Few topics that I write about garner as much interest, attention, and emotion as that of passive-aggressive behavior. Among the most frequently asked questions about this universally frustrating way of expressing anger—aside from "What exactly is passive aggression?" and "Why do people act this way?"—is "What’s the best way to respond to passive-aggressive behavior?"
In The Angry Smile, my co-authors and I describe the skill of benign confrontation, a six-step process for directly challenging passive-aggressive behavior in the moment and effectively changing it in the long-term. Here’s the catch: For many people, confrontation is a scary prospect. Whether out of fear of receiving a person’s anger or out of discomfort with the possibility of causing someone else anxiety, many adults spend a lifetime hiding from direct communication about behavior. Passive-aggressive individuals know this; they bank on it. In fact, they often select their targets based on intuiting who will be least likely to unmask the anger that they so desperately want to keep hidden.
The bad news for those who shy away from confrontation is that without directly addressing passive-aggressive behavior, the pattern will be played out against them again and again. For lasting results and real behavioral change, benign confrontation of passive-aggressive behavior is necessary.
The good news is that benign confrontation is nothing to be afraid of. It is not an in-your-face, anger-inspiring, make-them-admit-what-they-did type of authoritarian tactic, but rather a quiet and reﬂective verbal intervention in which the adult gently but openly shares his or her thoughts about a person’s behavior and unexpressed anger. It is based on the decision not to silently accept a person’s manipulative and controlling behavior any longer.
In the scripted example that follows, based on a real-life scenario, you can discover how benign confrontation is used to unmask the hidden anger of a passive-aggressive young person and help her gain insight into the destructive nature of interactions with her mother.
Christine is a middle school student who arrives home from school each day approximately two hours before her mother gets home from work. The family rule is that Christine is supposed to text her mother each day as soon as she arrives home, to confirm that she is safe and sound.
In the early days of this arrangement, Christine enjoys the alone time after a long school day and appreciates being trusted by her parents. After a month or so, however, she starts to feel lonely and resents the fact that while her friends can go to each other’s houses or be driven to afterschool sports, she is stuck home alone with nothing to do and no one to do it with.
One weekend, Christine tries to raise the issue with her mother, but is immediately shut down by her mom’s angry, guilt-inducing response:
“Christine, you should be ashamed of yourself—asking for Dad and I to do more for you when we already do so much. If it’s so important to you that you not be home alone for two simple hours after school, I can always put you in day care with the babies. Or maybe you want me to quit my job so that you don’t have to be home alone? You’re 14 years old! Be thankful for what you have and stop complaining.”
Following that tirade, Christine knew this was not an issue she would ever raise again with her mother—at least, not directly. Instead, she decided that a little less responsibility might help her case.
As the weeks went on, Christine often “forgot” to text her mother when she got home from school, leaving her mom to worry and become distracted at work as she sent her daughter multiple texts each afternoon to confirm her safety. Every day, Christine seemed to have a different (and only slightly plausible) excuse for why she didn’t text her mother:
- “I couldn’t find my phone.”
- “I was so involved in my homework that I forgot to text you.”
- “I accidentally left my phone at school.”
- “I thought I did text you!”
- “I know I texted you, Mom! Check your phone again. Or maybe your phone isn’t working right.”
The excuse that (successfully) infuriated her mother the most was the simple non-excuse of “Oops. Sorry, Mom.” Christine grew to enjoy making up rationalizations that justified her inaction while making her mother’s blood boil every single afternoon.
Let’s see how the process of benign confrontation works to address Christine’s passive-aggressive behavior toward her mother:
Step 1: Recognize the Pattern
At the beginning of the school year, Christine seems very content with the plan that she will come directly home from school each day and be trusted to stay alone until her mom gets home from work two hours later. After about six weeks, however, her mom notices that Christine seems less thrilled.
One evening, about six weeks into the school year and after a particularly bad day for her mother at work, Christine requests permission to have a friend over after school so that she doesn’t have to stay alone. Her mother, already worn out and frustrated from work, takes some of this emotion out on her daughter with an angry, guilt-inducing response, including threatening to put Christine in daycare.
The next morning, the mother apologizes for the outburst. Christine accepts her apology but fails to give her their ritual goodbye hug before leaving for school. That afternoon, Christine also neglects to text her mother after school to signal that she has arrived home safely. When her mother asks her about it that evening, Christine says, “I couldn’t find my phone.”
From that point forward, Christine’s mother notices that while her daughter had once been very faithful about texting her every day after school, she suddenly stops doing so. Every day, Christine has a new excuse for why she didn’t text, but her mother intuits that this may be her daughter’s way of expressing her anger at having to stay home alone.
