Dealing With Passive-Aggressive People

Most people know what it is like to deal with relatives and work colleagues who make them uncomfortable in ways they can hardly define. Indeed, some turn passive-aggressive behavior into an art form, upsetting those around them with a mere sigh or roll of the eyes. Unfortunately, such behavior is very common – and learning to deal with it is vital.

The Nature of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Though most people experience passive-aggressive behavior on a daily basis, they tend to let it pass, or not to see it at all. Perhaps that is because passive-aggression is essentially disguised aggression, or, as Scott Wetzler, author of Living With the Passive Aggressive Man puts it, “a sugar-coated hostility.” They are resisting or hurting you, but in an indirect way. Some will even make you feel as if you are to blame. Classic examples of passive-aggressive behavior include sarcasm, sighing, tutting, rolling the eyes, the silent treatment, withholding intimacy and praise, and not smiling or laughing when someone tells a joke or funny story. Sometimes the individual knows just what they are doing and what they hope to achieve; sometimes they are oblivious.

The most obvious question is why people engage in such spiteful behavior. First, passive-aggressive people tend to be both angry and afraid of confrontation. Since they haven’t the taste (or courage) for a face to face argument, and yet simmer with ill-will, they must resist or undermine others in more subtle ways. They also often lack self-esteem or self-worth and bitterly resent the confidence of those around them. Passive-aggressive behavior is thus a way of taking revenge and making others feel as worthless as they feel.

Recognizing it for What it Is

Unlike the obviously aggressive, the passive-aggressive can, and often will, claim that you are deluded or paranoid. The first step is therefore to recognize it for what it is. Disguised or not, aggression is still aggression. The passive-aggressive are seeking to hurt you in some way: to upset you, damage your self-belief, undermine your authority, or even gain power over you.

Only once you have recognized passive-aggressive behavior can you begin to challenge it. Never forget, passive-aggressive people don’t always know what they are doing. And if they are aware of it, they may not realize that you are. For many, it is enough simply to call out such behavior. If a work colleague keeps sighing or fiddling with his phone when you speak, for example, say calmly and clearly “I find that really off-putting.” This alone may be enough. But always be specific. If your colleague practises all sorts of passive-aggressive behavior, from petty sarcastic remarks to making you late for meetings, do not bottle up your resentment until you explode with a torrent of abuse. Instead, respond calmly to what they do at the time they do it: focus on their time keeping or the way they withhold praise and affection. And when you do so, avoid using accusatory language.

For example, if someone keeps making sarcastic remarks, do not say “you are so sarcastic and rude and I’m sick of it.” That will immediately put them on the defensive and may even provoke an angry or violent response. You need to be assertive, not aggressive. So keep your voice firm and clear, but do not raise it. Say “I find sarcastic comments like that really hurtful.” Focus instead on how their behavior affects you; they will find it much harder to retaliate if you do. Accuse someone of something and they have grounds for shouting, arguing, or even complaining to your boss. Explain how they make you feel, however, and there is little they can say.

Valuing Yourself and Setting Boundaries

Before you can challenge passive-aggressive behavior, you must first believe that you deserve better. Once you do, you will be more likely to resist in a sensible, constructive manner. People who lack self-esteem tend either to accept the passive-aggression, assuming they have somehow brought it on themselves, or to go on the attack, raising their voice and demanding things change. Above all, you must make it clear that you are not prepared to tolerate such behavior and that if it continues there will be consequences.

A couple of hypothetical examples should help clarify this. Imagine two friends named Elizabeth and Sarah. Elizabeth is happily married and enjoys her career. Sarah has grown jealous, yet maintains the friendship so she can vent spite. Much of this spite takes the form of passive-aggressive behavior, usually designed to hurt or undermine Elizabeth in some way. One of her little tricks is to always be late – often leaving Elizabeth to wait outside a bar or restaurant in the cold. The message is clear: you are not important. One day, Elizabeth reads an article on passive-aggressive behavior and realises what has been going on all these years. The next time they meet, Sarah suggests going to see a movie the following evening. Elizabeth sees an opportunity to set a few boundaries. She avoids accusatory language, but makes it clear that she will not wait outside if Sarah is late. She focusses on how Sarah’s behavior affects her, explaining that the cinema is in a rough part of town and that she feels uncomfortable standing about on her own in the dark. Six o’clock comes and Sarah isn’t there – so Elizabeth makes a point of going in on her own. If you set boundaries, you must be prepared to enforce them.

Now imagine two work colleagues named Joe and Tom. Joe has been promoted ahead of Tom, and Tom is furious. Being passed over in this way has reinforced deep feelings of worthlessness, which make him long for Joe to fail. Tom now makes it his mission to undermine Joe: when Joe gives a team talk, Tom yawns loudly or plays with his phone; when Joe is late he overhears Tom say “huh, he’s setting a great example isn’t he!” Finally Joe has had enough and decides to put a stop to this. The next time there is a meeting and Joe begins to speak, Tom drums his fingers on the table and stares out of the window. So Joe stops speaking and looks him directly in the face. He keeps his voice firm and clear but does not raise it, neither does he accuse Tom of anything. Instead, he merely says “when you drum your fingers like that I find it hard to concentrate.” From then on, every time Tom behaves in a passive-aggressive manner, Joe is ready, drawing attention to it, stating what Tom is doing and explaining how it affects him.

The problem with passive-aggressive behavior is that the culprit can always deny he is doing anything wrong. If someone grabs you by the collar and pushes you against the wall, or screams swear words in your face, no one can be in any doubt what is happening. Passive-aggression is different. The only way to stop it is to calmly draw attention to it in an assertive but non-accusatory manner. Think of this as like shining a bright, glaring light in the face of a cowardly bully.



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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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