This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.

How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive People - According To Experts

Photo by Hessam Hojati on Unsplash

Photo by Hessam Hojati on Unsplash

You are likely familiar with the term passive-aggressive but if you’re not, I can assure you that you’ve experienced it with co-workers, friends, family members, or even that random person at the gym.Passive-aggressive behavior is everywhere so learning how to deal with passive-aggressive people is crucial.

My friend recently shared on Facebook the story of how one of his “friends” went on a middle-of-the-night rant about what a horrible person he was, ended the message with “Have a good day,” and then blocked my friend before he even had a chance to respond.I couldn’t come up with a better example of passive-aggressiveness if I tried.

If you’ve ever been in a conversation with someone who must have the last word or waited for someone who’s always late, then you’ve seen passive-aggressive behavior firsthand. It can be as subtle as leaving things unfinished or as direct as trying to ruin something that you wanted to achieve.

The basic definition of passive-aggressive behavior is when someone acts aggressively but in an indirect manner; rather than being fully in-your-face aggressive they pretend they’re not that bothered.

Passive-aggressive people regularly show a reluctance to deliver on requests or demands, and they show this unwillingness by procrastinating, having a bad attitude, and/or being stubborn.

While they may not be able to tell someone their real opinion, passive-aggressive people are often gifted at backhanded compliments—you know the kind where they disguise their criticism with praise like, “You’re so brave to wear that dress!” If you speak passive-aggressive, you know that means not only do you look hideous in that dress, they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing it.

Passive-aggressive people are a combination of low assertiveness with an independent nature, according to Nick Glassett of Origin Leadership: “They want to do things their way but don’t like confrontation, so they try to control the situation without any conflict. It, of course, doesn’t work and has a tendency to really make others upset.”

Sometimes we’re the passive-aggressive person, and if you catch yourself keeping score of past injustices or deliberately not inviting someone to a party as a way to punish, then you need to admit to yourself and find alternative ways to act.

Passive-aggressiveness can be a destructive force, especially in regards to your relationships. It’s not healthy to give your partner the silent treatment until they realize you’re not happy with something they did or said.

There are four basic communication styles: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive, but the passive-aggressive style is trickiest. And, how to deal with passive-aggressive people is complex given how they behave.

“In 20-plus years of being a professional team builder and communication coach, I can tell you that passive-aggressive people are the hardest to deal with effectively because they’re not coming to the conversation honestly, “ says author and speaker Janice Holly Booth, MA. “To be fair, many PA [passive-aggressive] people don’t understand how toxic and negative they are. Perhaps they grew up in an environment where that kind of behavior was the norm, or they became PA because they were downtrodden and had to assert their power in disguise. Either way, dealing effectively with PA people is a chore.” Unfortunately, how to deal with passive-aggressive people is an ever-present question for many people.

How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive People

Take care of you first:

When someone is being passive-aggressive it can make you feel confused, annoyed, and wondering what you did to deserve being treated this way. Many times, when you confront someone about their passive-aggressive behavior, they’re shocked. The passive-aggressive person may try to flip it and claim that you’re the negative person, not them. Making other people put the passive-aggressive person’s needs first is a skill that PA people have. So, asserting your needs over theirs and protecting yourself from being manipulated is how to deal with passive-aggressive people.

Try to stay calm:

If you get angry or upset, the passive-aggressive person is going to feel as if their behavior was successful and feel encouraged to do it more—which is the last thing you want. Sometimes, retreating is how to deal with passive-aggressive people. Take some deep breaths, visualize your favorite place, and give yourself as long as you need to relax. You don’t want to come at them from a negative space for they’ll just use that energy against you.

Discover if this behavior is a one-off or part of a pattern:

If you can, put on your detective’s hat and do some research. If it’s a co-worker being passive-aggressive maybe try to see if someone else at your job has experienced it too (chances are they have), or if it’s a friend, talk to mutual friends or look at their social media accounts. If you determine they’re passive-aggressive all the time, then it may be up to you to do something about it. If you find they’re not usually passive-aggressive, you can let it go and move on. They may be under more stress than usual and their anxiety is coming out as passive-aggression.

