INFOGRAPHIC: 8 Tips for Handling a Passive-Aggressive Person

| By Terence Brake

passive aggressive

I confess.  I lost my temper recently with someone I love.  I was feeling exhausted from a long flight, and instead of telling me what she wanted, she just gave me long, freezing (and I mean freezing) looks.  I got angry at her passive-aggressiveness - she was acting out non-verbally, but denying anything was wrong.

What is passive-aggressiveness?  "Indirect resistance to the demands of others, and an avoidance of direct confrontation".  In other words, it is anger behind a mask.

Hands up who has experienced passive-aggressiveness?  Hands up if you have been passive-aggressive.  I see raised hands; the rest of you are lying!

Passive-aggressive behavior comes in many forms:

  • Allowing a problem to escalate through deliberately doing nothing
  • Sarcasm
  • Undermining authority, covertly
  • Silent treatment, non-verbal hostility
  • Withholding important information
  • Spreading rumors, gossiping
  • Saying ‘yes’ while meaning ‘no’ (temporary compliance)
  • Ongoing negativity
  • Evading situations so others are inconvenienced
  • Procrastination and lateness (but not all lateness is passive-aggressive)
  • Deliberate failure
  • Intentional inefficiency and sabotage
  • Being aggressive, then quickly apologizing or backing off
  • Claiming victimhood

What to do?

PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE

1. Learn how to recognize passive-aggressive behavior

I’m reminded of the phrase “People may not always tell you how they feel about you, but they will always show you. Pay attention.”  Look for behaviors like those listed above, in yourself as well as others.  Try to identify passive aggressive behavior early in a relationship.  Once a passive aggressive pattern is established it becomes more difficult to break, although not impossible.

2. Stay calm and positive

Passive aggressive behaviors can be crazy-making, and trap you in a spiral of negativity.  An angry response usually puts the focus on you, when what you need is a focus on the other person’s behavior.  You don’t want to divert attention from the real problem.  Calm assertiveness speaks volumes about your strength and unwillingness to be manipulated.  I failed miserably in the story I told at the beginning of this article, but I’m learning!

3. Be open and direct about your emotions, without being emotional

Focus on how their behavior makes you feel, by using ‘I’ statements rather than ‘You’ statements.  ‘You’ statements imply an accusation, and will only lead to defensiveness rather than a productive conversation about underlying issues.  “I feel something is upsetting you,” is non-threatening.  You also won’t make any headway by adopting a passive aggressive attitude yourself, e.g. being sarcastic or rolling your eyes.

4. Try to get the person to acknowledge they are upset

Do this in a non-confrontational way “I may be wrong, but you seem to be upset that you didn’t get invited to ___________.”  Uncovering and exploring the anger behind the mask in a direct and constructive way is the only way to move forward.  You might have to ask a lot of open-ended and non-judgmental questions to get beyond their denial.  This may take time because passive aggressive people have not usually learned to express their feelings and needs directly.

5. Don’t take the behavior personally

There can be all sorts of reasons why a person behaves in a passive aggressive manner – many of which may have nothing to do with you (their own background and life-situation).  You might also be the most conveniently available person they can be passive aggressive to.   

You can dig for the real cause(s) of the behavior, but be careful about what you might uncover.  You are not a therapist, and may not be able to deal with the fallout.  Also, avoid topics that are sensitive or revealing of your own personal weaknesses; the information you share could come back to haunt you.  

6. Set limits

You don’t want to normalize passive aggressive behavior, so be firm about your boundaries.  Never be a victim.  You are not a punching bag on which others can vent their frustrations – even indirectly - no matter how empowered it makes them feel.  You must ask specifically for what you want in a way that is non-aggressive and respectful of others, but never sink into passivity.  Passive aggressive people tend to target conflict avoiders because they find it relatively easy to push their buttons.  Don’t be timid - it is perfectly reasonable to lay out the consequences of continued passive aggressive behavior.   

7. Co-opt the passive aggressive

Many who demonstrate passive aggressive behavior do so because they feel they have no voice, and are not listened to.  Try to engage them more directly in discussions – “How do you think we should handle this problem?”  You can hope for constructive input, but if all you hear is indirect negativity, move on.  “I hear what you’re saying, and I’ll certainly take your thoughts into account.”  Empower the passive aggressive to be an active problem-solver.  Learned helplessness is common among passive aggressive people.  

8. Reinforce appropriate behavior

Be the role model by being open, clear about expectations, direct, respectful, non-complaining, proactive, and a problem-solver. 

Why is it important to act decisively about a passive aggressive colleague?  The simple answer is that while passive aggressive behavior is a form of self-sabotage, it is also highly toxic on a team – communication, morale, and productivity suffer.

You don’t have to tackle passive aggressive alone.  You can engage the team in establishing norms of behavior that encourage direct and honest interactions.  Team members can help keep one another accountable; peer pressure can influence more strongly than the individual leader.  If that doesn’t work, more drastic actions may be necessary.

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