How do you deal with a passive-aggressive person?


Let’s clarify the meaning of passive-aggressive, this is often misunderstood. Imagine a continuum, one side is passive, and the other side is aggressive, right in the middle is assertive.  Now consider for a moment, what’s the difference between passive and assertive and aggressive and assertive?  Here’s an easy definition to understand the distinctions.  Within these communication styles, people are focused on either what they want/need or what you want/need or both.  A passive person focuses solely on what you want/need and does not consider themselves.  They don’t share what they are thinking and feeling.  So, you get a lot of passive responses.  For instance, when asked, “where would you like to go for dinner?” A passive answer would be “anywhere is fine (although secretly wishing you’d say Italian).” The passive person doesn’t speak what they want.  They hope you figure it out, minimize their own needs as necessary, or just build resentments.  The fear underlying this communication style is conflict.  On the flip side, the aggressive person is crystal clear on what they want and disregard what you want.  So, they don’t ask where you’d like to go for dinner; they tell you what they want, Italian!  The fear underlying this communication style is being taken advantage of.  What makes this aggressive is that they step on the other person, so they take what they want to the extreme.  Right in the middle of the continuum is assertive.  The assertive person can ask for what they want and consider what you want—an openness to being forthright and considerate.

Now back to passive-aggressive.  Where do you think this falls on the continuum?  Closer to passive or closer to aggressive?  Surprisingly, passive-aggressive styles are even more extreme than aggressive styles.  Here’s why.  The passive-aggressive person pretends they are fine (that’s the passive part), and then they are secretly aggressive.  This means that they look for an opportunity to seek revenge and get even.  This is why it’s even more aggressive than just plain aggressive.  It is actively seeking to hurt someone (although they may not be totally aware of this).

Now that we’re clear on the definitions, what are some tools to deal with passive-aggressive people and even get clear on your own style?  As with anything, the first step is to gain awareness of your patterns and how you deal with conflict.  I myself repeatedly check-in to see where I fall on the continuum.  Overcoming passiveness or aggressiveness or both is about learning how to be assertive—much easier said than done.  To be assertive, you have to set boundaries, ask for what you need, and prioritize self-care.  I’ve attached a worksheet that details passive, aggressive, and assertive components that can be used as a checklist and clarifying questions below.  I’ve found this to be super helpful with myself and with my clients. You can grab the worksheet here.

The first tip in dealing with passive-aggressive people is to check yourself and make sure you’re being assertive.  If you fall to either extreme, you’re more likely to trigger a negative reaction in others.

The second tip is understanding that a lot of one’s communication style is driven by how they deal with conflict.

There is an assessment that explicitly measures your conflict style – called the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI).   This measures five different styles of dealing with conflict:   Collaborative, Competitive, Compromise,  Accommodating, and Avoidant.  Email me if you have questions on this or would like to take the assessment at [email protected].  This will help you understand the differences in dealing with conflict.  You’ll better understand your style and better identify the style of others.  This insight will help you see the pattern in other people and create strategies to support their style.  You can be more deliberate in setting the stage for a more supportive environment to create comfort and safety.  These conditions will help others be more genuine in expressing their wants and needs.

About the author

Robin Lavitch, MA, CPC, is the founder of Surpass Your Goals, a coaching practice for entrepreneurs, executives, tweens, school administrators, and more. Her capacity to connect with audiences, elicit thought-provoking ideas and clarify personal ambitions prepares people to apply that knowledge instantaneously to accelerate their own results in leadership, sales, and time management.

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