I'm sure you've dealt with individuals who have caused you to be so frustrated that afterwards you scratch your head asking "Am I crazy?" Most likely you just had an encounter with a passive-aggressive person. Such encounters may include sarcasm, shifting blame, saying one thing while meaning another to name a few. For instance, I used to know a co-worker who was very skilled at giving back-handed compliments such as "You look great! You must be doing something different" as well as sarcasm disguised as a compliment "Oh, I hear you've managed to pull off another miracle." The problem with these kinds of comments is that if you try to confront them about the insult, you will be accused of not understanding, "I didn't mean it that way" or of misinterpreting, "You must have a problem to think that. I was just trying to compliment you. Sorry I didn't word it right to suit you." As a result, you end up looking like the bad guy, feeling frustrated, and asking yourself, "Am I crazy?" And the other person walks away blameless.
Question: My coworker has on five occasions commented on me never being at the office. I work at home one or two days a week as do others. However, he seems to want to point out that I'm never at the office. It always seems to be a joke. For example: I would compliment him on his attire and he would say "I always dress like this. You would know if you were here." Not sure what to say back to him....help?!!
Passive-aggressive communication seeks to control the emotions of others and thereby, control their behavior. Typically, this communication style seeks to express anger in an indirect manner. By doing so the individual is able to deny all responsibility for the anger yet they score a direct hit on their target.
A common example is criticizing as if you are concerned, "You've put on so much weight! You might get diabetes or heart disease if you don't take it easy with the sweets." Certainly, in the right context this could actually be an expression of concern. However, the right context doesn't include making such a statement in front of others just as the individual is taking a bite of dessert. In this instance, if the comment is confronted, the person will often deny responsibility by stating something like, "I'm just concerned about you. Wow, are you sensitive!"
The best way to recognize passive-aggressive behavior is by analyzing the process and purpose of the behavior. Typically, as the purpose is to control and/or deflect responsibility for anger, the passive-aggressive behavior causes frustration or anger in the recipient and will escalate conflict unless the recipient handles it passively by swallowing, ignoring, or discounting their anger. Yet, if the purpose is to escalate conflict, the passive-aggressive behavior is calculated to cause the recipient to act unreasonably.
Question: Mother upon seeing outfit daughter was wearing to work: You know why Hillary Clinton wears pants? Because she has those cankles, right? She is smart. (pause) You shouldn't wear your skirts that short either. You can't help it if you are built like your grandmother but you should wear your skirts longer to cover more of your legs. I am only trying to HELP you since you look very nice but you would look better if you wore your dresses longer...
The most difficult social conflict usually involves passive-aggressive (PA) behavior. The reason it is more distressing than even aggressive behavior is because it causes the recipient to be doubtful of him or her self. When someone is aggressive towards you, their intention is clear and it is easier to make a decision such as “I need to steer clear of this person” or “I need to report this behavior.” However, the purpose of passive-aggressive behavior is for the aggressor to avoid responsibility for their actions. PA behavior can easily be denied or blame shifted: “I didn't mean it the way you took it” or “You're being too sensitive” or “You're just trying to get me in trouble.”
As a result, PA behavior cannot be addressed in the same way you might handle aggressive behavior. When managing PA people you need to be aware of the underlying purpose of the behavior so that you can respond in a way that prevents them from succeeding at their agenda. The less likely they are to achieve their goal, the more likely you will see a reduction in their behavior. Read more...
For example, a father conveys the subtle message of "I don't think you're capable" by taking on a task to do it right, "Here, let me help you cut that out" as he takes over the child's school project. When the child states "I can do it myself" the father keeps working on the project "I know you can. I'm just helping. Now doesn't that look better?" If the child should protest angrily, "You don't think I can do it right!" the father might respond "Of course I do. I was just helping. You are so ungrateful!"
In this situation, the father has escalated the situation to cause the child to become angry and then to criticize the child for being angry. This teaches the child that her emotions are unacceptable as well as that her father doesn't believe she is capable. Over time the child learns to not trust her own perceptions of reality.
