Passive aggressive behavior is a common problem in communication. We are accustomed to dealing with aggressive people. They are not very difficult to deal with, once you have some experience, because they are expressing their feelings and so, you know what the issue is, which allows you to deal with. Passive people tend to keep their problems to themselves but with a little skill and some gentle coaxing, you can get them to open up and tell you what the problem is. Again, once you know what the problem is, you can set about dealing with it. That is the crux of the issue with conflict and communication; if you want to solve a problem, you must first know what the problem is.

Passive aggressive behavior is a com​pletely different animal. The person who is displaying passive aggressive behavior is telling you that they do not have a problem. However, their body language and tone of voice are communicating something entirely different. There is definitely something wrong and you know it but you cannot even get the passive aggressive person to acknowledge that there is a problem, let alone tell you what the problem is. This makes passive aggressive people incredibly difficult to deal with.

9 Tips for dealing with passive aggressive behavior

With passive aggressive behavior, you need to create an environment where it cannot thrive. One of the best ways to do this is to be proactive and create an environment where people feel that they can open up and tell you anything. Doing this, you build trustful and respectful relationships where passive aggressive behavior ceases to be the first choice communication method for people who would normally choose that route.

1. Don’t make demands of others

It doesn’t matter if you sit higher up the hierarchical structure; those who sit below you do not like being told what to do. If your message comes across as a demand, the recipient is more likely to think of it as disrespectful and authoritarian.

Most people are happy to oblige when you ask them to so something. Always choose the polite and respectful route first​. The very act of asking makes them feel appreciated and respected. When people feel that you appreciate them and respect them; they are more motivated to help you and work with you.

Pulling the authority card unnecessarily only encourages resentment and bitterness. Two traits which encourage others to do the bare minimum or less.​

2. Be systematic with procrastinators

Passive aggressive behavior often manifests itself in the form of procrastination. The passive aggressive person resents being told what to do so, in order to get to you, they leave it until the last minute, or later, to complete their work. They know full well that this has a knock on effect on others.

It is their intention to have a knock on effect on others. They want to get back at you, or somebody else, but they do not have the courage to raise their issue in a constructive manner. They believe that by impacting your work, they can make you suffer without you noticing that their actions were deliberate.

When somebody is procrastinating, it is best to take a proactive approach. Check in with them before the job is due to be completed to see what progress is being made. If the job is a big job which will take some time then set regular milestones where you can check in with them to see progress. People are less likely to procrastinate when they have to provide regular updates.

Of course, if the individual is falling behind, it may be for genuine reasons. Consider whether they are being given too much work or require additional training. ​If they need extra support, give it to them. People are less likely to be passive aggressive with those whom they feel are supportive.

This approach doesn’t just have to be used with procrastinators. It allows you to identify any problems which are likely to occur and deal with them before they become a big issue.​

3. Stick to your values

Sometimes passive aggressive people deliberately make mistakes and perform poorly in the hope that they will not be asked to perform such work again. It is a very underhanded method and symptomatic of what passive aggressive behavior really is i.e. they are annoyed at something but refuse to just come out and say it.

There are 2 important things to remember in this type of situation. The first, as with any time that you assign work, is to ensure that you are assigning the job to the right person. A lot of conflict can be avoided by taking your time to identify the best person to do the job.

​The second thing to remember is that you must stick to your values. If you believe that you have done everything right and that this person was the right person to assign the task to, you need to follow the same processes that you would for any other person who is performing poorly. Making exceptions for the passive aggressive person would only encourage more of their behavior as they would feel that they achieved a victory.

4. Refuse to accept unacceptable behavior

Hostility is one of the most common traits of passive aggressive behavior. It can be subtle or it can be overt but either way it is not acceptable and it is not conducive to a good working or living environment.

Unacceptable behavior must be addressed. If you are experiencing hostility, you need to sit them down in a safe environment and address the issue.

  • ​What is the other person’s issue i.e. the cause of their hostility?
  • Why is this issue important to them?
  • How would they like to move forward?

Only when you are certain that you have identified the issue and understand the full importance of the issue to the passive aggressive person should you move on to finding a way forward. Try to find a way forward that is acceptable to both parties. Even if you cannot meet all of their needs, you will have built some trust and respect by demonstrating that you genuinely want to understand their needs and build an amicable relationship.