Hold them accountable:

If somebody does something passive-aggressive and they get a reaction, they’re likely to repeat that kind of behavior. “By playing along with a passive-aggressive person’s behavior, you give them permission to continue to behave that way,” says Adina Mahalli, certified mental health consultant at Maple Holistics. “Holding a passive-aggressive person accountable for their behavior and calling them out on it is the first step in dealing with the situation.”

Talk to them about their behavior:

Since the person may not be aware of their behavior, having a conversation is a helpful tip for how to deal with passive-aggressive people. They may be completely closed to the idea or act as if you’re attacking them, but even if they seem unresponsive to your ideas, you may have helped start the process of realization and modification for them.

Don’t apologize:

You may think that if you just say you’re sorry then they’ll start speaking to you again or their hostile attitude will soften, but that probably won’t be the case—in fact, they may increase their passive-aggressive behavior. Apologizing is not how to deal with passive-aggressive people. The less you apologize, the better.

Be confident:

If the passive-aggressive person senses that you’re afraid of their reaction, they’re not going to go easier on you, in fact, it will be quite the opposite. “In dealing with passive-aggressive people, it’s essential to communicate assertively,” says Brianna Mobilian, founder of The Prana Tribe. “To assert yourself, it’s important to garner your inner confidence, speak clearly, and converse in a controlled manner. When you are confident, you can remain composed through the uncomfortable discussion.”

Use “I” statements:

One way to implement an assertive communication style is to use “I” statements which as licensed professional counselor James Killian, LPC says is a way “to avoid the perception of judgment from the other person.” When you use an “I” statement you’re telling the other person how you feel and you help prevent escalating the tension, the way a “You” statement would. The listener may feel blamed, humiliated, judged, or criticized by a “You” statement which can cause them to withdraw, become angry or defensive, or lead to further passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive behavior.

Ask open-ended questions:

When you ask open-ended questions, you keep the dialogue going and this can encourage the passive-aggressive person to not depend on their toxic behavior and it will prevent them from responding with monosyllabic answers. James Killian says, “Ask open-ended questions that begin with what, when, where, how, and not why.”

Use humor:

If you have a gift for bringing the funny, you might think about using it to diffuse the tension. “Humor is an incredibly powerful tool for disarming passive-aggressive behavior,” says the CEO of Anabolic Bodies, Eddie Johnson. “Try to deflect passive-aggressive behavior by cracking a joke. Not only will this lighten the atmosphere, but it can also help break the ice and build the foundation for a ‘normal’ or friendly relationship between both parties.”

Don’t be their trigger:

While it might be hard to see exactly what sets the passive-aggressive personality off, there are things that will reinforce their behavior. If you don’t do or say anything, if they know that you’ll rescue them when their actions have negative consequences, if you enable or support them (no matter how devastating their actions are) or cheer them on from the sidelines, they’ll continue doing what they’re doing. Don’t make being passive-aggressive the easy choice. Let them know what the consequences are for their actions and how you won’t be there to support them when it blows up.

Block their attempts to play you:

Setting clear boundaries and letting them know you have a zero-tolerance plan for manipulation is how to deal with passive-aggressive people. If they know where the line is and that if they cross it that there’ll be consequences they may be less likely to try to manage you. You can see through their con, so let them know it.

Stop playing the game:

Games aren’t half as rewarding if you can’t get anyone to play them with you. “Passive-aggressive behavior is essentially a game,” says Mahalli. “It’s preemptive and aimed to avoid conflict, although it inevitably results in a bigger conflict than a straight conversation would have. Remove yourself from the situation so they can play their game on their own.” Whatever you do, don’t try to be more of an a-hole than they are—that’s a game that no one can win.

Ignore them:

If you choose to ignore them, make sure you do it completely. Don’t react in any way and don’t even recognize their existence unless you absolutely have to. “Passive-aggressive people crave two things: Your attention and your emotional reaction,” says Dr. Sherrie Campbell. “They are professionals at getting others totally off balance and out of control. The best thing you can do is ignore them and remove yourself from their energetic space. If you don’t react, you rob them of their win.”

If you are a passive-aggressive person, work on being more direct and honest. Instead of complaining about how you’re not appreciated, do something that shows off your talents and abilities. Try to be on time, work on finishing your projects, and adjust your attitude.

However, if you’re trying to understand how to deal with passive-aggressive people, keep your cool and try some of these tips. If the situation doesn’t get any better, think about how you can decrease your time spent with the passive-aggressive person.