People who are passive-aggressive can be difficult to deal with and at times leave you with a lot of questions. Did I do something wrong? Are they upset with me or am I reading into too much? Is it just me or do things seem off? Those questions can leave us almost feeling crazy because passive-aggressive behavior can be incredibly subtle yet apparent all at the same time. Passive-aggressive people want you to experience discomfort. They want you to know they are upset without actually confirming their feelings or confronting you about whatever is bothering them. This is what makes dealing with passive-aggressive people really difficult. You get a hint there is a problem, but you might not have any idea what the problem is and feel lost as to how to “fix” it.
The first steps involve recognizing passive-aggressive behavior. This type of behavior can be incredibly subtle so awareness can help as you identify potential signs.
Notice veiled comments. Individuals may frequently tease, make back-handed compliments, become constantly sarcastic, or “joke around” in a hostile way. The sarcasm and joking become a way of being hurtful but gives them their escape hatch by adding “just kidding” at the end. For example, a passive-aggressive boss might say, “Wow, you actually did your work the right way this time. I’m in shock! Oh, I’m just teasing. Thanks for getting it done.” Especially when paired with tones and non-verbal cues, this kind of statement can indicate some hostility that is veiled by adding “just kidding.”
Notice interactions with you and others. A passive-aggressive person who is upset with you specifically might change their behaviors. They may become more withdrawn and slower to respond. They may even give you the silent treatment or spend time “pouting.” It can be their way of showing they are upset without having to actually tell you. It is also helpful to notice how they talk about others. For example, are they constantly talking about having an issue with someone but then they treat them like nothing is wrong every time they see them? A person who is passive-aggressive will talk a big game but then will not confront the person with their issue.
Notice broken promises. These individuals will back out of commitments or break promises as a way of “punishing” people. For example, a friend might back out of dinner or other plans last minute as a way of illustrating their anger towards you. A boss might take away responsibilities promised to you without providing an explanation. These behaviors become a way to get back at you without having to say what is actually bothering them.
Dealing with passive-aggressive people can be very difficult because they might deny their feelings or behaviors. Here are some tips for dealing with passive-aggressive individuals:
Be aware of your own feelings. Understand your own feelings first. You will likely feel hurt and angry. Acknowledge those before having a conversation so you can speak on behalf of those emotions rather than through them.
Be honest and direct. Be open about the behaviors you have noticed and the feelings you have. They might deny their behavior, but provide clear examples. Be assertive and direct about how you feel.
Be open to their feelings. Their behavior might come from their own hurt or insecurity. Be open to their feelings and take responsibility for any part of the perceived issue that is appropriate.
Be clear about your expectations. Be open about what you want from them moving forward. Let them know you would like them to tell you when they are upset and how they can talk to you about it.
Decide the future of the relationship. In friendships or relationships, if the behavior persists, it might be time to walk away from the relationship. In situations with a co-worker or boss, it might be helpful to seek the assistance of a third party. Persistent passive-aggressive behavior can be toxic and result in an unhealthy dynamic. You can feel empowered to walk away from the relationship if you feel it necessary.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.