How to deal with (and win against) passive aggressive people
Dealing with passive aggressive people is never fun, but you can confront them effectively with these simple techniques.
by: E.B. Johnson
We all have that passive-aggressive someone in our lives, be they a coworker or a family member. Dealing with passive aggressive people is a difficult thing to do, but confronting their toxic behaviors is necessary in order to protect our own wellbeing and peace of mind.
Learning how to stop passive aggressive people in their tracks takes a little know-how and practice to master, but it’s it the only way to insulate yourself from the corrosive effects of their behind-the-hand manipulations. Protect yourself by understanding passive aggressive behavior when you see it and discover the simple techniques you can use to handle it effectively.
What is passive aggressive behavior?
Passive-aggressiveness is basically the tendency to engage in indirect expressions of hostility through subtle insults, stubbornness, sullen behavior or a deliberate failure to do what has been promised. Because passive-aggressive behavior is indirect, it can often be hard to spot. Identifying this toxic manifestation is important, however, to avoid some serious psychological consequences.
Signs of chronic passive-aggressiveness.
Those who are chronically passive-aggressive are the most dangerous to our peace of mind, often engaging in behaviors that are very serious and sabotaging in their nature.
There are 4 signs that someone is chronically or seriously passive-aggressive:
- An unreasonable nature that is impossible to deal with.
- Inability to express hostility directly.
- Repeating of subterfuge over and over again.
- Intentional creation of an uncomfortable living or working environment.
These behaviors may be directed toward a single person or a group, it doesn’t matter to the passive-aggressive person who feels themselves slighted.
The root causes of these types of subtle hostilities are varied and complex. Whatever reasons an individual has for treating their loved ones and coworkers with this type of mean behavior, however, you can be sure that the roots run fast and deep.
Why people lash out passive aggressively.
It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, black or white. People of all cultures and all socioeconomic backgrounds engage in dysfunctional behavior that is passive-aggressive undermining. While every person is different, there are generally 5 core fundamentals as to why passive people lash out the way they do.
A rocky family history.
It might come as no surprise to you that the way we behave with and around others is formed primarily in our childhoods, during which we learn how to model the behaviors of our parents, caretakers and siblings.
A strong or domineering parent is often a strong indicator of passive aggressive behavior later-on in life, and overbearing siblings can lead to a power struggle over attention, affection and approval.
Growing up in an environment in which there is a power struggle over obedience, conformity or individual identity can also lead to the development of passive aggressive tendencies. When we struggle to find our own sense of self or power early on in life, we wind up becoming uncomfortable with our own emotions and the expression of those emotions.
The belief that anger is socially unacceptable.
The primary reason that growing up in these environments fosters a fear of open hostility is because it also fosters the belief that anger is socially unacceptable.
Though anger is a normal and natural human emotion, we have been coached from a very young age to believe that our anger is bad. Right in the midst of our most critical emotional development, we are told by parents, caregivers, teachers and even friends that our anger is “wrong” and that feeling it is wrong too. We struggle to suffocate it, but it always backfires, blowing up in our faces in unexpected ways.
Over time we come to believe that, in order to be “good” we cannot be angry. Squashing this honest self-expression is one of the quickest ways to find yourself (or someone you love) in a passive-aggressive spiral that’s guarantee to eat away at any relationship you have.
Feeling as though passive aggression is easier than assertiveness.
These days, we are taught to conform from the moment we can walk, talk and think. We live not only in a social media age, but an age of common core and standardized tests. The last thing that’s appreciated is humanity in this digital decade, and more and more our “soft skills” are being edged out in favor of conformity.
Holding the belief that anger is somehow “wrong” can lead to an individual becoming ill-at-ease with their own assertiveness. When you don’t feel comfortable with your own right to speak up, it becomes easy to hit back at the people who have done you wrong with passive-aggressive behaviors that are simultaneously self-defeating and self-sabotaging.
Revenge feels good.
Sometimes, we engage in passive-aggressive behavior simply because it feels good. Getting slighted in life is common and happens to everyone at some point. Feeling as though someone has sold us short, we feel driven to get even but that’s a hard thing to do when you are unable to understand or process the underlying anger.
Need to reclaim personal power.
Passive-aggressive people have an uncanny ability to not only deny their own feelings of anger but also cast themselves in the role of the victim while sabotaging the success of others.
These are individuals that create feelings in other people through emotional manipulation, and escalate problems in order to exact their own hidden revenges.
More often than not, these behaviors are engaged in because these individuals are trying to reclaim some of the personal power they feel was lost along the way. This need can be rooted in their childhood traumas or it can be rooted in their more recent past experiences. Whatever it is, the sense of power generated by passive-aggressive behavior is false and a fleeting feeling that’s more poisonous than we may realize.
How to deal with passive-aggressive people (and win).
Because passive-aggressive people mask their real feelings, they can be hard to deal with. Dealing with them can be done, though, and you can even win in a battle against them with the right attitude and understanding. Use a mix of these simple techniques to master the master-manipulator in your life.
