The Secret to Dealing with Passive-Aggressive People
Keys to surviving passive-aggressives at home and at work
We’ve all dealt with these personality types – the typical passive-aggressive person is unwilling to deal with resentment, anger and other negative emotions in a straightforward or upfront way. Instead, they rely on complaining, being argumentative and acting unappreciated as a way to interact.
This is an incredibly unhealthy way to behave, and you'll need to find some solid strategies to avoid being sucked into the vortex created by passive-aggressive personality types.
Whether it's a family member, or someone at work, dealing with a passive-aggressive person can be emotionally exhausting. For instance, a passive-aggressive co-worker’s thinly veiled resentment and hostility can sap the energy of an entire team. Or a passive-aggressive spouse can test the patience of the most loving partner.
The net result — on a relationship, or teamwork at the office — can be devastating.
Defining passive-aggressive behavior
If you’re wondering if someone actually is passive-aggressive, think about their behavior. Do they say one thing and behave in a manner completely opposite? For instance, if you ask a friend if they're mad at you, they respond 'not at all, whatever would make you say that?' and then slam the door as you're getting out of the car? If so, then you’re likely dealing with a passive-aggressive personality type, explained Pax Tandon, a psychologist and holistic wellness coach who specializes in positive psychology.
Passive-aggressives are among the trickiest personality types to navigate, because what you see is not necessarily what you get, Tandon said.
“However, actions do speak louder than words with these folks, so when you pick up on actions that don't correlate with what's being communicated verbally, try communicating honestly (pretty much the antithesis of how your passive-aggressive friend is behaving) that you're confounded by the mixed signals and place the emphasis on the behaviors as how you read cues. This might look something like this: 'I respond a lot to actions rather than words for communication, so even though you say you're fine, you never slam doors when you're in a good mood. Just something I noticed. Is there anything going on that might be making you angry?’” Tandon said.
Try the compassionate route
“Most people just want to be listened to, but it's a lot easier to slam a door, or cry out for help in indirect ways, than confront a hard topic of conversation or talk about difficult subject matter. So take a compassionate stance and draw out the honesty by being ready to listen. As you begin to call out this dissonance between words and behaviors, the passive-aggressives will learn that you command honesty in communication from a place of concern and compassion (this is key to fostering an environment of trust), eventually leading to a straight-shooter where the passive-aggressive used to be,” Tandon said.
Be forewarned, however, that Dennis O’Neill, a psychologist and executive coach, said that it is very hard for a passive-aggressive person to change their behavior. “So, perhaps it is important to accept for your own protection, that the person who repeatedly, for example, may nod in apparent agreement with the idea that you presented at a meeting, but will withhold support or ridicule your idea later, is likely to keep doing it. They have enjoyed success using that tactic and are likely to continue to do so.”
To deal with this, O’Neill said, “realize that the passive-aggressor is not singling you out – although it may appear to be so – because serial passive-aggressors are typically quite adept (consciously or unconsciously) at convincing groups of others that their derisive behaviors are justified.”
Women are least likely to confront aggressors
“Some of my women clients tell me that they are ‘too nice’ to confront the passive-aggressor or that they are afraid because of the power the serial passive-aggressor seems to wield in their organization,” O’Neill said. “While it might seem paradoxical at first, confronting, in an appropriate manner, the serial passive-aggressor at a meeting by refusing them to allow them to demure on your proposal, actually increases your social power as it erodes theirs.”
O’Neill said, “Take some comfort in the likelihood that eventually, when the passive-aggressors has saturated the organization with people who are resentful over having been deceived or passively mislead, passive-aggressive behavior becomes a very serious career derailer. Eventually, passive-aggressors are likely to self-destruct, or at least disappear before they are derailed.”
Don’t take them at their word
Most importantly, he said, realize that you cannot take this person at their word, particularly when it is really only a lack of any positive commitment word.
“Remember, to some extent, you are participating in the miscommunication when you find yourself choosing to fearfully avoid the possible confrontation of asking the individual to comment publically by merely hoping their silence is their agreement. You have to ask them, publically. If their response is short of an actual answer, simple ask them to explain or simply say, ‘Say more.’ If the evasion continues you may ask others in the meeting if they understand, or if they can think of any scenario that might foretell problems later.”