We’ve all had to deal with them in our lives — people who are passive aggressive. Passive aggressive refers to a person who has hostility toward you, but does not openly or directly express that hostility. Instead, they find ways to express it indirectly through their behavior. You may find the person playing “mind games” with you, or offering an alternative reality that doesn’t jibe with what you know to be true.
Dealing with a passive aggressive person can be an exercise in frustration. Because they refuse to actually express their aggression directly, you may find yourself in a no-win situation. The tips below may help you find neutral ground.
Keep in mind that when people talk about a passive aggressive person, they are really talking about the passive aggressive behavior of that person. Passive aggressive behavior is not usually considered a personality disorder (at least not today), but rather more of a situational component that comes out when a person is under stress or feels threatened in some way.
Recognizing Passive Aggressive Behavior
A person who engages in passive aggressive behaviors can usually recognized by these telltale signs:
1. Sullen, insulting, or negative communication
A person may be combative in their communication with you, taking everything you say in a negative way. They may complain constantly about things they see as wrong, act in a consistently grumpy manner, or simply be sullen in most of their communication with others — especially if it’s about something they are responsible for or goal-directed. When they come, insults are not direct — they are subtle and could be taken either way (but are always meant in the negative).
2. They go silent, obstruct, or withhold
A passive aggressive person may also go silent and withhold communication or information from you, as a form of manipulation. They may simply refuse to talk about a topic, or end a discussion with, “You always get your way.” If you need information, intimacy, communication, or some other kind of support, they withhold it as a form of punishment. If you need a specific piece of information or help from them, they may keep it from you. If they know they can hinder your goals or progress, they will find fault with every choice you offer them.
3. They regularly deny, forget, or procrastinate
Rather than acknowledge a failure to perform or to do something agreed-upon, they will fallback on excuses such as, “I forgot.” They may deny that you both agreed on a course of action or some goal they were going to finish. Or they put off things regularly and consistently, because they don’t like rigid schedules or goal-setting imposed on them. They may not follow through on their responsibilities or duties, and then pull out, “I forgot” or “I just didn’t have time to do that yet” as a catch-all excuse. Or deny you ever even discussed the matter.
4. Noncommittal in their agreement
People who are passive aggressive are nearly always noncommittal in their agreement with something they disagree with. They are masters of ambiguity, ensuring that you never quite know where they stand on the issue. They avoid being pinned down to anything they don’t agree with — but never express that disagreement directly.
5. Doing it half-assed
When the person doesn’t want to do something, they’ll do it in a way that ensures it will have to be redone. Or that it will take much longer than planned. Or it’ll be done, but with no attention to detail or care about the result of the final product. They will, of course, deny any knowledge about the quality of their work, blame others, and play the victim.
6. Struggle between independence and dependency
People who are passive aggressive struggle with expressing their independence in a socially-acceptable way. Instead, they do so in a stubborn, obstructionist manner, in a frustrating attempt to exert some control over their life. They are often unassertive and don’t know how to be more decisive and sure of themselves, or how to express such assertiveness in a positive manner.
What You Can Do with Passive Aggressive Behavior
After you’ve determined you’re likely dealing with someone who is engaging in multiple instances of passive aggressive behavior, what can you do?
1. Do not react to their behavior
They are looking for a reaction from you in order to confirm their behavior has had its intended impact. If you get angry at them, you’re just going to make the situation worse. “You’re just being passive aggressive” won’t help either. Any negative reaction by you is going to reinforce them — and encourage them to continue acting in the same manner. This is the hardest part of dealing with a person who is passive aggressive.
2. Do not blame or judge
It’s easy to cast blame and judgment on a person when they seem to be looking for someone to join them in those kinds of behaviors. Don’t make it about the person, and don’t say things such as, “Well, you agreed to this deadline, why isn’t it done?” That just draws you into their world of negativity, obstruction, and denial. If they aren’t put in a position to be on the defensive, they’ll be more open to your suggestions.
3. Engage positively and assertively
Instead, it helps to engage positively and assertively with the person, focusing on the specific goals or issues under discussion. “How can we help move forward together on this project” or “What can we do to reach a decision that will work for both of us?” Be inclusive and ensure the person feels like they are a valued, important part of the decision or effort.
4. Be specific — and invoke empathy
Be as specific as possible, and gently remind them about how the issue or problem is affecting you or the larger team or project. For instance, if the two of you are planning a vacation together but the person isn’t helping make a final decision about your destination, you might try, “I’m so looking forward to spending this time alone with you. It means a lot to me to do this with you, so which of these two destinations works best for you?” At work, it might go something like, “While it’s disappointing we couldn’t get this done today, how much time do you need to complete it? Would Monday work for you? I know [fellow team member] Jill is really looking forward to working with you on the next phase of the project.”
5. Remove yourself
If nothing works or for your own mental health benefit, you may not be able to regularly deal with someone who is passive aggressive. In such instances, it’s best to keep your interactions to a minimum, very goal-directed, and very specific. If they can’t or won’t perform at work, find another colleague to take this person’s place. If you’re in a relationship with this person, maybe it’s a sign the relationship isn’t offering nearly as many benefits as you thought.