Asking direct questions and setting clear boundaries can help you deal with passive-aggressive people. Sometimes, though, more drastic measures are needed.
The aggression is evident when someone is outwardly hostile toward you — yelling, gesturing, or threatening you physically. Passive aggression, like veiled insults and harmful slights, may be less obvious. It may carry an equal amount of ill intent, though.
Exposure to aggression in any form can hurt your physical and mental health. You may experience:
- a desire for retaliation
Passive-aggressive behavior is still aggressive, and allowing it to continue may sabotage your personal and professional life. But effectively dealing with passive-aggressive people is possible.
Passive-aggressive behavior is a message or behavior without assertiveness or active engagement.
Passive aggression can often emerge as accidental behaviors, like being late, but may be tied to underlying feelings of hostility and contempt.
Sometimes people unintentionally inconvenience you. For example, they may find it challenging to be on time, and their lateness may cause a negative chain reaction in your day. The behavior may not have the intention of bothering you, though.
When someone is late only when meeting with you, that may be an example of passive-aggressive behavior.
Melissa Bennett-Heinz, a licensed independent clinical social worker from Ramseur, North Carolina, explains common examples of passive-aggressive behaviors may include:
- making sarcastic comments at your expense, with the excuse of, “I was only joking”
- saying “yes” to projects and tasks with the intent of not completing them
- excluding you from group activities, like co-worker luncheons or casual coffee chats
- spitefully procrastinating to impact you, even if they care about the project
- acting as though something inconsequential you said or did caused them significant distress
- holding onto grudges to bring them up later, no matter how minor
- putting you down when asking for your help
- targeting the topics they know you’re sensitive about
- ignoring you, sometimes walking away from a conversation
- offering backhanded compliments, like “You look great today since you finally washed your hair”
- saying they misunderstood you any time you ask them to take responsibility
- using the silent treatment
When you’re learning how to deal with passive-aggressive people, understanding where the behavior comes from may be helpful.
“People who are passive-aggressive often [have] low self-esteem; they tend to be anxious and feel that they must control others,” explains Colleen Wenner, a licensed mental health counselor in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Underlying reasons someone may engage in passive aggression include:
Mental health challenges
Passive-aggressive behaviors have been linked to some mental health disorders, including depression.
At one time, passive aggression
If someone suddenly starts acting more passive aggressive toward you, their sleep habits may be behind the change.
Research from 2019 found that restricted sleep increases feelings of anger and contributes to an inability to regulate anger responses. This, in turn, may increase the chance of someone behaving in passive-aggressive ways.
Authors noted that high exposure to aggression during childhood might condition you to respond aggressively when you feel anger. This may make you more likely to engage in outward and passive-aggressive behaviors and experience negative emotions.
Outward displays of anger and honest expression of emotions may be inappropriate in some cultures. Passive aggression may be the only acceptable outlet when someone is upset, stressed, or frustrated.
Passive aggressiveness may be paired with vindictive or malicious behaviors, but it may also be someone’s way of protecting themselves when they’re the one feeling threatened or unsure.
Passive aggression may come in many forms. It may depend on the nature of the relationship or how much the person knows how to push your buttons. Some people, though, may engage in passive-aggressive behavior with everyone regularly.
Bennet-Heinz notes some traits that may indicate when you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive person. These include:
- habitual lateness
- ghosting or no-showing
- repeated mistakes that affect others
- never taking responsibility
- low self-esteem
Another key trait linked to passive aggression, cautions Wenner, is dishonesty.
“This person, having the knowledge of what is right and wrong, chooses anyway not to be truthful. For example, lying about where you were the night in question,” she says.
You can learn how to deal with and respond to passive-aggressive people without escalating hostility.
When being on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior, both Wenner and Bennett-Heinz suggest focusing on remaining calm and not meeting passive aggression with more aggression.
Try to ground yourself with a sensory technique, like structured breathing, or confronting the person with a few clarifying questions.
“If you feel that you are being manipulated, then ask more questions to get them to reveal more information,” says Wenner. “Work to identify the root cause of the problem, and don’t be so quick to accept the first answer they give you. Go deeper.”
Direct questions like, “Can you walk me through your thought process on that?” or “Can you explain why you feel that way?” can help open up concealed comments and hidden meanings.
“Talk about it with someone supportive as a reality check,” says Bennett-Heinz. “Being involved with someone passive aggressive can lead you to question yourself and instill doubt.”
If others have witnessed or experienced the person’s passive aggression, it can help encourage your efforts to address the behaviors.
Setting clear boundaries
Since passive aggression often involves behaviors like being late, missing deadlines, or procrastinating, setting clear expectations and boundaries may keep passive aggression from evolving into more harmful behaviors.
If someone behaves in a passive-aggressive way, they may not be directly communicating their frustrations and anger.
Talking with them may help you find clarity and opportunities to solve the friction.
“Talk about it with the aggressor if it is safe,” says Bennett-Heinz. “Use phrases like, ‘I feel confused when,’ and, ‘notice the discrepancy.’”
Taking a break… from them
Although not always possible, interrupting interactions with a passive-aggressive person may be the best way to handle the situation.
If you feel someone is sabotaging your efforts and treating you with contempt, and that’s affecting your mental health, you may need to limit communication and get away.
Knowing how to deal with passive-aggressive people is a skill that may help you handle stressful situations and resolve conflict.
Clear communication methods and boundaries may help passive-aggressive friends and colleagues become aware of their behaviors and prevent passive aggression from negatively impacting your life.