Ever wondered why certain people in your life set you off and press all your buttons? Could be that they exhibit passive-aggressive tendencies. Let’s look at how we can have conversations that build a stronger relationship instead of letting misplaced anger get in the way.
Have you ever noticed that someone is consistently making sarcastic remarks? Do you have a friend who is often “forgetting” to do something they agreed to do for you? Is someone avoiding you? Did you find a “nice” note reminding you to clean that spoon you used to stir your coffee in the morning? Is your friend pouting, but not speaking about the source of the problem? It’s possible that they are exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior.
When people are not forthcoming about their anger, they may resort to strategies that passively express their anger without having a real conversation. Often, this is because they have been taught that expressing anger is not okay. They hold a belief that it’s not acceptable for them to express their wants and needs. Instead, they choose strategies that allow them to express anger without having to confront it head-on. They leave little reminder notes. They pout. It may be obvious that they’re avoiding you. They try and show they’re upset, but they want to be able to continue to deny anything is wrong if confronted.
So, how do you deal with a passive-aggressive person?
1. Check Your Personal Bias
Before jumping to the conclusion that someone is upset and displaying passive-aggressive behavior, it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re not jumping the gun. Did the other person really forget to complete that task out of spite or did they simply make an honest mistake? Could you be taking their behavior too personally?
If you determine that you’re not over-reacting, what will you do next?
2. Start a Conversation
You may need to be the one to start a conversation about the problem. Before you get there, notice how you’re feeling and how you feel in the presence of the other person. Make sure that you’re clear about what you’re feeling and why. Are you hurt that they’re avoiding you? Do you feel upset that they didn’t complete a task? Are you frustrated that they are communicating with sarcasm instead of having an open discussion about what’s bothering them? This can be important information to bring to the table in a frank discussion. Also, naming these feelings can help you to manage them and keep cool while engaging in a possibly difficult conversation.
3. Ask About a Specific Behavior
When you’re clear about how you feel, start a conversation about a specific issue with the other person. Ask them directly about the issue by saying something like, “I noticed that you left the room when I entered yesterday. Is there something going on that you’d like to talk about?” It’s important that you’re specific and clear, while showing compassion. It’s very hard to open up and be vulnerable with someone who is angrily speaking in an accusatory tone.
4. Talk About Impact
When entering these kinds of conversations, use statements about yourself to talk about the impact of their behavior. This can be helpful because these statements will show how you’re feeling without blaming your feelings on anyone else. Starting your sentences with “I” instead of “you” is usually a good practice. Another effective strategy is to make statements like, “When you [insert their behavior here], I feel [insert your feelings here].” Conversely, statements using words such as “always” and “never”, especially when they’re about the other person, can sound accusatory. For example, “You never understand what I’m trying to say!” is not a helpful statement.
5. Acknowledge Feelings
During your conversation, try to get the other person to acknowledge their feelings of frustration. If they feel safe enough and supported enough, they may open up. Whatever they are feeling, it’s important to show you’re listening and validate their feelings, even if they don’t seem appropriate to the situation. This will help you have a more open and honest discussion.
6. Talk About the Future
Move the discussion towards a future where you are acting as a team. If things don’t seem to be running smoothly, talk about what you will do differently next time, rather than dwelling on what went wrong last time. This helps avoid steering the conversation towards blame. Here, using “we” can be helpful in fostering a sense that you can work together to solve this issue.
The BONUS 7th Step
In the end, it’s important to clearly and directly ask the passive-aggressive person about their feelings. Leave space in the conversation for the person to reply honestly without being judged and validate their feelings. Communicate the impact that their behavior is having on you using “I” statements and look to the future with “we” statements. It’s possible to start a safe and supportive dialogue with someone who has difficulties expressing anger. In this way, you have an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with improved communication.