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What Does It Mean to Be Passive-Aggressive?

Instead of getting visibly angry, some people express their hostility in passive-aggressive ways designed to hurt and confuse their target. Most people will have to deal with passive-aggression from others in their personal and professional lives at one time or another: a roommate who leaves a sweet-yet-scolding note about the one cup that was left unwashed, for example, or the report a colleague keeps "forgetting" to finish.

Passive-aggressive behavior can be intensely frustrating for the target because it’s hard to identify, difficult to prove, and may even be unintentional. Passive-aggression can lead to more conflict and intimacy issues, because many people struggle to have a direct and honest conversation about the problem at hand.

Nagging or getting angry only puts the passive-aggressive person on the defensive—often resulting in them making excuses or denying any responsibility. Recent research shows that there are healthier ways to confront passive-aggression and handle relationship conflict.

How Do Passive-Aggressive People Act?

While passive-aggressive behavior can be hard to pin down, experts agree on the most common signs, which include refusing to discuss concerns openly and directly, avoiding responsibility, and being deliberately inefficient.

The passively aggressive person often leaves a job undone or “almost” complete. They frequently run late and are masters at subtly sabotaging others when they disagree with a course of action. They often resort to the silent treatment or the backhanded compliment to get their point across.

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How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive People

Passive-aggression often stems from underlying anger, sadness, or insecurity, of which the person may or may not be consciously aware. Passive-aggressive behavior may be an expression of those emotions or an attempt to gain control in a relationship.

Bearing that in mind can inform how you respond: Although it can be tempting to react by being passive-aggressive yourself, expressing anger or frustration will likely spur the person to continue behaving the same way.

It’s key, therefore, to manage your emotions. Take a few deep breaths or temporarily remove yourself from the situation before responding. Try to address the person’s concerns directly. If your boss makes a snide comment when you head out of the office for the evening, directly ask if you need to stay late or which project needs to be completed.

Demonstrating that you value the passive-aggressive person's perspective may help if you are thereby addressing an underlying sense of insecurity. But you should not apologize for unfounded offenses or otherwise placate them.

if at all possible, the best solution is often to limit the time you spend in their presence. But if you determine that confrontation is the best path forward, avoid being accusatory as you calmly explain how the behavior makes you feel.

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