Behind the smile, a hidden knife!―Ancient Chinese proverb describing passive-aggressive behavior
The NYU Medical Center defines a passive-aggressive individual as someone who "may appear to comply or act appropriately, but actually behaves negatively and passively resists." Passive- aggressive actions can range from the relatively mild, such as making excuses for not getting together, to the very serious, such as sabotaging someone’s well-being and success.
Most chronically passive-aggressive individuals have four common characteristics:
- They’re unreasonable to deal with.
- They’re uncomfortable to experience.
- They rarely express their hostility directly.
- They repeat their subterfuge behavior over time.
Passive aggressiveness may be directed towards a person or a group. The root causes are complex and deep-seated. Whatever the reasons that may drive an individual to be passive-aggressive, it’s not easy to be on the receiving end of such veiled hostilities. How can one successfully manage these situations? Here are 8 keys to handling passive-aggressive people. Not all of the tips below may apply to your particular situation. Simply utilize what works and leave the rest:
1. Don’t Overreact. Reduce Personalization and Misunderstanding.
When you experience possible passive-aggressive behavior from someone for the first time, avoid jumping to a negative conclusion. Instead, come up with multiple ways of viewing the situation before reacting. For example, I may be tempted to think my colleague didn’t return my email because she’s ignoring my suggestion, or I can consider the possibility that she’s taking some time to decide. When we avoid personalizing other people's behaviors, we can perceive their expressions more objectively. People do what they do because of them more than because of us. Widening our perspective can reduce the possibility of misunderstanding.
On the other hand, if the individual has clearly shown a pattern of passive-aggressiveness, employ any combination of the following action steps as appropriate:
2. Keep Your Distance Whenever Possible.
In some ways, passive-aggressives are more difficult to deal with than those who are openly hostile. An openly aggressive person is direct in words and action, which makes him or her more predictable. A passive-aggressive, on the other hand, hides a knife behind a smile. He or she operates on a hidden script, and you never know when you might be disenfranchised by his or her covert machinations. When confronted, the passive-aggressive will almost always deny responsibility. For these reasons, when you need to deal with someone who’s chronically passive-aggressive, be diplomatic and apply the tips from this article as you see fit. The rest of the time, keep a healthy distance.
3. Don’t Try to Change Them.
Some people try to change chronically passive-aggressive individuals through time-consuming dialogue about their behavior. Such efforts are admirable, but often end in frustration and disappointment. As mentioned earlier, reasons for passive aggressiveness are complex and deep-seated. A passive-aggressive person changes only when he or she matures and becomes more self-aware. It’s not your job to change the person. The best way to deal with passive-aggressives is to focus not on changing their attitude and behavior, but rather solidly taking charge of your own.
4. Don’t Get Sucked In. Avoid Tit for Tat.
It’s understandable to be upset when you’re on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior. There may be an urge to "strike back" overtly by arguing and using pointed language, or worse yet, by becoming passive-aggressive yourself. Neither approach is helpful, as the passive-aggressive will likely respond to your overt accusations with denial and claims of victimhood, and to any passive-aggressiveness on your part with even more covert hostility. All the while, you’re suffering because you have allowed this instigator to take away your equanimity. Don’t give someone the power to turn you into the type of person you don’t like to be.
5. In Relatively Mild Situations, Display Superior Composure Through Appropriate Humor.
Humor is a powerful communication tool. Years ago I knew a co-worker who was quite stuck-up. One day a colleague of mine said, “Hello, how are you?” to him. When the egotistical co-worker ignored her greeting completely, my colleague didn’t feel offended. Instead, she smiled good-naturedly and quipped, “That good, huh?” This broke the ice and the two of them started a friendly conversation. Brilliant.
When appropriately used, humor can shine light on the truth, disarm difficult behavior, and show that you have superior composure. (In my reference guide "How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People," I explain the psychology of humor in conflict resolution, and offer a variety of ways one can use humor to reduce or eliminate difficult behavior.)
6. In Serious Situations, Proactively Deal with the Problem Early On and Formalize Your Communication.
With passive-aggressives with whom you need to interact on a regular basis, it’s important to put a stop to any serious, potentially damaging patterns early on. Tolerating passive aggression will only encourage the negative behavior to continue and intensify.
Let yourself, not the passive-aggressive, be the one who sets the tone of the relationship. Whenever possible, formalize your daily communication with the passive-aggressive by either putting things in writing, or having a third party present as witness. Keep a paper trail of facts, issues, agreements, disagreements, timelines, and deadlines.
When a passive-aggressive incident occurs, whether it’s unfulfilled responsibility or inappropriate joking, have one or more witnesses present when you bring up the issue. At work, a witness can be someone who’s physically present, or an appropriate individual(s) to whom you’re copying your written correspondence. Ask the passive-aggressive person probing or clarifying questions to gather information and fact-check. Review previous communications and documentation to substantiate your position. Avoid making accusations and statements that begin with you, which are more likely to trigger defensiveness. Instead, use sentences that begin with I, it, we, let’s, and this, followed by facts. For example:
- Ineffective communication: "You didn’t meet the deadline."
- Effective communication: "I noticed that the deadline wasn’t met."
- Ineffective communication: "Your joking is really offensive."
- Effective communication: "I don’t feel comfortable with your joking. It’s offensive to me."
Again, document everything; fact-check; and establish your credibility with your command of evidence regarding the issue.
7. Give the Passive-Aggressive a Chance to Help Solve the Problem, If Appropriate.
Many passive-aggressive individuals behave as they do because they don’t believe they have a voice, or think that they’re not being listened to. When appropriate, include the person in discussions on challenges and solutions. Solicit their input. Ask, for example, "Given the desired outcome, how would you handle this issue?" See if they come up with any constructive solutions. On the other hand, if what you hear are mostly complaints and criticisms, don’t agree or disagree. Simply say that you’ll keep what they said in mind, and get on with what you need to get done.
8. Set Consequences to Lower Resistance and Compel Cooperation.
Since passive-aggressive individuals operate covertly, they will almost always put up resistance when confronted on their behavior. Denial, excuse making, and finger pointing are just a few of the likely retorts. Regardless of what they say, declare what you're willing to do going forward. Importantly, offer one or more strong consequences to compel the passive-aggressive to reconsider his or her behavior.
The ability to identify and assert consequence is one of the most powerful skills we can use to "stand down" a passive-aggressive person. Effectively articulated, consequences give pause to the difficult individual, and compels her or him to shift from obstruction to cooperation. (In my reference guide “How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People,” consequence is presented as seven different types of power you can utilize to affect positive change.)
Although passive-aggressive people are not pleasant to deal with, there are many effective skills and strategies you can employ to minimize their damage and gain their cooperation, while increasing your own confidence, composure, and problem-solving prowess. It’s one important aspect of leadership success.
For more in-depth tools on how to effectively handle difficult individuals, download free excerpts of my publications: How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People, Communication Success with Four Personality Types, and How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People.
Also available: The 7 Keys to Life Success, Wealth Building Attitudes, Values, and Habits, Branding Your Career Like Steve Jobs — Seven Essential Lessons in Work Success, Confident Communication for Female Professionals, and Seven Keys to Long-Term Relationship Success.
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Preston Ni, M.S.B.A. is available as a presenter, workshop facilitator, and private coach. For more information, write to email@example.com, or visit www.nipreston.com.
© 2014 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide.