5 Ways to Deal with the Passive-Aggressive People

posted: 04/21/16
by: Katie Morton
woman rolling eyes

Dealing with someone who is passive-aggressive is the worst (am I right?). Especially if you're more of a straight shooter, interactions with someone who skirts around tough topics can sometimes make you doubt your own sanity. You may wonder: Is it me or is it them? But knowing how to handle passive aggression behavior -- both at home and in the workplace -- is anything but simple. Here are some tips on how to defuse their behavior and take control of the situation.

What exactly is passive aggression?

Passive-aggressive behavior can be subtle, which can make it tough to spot and call out. It can be expressed in a multitude of ways, but experts say that all passive-aggressive behavior stems from the same root cause: fear of conflict. Those who are passive-aggressive seek to avoid conflict, while engaging in subtly hostile actions along the way.

How can I recognize passive-aggressive behaviors?

Here's a quick list of potential passive-aggressive actions:

  • Withholding support, praise, or affection
  • The silent treatment
  • Inappropriate criticism
  • Ill-directed humor or sarcasm
  • Sabotage of life goals or work
  • Repeated disregard of your feelings (constantly running late or continuing to engage in behavior you've said bothers you)
  • Indirect violence (destroying property or slamming doors)

Recognize a few of these? All of these behaviors can lead you feeling personally attacked and uncertain of what to do. Don't despair, there are ways you can cope and redirect communication.

How to cope and communicate

Whether it's in the checkout line or in a meeting, you'd be the world's luckiest person if you haven't had to deal with one or more of these actions. But, for the sake of your personal and professional relationships, it's important that you learn to tackle with this sort of behavior head-on. Try these tricks for neutralizing passive-aggressive people.

1. Stay level-headed

It can be hard not to take passive-aggressive behavior as a personal affront to you, but losing your cool and composure isn't going to help anyone. Keep your wits and avoid engaging in aggressive counter behavior -- it will just make a passive-aggressive person play the victim card.

2. Learn assertive communication

Assertive communication takes a problem-centered approach to dealing with issues while still being respectful of others and using a "win-win" mentality. For example, if a co-worker isn't pulling his weight on a project and says something to the effect of "my work doesn't matter, since you're the one presenting anyway," try this approach. First, validate his feelings (you understand why he'd be upset you're presenting, but because of your relationship with the client, it makes sense), then make a clear request (But I really could use your help. You're great at Powerpoint. Would you mind building out our presentation?).

3. Don't target

It can be tempting to use phrases such as "You always...!" But that just puts the other person on the defensive. Simply by rephrasing your statements into "I, We, Our..." language can make the other person listen, rather than feel attacked.

4. Set consequences

This step can be tough because it requires you to follow through if the person doesn't respect your requests. With a friend who's always late, tell them that you will leave the restaurant the next time they make you wait. For the mother-in-law who makes subtle but harsh parenting digs, tell her you will end her visit with her grandchild and go home the next time she does it.

5. Follow through

By stating your limits and then acting on them when the line is crossed, you take back control of the communication in a positive way. Once the passive-aggressive person has to deal with the fallout of their behavior, it may give them pause to reconsider their words and actions.

Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior can be frustrating, but you don't have to tolerate these interactions. Rather, be assertive, respectful, and set limits to create a dialogue so that you're creating a positive atmosphere for recognizing and addressing the passive aggression.