Another common example may be when a couple are trying to make a simple decision such as where to go for dinner. The wife says, "I don't care" but then pouts when her husband decides. When her husband asks her what is wrong she responds "You know I don't like Chinese." Later on in a completely unrelated situation, she may even take this a step further "You make all the decisions and don't take my preferences into account!" This can become even more ugly if the wife should accuse the husband of deliberately mistreating her "You do whatever you want. You don't care about my feelings!"
This example shows how a simple situation can escalate to include many different situations. The passive-aggressive wife can angrily attack her husband while blaming him for the attack. He becomes confused and angry "You're crazy!" which allows his wife to prove her point "See how you treat me? Calling me names and putting me down!"
Question: My mother criticizes my 10-year-old son about his hair, clothes, the activities he likes, you name it. He's a good kid, does well in school, and I think that he should be able to make his own choices about these things. I can see that my son is hurt by this criticism. When I try to tell my mother to stop, she and my sister say, "He's a boy and he needs to toughen up. He needs to be able to handle teasing. You're just over-protecting him." Is she right? How do I get her to stop?
Although passive-aggressive behavior is generally hurtful to the recipient, the intention is not always for the purpose of hurting the other person. Therefore, whether the intention to hurt is present can categorize the type of passive-aggressive person.
Malicious type. Some passive-aggressive people deliberately attempt to cause the other person to become angry so as to displace their own feelings of anger onto the recipient. In this situation, if a man has a bad day at work he can create an argument at home in a passive-aggressive manner and then take his anger out on his wife. For instance, he comes home, glances around and asks "What have you been doing today?" When his wife becomes defensive "Are you saying that I'm lazy?" he responds with "You are really over-reacting! I was only curious about what you did today. You are so sensitive and I can't even talk to you!"
This type of person could be labeled an aggressive passive-aggressive in that the purpose is to create anger or to try to control someone else. "You should really try to treat your mother better after all the sacrifices I've made for you. You're so selfish" is an example of trying to control behavior. By negatively labeling a behavior, they hope to control the person's responses. The malicious type is reinforced whenever they can successfully control the other person or when they can escalate conflict while remaining seemingly innocent.
Unintentionally hurtful type. Another type of passive-aggressive person we could label as the passive passive-aggressive. Typically, they are trying not to hurt the other person but in the process may unintentionally cause frustration or irritation. This person also is trying to control the other person such as trying to control the other person's emotions. They don't want the other person to feel bad so they will try to refrain from any communication that may seem negative. However, their feelings may be readable at a nonverbal level. Unfortunately, the other person may not read the feelings accurately.
For instance, a girlfriend is hoping that her boyfriend will pick up on her hints about wanting to get engaged but doesn't express her wishes; she becomes irritated with him and when he picks up on the nonverbal frustration and asks if anything is wrong, she says, "No." However, he becomes less certain about their relationship due to this passive-aggressive interaction.
Another example is a man who is disappointed that his wife passed up a job opportunity but doesn't want to tell her how he feels because he doesn't want to hurt her feelings. However, his disappointment leads to him unknowingly being less affectionate causing his wife to believe that he is less attracted to her.
As you see from some of the previous examples, passive-aggressive behavior is manifested in many ways. Although the bottom line in identifying the behavior is that it succeeds in indirectly expressing anger; the passive-aggressive individual does not have to take responsibility for the controlling behavior and angry message. However, we can divide the behaviors into several common categories as described below. Obviously, you will see that these behaviors often overlap so more than one may occur in a situation.
Denial. This type of passive-aggressive behavior occurs when the individual appears to be distressed, frustrated, bored, confused, or any number of emotions but when questioned refuses to admit to the feeling. They may outright deny or they may avoid by ignoring, working, or deflecting with humor. However, the behavior has the outcome of frustrating the recipient because they are unable to confront and resolve the problem. Thus, this individual is able to control the other by not engaging in conflict resolution when an obvious problem has occurred.
Blaming. The skilled passive-aggressive blamer can rephrase almost any comment to make it appear the recipient's fault. "You should have known!" or "You're too sensitive!" are common methods of blaming the victim. Sometimes it can be so extreme as to border on the ridiculous if it wasn't so hurtful; for example, "You know I'm a grouch before dinner. I wouldn't have yelled at you if you wouldn't have asked me a question." This person deflects all attempts to communicate about problems by blaming the other person.
