THE BLOG

Communicating With Passive-Aggressive People

04/07/2015 02:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

Passive aggression is a form of anger, except the anger is expressed with a smile instead of the typical expressions. Passive aggressive people are experts at sugar coating hostility. They often use procrastination, bumbling inefficiency, and the exasperating excuse of "I forgot" to avoid commitments or let you down. They appear eager to please, but know exactly how to make you mad. They can be infuriating because of their seductive or innocent veneers.

Here are some examples:

  • Your spouse brings home yet another gallon of ice cream after you've specifically asked him or her not to do this because you are trying to lose weight.
  • A friend keeps arriving an hour late for a dinner date leaving you waiting over and over again.
  • A co-worker keeps promising to help with a project but never comes through.
Passive aggressive behavior ranges from simply irritating to manipulative and punishing. This is different from occasionally being absent-minded, lazy, or busy. Passive aggression is repetitive and has a covert angry edge to it. Passive aggressive people promise anything, then do exactly as they please. They hide anger beneath a compliant exterior. They don't give straight answers and have vague responses such as "I'll get back to you." Then they don't follow through so you must keep reminding them. Sometimes their remarks can be hurtful, especially so because they come at you sideways--you don't know what hit you.


Why do people become passive aggressive?

They're typically raised in families where it's not safe to express anger--they're never taught to communicate it in a healthy manner. They adapt by channeling these feelings into other less obvious behaviors; this gives them a sense of power and control. They're masters at shirking responsibility by hurting you in ways that appear unintentional or unavoidable. Passive aggressive people operate by stuffing anger, being accommodating, and then indirectly sticking it to you. When confronted, they'll drive you crazy with a variety of "the dog ate my homework" excuses, blaming others, or yessing you to death without changing. Since many are unaware of their anger, they feel misunderstood or that you're holding them to unfair standards.

Here are tips on how to communicate with passive aggressive people from my book The Ecstasy of Surrender. To learn about other types of draining people read my article Who's the Emotional Vampire in Your Life.

Learning to Communicate With Passive Aggressive People

1. Trust Your Gut Reactions

With these types you may question yourself since their anger is so masked. It's important to recognize the pattern. Their mixed messages will test your patience. So when you doubt yourself, take a breath and try to let the doubt go. Tell yourself, "I deserve to be treated more lovingly. I will trust my gut reaction when I feel jabbed." This affirmation helps you release doubt so you'd don't convince yourself you're imagining things. Then move forward to improve communication. You must surrender the idea that these people will change without you speaking up. They aren't motivated to change unless someone calls them on their behavior. When it's not appropriate to be direct, such as with a boss who might retaliate or fire you, keep letting the zingers go by accepting your powerlessness to change him.

2. Address the behavior

Focus on one issue at a time so people don't feel attacked or overwhelmed. Let's say a friend is always late. In a calm, firm tone say to her, "I would greatly appreciate it if you can be on time when we go out to dinner. I feel uncomfortable waiting in a restaurant alone." Then notice her reaction. She might say, "You're right. I'm always running behind. I'll try to be more organized." Then see if the lateness improves. If she is evasive or makes excuses, request clarification about how to solve the problem. If you can't get a straight answer, confront that too. Being specific pins down passive aggressive people. If nothing changes, keep setting limits or stop making dinner plans. With a close friend who continues to be late, it's always an option to accept and acclimate to his or her shortcoming when the pros of the relationship outweigh the cons.

As a psychiatrist I teach my patients to address passive aggressive behavior directly as the person may not be aware of the impact on you since they are short on empathy. Hopefully you won't have many passive aggressive people in your life, but if you do, clear communication is a form of empowerment.