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

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"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."

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.

Rules When Dealing With Passive-aggressive People

The following rules provide some guidelines to managing PA people. As you read these rules it may seem impossible to develop an appropriate response on the spur of the moment when confronted with PA behavior because there are so many things to consider. However, much of the time certain people in your life probably engage in repeated PA behavior which gives you the opportunity to prepare in advance. Once you have practiced the skills in predictable situations, you will be better able to manage the less predictable ones.

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. Directly confronting them is likely to cause them to blame you and not obtain the result you want:

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

“Please don't criticize me.”

“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 about 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 they affect your life. For instance, if it is 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.

Rule 2. Recognize when you need to address your thinking or behavior.

Over-reaction. Other people's behavior may not always be PA just because it feels hurtful. Be sure to have insight into yourself and recognize when you might be over-reacting to people's comments.

Even if you are uncertain about whether you are over-reacting, the nice thing about most of the responses to PA behavior is that the responses can be framed in such a way that if the behavior is not PA, your response can still be an appropriate response. For example, someone makes a joke and you're not sure if it is just an innocent joke or whether they are laughing at you. Calmly asking, “Are you talking about me?” can clarify the situation without unduly confronting the person. However, if they are joking about you, your statement would be perceived as a confrontation and the person may be less likely to the do the same again.

Demands. Recognize when you may have unreasonable demands or expectations. Sometimes we may view others as PA when they don't meet our expectations. For instance, you ask your boss for some help and she assigns a co-worker who doesn't complete the work the way you would. You think, “She's just mad that she has to help me.” In this case, the person could be PA but it also could be your expectations. You need to be able to clearly define when you are being unreasonable.

However, as I stated before, your response can be the same whether the person is PA or not because either way you do not want to accuse the person of deliberately doing the job wrong. If the person is PA then she could blame you, complain to the boss, and get away with not doing the work. And if she's not PA then you would look unreasonable. Assertive directions in this situation would be best: “I realize you don't do this all the time. Could you do it this way for me?”

When you are passive-aggressive. Recognize when you may be passive-aggressive because you may need to stop your PA behavior to address the other person's PA behavior. For example, if you are giving your spouse the silent treatment in reaction to PA behavior, you may need to change your response before you can request a change from your spouse.

Rule 3. Determine the person's reward.

One of the best ways to know how to respond to a PA person is to determine the reward for their behavior. 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.

There is always some sort of reward to 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 satisfy a need to be mean without having to be responsible? These are some of the rewards. Sometimes the rewards may be 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.

Rule 4. Choose your goal.

Before you respond to a person's PA behavior you need to choose the outcome that you want and to determine whether this goal is achievable.

Do you want to change the person's behavior? Do you want to derail the PA behavior by stopping the person from being rewarded? Do you want to manage the fall-out and the perception of others? In many situations your goal is to get out of their trap and to put them in a box where their only response is to stop being PA or to have to be responsible for their behavior (which often stops the PA behavior).

If you want to change the behavior, you also need to determine if the outcome is worth the effort. By asking yourself these questions, you can determine what your goal is so that your response will be based upon how to achieve that goal.

Rule 5. Always remain calm.

In this type of situation, the calm person is more likely to succeed. The passive-aggressive person wants to attribute blame and it is easiest to blame someone when they are out-of-control. You need to remain calm no matter what your goal and chosen response. Otherwise, you will fall into the PA trap and be blamed.

Obviously, many PA people are very skilled at pushing the sensitive buttons of their victim especially if they know you well. As a result, it can be very difficult to remain calm when confronted with their PA accusations. If you anticipate this may be true for you, then practice either through role-playing with someone, imagining the situation in your mind, or in front of a mirror. Imagine the PA behavior and practice remaining calm.

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.

The one-down approach involves leaving room for disagreement which in the case of a PA person may require them to take a stance. For instance, 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 accusatory 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” whereas a “No, I'm not!” to a “You're angry!” might lead to an escalation.

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, she 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 requires the PA person to take a stand and 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.

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 then accuse 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. Again, 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 5), 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 I consider a master at assertive communication being interviewed by confrontational people such as Bill O'Reilly. 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.

Methods to Use With Passive-aggressive People

Once you have the rules for managing PA people firmly in mind and feel comfortable with being able to use these rules in your interactions with PA people, the following methods can provide further direction. These methods may be used individually or in combination. Sometimes you may try one and if that doesn't work follow with another one. The methods are in no particular order and should be used based upon your goal and what you have determined previously regarding the PA person's intent and reward.

Method 1. Active listening technique

I like this technique because it is generally an effective method of communication, and yet, if someone is being PA it becomes an indirect way of confronting the person about the PA communication. As such, it is likely to result in a reduction of the PA behavior.

This method is to listen intently to the other person, show an interest in what they are saying, and respond once they are finished. When you respond, restate their comments: “So, I understand that you are saying...Is that correct?” For example, “So, I understand that you are saying I'm fat because I eat too many snack foods. Is that correct?” Notice that you are just restating what was said but doing it in such a way that requires the PA person to take responsibility for their statement. As I've said previously, this is the very thing the PA person doesn't want to do so you are likely to see a reduction in the PA behavior over time if you continue to make them responsible for their statements.