Question: My partner's mum is staying with us and she's quite PA and I'd love to know better ways of dealing with some of what she does...
A) She blamed my partner for not telling me her plans had changed (in the last thirty minutes) and that she did want me to include her for dinner after all. But she didn't tell him she now wanted to eat but only that she was leaving later. She didn't tell me (the person cooking) anything. We offered to split what we had but she made a fuss whilst making a sandwich and saying "I suppose you don't want to share!" Sporadically through the next hour she'd sigh and say to herself "it wouldn't have taken you both MUCH effort to pad out the meal" and "you've got to start passing messages."
B) Partner's mum is upset dishwasher wasn't run overnight. She complains to my partner loudly enough that I can hear: "I know she doesn't CARE about keeping the house tidy but how could anyone NOT run the dishwasher? Why on earth WOULDN'T you?"
Partner: "That's a little unfair when you make these general statements. I know she cares and she must have had a reason."
Mum: "Why on earth wouldn't you! It's just common sense!" (In fact I hadn't run it because she'd often complained about running it when it wasn't totally full and had even unpacked the top row to demonstrate that you could jam one more glass inside. This time the dishwasher had five or six spaces.)
Partner: "I would like you to think about maybe not making general statements. It upsets people."
Mum: "I'm not allowed to think anything! I've just got to shut up and keep my thoughts to myself. You want me gone. You make it totally clear you HATE having me here!"
Partner: "We like you here. I just want you to know people feel hurt if..."
Mum: "I'm not ALLOWED to say anything!!" Slams door, sulks in room. We leave her to it. Returns two hours later to scream at partner that he's a hateful (expletive)! Slams sitting room door. More sulking.
Revenge-Seeking. This behavior is calculated to try to hurt the other person without taking responsibility. An example of this is described above with the "back-handed compliment." The individual somehow is threatened by the other, whether real or imagined, and seeks revenge in an underhanded manner. By doing so, they can claim ignorance if confronted such as "I had no idea you would take it that way" or resort to blaming "You must be imagining that. I would never do anything to hurt you."
Controlling. This behavior seeks to control the individual in an indirect manner. For instance, a man who emotionally abuses his partner says "No one could ever love you the way I do" with the intended result being insecurity in the woman so that she won't leave him. Another example is parents telling their adult children that they should respect or love them because they are their parents thus trying to control their behavior. Love and respect is something that occurs due to the underlying relationship not because of a demand.
Question: Any time I want to calmly discuss a situation that is bothering me in our relationship, my husband's reply is always "I don't want to fight about this!" Although I tell him that I'm not trying to fight, I just want to talk about it, he never has the discussion with me and the problems are always left unresolved.
Guilting. This behavior controls through using guilt either directly or indirectly to control the other. An indirect form of guilt may be "Don't worry about me...I'll be okay" followed by a sigh. A more direct form may be describing all the efforts made on your behalf followed by an expectation "I've only cleaned the house today, taken the kids to their activities, checked on your mom. Taking me out to dinner isn't too much to ask, is it?"
Sarcastic. Many of the examples above contain sarcasm probably because it tends to be a favorite of mine. Sarcastic passive-aggressive comments are the ultimate indirect form of aggression because they are calculated to avoid responsibility such as "You know I was just kidding." Yet, they have the impact of controlling the other person's emotions and potentially their thinking and behavior.
Back-stabbing. This behavior often uses techniques such as hitting below the belt by using previously confided or sensitive information against the person or by communicating through someone else but with plausible deniability. This individual may even resort to showing artificial concern as a way of validating their behavior "You know I wouldn't want to hurt you but I'm only saying this because I'm concerned about you."
Question: A doctor I work with feels I am "too proud" and independent in my work. He dislikes my personality, and that's ok--we don't have to be buddies. But he has taken to telling each new group of residents that there is no point discussing anything with me because I am overbearing. He tells them they should just avoid discussion and agree with me. When I present an assessment in rounds he covers his eyes and bows his head. After he leaves, if I need to speak to one of the residents about a patient having problems, I can see them bracing themselves as I approach or rolling their eyes even though we may have never yet spoken to each other! I am viewed as a competant and compassionate doctor by families and co-workers, but this treatment is distracting and disheartening. It is making it difficult to provide safe care, to the point that I have considered leaving my practice.
