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Dial Direct: How to respond to passive-aggression in daily life

You’ve all heard the phrase passive-aggressive and chances are that you have also experienced the behavior in your daily lives. But do you really know what passive-aggressive means and why people exhibit this behavior? When you experience passive-aggression, do you know the best way to neutralize it?

What does passive-aggressive mean?
The term passive-aggressive refers to the unhealthy way in which some people respond to minor issues or conflicts indirectly rather than head-on. This non-assertive expression of negative feelings such as frustration or anger often appears as subtle, emotional retaliation rather than direct communication.

What does passive-aggression look like?
Passive-aggressive behavior can run the gamut from passively unhelpful to downright rude. Some examples of its many manifestations are:

  • Saying yes, but then not following through with a task
  • Procrastination or putting things off until it is too late
  • Responding in a calm, but resentful way
  • Reluctance to accept the suggestions of others
  • Blaming others for something one’s own negligence caused
  • Doing something poorly
  • Sullen behavior
  • Deliberately ineffective or inefficient behavior
  • Withdrawing from communication  
  • “I’ll show them” or “I’ll get them back” attitude

Why do people behave this way?
The failure (or inability) to voice one’s true feelings that is inherent in passive-aggressive behavior is often the result of general communication and self-esteem issues. These may originate in the person’s family, a marriage where there is an imbalance of power, or some other relationship in which the person felt or feels they are at a power disadvantage.  This behavior is widespread, with both women and men exhibiting it, but why? One reason we see a lot of this behavior is that being angry out out-right hostile can quickly make one unpopular, even though it is perfectly normal to be angry at times. A core belief that keeps this behavior alive is the sense of being a victim. Passive-aggressive people don't feel like they are in control and thus attempt to gain control over situations with manipulative behaviors instead of direct communication or confrontation.  It is a form of learned helplessness that is camouflaged as quiet, covert hostility.

People who are too passive or shy to express their true emotions and opinions may get frustrated and use this dysfunctional technique to retaliate or express irritation in a socially acceptable manner.  For some, expressing anger covertly, through poor work, sullen behavior, or procrastination feels safer than direct communication.   Passive-aggressive behavior is one way that a person who has trouble being assertive reacts to being asked to do something they don’t want to do. When they feel unfairly treated, burdened, or inconvenienced they respond with passive-aggression because taking a stand might bring conflict that they would rather avoid. It is a way of getting back at the person who made the request in a convenient, comfortable way. This may be out of fear of conflict, but it can also be the way they were raised. To a passive-aggressive person, this response feels morecomfortable than assertiveness.    

The main problem with passive-aggressive behavior is that it does not usually lead to resolution of the issue causing annoyance. Instead, the negative feelings build in the passive-aggressive person and those on thereceiving end. This can make it difficult to solve problems because the passive-aggressive party seldom expresses their true feelings about a situation. Assertiveness must be learned and if passive-aggression was the coping mechanism modeled for an individual, they may not even know that it is unhealthy.  As one continues to use this technique, they grow more and more irritated and resentful. 

How can you neutralize passive-aggressive action?

There are several techniques for effectively shutting down passive-aggressive behavior. Here we will look at 5 that are particularly effective. 

  1. Take note: Learning to identify and name passive-aggressive behavior when it arises is challenging but invaluable to ending it.
  2. Refuse to engage: Do not respond to the person behaving passive-aggressively with frustration and do not respond in kind. Instead, be calm and ask them directly what is bothering them.
  3. Reflect back: Feel free to call them out on their behavior and let them know that if there is an issue, you would love to discuss it directly.
  4. Be cool: Don’t get angry, emotional, or frustrated – demonstrate for the passive-aggressive person how to assertively deal with an issue.
  5. Be frank: Explain that passive-aggressive behavior does not work, but don’t expect the person to change quickly. It often takes many conversations and confrontations before a passive aggressive person starts to recognize their unhealthy behavior.

If someone in your life responds to you in a passive aggressive way, remember that they may not even be aware that their behavior is unhealthy. Try to let them know that they are not communication effectively and gently prod them to tell you what is bothering them. They may be emotional when confronted, so make sure you keep your own emotions in check. It is unlikely that the person’s behavior will change the first time you point it out, but over time, you may see a more assertive response from them.
Formerly on staff at the Tulane Student & Health Center of Psychiatry, helping emerging adults uncover the best path to success is my passion. I am a professional psychotherapist and I specialize in academic, success, and life coaching. I work primarily with college students and young professionals. I would love to put my expertise as a certified success coach to work for you.

Dr. Eileen Wynne

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