Applied Psychology

How to Identify and Manage Passive Aggressive Behaviour

Mar 23, 2021
How to Identify and Manage Passive Aggressive Behaviour

Dealing with passive aggressive behaviour can be challenging and frustrating. Showing patience and learning how to respond in a kind but firm and constructive manner, are key to making life easier when someone close to you opts to express themselves like this.

What is Passive Aggressive Behavious?

A person who is passive aggressive tends to indirectly express their negative feelings instead of being upfront and honest about their emotions or needs. This is usually because they want to avoid confrontation. What results is a disjunction between what the person says and what they do.

“Passive aggression causes a disjunction between what is said and what is done.”

There are many reasons why someone might express themselves in a passive aggressive manner, and most of them have nothing to do with you.

5 Potential Causes of Passive Aggressive Behaviour Tendencies

  1. Growing up in an environment where expressing honest feelings/emotions wasn’t safe or allowed
  2. Learnt from others (in childhood or as an adult)
  3. A way of avoiding confrontation and/or upsetting others
  4. A mental illness or condition, such as an anxiety disorder or depression
  5. Substance abuse

Many people don’t realise that what they are doing is behaving passive aggressively. They may think that what they are doing is “kinder” because it won’t hurt someone else’s feelings. Or alternatively they are “keeping the peace”. Whatever the root cause of it, passive aggression usually arises from a person’s inherent sense of powerlessness. Passive aggressive personalities tend to feel that they lack agency when faced with challenging situations and can harbour self-esteem doubts.

“Many people don’t realise they are passive aggressive in their behaviour.”

What does Passive Aggressive Behaviour look like?

Passive aggressive behaviour is not a mental illness. It is more akin to a defence mechanism which varies by degrees. Some people behave in a passive aggressive manner because they’re having a bad day, while for others, it seems to be their normal state of being. For some, passive aggressive behaviour is limited to the odd sarcastic comment, while for others it manifests in more serious ways, such as continual attempts to sabotage a project.

“The degree of passive aggressive behaviour can vary between circumstances.”

10 Typical Passive Aggressive Behaviour Traits

  1. Resentful or oppose instructions given by others
  2. Procrastinate until the last minute or until it becomes too late to do something
  3. Deliberately inefficient eg: Make “mistakes” or leave things unfinished
  4. Avoids responsibility
  5. A sarcastic or argumentative attitude
  6. Avoids directly communicating their own concerns or needs
  7. Critical of others
  8. Default to sullen and/or silence when upset
  9. Disguise insults with humour or by prefacing statements eg: I don’t want to sound mean, however…
  10. Give fake compliments eg: Great jeans, they look like the ones I had when I was a teenager…

What to do when Someone is Passive Aggressive

It is understandable that you don’t want your relationship with the individual defined by an unbreakable cycle of negativity and passive aggressive behaviour. The reality is that, unless you are a trained therapist, it is not in the best interests of you, nor the individual in question, to attempt to diagnose the root of their passive aggressive behaviour. However, there are ways you can exert agency without overstepping.

“The most important thing to remember is to stay calm.”

Above all else, stay calm. Try to keep reminding yourself that their reaction and behaviour does not reflect on you nor is it as a consequence of something that you have done.

5 Ways to Engage with Someone who is Passive Aggressive

  1. Set Boundaries: Don’t be timid, talk using a polite and measured tone and don’t buckle if the passive aggressive person resorts to a victim mentality. It is perfectly reasonable to lay out the consequences of continued passive aggressive behaviour.
  2. Seek to Collaborate: If passive aggressive behaviour arises from a sense of powerlessness, then empowering the individual may help. By encouraging them to provide constructive input, with questions such as “how do you think we should handle this?”, you could help to make them feel like an active participant rather than a passive victim.
  3. Acknowledge the Upset: If you have some insight as to why someone is upset, indicate to them that you are aware and empathetic of the issue. Alternatively, ask non-judgemental questions about what might be bothering them to help them uncover their resentment. This can be a timeous process as passive aggressive people tend to battle to express their feelings and needs directly.
  4. Use Humour: One of the ways to take the sting out of a barb is with humour. It can be a powerful conflict resolution tool to shine light on the truth, disarm difficult behaviour and a veiled threat as well as show and bolster your own composure.
  5. Avoid Accusations: Don’t assume that the person is intentionally causing others discomfort. When you’re trying to make someone aware of how their passive aggressive behaviour is affecting others emotionally, it’s best to do so in a way that comes across as observational rather than accusatory.

If you want to be in a position to truly help people on their journey of self-discovery, a career in counselling may be for you. SACAP offers a range of counselling courses that can set you on the path to becoming a registered counsellor. For more information, enquire now.

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