In addition, the active listening technique reduces acting on assumptions. If you are wrong about the statement being PA, this technique allows you to obtain clarification prior to any further action.

Finally, this method allows you to confront them with feelings once you have clarified their intent: ”I feel hurt that you feel it is necessary to say that as if I am not aware of the problem. It comes across as criticism.”

Method 2. Laugh and agree technique

The laugh and agree technique works well with sarcasm because it ignores the sarcasm. For example, the PA co-worker sarcastically criticizes you for arriving late to work, “Must be nice to sleep in” and you respond “Yeah, it is” completely negates the sarcastic criticism.

A “thank you” can do the same thing to sarcastic or backhanded insults. “You look interested for a change.” Saying “thank you” ignores the insult which is frustrating for the PA person who wants to convey a message without taking responsibility for the message.

Method 3. Questioning technique

The questioning technique makes the PA person have to justify and support their statement. PA people don't want to explain because, again, it forces them to take responsibility for their statements. When you use the questioning technique, it needs to be done innocently with genuine interest: “Oh, why do you say that?”

Method 4. The broken record technique

The broken record technique is a method of assertion that can be used to confront behavior. For those of you too young to remember broken records, this technique refers to when a record (a vinyl album used to play music prior to CDs, MP3 players, and smartphones) was scratched, it might keep playing the same phrase over and over.

The purpose of this technique is to not get drawn back into the argument. Once you have responded, continue to repeat your main points no matter how the person tries to deflect, accuse, or otherwise distort the situation.

“I told you that was hurtful. Please don't say it again.”

“You're too sensitive.”

“I said it was hurtful. Don't say it again.”

“I didn't mean it that way.”

“It is hurtful. Don't say it again.”

The broken record technique usually ends with the other person giving up. In fact, if you think about it this is often a technique used by PA people themselves to get you to give up on your confrontation.

Method 5. Direct confrontation

Sometimes you might decide that the best way of handling PA behavior is to directly confront. This is especially true when you know that the behavior is intentionally hurtful. However, any confrontation still needs to follow the rules especially remaining calm, being assertive, and choosing your words carefully. For instance, “I feel insulted (hurt). Is that your intention?” can be effective for a variety of PA comments that are hurtful or insulting.

Keep in mind that most PA people are good at evading or misdirecting a direct confrontation, so you need to be prepared to make your point no matter how they respond. If you let them control the situation, you are likely to fall into their trap of escalating the situation and you looking like the instigator because you caused the conflict by confronting.

Method 6. Consequences to behavior

Another way of responding to PA behavior is through consequences. For instance, if you determine that the person is not receptive or if they are malicious, walk away. Don't give them the reward of being drawn into their PA game.

Sometimes it may not be possible to completely walk away, in which case you need to set limits. Do not be shy to set these limits clearly and loudly “Stop!” or “I'm not going to discuss this.” Many PA people, especially the malicious ones, count on you to be “too” nice. Instead, being firm can sometimes stop their behavior.

Another way to set limits when someone's PA behavior interferes with something you are doing is to stop doing it. For example, you ask for help doing the laundry and your family member responds in a PA manner--don't do their laundry. Or, when someone is trying to get attention through PA behavior-- don't give them attention.

Method 7. Reward desired behavior

When you start ignoring or confronting the PA behavior, it becomes easier to reward desired behavior. The more you reward the behavior you want to see, the more likely it will continue, and hopefully, replace the PA behavior. If the PA person learns that direct communication is more likely to get results, then they may become more direct. For instance, if the person makes a direct rather than PA statement, reward it by responding to it quickly and positively. “I'm so glad you reminded me! I'll get right to it.” Or, when they do something to be helpful without the attached negativity, thank them! Notice appropriate behavior and try to be responsive to it when you can.

Method 8. Be passive-aggressive

When all else fails, be passive-aggressive yourself. However, you should only use this method in the case where you don't care about the ongoing relationship such as dealing with a PA malicious person.

This technique can be tricky so you need to be very skilled and know exactly what you are doing. You don't want to be drawn into a PA one-up-manship game. Instead, you want a response that will shut them down. This means that you need to put them into a PA trap from which they can't escape without calling attention to their behavior or looking like the bad guy. In other words, their choice is to either become more directly aggressive or to give up. When they get more aggressive, they look like the bad guy and appear to be responsible for the problem which is contrary to what they are trying to achieve.

I've sometimes used this method when I receive mean and unhelpful comments on my Android apps. Such comments are PA because even though the comments could be considered aggressive, the method of anonymity (and therefore, not being responsible) makes it PA. Sometimes people are sincerely reviewing the apps and their word choice may be unpleasant, in which case, I appreciate the message and ignore the tone. Other times they are just mean. Using a response such as “Kindly explain to me what you mean and I will take it into consideration” addresses both situations. If the person is sincere and truly wants to be helpful, this statement is likely to open a dialog. However, for those who are being PA, this statement is a PA response in return which provides no reward for them, and if they continue, makes them look like a bully. Therefore, my response forces them to either get more aggressive or to give up. By the way, they almost never respond if their intention is malicious.

Using these rules and methods won't solve all your problems with PA people, but you are more likely to feel in control and less doubtful of yourself when dealing with PA people.



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