Passive-aggressive conflicts are, truly, difficult and confusing things to navigate. By its very nature, this type of behavior avoids confrontation while promoting conflict. Passive-aggressive interactions are not healthy, and they are almost never productive. Unfortunately, they are extremely common – especially among people who are uncomfortable with overt displays of conflict and aggression.
Scott Wetzler, Ph.D., Vice Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Montefiore Medical Center and author of Living With the Passive-Aggressive Man, calls this behavior “a sugar-coated hostility.” In this simple description, Wetzler cuts to the heart of our frustration.
Passive-aggressive behavior is a power struggle in which hostility is demonstrated, but not invited back.
The recipient of this interaction is pushed to either take the blow without retaliation, or to escalate the conflict, ostensibly becoming the “bad guy” themselves.
Thankfully, however, there are behaviors we can choose that go beyond these two unappealing options.
Here are three healthy ways to deal with someone who is being passive-aggressive:
1. Communicate assertively.
Many people mistake assertive communication with aggressive communication. However, the two are actually very different. To communicate assertively, you must be honest, clear, and forthcoming. Truly assertive communication is not an attack. Instead, it is a clear discussion of the behavior in question that is fair to both parties. When done properly, assertive communication is marked with consideration, calmness, a willingness to listen, and, most importantly, a mutual sense of respect. By addressing passive-aggressive behavior in the open, you are removing the sugar coating from the hostility. This forces a level of honesty that will feel uncomfortable, but is ultimately more healthy and productive.
2. Create clear boundaries.
Setting boundaries is really hard. Enforcing them is even harder. However, this is one of the most powerful things we can do for our relationships and for our sense of self-respect. Creating clear expectations helps to curtail passive-aggressive behavior by forcing the other person to choose between crossing your boundary (not passive) or complying with it (not aggressive). This can feel uncomfortable at first, but with practice and consistency it becomes a second nature. The results are amazing – once your boundaries become clear and well-known, you will find yourself being treated with fairness, kindness, and respect on a more consistent basis.
3. Call out the behavior.
Openly address the person’s actions for what they are: hostility. Clearly identify their problematic behavior. Be as specific as possible. Then, explain the negative impact that this behavior has on you. “The big thing there is to recognize the phenomenon, the behavior, for what it is — to see it as a kind of hostility and not be fooled by the innocuousness, the sugar-coatedness of it,” explained Wetzler. “Once you recognize it’s a sign of hostility, it emboldens you to deal with it.” Do so with as little hostility as possible. Avoid falling into their trap of making you instigate a fight. Instead, keep the focus exclusively on their hurtful actions.
“Passive-aggressive behavior consumes unnecessary time and resources. Say what you mean, let’s resolve the issue, and move on to more productive tasks,” wrote Izey Victoria Odiase.
Don’t waste any more time navigating passive-aggressive behaviors that do nothing for the common good.
Use the three strategies described above to bring the conflict to a more productive place. In the end, you will both be happier with the result.