We’ve all tried to avoid confrontation or felt we couldn’t directly express our thoughts and feelings to someone, which can sometimes cause us to act in ways that are passive-aggressive. Like most personality traits, passive-aggressiveness occurs along a continuum from mild to severe characteristics. While we may be passive-aggressive from time to time, there are those who are more likely to engage in this behaviour on a regular basis.
Any behaviour that consists of indirect resistance towards others, combined with the avoidance of direct and clear communication can be described as passive-aggressive. One example is the old friend from high school who seems interested in getting together when you mention it, but then makes excuses when you start comparing schedules. Another is the parent who gives their child a backhanded compliment by saying, “That dress fits you great, considering your body type.”
Passive aggressiveness can be uncomfortable to experience, and may leave us wondering if we are responsible for the awkward dynamics at play. Although the root causes of this behaviour are typically deep-seated and best explored in therapy, there are some techniques you can use when interacting with someone who engages in passive-aggressive communication.
Recognize the pattern:
Passive aggressiveness looks different from person to person, so start by noticing the specific characteristics the person typically engages in. For example, someone may always put down their own ideas after expressing them, while another might agree to things and then silently seethe for long periods of time afterwards. Once you become aware of how passive-aggressiveness looks for a particular person, you can begin working with it.
Don’t take the bait:
Recognize how you respond to the pattern. Avoid overreacting by becoming frustrated with the lack of real dialogue. To reduce your chances of personalizing or misunderstanding what’s going on, refrain from jumping to conclusions. For example, don’t think your high school friend doesn’t want to see you because they are mad at you – maybe they are just too busy. Stay calm and avoid mirroring their behaviour.
Address the issue as soon as possible:
The whole point of passive-aggressive behaviour is to avoid direct communication, so it can be tempting to leave it alone and not address it. Fight this urge to the best of your ability as it can set the tone for the relationship going forward.
When appropriate, humour can diffuse tense situations and highlight the passive-aggressive behaviour at the same time. Someone may feel defensive or attacked when their passive-aggressive behaviour is noticed or labelled, but humour can stop this feeling right in its tracks.
Use assertive, clear, and direct communication:
A good rule of thumb is to be as objective and straightforward as possible in these interactions. For professional settings, put agreements, plans, and conversations into writing, and try to have a third-party witness present if possible. This will allow you to substantiate your position in future conversations. It also doesn’t hurt to use “me” statements as opposed to “you” statements in order to reduce the likelihood of defensiveness.
Stay present and state your feelings:
It’s not easy, but telling someone in the moment how their passive-aggressive behaviour makes you feel gives you the best shot at finding solutions. Instead of making a snarky comment about how your partner is constantly being critical towards your weight, you could rather focus on the specific moment and state how their comment made you feel.
Offer to solve the issue together:
By modelling direct communication and inviting the passive-aggressive person to be involved in finding a solution, you are inspiring change in the relationship. These conversations have the potential to move the relationship in a much healthier direction, particularly if the passive-aggressive person feels like they don’t have a voice or believes they aren’t being listened to.
Don’t try to change them:
The only person you can truly change is you, so do your best to clearly state what you intend on doing should the passive-aggressive behaviour continue. This avoids the potential to get lost in a blame game and can give you the sense of knowing your boundaries around the person. Clearly stating the consequences of the person’s behaviour can give you some confidence in the future of the relationship – just make sure the punishment fits the crime.
Repeat, repeat, repeat:
Consistency is key! Individuals who engage in passive-aggressive behaviour are less likely to be motivated to change unless there are consequences for their behaviour, so be prepared to follow through on your stated boundaries. If needed, find supports in your social network to help you.
Disengage with respect:
When the above suggestions don’t seem to be working, the best thing you can do is take steps to limit or reduce your time with the individual.
Remember that it’s not up to you alone to make the relationship work. When someone is made aware of their passive-aggressive behaviour but continues to engage in it, there’s a possibility they are not ready to change. Your mental health is important, so seek out connections that give back what you put in and can thrive on direct, clear communication – they’re out there, trust me.
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