3 Tips for Avoiding Passive-Aggressive Behavior
... including your own.
Posted Jun 13, 2016
When I walked into the small gym in our apartment building at 7:30 Monday morning, there was a yoga mat and foam roller lying in the open space where I planned to do my workout. Mary [not her real name] was running on the treadmill.
“Hi Mary. Is this yoga mat yours?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “I’ll use it soon.”
So instead I began my workout in a small space squeezed between two posts.
Forty minutes later—after I finished my workout—Mary got off the treadmill and began to use the space she had been saving.
Throughout those 40 minutes, I found myself fixated on what felt like her rude and inappropriate space-hogging. But I didn’t say anything.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t reacting. On the contrary, I was silently fuming: How could she be so inconsiderate? And why wasn’t I standing up for myself?
You might be wondering why I didn’t just say, “Mary, do you mind if I move your mat while you use treadmill and then I’ll put it back when you're done?” The problem is that while this seems straightforward, in the moment it didn’t feel that way. Maybe it was my fear of conflict, or the way Mary acted like she owned the space, but somehow I couldn't muster the courage to assert myself.
Think about how often you see this happen: Someone does something that upsets others—they yell, leave people out, ignore emails, do shoddy work, show up late, text during meetings, play favorites—and the people around them don’t say anything. Those people are reacting to these behaviors, but not doing it openly.
I used to think that being passive-aggressive was simply some people’s way of being obnoxious. But while exercising for 40 minutes in my little confined space, I experienced what causes a lot of passive aggressiveness—the feeling of powerlessness that grows in the fertile ground between anger and silence.
Passive aggression is an attempt to regain power and relieve the tension created by that gap between anger and silence. People complain to each other. They withdraw, use sarcasm, and resist the passive-aggressive person in quiet, insidiously defensible ways.
Dealing with a passive-aggressive person is one challenge. But what if you are the passive-aggressive person?
For example, I ran through a number of ways to respond to Mary, and everything I considered fell into one of four categories.
- Do nothing.
Just live with your discontent. This would be a fine approach if I wasn’t so bothered by Mary’s behavior. If something doesn’t matter to us that much and our anger dissipates, then silence can be productive. In other words, if there’s no anger, there’s no gap. But the longer I did nothing, the more infuriated I became, and the more likely I was to respond passive aggressively.
Eventually I did have a conversation about Mary with a friend: Can you believe what Mary did? The person I spoke with was supportive, which made me feel better. On the flip side, that conversation created more ripples of discord in our little gym.
- Claim the space.
I considered simply moving the equipment and taking over the space, but that felt obnoxious and it almost guaranteed a conflict, which is what I was trying to avoid.
- Be direct.
This is, of course, the most mature way to respond—and is a clear way to avoid a passive-aggressive pattern. But it’s harder to do than the other three options because it requires that we talk about what’s bothering us and ask the other person to change their behavior. That’s challenging to do gracefully when we’re feeling emotionally charged.
To make it easier to address this kind of situation, it helps to have an established method for being direct about someone else’s poor behavior.
I considered telling Mary that it’s simply not cool to take up space when you aren’t using it, but that’s a criticism: I felt like it might elicit a defensive reaction, which would escalate our conflict.
I also considered asking Mary if I could use the space while she wasn’t using it, but I didn’t want her to step in and take the space back at her whim. And I didn’t want to give away my power—something many of us do, to our detriment, because we’re polite.
I realized that no matter what I do in a situation like this, I will end up feeling at least a little uncomfortable. That’s because, when we’re dealing with someone who is being selfish or inconsiderate, we need to be willing to assert our interests at least as strongly as the other person is willing to assert theirs. We need to be polite but also stand our ground—and that feels uncomfortable.
Here are three steps that might help make this type of situation more comfortable:
1. Ask a question.
Is there a particular reason you are holding this space for your workout while you’re on the treadmill? The key is to really be curious (otherwise the question itself may sound passive-aggressive). Your curiosity might be the only move you need to make. If you hear a legitimate reason behind a person’s offensive behavior, your anger may simply dissipate. And if they have no reason for their behavior, then they may change it. If neither of those happen ...
2. Share your perspective while acknowledging theirs.
I understand why you want to hold this space for use after your time on the treadmill, but it’s frustrating to work out squeezed between two posts while the larger space sits idle.
3. Make a firm request supported by logic.
Since we all share this small gym, please don’t hold space that you aren’t using. Saying it this way imbues you with a certain amount of authority. It’s somewhere between a request and a demand. You are setting a standard for how people should act, and increasing the likelihood that the person will comply.
Avoiding the slide into passive-aggressive behavior requires closing the gap between our anger and our silence—either by dissipating our anger or breaking our silence. Breaking the silence isn’t easy, doesn’t feel comfortable, and risks open conflict. But standing up for yourself is important and, in the end, open conflict is preferable to unstated discord.
Originally published at Harvard Business Review