Applied Psychology

Understanding passive aggressive behaviour, and how to deal with it

Mar 12, 2019

Dealing with passive aggressive behaviour can be challenging, but it’s important to show patience, and to respond in a constructive way.

Key takeaways

  • Passive aggressive personalities are subtle in their resistance. While they insist that they are fine, their behaviour tells a different story.
  • Passive aggressive personalities feel that they lack agency when faced with challenging situations.
  • Only a professional should attempt to diagnose the root of passive aggressive behaviour, but there are ways you can make life easier for yourself and the individual in question.

Dealing with aggression can be challenging, but at least you know it when you see it. Dealing with passive aggression, on the other hand, can be complicated, mainly because it’s difficult to tell whether you’re reading the situation right. Are they ignoring you, or were they just distracted? Did they slam that door intentionally, or was it just the wind? They sigh heavily every time you ask them to do something, but when you ask why, they say they’re just “practicing deep breathing techniques”.

Trying to figure out whether a passive aggressive personality has an issue with you can be like trying to get a straight answer out of a politician. The difference is, with a passive aggressive personality, you can eventually win through, provided you show patience and understanding (and unlike the politician, it may actually be worth the effort).

Understanding passive aggression

According to Terence Brake, director of learning and innovation at TMA World, and author of e-books such as Borderless Collaboration: Achieve shared goals in geographically dispersed teams, and Cultural Intelligence: People building productive relationships in a world of difference; passive aggressiveness is “anger behind a mask”. Behaving in a passive aggressive manner means you resist the demands of others in subtle ways, and avoid direct confrontation.

Of course, passive aggressive behaviour 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.

How to deal with a passive aggressive personality

Working, socialising or living with an individual who exhibits a pattern of passive aggressive behaviour can be frustrating. According to Terence Brake, the key is to not take it personally. There are many reasons why someone might express themselves in a passive aggressive manner, and a lot of them have nothing to do with you.

Someone might develop a passive aggressive personality as a result of things that have happened in their past. They may have grown up in a family where they were dominated by a parent or older sibling, or where they were not encouraged to express emotions such as anger or resentment in a healthy way.

Either way, passive aggression usually arises from a person’s inherent sense of powerlessness. Passive aggressive personalities feel that they lack agency when faced with challenging situations.

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. You don’t want your relationship with the individual to be defined by an unbreakable cycle of negativity and passive aggressive behaviour.

Set boundaries

Passive aggressive personalities often resort to a victim mentality, but it’s important not to fall into that trap yourself. As Terence Brake says: “Don’t be timid – it is perfectly reasonable to lay out the consequences of continued passive aggressive behavior”. Of course, you’ll want to do so in as polite and measured a tone as you can manage.

Engage directly

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 make them feel like an active participant rather than a passive victim.

Acknowledge the “anger behind the mask”

You may have some insight into why the individual in question is upset. Perhaps they were left out of an arrangement, or their input is being ignored. Indicating that you’re aware of the issue, or asking non-judgemental questions about what might be bothering them, can help uncover their resentment, although Terence Brake warns that “this may take time because passive aggressive people have not usually learned to express their feelings and needs directly”.

Disarm with humour

Professor Preston Ni – a coach, trainer and author of How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People – writes that humor, when used appropriately, “can shine light on the truth, disarm difficult behavior, and show that you have superior composure”.

As a powerful conflict resolution tool, humour can be especially effective when dealing with passive aggressive personalities. Responding with a quip instead of taking personal offence, can remove any sense of threat that a passive aggressive person might otherwise be envisioning.

Avoid being the trigger

Professor Preston Ni also writes that “many passive-aggressives subconsciously choose a partner with whom he or she can re-enact power struggles of the past”. Avoid slipping into a role that seems to elicit passive aggressive behaviour.

An example of such a role would be “the critic”, who constantly points out your partner’s failings. On the opposite side of the extreme, there’s the “baby sitter”, who enables passive aggressive behaviour by constantly seeking to cover for your partner, or clean up the damage caused by their behaviour.

Avoid accusatory statements

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. In other words, don’t assume that they are intentionally causing others discomfort.

Above all else, stay calm

Lashing out in response to passive aggression derails the discussion and makes it about you, rather than the problem at hand. Try to keep things on track by ensuring the discussion remains productive.

Remember that without professional training, there’s only so much you can do (and only so much you should do). 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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