My completely unscientific LinkedIn poll results are in, and dealing with passive-aggressive people is the conflict situation you despise the most. I agree. Passive aggressiveness has all the unpleasantness of other more transparent conflict scenarios, with fewer opportunities to improve things. Passive aggressive behavior is the ultimate in unproductive conflict.
What Is Passive Aggressiveness?
Passive aggression is the indirect expression of negative feelings or emotions. A person behaving passively aggressive will channel their dissent, dislike, or disagreement into subtle behaviors that allow them to signal their resistance without provoking a direct response.
There are many reasons why someone might manifest their frustrations passively, including:
- They can’t defend their feelings, judgments, or desires with evidence
- They are uncomfortable with direct conflict
- They feel threatened by the person with whom they disagree
- They choose not to invest the energy required to oppose openly
Suppose one or more of these is true. In that case, the person decides that passive-aggressive behavior is a better way to express discontent than outright disagreement.
Signs of Passive-Aggressive Communication
Spotting passive-aggressive behavior can be challenging because the goal is to keep friction just below the level where it will spark into flames. It’s even harder to detect passive aggressiveness because how someone expresses their displeasure can vary based on their personality, intellect, role, culture, and situation. Watch for these common forms of passive aggressiveness.
Whispering in the shadows is a common way of expressing negative emotions without directly addressing the person at the center of the issue. A person venting their frustrations through gossip is careful to find a safe confidant who will ensure discretion and keep the matter out of the spotlight. In some cases, the person is just hoping for someone with whom to commiserate. In others, they are actively trying to enlist allies, perhaps in the hope of gaining enough strength to confront the issue openly.
If you’re on the receiving end of someone’s emotional download, here’s a quick guide to help you differentiate between healthy venting and toxic gossiping and to respond accordingly.
Another form of passive-aggressive behavior is when a person uses quick, cheap one-liners and sarcasm to shut down a conversation they don’t want to engage in. Sarcasm can be a highly effective strategy because it leaves room for interpretation and plausible deniability. For example, if the person says, “Wooow, Bob. That is the BEST idea I’ve ever heard,” it might be unclear whether they are mocking Bob or not. And if someone rebukes them for the comment, they can retreat to, “WHaaat, I said it was a great idea!” Basic sarcasm is easy to spot. As the intelligence of the passive-aggressive person goes up, the humor and wit become more sophisticated, and it becomes harder to incriminate them.
Donnie and Debbie Downer are two more examples of people behaving passively aggressive. Their pervasive cynicism drags an entire conversation down without producing any substantive evidence of a problem. “Tried that.” “That will never work here.” “Yeah, right! I don’t think so!”
Some passive-aggressive behavior comes in the form of hedging, equivocating, or flip-flopping. In this version, you’re not sure where the person stands and can’t put your finger on the reasons for their opposition. They either hum and ha and refuse to commit, or they seem to commit but repeatedly change their stance.
Lack of follow-through
Another passive form of passive aggressiveness is to agree to something and then stall, make excuses and fail to deliver. In this case, the person might look like they’re fully on board until you notice that they haven’t started rowing.
Denial of eye contact or silence
The most passive versions of passive-aggressiveness go beyond wishy-washiness, sarcasm, or gossiping all the way to complete disengagement from the conversation. Silence, dropping eye contact, and turning away from the source of the disagreement are all telltale signs that there’s unspoken aggression simmering.
How Can I Stop Someone from Being Passive-aggressive?
Dealing with a colleague (or anyone, for that matter) who is behaving passively aggressive is frustrating, even infuriating. You want to get the issues on the table to allow you to deal with them constructively rather than to endure the whispers, ghosting, and eye rolls. (I forgot to mention eye rolls as a grade-A passive aggressive behavior. How could I forget eye rolls?)
There is no magic bullet to dissuade someone from channeling their anger unproductively, but there is a general formula. The person behaves that way because 1) they perceive it as too uncomfortable to raise the issue openly, and 2) they perceive it as relatively safe to express their opposition passively.
Thus, the formula to reduce passive aggressive behavior is to tip the balance in the other direction.
Make it easier to say uncomfortable things
It seems counterintuitive, and maybe like your encouraging the passive-aggressive behavior, but you’re not trying to avoid conflict; you’re trying to get it in the open. Doing so requires that you make expressing contrary or unpopular opinions easier. Try a few of these ideas:
- Start a contentious discussion by acknowledging that it might be uncomfortable and that you’re counting on people to share their reactions openly.
- Pause at multiple points in a conversation and solicit opposing points of view.
