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7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People
Rule 7. Be assertive
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

Read the following to:
  • Learn how to best confront PA behavior directly.
  • Develop the skills to be effectively assertive.
Related articles by Dr. Frank:

Previous: Master techniques to respond to PA comments.

Next: Learn how to use the active listening method to indirectly confront PA behavior.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Rules When Dealing With Passive-aggressive People

Rule 7. Be assertive

When you are dealing with a PA person and you decide to confront the behavior directly, being assertive is the best approach. Assertion is expressing how you feel without being derogatory.

Although verbal aggression is also a way to confront the behavior and to express yourself, you are more likely to escalate the situation and lose the battle. Adhering to the following components of assertion create a greater likelihood of a satisfactory outcome.

Direct. When being assertive, a direct and to the point approach is best. Say what you need to say as concisely as possible. Being concise doesn't always mean being brief because it depends upon the situation. Factually describing what occurred may require a detailed explanation. However, stay with the facts of the present situation and only describe what is necessary to make your point.

Being direct also means direct contact. Face-to-face interaction is best when confronting someone as it allows you the most information regarding the other person's response. For instance, if you are confronting by phone you don't know if the other person is rolling his eyes and shaking his head during the conversation. People are more likely to be responsive during direct communication.

“I” statements. Using a “you” approach is experienced as aggressive and the other person is likely to become defensive. In the case of a PA person, they are more likely to achieve their agenda with a “you” focus because they can easily deny your statement. “You are hurting my feelings” may get a response such as “No, I'm not, you're just too sensitive” which leads into a discussion of how sensitive you are.

Although “I feel hurt when you say that” can also get the response “You're too sensitive” it provides more of an opportunity to stay on topic: “Maybe that's true but I still feel hurt when you say that. Please don't do it again.”

Statement of fact. Frequently, when people confront PA behavior, they make an interpretation: “You are deliberately hurting my feelings.” The word “deliberately” in this statement makes it an interpretation.

With PA people an interpretation provides them with the ammunition they desire because it is easy for them to deny and distract from the issue by accusing you of being wrong and hurtful. “How dare you accuse me of deliberately trying to hurt you! What kind of person do you think I am?”

When confronting, stick to the facts. This means to describe exactly what occurred without providing a reason. Instead of “You're trying to do this task wrong so that I will take over and you won't have to do it” try "Be sure to do the job the correct way or you might have to do it over again.”

Tone of voice. Your tone should always be firm and sincere. PA people are masters of sarcasm and will pick up on any hint of insincerity. It is easier to be sincere when you make statements of fact using “I” statements and follow the other rules of managing PA people such as choosing your goal and choosing your word choice.

Eye contact. Maintaining good eye contact when assertively confronting someone helps to show sincerity and intention. Often people may choose the right words but their non-verbal expressions may negate their intention. For instance, saying “Don't do that again” while looking at the floor won't be as effective as looking directly at the person.

Facial expression. Always maintain a neutral to pleasant facial expression. Using the right word choice won't be as effective if you have an angry expression. The more that you are able to stay calm (Rule 3), the more easily you will be able to maintain an appropriate facial expression. If you look angry, the PA person will be able to make accusations and escalate the situation. Remember, the largest part of communication is non-verbal.

To help a client of mine learn the skills of social interaction, we studied YouTube videos of President Bill Clinton (who is a master at assertive communication) being interviewed by confrontational people such as Bill O'Reilly. We compared these videos to President Obama with the same interviewer.

Very clearly, President Clinton used this method of maintaining a positive facial expression. In fact, it appeared that the more he was confronted, the more pleasant his expression became.

Compare this to O'Reilly confronting President Obama prior to the 2014 Super Bowl. Although President Obama is also very skilled at responding to confrontation, his micro-expressions appear to convey distaste or defensiveness whereas President Clinton always appears to genuinely like the interviewer as well as be interested in having the discussion.

Open stance. You also express yourself through the position of your body. If your arms are crossed you will appear more defensive. If you are pointing at the other person you will seem to be aggressive.

Again, even though you use the right words, you may express a different message through your posture. The best body position is to have an open stance which means not having your arms or legs crossed and to have your arms relaxed at your sides.

Next: Learn how to use the active listening method to indirectly confront PA behavior.