Dealing with passive aggressive people

Dealing with passive aggressive people

Passive aggressive people can be very frustrating to deal with. They say everything is “fine” or that “nothing’s the matter”, but everything they do tells you the opposite. So how do you recognise and deal with them?

The thing to bear in mind with passive aggressive people is the word aggressive.  They may express their aggression through withholding and withdrawing but it is still aggression.  Just as someone who was physically or actively aggressive, remember that passive aggressive people are deliberately in conflict with you.

We can all act passively aggressively from time to time.  However, for some people it has become the routine way that they express their discontent and disagreement.  These are the people who are routinely dismissive, critical, and sarcastic.  The overuse of the phrase “I was only joking” is a sign, along with rapidly withdrawing into silence, and sabotaging other people through misunderstandings and missing deadlines.

The 4 key steps in dealing with passive aggressive behavior are

1 – Don’t reciprocate.

There is something about being faced with this sort of behavior that can make responding in kind seem very attractive.  It can seem a way of sending a message that we know what is really going on, and holds out the prospect of ‘beating them at their own game’.  Instead stay assertive when you’re tackling this behavior.

2 – Set limits on their behaviour and stick to them

Make it plain to them that their behavior must change, and set the boundaries.  If a person is constantly late and it bothers you, make it clear to them that next time they’re late you’ll simply start without them.  The stronger the consequences, and the more consistently you apply them, the more likely they are to alter their behavior.

3 – Don’t generalize 

Sticking with the example of the person who is always late, don’t say “You’re always late”.  The routinely passive-aggressive will be able to turn this into a discussion about whether that statement is correct, and bog down the conversation.  Instead stick to specifics – “You were late the last three times, and 25 minutes late this morning”.  It means checking and being sure of your facts, but it’s a much sounder basis for a discussion.

4 – Don’t personalise

The last sentence “You were late the last three times, and 25 minutes late this morning” was an improvement on “You’re always late”, but it can be improved again.  Many passive aggressive people cast themselves as victims, and will see “You were late the last three times” as a personal attack.  Instead take the heat out of it by talking about its effect on you.  So “When you were late the last three times it made other people feel not valued” or “I noticed that the last three meetings started without you” are improvements again.


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