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LCSW, CCS
Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

Passive aggressive behavior is a manipulative form of communication that allows a person to avoid accountability. It’s generally used by those who fear conflict, vulnerability, and/or lack conviction regarding what they want and need. It stands in stark contrast to genuine and direct communication and yet forwards an agenda.

Passive aggressive communication is often non verbal. Folks give disapproving glances, raised eye brows, or a shrug of indifference with the expectation that these actions will result in very specific desired outcomes.

Unfortunately, success through these means generally occurs at the cost of hurt feelings and a sense of rejection to the person being manipulated.

Say What You Mean

Passive aggression makes use of rhetorical questions. We ask, “Do you have to do that?” In truth this is not a question but rather a disapproving statement. We don’t expect an answer. We expect that people will either yield or protest.

  1. If they comply with our poorly expressed wishes we have achieved our ends
  2. If they protest, we can deflect conflict by suggesting that their response is disproportionate and unwarranted

Guilt trips are the most common form of passive aggression. Loved ones play the martyr and suggest that, “No, really it’s fine. You go have your fun. I’ll just stay here and nurse myself back to health. I don’t mind at all.” This is a mixed message that is clearly dishonest yet it allows the speaker to avoid responsibility for being hurtful.

  • At face value they are offering to sacrifice. Below the surface they are hoping to inspire sacrifice.

Sarcasm can be a quick and easy form of passive aggression. Folks utilize a tone to indicate that what they’re saying is the exact opposite of what they mean.

  • Perhaps they seek to be ironic or humorous as a means of showing their feelings without speaking their feelings. “Can I carry your purse? Are you kidding me? This is the kind of thing I live for!”

Passive Aggressive = Shallow & Superficial

Folks who are at all happy with themselves and their lives rarely if ever feel the need to be passive aggressive. If it is one’s goal to be petty, catty or to simply get one’s digs in, the backhanded compliment works especially well. “That’s a great dress! I had one just like it ten years ago when it was in fashion!”

Passive aggressive behavior is often viewed as distinctly feminine and effeminate behavior. It’s a big part of how women are hurtful to one another and it’s stereotypically perceived as common amongst gay men. “Oh, you’ve been working out? Huh…”

It’s hard to conceptualize being snarky as something that could be at all satisfying, but it depends entirely on one’s goal. Misery loves company. If you want to get under someone’s skin, plant a seed of doubt within them... “I’ve been hearing some gossip around the office – nothing specific – but are you in trouble with the boss?”

Dealing with Passive Aggressiveness Effectively

To be “passive aggressive” is to play a game. Unwittingly, others play along because to respond otherwise is to contradict social norms of taking what others say and do at face value. Let’s be literal for just a moment - to be passive aggressive is to show aggression mildly.

1. Assertive Communication

I am a proponent of calling a spade a spade. This requires going deeper than the superficiality of indirect communication. When I sense that someone is trying to put me on a guilt trip; I say things like, “Hey it feels like you’re trying to put me on a guilt trip.” My goal is to be assertive but not aggressive. This approach takes a degree of security within oneself and a willingness to have conflict.

2. Active Listening

For folks who are less receptive to conflict I suggest using active listening skills. These strategies allow one to reflect what’s being heard in a way that offers others the opportunity to be accountable and/or affords them the opportunity to “save face.” Check in with the person you’re communicating with, "It sounds like you're saying ______, did I understand you correctly?

Let’s Talk about How We Communicate

Being passive aggressive shows a lack of integrity in at least some part of a person’s life. Addressing this is something we often struggle with in the moment and later feel the moment has passed. I encourage folks not to wait for the next shining example of the behavior we object to, but rather to talk openly about talking openly.

I’ve suggested this time tested recipe for folks who struggle to “find the right words”:

  • “When you______, I feel________, and I wish_________. “

Example: When you speak to me in a sing song voice, I feel condescended to and I wish you would be more aware of your tone of voice when you speak to me.

In the long term, passive aggressive behavior will always damage a relationship. Better to have uncomfortable moments in discussion than distance in our relationships.

About the author Jim LaPierre:
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: recoveryrocks.bangordailynews.com Thanks! Jim
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Page last updated Apr 08, 2013

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