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7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People
Rule 4. Withhold the PA person's reward
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

Rules When Dealing With Passive-aggressive People

Rule 4. Withhold the PA person's reward

The most important key to managing PA behavior is understanding that PA behavior is reinforced and continues because it is rewarding. There is always some sort of reward to PA behavior.

By knowing the reward, you can tailor your response to prevent the PA person from obtaining the reward. When a person is no longer rewarded for behavior, you are more likely to see a decrease in that behavior.

Withholding reward is a general principle in changing any behavior. For instance, if you give a child a piece of candy every time they throw a tantrum, the child learns that a tantrum is rewarded. By removing the reward you can reduce the frequency of the tantrums.

It may be difficult to determine the reward for PA behavior as you may wonder, "What makes such mean-spirited behavior rewarding?" The answer can vary with the many kinds of PA behavior. Most commonly, however, the PA person gets their way or they can feel powerful by controlling others.

In the situation with the co-worker not doing the job right, the reward to escalating conflict and your frustration is to not have to do the job at all.

Some questions to ask yourself to help determine the reward:

  • What do they get from their PA behavior?
  • Do they get their way?
  • Are they able to feel better due to transferring their anger, anxiety, stress onto you?
  • Do they get others' approval?
  • Do they feel more powerful or in control?
  • Do they satisfy a need to be mean without having to be responsible?
These are some of the possible rewards. Sometimes the rewards may be more difficult to observe because you need to assume what they are experiencing internally. Other rewards are more tangible such as making you look bad so they can get a promotion at work.

Once you determine the reward, then you are able to develop a response that is based upon not allowing the PA person to get the reward. When you consider your response, you need to think about whether it contributes to obtaining the reward or whether it prevents the reward to the PA person.

Next: Learn how to organize your response to PA people by knowing what you want to achieve.