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How to Recognize and Handle Passive-Aggressive Behavior

There are four types of passive aggression.

Key points

  • Passive-aggressiveness is covertly expressed anger that's meant to "even the score" with the hope of "getting away with it."
  • Passive-aggressive people are unreasonable, uncomfortable to deal with, and tend to repeat their behavior over time.
  • Types of passive-aggressive behavior include giving the silent treatment and deliberately procrastinating on a task.

The American Psychiatric Association defines passive-aggressive personality disorder as a "pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations."

Passive-aggressive actions can range from the relatively mild, such as ignoring a personal or work-related phone call, to the very serious, such as indirectly undermining 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, and they repeat their subterfuge behavior over time. Passive aggressiveness may be directed towards a person or a group.

Below are four categories of passive aggression:

Disguised Verbal Hostility

Negative gossip. Sarcasm. Veiled hostile joking — often followed by "just kidding." Repetitive teasing. Negative orientation. Habitual criticism of ideas, solutions, conditions, and expectations.

Disguised Relational Hostility

The silent treatment. The invisible treatment. Social exclusion. Neglect. Backstabbing. Two-faced. Mixed messages. Deliberate button-pushing. Negative or discomforting surprises. Overspending. Sullen resentment. Indirectly hurting something or someone of importance to the targeted person.

Disguised Task Hostility

Procrastination. Stalling. Forgetting. Stonewalling. Withholding resources or information. Professional exclusion. Denying personal responsibility. Excuse-making. Blaming. Broken agreements. Lack of follow-through. Resistance. Stubbornness. Rigidity. Avoidance. Inefficiency, complication, incompletion, or ruination of a task.

Hostility Towards Others Through Self-Punishment (“I’ll Show You”)

Quitting. Deliberate failure. Exaggerated or imagined health issues. Victimhood. Dependency. Addiction. Self-harm. Deliberate weakness to elicit sympathy and favor.

In short, passive-aggressiveness is anger, hostility, and/or learned helplessness in disguise, expressed in a covert, underhanded way to "even the score" with the hope of "getting away with it." The perceived payoffs for the passive-aggressive are greater power, control, and negative emotional satisfaction.

There are many communication skills and strategies you can use to deal with a passive-aggressive individual. In my book, How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People, you can learn how to maintain composure, ways to be proactive instead of reactive, seven powerful strategies to handle passive-aggressive behavior, three types of humor to disarm negativity, and seven types of power you can utilize to compel cooperation.

© 2014 by Preston C. Ni.

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