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7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People
Rule 1. Identify type of PA behavior
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

Read the following to:
  • Learn to tell the difference between malicious and unintentional PA behavior.
  • Determine when PA behavior is self-protective.
Related articles by Dr. Frank:

Previous: Learn how to use the following rules and methods to help you deal effectively with PA people.

Next: Find out how your behavior may interfere with handling a PA person.

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 30 seconds

Rules When Dealing With Passive-aggressive People

Rule 1. Identify type of PA behavior

The first step when confronted with PA behavior is to determine whether it is malicious or self-protective or unintentional. By knowing the type of PA behavior, you will be able to develop a better response to help you achieve your goal.

Unintentional. Unintentional PA behavior is the easiest to handle because you can just ignore the behavior if it is not that important. Or, if it is bothersome, you can let the other person know how you feel.

When the PA behavior is unintentional, directly expressing yourself is more likely to result in a behavior change than when the behavior is self-protective or malicious.

For example, a person slams a door when angry. If this behavior is unintentional and you express how you feel, the person might change their behavior:

“I know you are angry, but I would appreciate it if you don't slam the door.”

Self-protective. Self-protective PA behavior may or may not be changeable based on the person's need for the protection and their level of denial. People have a variety of needs for protection such as protecting their self-concept or protecting their job or protecting their personal interests.

For instance, a person who wants to believe they are acting in your best interest, when instead, they are being hurtful may be protecting their self-image of being a caring person. Directly confronting them is likely to cause them to blame you and not obtain the result you want:

PA person: “I think you need to be more careful about what you eat.”

You: “Please don't criticize me.”

PA person: “I'm not criticizing. I'm just concerned about your health.”

However, by recognizing the purpose of their behavior, you may be able to address it more effectively:

“I know you care about me, but when you tell me what I should and shouldn't eat, I feel as if you are criticizing me rather than helping.”

Malicious. A malicious person doesn't care about you and only desires to hurt you in such a way so as to avoid any responsibility for their behavior. In other words, they want to look blameless while driving the knife into your gut.

With such people any response can potentially escalate the situation in their favor. Your response needs to be well thought out and should be based upon how that person can affect your life.

For instance, if you have a malicious co-worker, your response may need to be focused on how others perceive the situation and damage control. Yet, you need to consider your response carefully to prevent the malicious person from turning co-workers or managers against you. If your response escalates the situation, you may look like the bad guy and be the recipient of negative consequences rather than the malicious aggressor. Which, unfortunately, may be the goal of the malicious person.

A malicious person is best avoided if possible. If not possible, you may need to enlist help from others such as reporting the person to HR if it is work related.

To help you determine why a person might be mean:
Reasons for Meanness Inventory

Next: Find out how your behavior may interfere with effectively handling a PA person.