Slights with a smile. Silence when you know they can hear you. Compliments with a side of side-eye. Passive aggressive people know how to serve up a veritable buffet of “Oh no she didn’t.” And tacking on “LOL” afterwards doesn’t negate things.
However it manifests, passive aggression is the fine art of being angry without seeming angry. There are two ingredients: anger and avoidance.
The first, anger—or its cousins annoyance, frustration, or irritation—always bubbles beneath the surface. But trying to suppress anger is like trying to keep a lid on a pot of boiling water. Eventually, it will spew out like a steam vent.
In addition to thinly-veiled anger, the second ingredient in passive aggression is avoidance. It’s a way to avoid conflict, avoid feeling genuine anger, and avoid having to be direct in a situation where one feels incapable.
Individuals who are passive aggressive learned somewhere along the way that it’s not okay to be angry. Maybe they were taught that conflict is so threatening it has to be avoided at all costs. Maybe they were taught that being “nice” is the only option. Or maybe it’s their way of expressing their dissatisfaction without outright rebellion.
So what to do when your partner insists through clenched teeth, “I’m not mad.” Or your teenager says with an eye roll, “Geez, you didn’t tell me you wanted me to do my laundry today”? Or your roommate spells out “I unclogged the drain” in bathtub hair that looks suspiciously like yours? Here are 6 tips to try.
How to Handle Passive Aggressive People
- Tip #1: Look for a pattern.
- Tip #2: Make it clear that it’s safe to talk it out.
- Tip #3: For incurable cases, validate them…
- Tip #4: …hold them to their responsibilities…
- Tip #5: …and reward them when they’re properly assertive.
Let’s explore each a little further.
Tip #1: Look for a pattern.
We’re all human, and we all have our days. Sometimes a comment or an eye roll will leak out, like a spurt from a steam vent.
But if it’s a pattern, or a default when things get stressful, passive-aggression needs to be dealt with.
But dealing with it is precisely what the passive aggressive person is trying to avoid. Passive aggressive people avoid conflict like the plague. They’re too scared or just don’t know how to handle conflict, so they avoid it. But then resentment builds and their hostility leaks more than a porcupine’s raincoat. Which brings us to…
Tip #2: Make it clear that it’s safe to talk it out.
Passive aggressive people are afraid you’ll yell at them, reject them, stop loving them, or otherwise react in a much stronger manner than you actually will.
It’s particularly important to call out passive aggressive behavior at work. Passive aggressive colleagues are often unhappy or insecure in their jobs. But rather than raising the issue, passive aggressive co-workers create obstacles, waste time, and generally make everyone’s job more difficult, not to mention less pleasant.
Therefore, whether at work or at home, make it clear you would rather hear about problems than leave them roiling under wraps. Critically, reinforce this by not reacting with the very thing they’re afraid of. If you blow your top, belittle them, or otherwise silence their anger, they’ll go right back to letting it bubble under the surface again. They’ll go right back into their shell, like a hermit crab with only the claws hanging out.
Now, if you try to talk it out but they still deny anger or dissatisfaction (“Me? I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” Or, “Sorry I was late, but you should have sent a reminder email,”) things suddenly go to a whole different level. Which brings us to…
Tip #3: For incurable cases, validate them…
Sometimes, passive aggression is so ingrained it becomes a default way to deal with the world. For chronically passive aggressive individuals, in addition to avoiding anger, they avoid responsibility.
Passive aggressive people do this to avoid being exposed as a failure (after all, if the dog eats their homework, you can’t give them an F on it) or to avoid a job they think they’re too good for (“Who does Dad think he is, telling me to mow the lawn?”).
However it manifests, the passive aggressive person acts defensive; they make themselves the victim. This puts you in a difficult place, because no matter how you present it, they’ll see your attempt to communicate and raise you a deflection and an excuse. “What? I unloaded the dishwasher just like you asked—you didn’t tell me I had to put the dishes in the cabinet.”
After all, passive aggressive people, as aggravating as they are, are just like everybody else at heart: they want love and approval.
Therefore, start with empathy. Acknowledge their excuse, even if you’re rolling your eyes internally. Why? It’s vital to align yourself with them, because working against them is slippery at best, antagonistic at worst. “I hear you.” “That sounds hard.” “I understand.” “I get it.” Make it clear that you’re working together as a team. But then…
Tip #4: …hold them to their responsibilities…
People who are passive aggressive do it precisely because they get away with it. If they get a free pass because the dog ate their homework, you can bet they’ll be dipping tonight’s homework in gravy and making it happen again.
So acknowledge their situation, align yourself with them, but then hold them to their responsibilities, even if (especially if!) it would be easier to bail them out or do their job yourself.
For example, “The dog ate your homework? I’m so sorry that happened to you. That happened to me a few times—it stinks. Here’s another copy—you can hand it in tomorrow along with tonight’s homework.”
In a nutshell, there’s acknowledgement and sympathy for their victimhood, but the standards don’t change. It’s worth the inconvenience on your part to nip it in the bud. “I understand you didn’t go to the grocery store because you couldn’t remember what I asked you to pick up. But I still need onions and lemons to make dinner, so thanks for going now.”
Tip #5: …and reward them when they’re properly assertive.
If the chronically-late passive aggressive person manages to show up on time, express genuine pleasure that they’re present. Not with a sarcastic, “Nice to see you on time for once,” but with a big smile and a seat at the table.
Likewise, if someone who usually procrastinates completes a task on time, give them the praise they secretly want. “Hey, you’re here right on the dot. I really appreciate that.”
After all, passive aggressive people, as aggravating as they are, are just like everybody else at heart: they want love and approval. And while they sure make it hard to get past their prickles, with some strategic moves, you can help them behave better around you, which is totally worth missing out on hilariously passive aggressive notes left in the office fridge.
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