Dealing with Passive-Aggressive People

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: What are the issues behind passive aggression and how can you deal with it?

Answer: Dealing with passive-aggression is very frustrating and time consuming. Simply put, passive-aggression is a way some people have learned to express hostility. It is a very immature way to control others.

Passive-aggressive acts can range from only half-heartedly participating in social activities to inefficiently performing work-related tasks. It can manifest as procrastination, learned helplessness, deliberate inefficiency, or feigned forgetfulness. More commonly, you may be impacted by the passive aggressive person giving you a cold shoulder or refusing to give you a straight answer.

Dealing with people who act in a passive-aggressive manner can be very frustrating. But whatever you do, stop walking on eggshells. Refuse to play the game. Hold them accountable for their behaviors because when you fail to hold a passive-aggressive person accountable for his actions, you unintentionally perpetuate passive-aggressive behaviors.

Passive-aggressive people are very good at making you responsible for their feeling. Don’t apologize unless you did something wrong. Don’t be consumed by their very manipulative controlling behaviors.

Set limits with the passive-aggressive person. One of the biggest mistakes people make is not making the passive-aggressive person responsible for his behaviors. Remember, it is a power struggle that passive-aggressive individuals set up so as to be in control. Remain positive and calm, while establishing your boundaries. For example, don’t sympathize with someone who pouts to get his own way. Wait for when he chooses to act appropriately to have a conversation.

Articulate consequences if they continue with the behavior. Since passive-aggressive individuals operate covertly, they will almost always deny their behaviors when confronted. So clearly articulate your needs and be prepared to offer a strong consequence to compel the passive-aggressive person to change his or her behavior.

The ability to identify and implement appropriate consequences is one of the more effective tools you can use to move the passive-aggressive person toward more appropriate behaviors.

Just as you refuse to play the passive-aggressive person’s game, you should purposefully reinforce good behaviors. The goal of reinforcement, in this case, is to increase the rate of appropriate behaviors. When the passive-aggressive person is open and honest about their feelings reward it in a meaningful way.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].

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