All of us are passive-aggressive. That is, we use a mild form of passive-aggressiveness: “saying yes when we mean no,” according to psychotherapist Andrea Brandt, Ph.D, M.F.T.
However, some of us use passive aggression on a regular basis.
Brandt defined passive aggression as “a coping mechanism people use when they perceive themselves to be powerless or when they fear using their power will lead to bad outcomes.”
According to Signe Whitson, LSW, author of How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens, passive aggression “encompasses a range of behaviors designed to ‘get back’ at someone without that person recognizing the underlying anger.”
People who are passive-aggressive seem to gain pleasure from frustrating others, she said.
We learn to be passive-aggressive as kids. This often happens in households with one dominant parent and one subservient parent, said Brandt, author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness. “The child learns that powerful and volatile people can’t be approached directly, but it’s OK to lie to them or keep secrets to get what you want.”
Brandt gave this example: “’We won’t tell your father,’ the passive-aggressive partner says, showing that spending money for childhood treats behind dad’s back is OK.”
A better approach is to be assertive. Assertiveness helps you communicate honestly, cultivate authentic relationships, better understand your own feelings and get your needs met.
Whitson’s favorite way to define assertiveness is “making friends with your anger.” In her book The Angry Smile with co-author Nicholas Long, Ph.D, they use this meaning: “a learned behavior that is used to express anger in a verbal, non-blaming, respectful way.”
Assertiveness entails having a strong sense of self-worth and establishing healthy boundaries, Brandt said.
Assertive communication is clear, direct, has no hidden agenda and acknowledges the other person, she said.
“[It] is an effective way of expressing how you feel at the same time that you learn how the other person is feeling about the same situation.”
Unfortunately, in many settings, assertiveness is either subtly or blatantly discouraged. “The hierarchy of many workplace cultures makes the direct expression of emotions risky for employers and employees alike,” Whitson said.
In many schools, teachers prefer compliant students who don’t ask questions or assert their opinions, she said.
However, “direct, emotionally honest, assertive communication” is key. It is “the best ‘antidote’ to passive aggressive interactions.”
Here are five ways to communicate assertively.
1. Allow yourself to feel anger.
The biggest obstacle to assertive communication is the belief that anger is bad and expressing it in an assertive way is “unseemly,” said Whitson, also a school counselor and national speaker on bullying prevention, anger management and crisis intervention.
However, anger is a normal and natural emotion, she said.
It isn’t a bad emotion, and people aren’t bad for feeling angry, Brandt said. “People need to learn that they deserve to have their feelings whatever they are.”
Brandt suggested using mindfulness to process and express anger. She’s recently written a book called Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom, which explores how to use mindfulness. (Here’s our review, and a helpful exercise from the book.)
2. Make clear, assertive requests.
An assertive request is straightforward and doesn’t deprecate the other person, Whitson said. This is in contrast to passive-aggressive requests, which are asked in a “roundabout way, adding in backhanded jabs that are plain enough to hurt, while covert enough to be denied.”
For instance, according to Whitson, a passive-aggressive request is: “After you get your pedicure or do whatever it is you do all day while I’m at work, would you mind picking up my dry cleaning for me? That is, if you are not too busy.”
If the other person gets angry, the passive-aggressive person responds with: “What? I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings. I was just saying that you might be busy doing other things. I didn’t know you’d be so sensitive about it. Geeze.”
This response lets them be a victim, “passive-aggressively musing about why the other person can’t take a joke.”
However, an assertive request is simply: “Will you please pick up my dry cleaning for me on your way home tonight?”
3. Validate the other person’s feelings.
This means understanding “their feelings and where they’re coming from,” Brandt said. Validating feelings, however, doesn’t mean that you agree with them, she said.
Brandt gave this example: “Lisa, I understand that you’re upset because you have to switch work days in order to get this project done; however, it is very important to me and I appreciate your doing it.”
4. Be a good listener.
Being a good listener includes maintaining a “very respectful and open nonverbal attitude and posture while listening to [the person] and [restating their] words,” Brandt said.
You also maintain eye contact, and manage your own emotions and thoughts, so you can “set aside any personal agenda, reactions, defenses, explanations or rescue attempts.”
5. Be collaborative.
Being assertive also means working together. It means being “constructive and collaborative [and] look[ing] for ways to achieve a situation where both people are happy.”