How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive People
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Passive-aggressive people can be difficult. Here are expert tips on how to deal with passive-aggressive behavior—whether it's from a family member or a partner at home, a co-worker at the office, or a stranger in a public place.
Dealing with passive-aggressive people
It’s a classic relationship fight trigger: You sense your partner is angry with you, picking up on their subtle but snide remarks or cold looks. But you aren’t entirely sure why. When you ask them what’s wrong, they reply sullenly: “Nothing. Everything is fine.”
What’s behind that confusing cold shoulder? It’s called passive-aggressive behavior, and it can leave you feeling unsettled.
“Passive-aggressiveness is not only a personality trait but a learned behavior,” explains Regine Muradian, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “If a child is scolded, dismissed, and avoided, they will learn that approaching conflict or a problem is a bother and causes discomfort. This will definitely create conflict, as the passive-aggressive person is not being authentic or honest with their feelings. Open and honest communication is always best from the very start.”
But to understand how to deal with passive-aggressive people, you need to know what exactly characterizes passive-aggressive behavior. (Check out these signs you’re being passive-aggressive without even realizing it.)
What is passive-aggressive behavior?
Aggressive behavior—such as yelling, punching, and throwing things—is easy to recognize and even easier to call out for being offensive. Passive-aggressive behavior, on the other hand, is harder to single out. Regardless, you know it when you experience it. (These are the best ways to deal with anger.)
“Behavior that is passive-aggressive is much more difficult to put into words,” says Jessica L. Griffin, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. “Simply put, passive-aggressive behavior refers to behavior that is indirect and typically results from negative feelings that the individual has difficulty directly or openly expressing.” (Here are some passive-aggressive quotes that shed light on the behavior.)
Despite what you might believe, passive-aggressive behavior isn’t necessarily a sign of a deeper problem, and can be frustratingly common.
“Passive-aggressive behavior is not a mental illness,” says Muradian. “However, it is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them, which ultimately leads to unhealthy relationships.” (Here’s how to stop feeling guilty all the time.)
“Passive-aggressive behavior is very difficult on the people who experience it but it is also difficult for the people who display this behavior,” says Rachel Eva Dew, ND, board-certified doctor of natural medicine, integrative life transformation coach, and cofounder of the integrative telemedicine platform, ModiHealth.
“Many people never learned how to directly communicate requests, needs, concerns, or boundaries directly. Instead, they retroactively send little ‘zingers’ out in the form of words or actions.” This is a way of communicating that they are hurt, that their expectation or need was not met, or that their boundary has been crossed, adds Dew.
Passive-aggressive behavior is a two-way street
Passive-aggressive behavior is a two-way street, however, and you might realize that you are not the victim of passive-aggressive behavior, but in fact actually yourself inflicting it on others.
“If you have identified that you have a pattern of passive-aggressive behavior, now may be the perfect time for you to begin learning a new pattern to getting your needs met in more effective and healthy ways,” says Dew. (These are the signs of a toxic relationship.)
How common is passive-aggressive behavior?
“Passive-aggressive behavior is quite common, and we have all experienced it, either in someone else or within ourselves,” says Muradian. “This behavior occurs when we want to avoid conflict or when addressing an issue that makes us uncomfortable.”
“Passive-aggression is more common than you may think,” agrees Dew, explaining that passive-aggression can show up in a wide range of words, actions, and behaviors. “In its simplest form, passive-aggressive behavior is (the inability) to communicate effectively. When you boil it down to that level of simplicity, we are all guilty of some form of ineffective communication at some point in our lives.” (This is how to build trust in a relationship.)
Knowing that everybody can struggle with effective communication can help us have empathy when dealing with someone who displays passive-aggressive behavior, says Dew.
How harmful is passive-aggressive behavior?
“Passive-aggression creates divides and does not foster resolution,” says Dew. “This can be crippling to any type of relationship.”
It’s possible to experience passive-aggression with virtually anyone—loved ones, coworkers, friends, even strangers. And despite what you might think, it’s not necessarily meant to push your buttons. For some people, it’s just an automatic mode of communication.
“Often passive aggression is a pattern someone learns and practices,” adds Dew. “They may not even be aware that they are doing it. This habit or communication pattern instantly puts others on the defense and does not facilitate clear communication to resolve the initial concern.”
People “generally have good intuition and can feel passive-aggressive behavior when it occurs,” Muradian says. “Think about a time when someone has been passive-aggressive towards you. Most likely you were not left with a good feeling. Problems usually don’t get resolved, which can hurt a relationship, as the person is left on their own, trying to figure out what occurred.”
(Beware of the arguments that end relationships.)
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How to deal with passive-aggressive behavior
Control your response
Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior from a loved one—whether it’s a sullen child or a partner giving you the cold shoulder—can be challenging. After all, just because you’re close and interact with someone on a regular basis doesn’t mean those interactions will necessarily be healthy. While you may be tempted to try to control their behavior, the best approach is to focus on your own behavior.