As you can see with the examples in this article, many times the actual words that the passive-aggressive person uses may seem reasonable or even caring. Therefore, to determine passive-aggressive behavior, the context, the relationship, previous experiences with the individual, and the non-verbal communication needs to be considered. However, without even considering all of these factors, you usually know that you are the recipient of passive-aggressive behavior by your own emotional reaction. If you feel frustrated, deflated, or crazy as a result of an interaction, it probably was passive-aggressive.
This needs to be the subject of a separate article. In fact, what I would like to do is to use some real-life examples that people submit and discuss them in detail in another article. So, if you have an example, please submit it on the form below by describing the situation in detail, your relationship with the person, and the specifics of what was said and how it was said.
Although each situation may vary, there are some basic steps you can take with passive-aggressive behavior.
1) Identify the reward. Determine what the passive-aggressive person achieves by engaging in the behavior. Do they get something they want? Do they make you feel bad? Do they discharge their anger on to you so they can feel better? Do they escalate conflict so they can make you look bad?
Question: Best article on passive/aggressive. Wish I read this 27 years ago. Didn't know what I have been dealing with. Why does my husband want a "reward" of seeing me hurt, upset, put down? Is this sick behavior learned from watching his parents? Will he ever "want" to treat me nice? Or is he incapable? I just want a husband who loves me and acts like it. I have been telling him for years his behavior is emotionally abusive, but he cant seem to stop. Why? Why is his reward to see me unhappy?
2) Refuse to provide the reward. If you refuse to provide the reward, they are no longer in control of the interaction which tends to cause the situation to backfire on them. For instance, when the co-worker I described earlier would give me a back-handed compliment I would effusively respond "Oh, that's so nice of you to say that! I really appreciate it!" as if it were a true compliment. This would have the effect of making her believe that she had not accomplished her purpose (which she hadn't anyway because I was thinking "How silly of a grown adult to act this way") which tended to reduce the behavior because she was getting her reward of feeling better at my expense.
If you determine that the individual is trying to escalate conflict, then you want to become even more calm almost to an extreme. The more calm you become, the more apparent and ridiculous their behavior will appear. Plus, you are not allowing them to get the reward of freely discharging their anger on to you. What I mean is that if you allow the situation to escalate, they will then engage in a full battle while blaming you for "starting" the argument.
3) Indirectly confront. Obviously, as I described above, if you directly confront the passive-aggressive person is likely to turn it against you. But if you confront with "I" statements instead of "you" statements and remain very calm you may be able to reduce the behavior. Although you are unlikely to get them to admit they were wrong, since they do not like to take responsibility, they are more likely to reduce the behavior if they know they will be confronted every time.
The following example uses the broken-record technique in which you repeatedly make your point of letting them know how you feel when they act in a passive-aggressive manner.
"You need to be careful what you're eating. You're getting fat."
"I feel hurt when you call me fat."
"I'm just saying that because I'm concerned about you."
"But I feel hurt when you call me that."
"You're just too sensitive!"
"That may be, but I'm letting you know that I feel hurt when you call me names." This statement uses the technique of agreeing with them but still using the broken record to make your point.
"You need to just get over it."
"Since I've told you that I feel hurt when you call me names should I assume that you are trying to hurt me when you call me names?" This last line should not be uttered unless the passive-aggressive person persists.
When you start changing a behavior pattern in which you've engaged with someone for a period of time, sometimes you may see the behavior get worse. Although sometimes this is because you are still learning and needing more practice, many times it occurs because the person will try to escalate the behavior in order to obtain their reward. It is much different from trying to change a child's temper tantrums. If you have been rewarding the child by trying to quiet her with a piece of candy whenever she has a temper tantrum and then you decided to stop doing that, you will initially see an increase in the temper tantrums. However, if you remain firm and consistent, eventually they will decrease.
It will take time to learn to handle passive-aggressive people, however, it will be well worth the effort. When I'm working with clients frequently it will take a number of tries and adjustments in our approach but if we examine the behavior and the reward process we can usually find a method that can work.