5 Ways to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

Call on these tips to keep from reaching your boiling point.

Posted Oct 16, 2020

A critical comment with a big smile. 

Silence when you know they can hear you. 

“But you didn’t tell me I had to do it that way.”

Passive-aggressive people know just how to get under your skin, and tacking on “LOL” afterward doesn’t make things any better.

So if you’re tired of insulting texts followed with “jk!” or sick of finding ostensibly polite but obviously angry notes from your roommate, these tips are for you... unlike some people we know (ha! see what I did there?).

Passive aggression, by definition, is the fine art of being angry without seeming angry. 

It’s an inseparable coffee-and-cream swirl of two ingredients: anger and avoidance. 

The first, anger—or its cousins annoyance, frustration, and irritation—always bubbles beneath the surface. But trying to suppress anger is like trying to keep a lid on a pot of boiling water. Eventually, a steam vent will spew out.

In addition to semi-hidden hostility, the second ingredient in passive aggression is avoidance. It’s a way to skirt conflict, not feel genuine anger, and avoid having to be direct in a situation where one feels incapable—three wins that powerfully reinforce a habit of passive aggression.

Along the way, most people who are passive-aggressive learned that it’s not okay to be angry or upset. Maybe they were taught that conflict is threatening and has to be avoided at all costs. Maybe they were taught that being “nice” and not rocking the boat is the only option. Or maybe it’s their way of expressing dissatisfaction without outright rebellion. 

So what to do when your partner insists through clenched teeth, “I’m not mad.” Or your teenager says with an eye roll, “Geez, you didn’t tell me you wanted me to mow the lawn today.” Or your roommate spells out “I unclogged the drain” in bathtub hair that looks suspiciously like yours? Here are 5 tips to try.

Tip #1: See if there’s a pattern. 

The reality is we’re all human, and we all have our days. Sometimes a comment or an eye roll will leak out like an errant burp.

But if it’s a pattern, or a default reaction when things get stressful, passive-aggression needs to be dealt with.

That said, facing it head-on is precisely what the passive-aggressive person is trying to avoid. Passive-aggressive people avoid conflict like turds on the sidewalk. But then resentment builds and their anger leaks more than a porcupine’s raincoat. Which brings us to...

Tip #2: Make it clear that it’s safe to talk it out. 

Passive-aggressive people act the way that they do because they are afraid of how you’ll react. They’re scared that you’ll yell at them, reject them, stop loving them, or otherwise react in a much stronger manner than you actually will. 

It’s particularly important to call out passive-aggressive behavior at work. Passive-aggressive colleagues are often unhappy or insecure in their jobs. But rather than clearly flagging an issue as something that needs to be addressed, passive-aggressive co-workers instead express their displeasure by creating obstacles, wasting time, and generally making everyone’s job more difficult, not to mention less enjoyable. 

Therefore, whether at work or at home, make it clear you would rather someone bring a problem to light than leave it roiling under wraps. Critically, reinforce this by not reacting with the very thing they’re afraid of. If you blow your top, belittle them, or otherwise silence their anger, they’ll go right back into their shell, like a hermit crab with only the claws hanging out.

Now, if you try to talk it out but they still deny anger or dissatisfaction (“Me? I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” Or, “Sorry I was late, but I didn’t see any reminder emails,”) things suddenly go to a whole different level. 

Tip #3: For incurable cases, validate them…

Sometimes, passive aggression is so ingrained it becomes a default way to deal with the world. For chronically passive-aggressive individuals, in addition to avoiding anger, they avoid responsibility. 

Passive-aggressive people do this to avoid being exposed as a failure (after all, if the dog eats their homework, you can’t give them an F on it) or to avoid a job they think they’re too good for (Who does Dad think he is, telling me to shovel the driveway?)

However it manifests, when the passive-aggressive person acts defensive, they make themselves the victim. This puts you in a difficult place, because no matter how you present it, they’ll see your attempt to communicate and raise you a deflection and an excuse. “What? I took the towels out of the dryer just like you asked—you didn’t tell me I had to fold them and put them away.”

Therefore, start with empathy. Acknowledge their excuse, even if you’re rolling your eyes internally. Why? It’s vital to align yourself with them, because working against them is slippery at best, antagonistic at worst. “I get it.” “I understand.” “I hear you.” Make it clear that you’re working together as a team. But then...

Tip #4: Hold them accountable.

People who are passive aggressive behave the way they do because they get away with it. If they get a free pass because the dog ate their homework, you can bet they’ll be dipping tonight’s homework in gravy and making it happen again. 

So acknowledge their situation, align yourself with them, but then hold them to their responsibilities, even if (especially if!) it would be easier to bail them out or do their job yourself. 

For example, “The dog ate your homework? I’m so sorry that happened to you. That happened to me a few times—it stinks. Here’s another copy—you can hand it in tomorrow along with tonight’s homework.” 

In a nutshell, there’s acknowledgment and sympathy for their “woe-is-me” approach, but the standards don’t change. It’s worth the inconvenience on your part to nip it in the bud. “I understand you didn’t go to the store because you couldn’t remember what I asked you to buy. But we’re still out of soap and toothpaste, so thanks for going now.”  

Tip #5: And reward them when they’re properly assertive.

If the chronically late passive-aggressive person manages to show up on time, express genuine pleasure that they’re present. Not with a sarcastic “Nice to see you on time for once,” but with a big smile and a genuine inquiry about what they’re up to this weekend.

Likewise, if someone who is typically tardy completes a task on time, give them the praise they secretly want. “Hey, you’re here right on the dot. I really appreciate that.” 

After all, passive-aggressive people, as frustrating as they are, are just like everybody else. At their core, they just want love and approval. And while they sure make it hard to get past their prickles, with some simple strategies, you can help them behave better around you, which is totally worth missing out on hilariously eek-worthy passive-aggressive “reminder” emails sent to the entire staff.