“While we cannot control the words and behavior of others, we can control our response,” says Dew. “Instead of getting angry, upset, offended, or triggered by someone’s passive-aggression, ask them—lovingly—what they need or how you can best support them in that moment.”
Set and honor boundaries
Dew recommends both setting and honoring boundaries, as well as the importance of clear communication. “Specifically request what you would like to experience instead,” Dew says. “For example, ‘If you are upset with the way that I have done something, it would be helpful if you could clearly let me know what you would have preferred I do instead so that next time I can better meet your needs.’ “
Center your thoughts
Muradian agrees that centering your thoughts takes precedence. “First a person needs to look within and ask themselves, ‘How do I want to resolve conflict going forward? If someone is sarcastic with me or jabs me, do I stay quiet, vent to others, or approach the person?’ ” says Muradian.
She recommends the so-called sandwich technique: Fold something that might be taken in a negative light between two positives. (Here’s how to stop negative self talk.)
“For example, let’s say you are dealing with a passive-aggressive family member at a gathering,” Muradian says. “They say to you, ‘Jenny, don’t use that platter, it’s not nice. Use the one I brought you.’ You can answer with, ‘Thank you for bringing that to me—how kind of you. Today I will use mine and next time I will use yours. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.’ ”
This can diffuse passive-aggressive behavior by not giving in to their demands while still maintaining boundaries, Muradian explains.
Go to therapy
However, as we all know, trying to change somebody you love is difficult, and fights or even long-lasting rifts can occur.
“Be ready for serious pushback,” says Bethany Cook, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist and author of What it’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting. “You can always go to therapy and/or read several books about setting limits and boundaries, as both of these tasks will boost your confidence and skills in this area.”
Barring that, Cook recommends limiting your exposure to the passive-aggressive person by not attending events they’ll be at—a painful but potentially necessary step.
How to deal with passive-aggressive co-workers
Of all the regular places in your life, the workplace is frequently the spot with the least emotional leeway and where you’re most expected to be at the top of your game with social interactions. So how should you behave when faced with passive-aggressive behavior at the office—or, these days, on Zoom?
Ask your co-worker about their thinking process
“The workplace can be challenging, but distancing yourself from the emotion or energy that the passive-aggressive person gives out can be helpful,” Muradian says. “Usually, the passive-aggressive personality type envies the character traits of the other person.”
She explains that passive-aggressive people may have a hard time giving compliments, as well as difficulty approaching conflict and resolving issues.
“They may smile at you and tell you they heard your feelings and will help you, but instead they do the exact opposite,” says Muradian. “Approaching this with tact and asking them what occurred and what their thinking process was can be helpful. Avoid any reaction, as this is what they are looking for.”
Keep it professional
Regardless of the interaction, try to keep it professional. “In the workplace we have different guidelines for behavior,” says Dew. “When communicating thoughts and feelings, it is important to do so in a professional way.” Avoid taking the other person’s behavior personally, she adds.
She advises asking passive-aggressive co-workers questions to help communication go more smoothly. For instance: “Can you please outline your expectations for me so that I can make sure I fully understand what is needed?” “How can I best support you?” “What can I do to be most helpful?” (Feeling burned out at work? These are signs you’re burned out from work stress—and ways to address it.)
How to deal with passive-aggressive behavior from strangers
You might have a handle on how to deal with passive-aggressive behavior from the people you deal with every day. But what about strangers—like, say, someone at the grocery store?
“When dealing with passive-aggressive strangers, it is often best to simply walk away,” says Dew. “While we need to work through communication issues with friends, family, loved ones, and co-workers, we do not have this same need with strangers.” Dew recognizes that at times it’s important for your own self-respect to say something, advising kind but clear communication. Often, however, the most effective choice is to not respond at all.
In fact, when you’re confronted with a passive-aggressive stranger, ignoring them is the best course of action, agrees Cook. “It’s not worth engaging and potentially losing your temper,” she says. “Remember, 99 percent of the time people are reacting to their own internal stimuli and it honestly has nothing to do with you. So don’t make it about you and move on.”
“Their passive-aggressive patterns are most likely an inability to communicate kindly and effectively,” adds Dew. “They are most likely not trying to hurt or harm you. Let their junk be their junk. Just let it go.”
Next, follow these tips for more productive arguments.
- Jessica L. Griffin, PsyD, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusettes
- Regine Muradian, PsyD, clinical psychology, Los Angeles
- Bethany Cook, PsyD, clinical psychologist, health service psychologist, a board-certified music therapist, and author of What it's Worth: A Prospective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting, Chicago
- Rachel Eva Dew, ND, board-certified doctor of natural medicine, integrative life transformation coach, and co-founder of the first integrative telemedicine platform, ModiHealth