Many people are afraid to use this method when they encounter passive aggressive behavior but not only are you making it clear that you will not accept unacceptable behaviour; you are demonstrating an effective model for dealing with conflict.

5. Praise great work regularly and sincerely

People should not only hear from you when you have something negative to say. Many people who adopt passive aggressive behavior do so because they feel that they are not appreciated.

If somebody does great work or does something which helps you, make sure that you take the time to offer some positive feedback. Be sincere and tell them specifically what they did well and, how it helped. When you do this on a regular basis they will understand that you appreciate their efforts. They will also be more willing to listen to constructive feedback when you have to offer it.​

6. Reflect, reflect, reflect

Passive aggressive behavior is often subtle. Sometimes the person wants to have a little dig at you but pretend that it was unintentional. On others occasions, passive aggressive behaviour has become so ingrained in the individual that they genuinely may not have noticed what they said/did.

In either case, it is best not to ignore the behavior. It could lead the individual to believe that they got one over on you which may encourage a repeat performance of the behaviour at a later stage. Whether it is intentional or unintentional, passive aggressive behavior is unacceptable and as already stated, unacceptable behavior should never be accepted. Reflection is a wonderful tool for letting others know how that their conduct has been noticed and how it has been interpreted. By bringing the behavior into the open, they are forced to acknowledge it and deal with it.​

7. Reaffirm the agreement

So you’ve spoken with the person who was behaving in a passive aggressive manner and they have agreed to eliminate the behavior and act more appropriately; does this mean that the situation is now dealt with? Of course not.

Like any form of change, their is likely to be some resistance. They are going to fall back into all habits. In fact, in many situations where a conflict is ‘resolved’​ the passive aggressive person will attempt to get the last punch in. It’s usually a subtle little dig but this does not mean that you should accept it. When these situations arise, it is time to reaffirm the agreement. You are reminding them that you will not accept passive aggressive behavior and; you are reminding them of exactly what they agreed to.

Don’t get angry or aggressive, just reaffirm what has been agreed.

8. Refuse to be manipulated

The silent treatment is the classic symptom of passive aggressive behavior. You are greeted with stone wall silence and expected to be a mind reader and understand what has gone wrong. In reality, the silent person does not really want to you to figure the problem out. They want you to feel guilty about having upset them without you actually knowing what upset them. After all, if you knew what it was that upset them, you might actually fix it.

With the silent treatment, it important that you don’t bite. Be realistic with yourself. If you know that you did something wrong, by all means apologize and fix it. However, if you do not know what you supposedly did wrong, you should remember that you cannot fix a problem that you don’t know exists. Refuse to feel guilty and be manipulated.

Of course you should make it clear that you are open to dialogue and address any issues if you have done something wrong. Once you have done so, leave the situation be. To keep trying to get them to talk is only going to reward the behavior and encourage more of it.

9. Model the desired behavior

The most important thing that you can do to tackle passive aggressive behavior in your environment is to ensure that you are always open to communication and honest discussion. Be willing to both give and receive feedback. Demonstrate that you are trustworthy and respectful of others.

Most people who adopt passive aggressive behaviour do not really want to behave in that way. They want to be able to communicate freely and honestly. Maybe they have been hurt in the past when they tried to communicate openly and that has caused them to adopt a different approach. By demonstrating that they can talk openly with you, they will be more inclined to choose that approach in your future discussions. As Gandhi said ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’ Show them how you would like them to behave by behaving that way yourself.​

If you, or someone who interact with, is struggling with Passive Aggressive Behavior, check out tackling passive aggressive behavior

Final thoughts

Passive aggressive behavior is a topic that I receive a lot of emails about. Unfortunately, many of the emails tend to demonize a partner, loved one, colleague or boss. Do not demonize the person. Passive aggressive behavior is a learned behavior which was rewarded and so the person chose (often subconsciously) to behave that way more often. While it is important that you communicate your refusal to accept the behavior, it is just as important that you provide them with an alternative method to communicate their issues. These 9 tips for dealing with passive aggressive behavior will help you to do that.

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