How To Be More Direct In A Passive-Aggressive World

The older I get, the more I realize how passive-aggressive people are. Whether it’s a close family member, a coworker or just some random pissy person behind you in Starbucks, finding proactive ways to be direct with passive-aggressive behavior is key. When you’re not a passive-aggressive person, relating to that type of behavior can feel foreign. I have seen a lot of people I love become overwhelmed with frustration and hurt due to ongoing cycles of passive-aggressive behavior.

Identify it

It’s easy to dismiss passive-aggressive behavior early on because we want to see the best in people. I am clearly no psychologist, but I have been in therapy for quite some time now and this is a frequent topic of conversation. While your initial reaction may be to excuse the behavior as the “exception to the rule” and chalk it up to an isolated incident, be wary. Everyone has a bad day from time to time, but if the behavior becomes more of the rule and less of the exception, you’ll need to handle it accordingly.

It’s not you, it’s me

The biggest thing you have to remember when dealing with a passive-aggressive person is it’s not you, it’s them. I know this can be exceptionally hard when it’s someone really close to you, like a parent. Passive-aggressive behavior often appears when the person feels powerless and is almost always the result of a much deeper rooted issue. Truly, passive-aggressive behavior is a form of anger. But passive-aggressive people are often scared of confrontation, so they cover their anger with a smile and don’t realize that their anger is manifesting as bitterness and frustration to those around them who are more self-aware. You can’t take this personally. In order to be more direct with a passive-aggressive person, you have to disconnect from the behavior and your personal situation. It’s not you, it’s them.

Hold them accountable

I know all my Enneagram 9s (peacemakers) will hate this, but in order to be direct, you have to call a spade a spade. Otherwise, you end up being the one to take the brunt of subtle emotional abuse. Guess what? You’re not responsible for how another person shows their anger. Stop blaming yourself and call them on their bullshit.

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Don’t apologize

Unless you actually did something wrong, don’t apologize. I know it’s a natural instinct to want to smooth things over and make things go away, but all it does is validate passive-aggressive behavior. If your coworker makes a snarky remark like “Leaving early again today?” be direct with them and ask if they need you to stay later and help them with a certain task. Chances are, they’re just being bitter and condescending because you finished working and they didn’t.

Avoid triggers and don’t play the game

Have you ever had communication with someone over email or text that was so passive-aggressive or rude, but when you were actually face to face they were pleasant as a peach? That’s textbook passive-aggressive behavior. People feel brave hiding behind a screen or even a phone. While passive-aggressive people are terrified of their own anger, they have no issue triggering others. In fact, they kind of get off on it. So the wrong way to handle their behavior is to blow up and them and unleash your anger. If you do, they’ve won and they get what they want, which is the upper hand.

Be assertive

Like I said before, passive-aggressive behavior often stems from families who avoid overt conflict. If you have a passive-aggressive mother (and in case mine is reading this, no I’m not talking about you), chances are some of that behavior will trickle down. But being self-aware can help you combat that behavior. Always address the issues head on and use “I” statements when talking. “I” statements can help bring understanding and empathy to the conversation, whereas “you” statements can feel accusatory.

Context is key

You would handle a passive-aggressive boss differently than you would a spouse. It’s important to understand that no matter how hard you try, some people won’t be responsive when you talk to them. If you’re deciding whether to bring up a person’s behavior, it can be helpful to do a quick pro/con analysis to figure out if it’s worth making an effort to get them to change their ways. (In other words, talking to your spouse is a lot less risky than talking to your boss.) For example, if it’s your boss who’s giving you the silent treatment, ask yourself: Is talking to your boss worth your time and energy? Will it lead to change? And perhaps most importantly, will it lead to consequences, like being passed over for promotions or losing your job? If the cons outweigh the benefits, it’s better to just avoid the triggers and move on. Your spouse, on the other hand, the person you chose to spend the rest of your life with, requires more of a conversation.

The best thing you can do to deal with passive-aggressiveness is to not let it get under your skin. Their underlying unhappiness has nothing to do with you. So next time you have a conversation with someone that feels passive-aggressive, do your best to assume good will and turn your feelings of frustration into empathy and rise above it.

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Author: Samantha Welker

Samantha Welker is the business manager at Glitter Guide. She has an Master's in Corporate Finance & Sustainability from Harvard Business School but prefers working in the creative industry. She also hosts a weekly business podcast for creative women called Pretty Okay Podcast. She loves spending time with her husband and her son, Rocky, in sunny San Diego. Follow along on Instagram