“Behind the smile, a hidden knife!”
― Ancient Chinese saying describing passive-aggressive behaviour
The NYU Medical Center defines a passive-aggressive individual as someone who “may appear to comply or act appropriately, but actually behaves negatively and passively resists.” Passive- aggressive actions can range from the relatively mild, such as making excuses for not getting together, to the very serious, such as sabotaging someone’s well-being and success.
Most chronically passive-aggressive individuals have four common characteristics: They’re unreasonable to deal with, they’re uncomfortable to experience, they rarely express their hostility directly, and they repeat their subterfuge behavior over time. Passive aggressiveness may be directed towards a person or a group.
Before we explore how to effectively handle passive-aggressive people, it’s useful to recognize their common behaviors. Here are three categories of passive aggression:
Disguised Verbal Hostility.
Negative gossip. Sarcasm. Veiled hostile joking — often followed by “just kidding.” Repetitive teasing. Negative orientation. Habitual criticism of ideas, solutions, conditions, and expectations.
Disguised Relational Hostility.
The silent treatment. The invisible treatment. Social exclusion. Neglect. Backstabbing. Two faced. Mixed messages. Deliberate button pushing. Negative or discomforting surprises. Overspending. Sullen resentment. Indirectly hurting something or someone of importance to the targeted person.
Disguised Task Hostility.
Procrastination. Stalling. Forgetting. Stonewalling. Withholding resources or information. Professional exclusion. Denying personal responsibility. Excuse making. Blaming. Broken agreements. Lack of follow through. Resistance. Stubbornness. Rigidity. Avoidance. Inefficiency, complication, incompletion or ruination of task.
Hostility Towards Others Through Self-Punishment (“I’ll show YOU”). Quitting. Deliberate failure. Exaggerated or imagined health issues. Victimhood. Dependency. Addiction. Self-harm. Deliberate weakness to elicit sympathy and favor.
In short, passive aggressiveness is anger, hostility, and/or learned helplessness in disguise, expressed in a covert, underhanded way to “even the score,” and with the hope of “getting away with it.” The perceived payoffs for the passive-aggressive are greater power, control, and negative emotional satisfaction.
Root causes for chronic passive aggression are complex and deep-seated. Whatever the reasons that may drive an individual to be passive-aggressive, it’s not easy when you’re on the receiving end of such veiled hostilities. How can one successfully manage these situations? Here are eight keys to handling passive-aggressive people. Not all of the tips below may apply to your particular situation. Simply utilize what works and leave the rest.
1. Don’t Over React. Reduce Personalization and Misunderstanding.
When you experience possible passive-aggressive behavior from someone for the first time, avoid jumping to a negative conclusion. Instead, come up with multiple ways of viewing the situation before reacting. For example, I may be tempted to think my colleague didn’t return my email because she’s ignoring my suggestion, or I can consider the possibility that she’s taking some time to decide. When we avoid personalizing other people’s behaviors, we can perceive their expressions more objectively. People do what they do because of them more than because of us. Widening our perspective on the situation can reduce the possibility of misunderstanding. Continue reading