My Life with God

Getting to the Root of Passive-Aggressiveness Before It Uproots Your Relationships

whatever“I’m not mad. Just forget about it.”

“Fine. Whatever you want. I’m not going to argue.”

“I know you probably can’t or won’t do anything about it.”

“I’ll never bring it up again.”

“Just joking.”

You’ll deal with a lot of people, and none quite measure up to the frustration and toxicity associated with those who are passive-aggressive. Passive-agressiveness is a relationship killer. Sure, not every relationship that involves passive-aggressiveness will actually end, but if it continues, it dies a slow death of separation, lowered expectation, and disrespect.

Passive-aggressiveness allows people to get what they want or express their feelings without being disliked or rejected. Well, that’s not really true. When you choose passive-aggressiveness, you might actually be disliked or rejected, because people catch on quickly and either confront, ignore, or avoid you. But it’s a tactic that seems to work well enough that we keep using it despite the risks.

Passive-aggressiveness is hypocritical in its very name. Passive assumes lack of aggression, and aggressiveness seems to negate passivity. Yet this oxymoron actually occurs, and it occurs fairly often. We’ve all learned passive-aggressiveness. Some of us practice it more often than others, and some of us are more aware of and cunning in how we use it. Sometimes it’s difficult to deal with, because even when we suspect it, without knowing someone’s motive, we can’t be positive. Attitude and behavior give us the clues we need for detection.

Recognizing passive-aggressiveness

Not all of the following traits will show up among passive-aggressive people, but you might be able to identify some trends and patterns.

  • Passive-aggressive people try to avoid responsibilities (at least the ones they don’t want or feel insufficient to accomplish), often by selectively forgetting or making last minute excuses.
  • Passive-aggressive people prefer to work on their own schedules while appearing as if they’re willing to cooperate with others. They respond by disregarding deadlines and often procrastinate their work without recognition or consideration of those who are depending on them.
  • Passive-aggressive people often run late but expect others to be on time. They don’t mind being the cause of the delay but behave with indignation when someone else causes the delay.
  • Passive-aggressive people blame others for whatever goes wrong in their own lives. Instead of looking for personal responsibility, they displace the responsibility onto others and want them to be held accountable.
  • Passive-aggressive people often unjustifiably play the victim. They compare themselves to others who are in perceived “better” circumstances and positions, then begrudge those people, judging them for attitudes and behaviors that might not even be accurate assessments.
  • Passive-aggressive people frequently complain of being unappreciated and misunderstood by others, and they often don’t complain to the people they’re most annoyed with.
  • Passive-aggressive people regularly criticize people in authority, judging them for things they really don’t have enough familiarity with to accurately assess. They’re confident they could do a significantly better job if they could be in the same position. However, they usually choose to criticize people and positions in which they realistically can’t attain, making it a “safe” attack.

Dealing with passive-aggressive people

Be respectful. No attacks allowed. If you feed into the tendencies people already have, you’re just affirming and sustaining them instead of curbing them. Place a priority on honesty and authenticity, which both take trust. If you don’t build trust with people, they will often become defensive, which drives them into passive-aggressiveness. Be a role model for honesty and authenticity. Don’t say what you don’t mean. If there seems to be a misunderstanding, ask the other person, “Does that make sense or are there any questions you have that would make it clearer for you?” “I really don’t want to pass along any misunderstandings, so if you don’t mind, can you tell me how you heard my explanation? That way, we can head off any misunderstandings right away.”

Ask clarifying questions. “Are you sure you’re not angry?” “Is there anything you’d like to talk about or settle before we move on?” Offer your availability for follow-up. When possible, ask these questions and extend the offer in front of others, not for the purpose of “having backup” and proving your point later but by showing your intentions to more than one person. You might assume everyone understands or hears what you say, but you might be surprised when others confirm someone’s accusation that you didn’t say what you thought you said.

If subtle approaches don’t begin to change the behavior, you will need to get more direct. “I know you say everything is okay, but your quick responses (or silence or whatever behavior I observe that is inconsistent with the words someone is using) indicate the opposite to me. I want to talk this out, but if you insist what you’re saying is how you’re feeling, I’ll take you at your word.” When you essentially call someone out on their passive-aggressiveness, and she insists on continuing, you’ve at least respectfully let her know you notice what she’s doing. You’ve invited accountability into the relationship because if you find out later that the person wasn’t forthcoming, you can recall the conversation when you gave her an opportunity to express herself.

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