
Each of these inventory questionnaires focus on different areas of interpersonal communication and style.
How Do Interpersonal Styles Develop?
We have this internal drive to connect. A need for belonging. However, how we connect may take many different roads. We learn from experiences beginning in our childhood homes, draw from hurts and pleasures as we explore peer relationships in various stages of our development, and significantly, we lean upon our own personality propensities from our genetic make-up.
Development of style of interaction is a complex process of reciprocal influence. Based upon our personality, we interact with our environment, which, by the way, is packed with people acting and interacting with their environment according to their own personal preferences. We all learn, grow, and adapt according to the pleasure and pain interpreted from these interactions. By the time we move into our young adult years, we have established stable styles of interaction.
These interpersonal styles may continue to adapt to new relationships but tend to become more stable as we age.
Effective Interpersonal Styles
We all are different. We all have individual tendencies. However, not every style or characteristic engenders effective relationships.
Effective interpersonal style involves being respectful, empathetic, and considerate towards others. It means being able to actively listen and understand different perspectives, allowing for constructive and meaningful communication. Individuals with a positive interpersonal style often create a supportive and inclusive atmosphere, fostering strong connections with those around them.
If we struggle with relationships, perhaps, we should look to improve some of these characteristics.
Ineffective Interpersonal Styles
Childhood and early life trauma bully our personalities into integrating survival styles. Our adopted styles may serve us well in a toxic environment. However, as we leave that environment the same style may interfere with healthy connections.
Individuals who struggle with their interpersonal style may experience difficulties in their relationships. They may struggle to effectively express themselves, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. Additionally, a negative interpersonal style characterized by a lack of empathy, poor communication skills, or aggressiveness can strain relationships and create a hostile environment.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Developing a healthy and productive interpersonal style is crucial for building and maintaining successful relationships. It starts with self-awareness and recognizing one’s own communication strengths and weaknesses. By actively seeking to improve communication skills, such as active listening, assertiveness, and conflict resolution, individuals can enhance their interpersonal style and foster more positive connections with others.
In conclusion, interpersonal style plays a significant role in how individuals interact with one another. By cultivating effective communication skills and demonstrating respect and empathy, individuals can establish harmonious relationships and contribute to a positive social environment.
Goleman, Daniel (2007). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam; NO-VALUE edition.
Leary, Timothy (1957). Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality. New York: Ronald Press
Murphy, T. Franklin (2023). Projective Identification. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-30-2023. Accessed 10-3-2023.