- Make it easier to have unformed, unproven dissent by having a code word for it. Make it one of your team’s ground rules that anyone can express a brewing negative feeling without having the perfect defense prepared. The more silly or playful it is, the better it will be at diffusing any tensions. You could try, this is a “flyer,” or a “niggle,” or pretty much any phrase from a Dr. Seuss book, including a “murky-mooshy,” a “obsk*,” or even an “I’ve got a jertain in my curtain.”
- Refrain from driving difficult decisions to quick closure and leave room for people to raise concerns during a fixed period.
- Acknowledge, reward, and celebrate when someone says something that contradicts the discussion. Be specific about why their divergent point of view is helpful.
- Create safe, appropriate places for people to provide feedback about how your behavior impacts them.
Use whatever opportunities you can think of to make expressing an opposing opinion as easy and painless as possible.
Then, while you’re at it…
Make it harder to hide uncomfortable things
The other reason why people persist with their passive aggressive behavior is that they get away with it. If there are no negative consequences for the eye roll or the gossip, why stop? Your opportunity is to change that.
- Respond to every sarcastic comment with a calm, open-ended question. “How do you see that playing out?” “I just caught your body language out of the corner of my eye. What do you think about this plan?”
- When you get wind of something stinky wafting around in the air, raise the issue in an open forum or a private conversation. “I get the sense that people are upset with how I behaved in the last meeting. I’d appreciate the chance to learn. What advice would you give me?”
- Provide feedback about how their behavior is impacting you or other stakeholders. “We agreed that you would have the draft back to me on Monday, and it’s now Wednesday. I’m feeling very embarrassed that I haven’t been able to get back to the client.”
- Use closed-ended questions that leave no wiggle room. Where possible, have them answer in front of other people or create a paper trail of their commitments.
- Shut down any back-channel decision-making and redirect the conversation to the appropriate forum, “We decided that in the last meeting. Has something changed that makes it worth bringing back to the table?”
Now I know it’s hard, but the key here is not to meet passive-aggressiveness with more passive-aggressiveness. Instead, stay calm, keep the questions open, and listen for what’s going on beneath the surface.
* I like the idea of using the Dr. Seuss creature, the “obsk,” as your code word for sharing a dissenting thought because in If I Ran the Zoo, the obsk is a mountain bird with a rockin’ red ‘do and an unbeatable side-eye!
You might also benefit from these posts
Read the basics of Passive-Aggression at Psychology Today
Check out the article I wrote for Harvard Business Review on reducing passive aggressive behavior on your team
Tools to stop passive-aggressive behavior
Video: The Most Effective Way to Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior
I so agree that the most infuriating form of unproductive conflict is the P-A sort. This is particularly true for someone like me who prefers to have it all out in the open. My risk is that I sometimes go to Aggression to fast. It also doesn’t mean that I’m immune to P-A behaviour when frustrated or uncomfortable!
I love your strategies list for dealing with P-A when spotted. Thanks Liane!
Have the BEST birthday EVER!
…..No sarcasm intended 🤣
Thanks so much, Ren!! Yes, probably apropos that this came out on my birthday because I have struggled with passive-aggressive behavior myself. As some who wants to be liked, I would shy away from addressing the issue directly, but not have the restraint to keep my concerns to myself. It led to a few nasty self-inflicted wounds in my career. I’ve come a long way on this one and keep working on it all the time.
Once again, spot on. Your thoughts are particularly helpful in my coaching work. Sometimes, the client who wants me to be an ally or says “I just need to vent” is best served by pointing out and digging into their “passive aggressive” approach to a conflict. Thanks Liane.
Anne, thank you so much for joining the conversation! It’s so valuable to help a person who is veering toward passive-aggressive behavior to see the benefits of understanding the root problem and addressing it more openly!
What advice do you have when P-A is culture related? In some African cultures it is impolite to disagree openly so often you only know someone has an opposing view when they fail to do what they’ve agreed to do.
Rosalie, that’s a wonderful question. I’m definitely not a cross-cultural expert, so I’ll only speak from my experience. (And being Canadian, I have pretty good experience dealing with passive-aggressiveness!) When I want dissent or disagreement to come to the surface, I ask for it as a favor and specifically call out the ways in which the person has insight that I don’t. For example, you could ask the person by name… “Johannes, I’m worried that there are issues I’m not thinking of. I value your relationships with people in our manufacturing plants. How might they react to this plan? If they were to dislike something, what might it be?” The combination of putting the accountability directly on one person, making it an invitation, and even a favour for them to help you, and being specific about why they have something of value that you need is the best way I can think of. Over time, you can develop a micro-culture on your team that is distinct from the societal culture that you’ve all been raised in.