Step 2: Refuse to Engage
Over the course of the next few weeks, there are many, many days where Christine’s mother is tempted to mirror her daughter’s passive-aggressive behavior, by “forgetting” to respond to her daughter’s texts to “pick up cereal when you are at the store” or “drive me to theatre on Saturday.” Likewise, she thinks about using sarcasm to belittle her daughter’s excuses for not texting after school.
However, she makes a choice to resist the urge to simply reflect her daughter’s undesirable form of anger expression. Instead, she conscientiously manages her own emotions, remains emotionally neutral, and sets clear expectations and logical consequences for her daughter’s failure to follow the rules. Each of these assertive responses works for a day or two before clever Christine figures out a new way to justify her defiance against her mother’s rules. At this point, Christine’s mother knows she must take Benign Confrontation to the next level.
Step 3: Affirm the Anger
"Christine, when school started, you showed so much responsibility in texting me every day when you got home. Then, a few weeks ago, that all changed. Recently, I have noticed that you have almost an endless list of reasons why you don’t text me anymore. It seems to me that the real issue is not about 'leaving your phone at school,' or 'getting caught up in homework,' but rather I’m wondering if you are angry with me for having you stay home alone each day until I get back from work."
"No, Mom. That’s not true. I’m not angry; I’m just really busy and I forget things."
Step 4: Manage the (Predictable) Denial
"Oh, okay. It was just a thought that crossed my mind that I wanted to share with you. I certainly do understand that your life is more hectic now that you are in middle school. To make your life easier and put less of the burden on you to remember, I will make a point of calling you each day at 3:30 to make sure that you are home."
"Fine. But I still wish you would let me have a friend over sometimes. It gets really lonely at home all by myself every day."
"Thank you for sharing that, Christine. I know you tried to tell me that you were feeling lonely a few weeks ago, but I was in a bad mood when you brought it up and I responded by making you feel guilty. I am sorry for what I said. My reaction that day probably made you even more angry and made you want to show me how you were feeling."
"That’s understandable. I made it difficult for you to tell me how you were feeling and I’m truly sorry. I will do my best to be more open when you share your feelings. I’d also like you to be more direct in telling me how you feel—when I’m not already in a lousy mood, of course—and to avoid showing me in indirect ways, such as not texting me when I ask you to. Can we agree on that?"
"Sure. I’m sorry too, Mom. It’s just that I was so mad and so sad about being alone and I didn’t know how else to tell you."
Step 5: Revisit the Thought
Christine and her mother make plans for Christine to have a friend over after school three days a week and for Christine to do stage crew for the school show on Mondays so that she was only home alone on Thursdays. This arrangement worked well.
Several weeks later, however, when Christine’s mother did not let her daughter sleep over at a friend’s house on a Friday night, Christine responded by giving her mother the silent treatment. After giving her daughter a full day to process her feelings and make a different choice in how to express her anger, the mother approached Christine with a new thought:
"Christine, I imagine you are disappointed at not being able to sleep over at your friend’s house and angry with me for not giving you permission. That is perfectly understandable. However, your refusal to talk to me reminds me of what happened a few weeks ago when you weren’t texting me afterschool, and I’m just wondering if you are again choosing to hide your anger rather than talk about it directly."
"I don’t know. Maybe."
Step 6: Affirm Areas of Competence
This process began a new way for Christine and her mother to communicate. Christine knew she couldn’t keep her anger and resentment a secret anymore. She also knew that her mother cared about her deeply—enough to always initiate contact after a disagreement and invite her to talk about her anger openly, without fear of punishment or belittling.
Christine’s mother made it a point to compliment her daughter every time she expressed her anger in assertive, direct ways, and tried her very hardest to role model assertive anger expression whenever possible.
Did both mother and daughter make mistakes occasionally? Of course. Did either hold their temper every time? No way. But the process of Benign Confrontation and the expectation that anger was an acceptable emotion to express in their family made these falling outs happen far less frequently and their amicable resolutions much easier to achieve.
Why It Works
At its core, Benign Confrontation works by identifying underlying anger. While a passive-aggressive person directs his or her cunning and effort into hiding anger and getting others to express it through their out-of-control behaviors, Benign Confrontation helps put the responsibility for the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors squarely back in the hands of the passive-aggressive person.
While Benign Confrontation has a powerful impact on the passive-aggressive individual, it is equally inﬂuential as a tool for an adult dealing with a passive-aggressive child, student, spouse, friend, or coworker. Instead of getting caught up in relationship-damaging wars of words, this step-by-step process provides a road map for conﬂict navigation and hidden-anger management.
Long, N., Long, J. & Whitson, S. (2017). The Angry Smile: The New Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriages & Close Relationships in the Workplace and Online. Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.