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7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People
Rule 6. Choose your words carefully
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

Read the following to:
  • Master techniques to respond to PA comments.
  • Learn how to use the "one-down" approach.
  • Learn how to use the "Did I understand you?" approach.
Related articles by Dr. Frank:

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

Next: Learn how to best confront PA behavior directly.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Rules When Dealing With Passive-aggressive People

Rule 6. Choose your words carefully

Words are powerful. The words you choose can either de-escalate a situation, resolve the problem, or make the other person look like the bad guy instead of you. Choosing your words may take some practice. This is where role-playing or practicing the words in your head can be helpful. Think about how the PA person might respond to the different words that you use.

Although many different word choices can be used, the “one-down” and the “did I understand you” approaches can be particularly effective when dealing with PA people.

One-down approach. I call this the “Columbo” approach from an old TV series of a detective whose apparent appearance as a bumbling fool caught the criminals off-guard. He made statements such as “Maybe I'm wrong” or “I don't know but...” while scratching his head in confusion.

A "one-down" position refers to being at a disadvantage in a game or competition. With the one-down approach you are seemingly at a disadvantage which tends to catch the PA person off-guard. The one-down approach leaves room for disagreement which in the case of a PA person may require them to take a stance or to clarify their position

For instance, if you accuse someone such as "You're angry!" you may get an escalation of emotion or an emphatica denial: "No, I'm not!" Whereas, saying “Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that you are angry” either gets a response of “No, I'm not” or an explanation. However, the “no, I'm not” is usually less emotional when responding to the one-down approach than it would be if confronted directly. This allows you to then completely ignore the PA message, “Oh, okay, I guess I was wrong” which prevents the PA person from achieving their goal.

Keep in mind that the PA person wants to deliver a message without having to be responsible for it. The one-down approach can prevent the delivery of the message so that the PA person is not rewarded for the behavior.

Did I understand you? approach. I think of this as the Miss Manners approach based on the etiquette advice columnist. She has such a delightful approach to insults or apparent insults while remaining polite.

Basically, Miss Manners advises making a statement expressed with a confused tone such as “Did I hear you correctly? Did you just make a comment about my weight?” or “I must have misunderstood you. I thought you just ask a very personal question.”

Similar to the one-down approach, this approach requires the PA person to make a choice to either back off from the original statement or take responsibility for it. If they actually take responsibility for it, you then have the opportunity for a more direct confrontation.

Reader's Example: Co-Worker's "Joking" Criticism

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?!!

Next: Learn how to best confront PA behavior directly.