1. Keep your distance when you can.
The quickest and easiest solution when it comes to handling someone who likes to undermine you, is to keep your distance when you can. In many ways, passive-aggressives are harder to deal with than openly hostile people. Avoid the pitfalls by avoiding them altogether — stripping them of their manipulative powers.
2. Before you react: reduce the personalization and misunderstanding.
Rather than reacting to someone who is attempting to cut at your sense of self subtly, refuse to jump to conclusions and come up with different ways of looking at the situation.
Avoiding personalization allows you to keep a firm hold of your personal power and perceive the expressions of others more objectively. The reactions and behaviors of others are almost always a reflection of them not us, but we have to remind ourselves of that regularly.
3. Set boundaries and consequences.
Because passive-aggressive people behave covertly, they put up major resistance when they are confronted for their actions. They’ll deny, make excuses and finger point anywhere they can to escape the consequences of their actions. It’s up to you to make sure your boundaries are firm, however, and the consequences are adhered to.
No matter what the passive aggressive says or does, offer strong consequences for the negative behavior and stand by your decisions when they’re made. Defining the consequences of poor behavior starts with defining your boundaries; a necessary exercise in self-worth that every single one of us should engage in.
4. Get proactive and formal.
For those underminers we have to deal with on a regular basis, it’s important to put a stop to their behavior early and finitely. The behaviors that passive-aggressive people engage in usually occurs in a pattern and noticing those patterns and stopping them early on is key to protecting ourselves from the damaging effects.
Set the tone of your relationship by formalizing your communications when needed. Put things in writing and have third parties present when you let the other person know just what you will and will not tolerate any longer.
Because passive-aggressive behavior happens on the sly, it’s often necessary to confront it directly, but that has to be done in the right tone and with the right intention. Ask the passive-aggressive person probing questions to clarify their point of view and fact-check their assumptions. You can also review previous communications and substantiate your position through clear and concise examples.
Avoid making accusations or statements that begin with, “You did…” Focus instead on sentences that begin with “I…we…let’s….” and “this” followed by clear and concrete facts. For example:
- “I don’t feel comfortable with the way you are joking. It’s offensive to me and it hurts my feelings.”
- “I noticed that things haven’t gotten done.”
Establish your own credibility in the argument by providing recent examples of behaviors or comments that prove your points, without pushing it too far into “I told you so,” territory.
5. Don’t attempt to change the other person.
It can be tempting to attempt to change the passive-aggressive person, but this would be an exercise in futility. It is impossible to change other people — the only people that can change are those who wish to change for themselves.
Attempting to change the behaviors of someone who doesn’t know how to process their emotions is a time-consuming dialogue that undermines our sense of self.
While these efforts are admirable, they often end in frustration and disappointment. The reasons for passive-aggressive behavior are complex and deep-rooted, the people who engage in this type of behavior cannot correct their errors until they become more self-aware.
Remember: It’s not your job to change anyone. The only person who you are responsible for is yourself. Clean your own porch and let them clean their own when they’re ready.
6. Avoid the tit-for-tat battle.
When we’re on the receiving end of poor or passive-aggressive behavior, it can be tempting to get even, but engaging in this type of antic is only sinking to the level of the other person. You might feel the urge to strike back with pointed language or equally passive-aggressive actions, but that will only result in more accusations, denials and claims of victimhood. The only person you’ll strike back at is yourself. Avoid this at all costs.
7. Display composure through humor.
This tactic is a personal favorite of mine and one of the best ways to diffuse the situation when you’re on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior. Rather than getting even with snide remarks, use the most powerful communication tool you possess: humor.
Humor can be a massive helpmeet when it comes to diffusing a potentially toxic or “aggro” situation. When appropriately used, humor can shine light on the truth and disarm bad behavior — while simultaneously showing you have the superior wit and composure.
8. Give them a chance to fix it.
Sometimes, a passive-aggressive person isn’t all that bad. They just need a little help to get going in the right direction again. If appropriate, give the person a chance to fix the problem and correct their behavior. We all deserve a second chance, after all.
Many passive-aggressive people behave the way that they do because they believe they don’t have a voice.
Years of struggling for the light they need has caused them to believe that they must create conflict in order to be seen, but you can undo that by listening to them and including them in the solutions that you’re looking for.
When you confront them about their behavior, give them a change to explain themselves and listen to them — no matter how absurd or asinine you might find their grievances to be. Don’t agree or disagree with them, just listen, and let them know you’ll keep their point of view in mind…as long as they do the same with yours.
Putting it all together…
Passive-aggressive people are unpleasant to deal with, but deal with them we must; whether they be our friends, our family or just that annoying coworker that we kind of love to hate. Dealing with people who like to undermine your confidence subtly is hard, but it can be done with a little understanding of what passive-aggressive behavior is and how it manifests.
Remember that subtle hostility often comes from a place of childhood trauma or family pain and remember that anyone — anyone — can find themselves engaging in passive-aggressive behavior. Handling the passive aggressive people in our lives can be done by sticking to our boundaries and handling situations with a little grace and humor, but you have to steer clear of the tit-for-tat battles.
If you’re dealing with someone who always seems to be attacking you from behind, stay strong. The actions of others are not a reflection of us, but of them. Know yourself and stay true to your integrity and values.