This article is a follow-up to the previous post, providing a detailed explanation and example of the six steps of Benign Confrontation of passive aggressive behavior.
Do you ever feel like parenthood has got you engaging in the same conversations over and over again? Too often at our house, we have a recurring exchange that goes something like this:
Children: Can we get a dog? We really want a pug.
Parents: We can get a dog when you girls show us that you are ready to take care of one. First, you have to show us that you can feed the kitties everyday without needing reminders.
Children: But Moooooooooooom! But Daaaaaaaaaaaad! We doooooooooooo.
Parents: (Laugh. Exchange knowing glances.)
Last night, my husband was on his 95th reminder to our older daughter to feed the kittens. Following her 75th, "I'll do it in a minute" (she simply pretended not to hear the first 20 requests, as she kept her eyes glued to her lady Gaga video on the computer screen), she all of a sudden got indignant:
"Fine. I'll do it right away. I don't know why you have to be so impatient about it, Dad!"
She ran to our cats' feeding bowls. We heard the pouring of the food. A lot of pouring, in fact. She ran back to the computer with an angry smile on her face and resumed her dry-eyed screen stare.
My husband and I walked over to check on the kitty bowls. Oh, she fed them alright. The food dish overflowed with food. The water dish overflowed with instantly-soggy food. The mat underneath was covered in kibble. The cats were indeed fed. Their meal, in fact, ought to last 'em for a month!
For those counting the levels of passive aggressive behavior and keeping score, that's 75 incidents of temporary compliance and 1 heaping serving of intentional inefficiency for my passive aggressive cat feeder. As an author of a book about effectively managing passive aggression, I feel just a wee bit of pressure to follow my own advice when it comes to stopping sugarcoated hostility in its tracks. With such a blatant-and comical-act of compliant defiance, I knew this was the time to talk about what was really going on in the situation.
In The Angry Smile, we talk about six steps of Benign Confrontation of passive aggressive behavior. Benign Confrontation (BC) is an effective, but challenging process in which an adult gently, but openly shares his thoughts about a person's un-verbalized anger. It works with children, as well as adults (especially in relationship and workplace settings where talking about anger can be difficult).
My Benign Confrontation about the kitty feeding went something like this:
First, I recognized what her behavior was really all about. She did not mistakenly "miss" the food bowl or just "accidentally" pour food into the water dish. Nor did she experience "temporary deafness" when my husband was reminding her about her chore. Rather, her behavior was willful and had everything to do with the anger she feels when asked to complete her daily chores. She is no different from most kids (and adults!) who dislike having their activities interrupted by responsibility and she is not passive aggressive across the board. Certain situations, however, do bring out the best of her covert hostility.
Second, my husband and I both had to make a conscious choice not to yell, scream, behave like lunatics, or otherwise act out the anger that our daughter was hiding. Remaining rational is a prerequisite to effectively managing passive aggressive behavior.
Here's where the real Benign Confrontation begins. I made a statement that named my daughter's anger gently, but directly:
I heard Daddy ask you several times to feed the cats and since you and I were sitting together, I know you could hear him too. I have to wonder why you chose not to answer him or to do your chore. I'm wondering if you are feeling angry about Daddy's request to feed the cats.
The simpler the better--the statement is intended to affirm the anger she is feeling.
Affirmation of a passive aggressive person's anger is powerful, because the person has been working diligently, through her behaviors, to avoid expressing anger directly. The knowledge that someone can see beyond the facade is surprising and impactful.
Expect denial. It is not easy for a passive aggressive person to "admit anger." When talking to my daughter about the kitty feeding, a "confession" was not my immediate goal. Rather, I managed her predictable denial by stating, "It was just a thought I had."
It was not necessary to correct her denial (I didn't mean to spill the food) or rationalizations (I would have done it before I started my homework. Dad just wants me to do everything on his schedule) at this point. To be most effective, I simply left her with the thought that I was aware of her anger.
Next time (and there will be a next time) an example of her passive aggressive behavior occurs again, I will simply repeat the first four steps of Benign Confrontation-
1. Recognizing the behavior
2. Refusing to engage in the Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle
3. Affirming the anger
4. Managing the denial
In addition, whenever and wherever I can build my relationship with my daughter and highlight areas of her strength and competency (e.g. "You are kind and loving to your animals. Max just loves it when you brush him and show him he is loved."), I do so! Affirming that the relationship is valuable but the behavior has to change, is key to changing passive aggressive behavior in the long term.