How to Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior

Three Parts:Identifying Passive Aggressive BehaviorResponding to Passive Aggressive BehaviorProtecting Yourself from Passive Aggressive Behavior

Passive aggressiveness is an indirect expression of anger in which someone tries to upset or hurt you but not in an obvious way. The challenge is that the person can easily deny that they're doing anything wrong. Often, people act passive aggressively because they have not learned how to deal with conflict appropriately. However, there are ways to help a person reflect on their behavior and address passive aggression through communication.

Part 1
Identifying Passive Aggressive Behavior

  1. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 1
    Recognize the signs of passive aggression. The insidious nature of passive aggression is that it creates plausible deniability in the person doing it. When confronted, he or she may deny knowing what you are talking about or accuse you of overreacting. Stay centered in your own perceptions, and learn how to identify passive aggression.
    • Some expressions of passive-aggressive behavior include sarcastic remarks and responses, being overly critical, temporary compliance (the person verbally agrees to the request but chooses to delay acting upon it), intentional inefficiency (the person complies with the request but fulfills the request in a poor manner), allowing a problem to escalate through inaction and taking pleasure in the resulting anguish, sneaky and deliberate actions taken in order to get revenge, complaints of injustice, and the silent treatment. "I'm not mad" and "I was just joking" are some common things that passive-aggressive people say.[1]
    • Other signs of passive aggression can include hostility toward demands made on their time, even if it's understated, hostility toward figures of authority or those more fortunate, procrastination in dealing with other people's requests, purposefully doing a bad job for other people, acting cynical, sullen, or argumentative, and complaints about being under-appreciated.[2]
    • Passive-aggressive behavior is defined as indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation. The avoidance of direct confrontation is where we may find the most trouble.
  2. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 2
    Make sure you are not overreacting. It might seem like a person's trying to get under your skin, but it's also possible that you are being overly suspicious and taking their behavior personally. Examine your own insecurities — are you used to people in your past giving you a hard time? Does this person remind you of that? Are you assuming this person is doing what the people in your past did?
    • Put yourself in the other person's shoes. From that perspective, do you think a reasonable person might act similarly in those circumstances?[3]
    • Bear in mind, too, that some people may be constantly late or slow to complete a task because of a disorder like ADHD. Don't be quick to assume that their behavior is actually directed at you.
  3. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 3
    Notice how the person makes you feel. Dealing with a passive-aggressive person can make you feel frustrated, angry, and even despairing. It may seem as though there is nothing you can say or do to please the person.[4]
    • You may feel hurt by being on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behaviors. For example, perhaps the person has given you the silent treatment.
    • You may feel frustrated that the person often complains, but never seems to take steps to improve his or her situation. Pay close attention to your instincts.
    • Being around the person may leave you feeling tired or deflated, since you've spent so much energy trying to deal with the passive aggressive behavior.

Part 2
Responding to Passive Aggressive Behavior

  1. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 4
    Keep a positive attitude at all times. The power of positive thinking helps in coping with the daily affairs of life. Passive-aggressive people will try to drag you into a vortex of negativity. They are looking for a negative response sometimes so they can put the focus back on you without getting blamed for it. Don’t allow this to happen.[5]
    • Staying positive means you don’t sink to their level. Don’t be passive-aggressive back. Don’t name call, shout, or become overtly angry. If you remain positive, you will be in a better position to keep the focus on their own actions, not yours. If you become angry, you will divert attention away from the real problems.
    • Model positive behavior. Whether you're dealing with children or adults, address your own conflicts in a manner that lets others know how to interact with you. Passive aggression vents emotion from behind a mask of indifference. Instead of doing that, be open, honest, and direct about your emotions. When you encounter passive-aggressive behaviors like the silent treatment, guide the conversation in a productive direction.
  2. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 5
    Remain calm at all times. If you’re upset, calm down before you address the issue (take a walk, crank up the music and dance, do the crossword), and then figure out exactly what it is you need from this situation, such as what reasonable outcome you can live with.
    • Do not overreact in anyway, especially with anger. And do not directly accuse someone of being passive aggressive, for this opens a window for them to deny everything and to accuse you of "reading into it" or of being too sensitive/suspicious.
    • No matter what happens, don’t lose your temper. Don't let the person see that he or she got a rise out of you. If you do, it reinforces the behavior and could increase the chances that it will occur again.
    • Resist the urge to act out any reflexive anger or emotionally colored reaction. You'll appear much more in control, and you will come across as someone whom you cannot just push around.
  3. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 6
    Start a conversation about the issue. Assuming you are emotionally stable, self-respecting, and calm, the best approach is to simply express what seems to be happening (For example, "I may be wrong, but it seems that you're upset that David wasn't invited to the party. Do you want to talk about it?")
    • Be direct with the person and specific. Passive-aggressive people can twist your words using technicalities if you speak too generally or vaguely. If you're going to confront a passive-aggressive person, be clear about the issue at hand.
    • A danger of confrontation is that statements turn too global with phrases like "You're always this way!" This won't get you anywhere, so it's important to confront the person about a specific action. For instance, if the silent treatment is what gets on your nerves, explain that a specific incident where you were given the silent treatment made you feel a certain way.
  4. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 7
    Try to get the person to acknowledge that he or she is upset. Do this in a non-confrontational manner, but firmly, such as saying, "You seem to be pretty upset right now" or "I feel like something is bothering you."
    • Express the way their behavior is making you feel, such as saying, "When you speak in such a curt way, it makes me feel hurt and dismissed." This way, they have to acknowledge the effect their behavior is having on you. Focus on how you feel, and don't use blaming language that castigates them.
    • Use “I” statements.[6] When communicating with someone, especially during conflict, try to use “I-statements”, rather than “You-statements.” For example, rather than saying, “You’re so rude,” you could instead say, “I felt bad after you slammed the door because I felt like you didn’t want to listen to me.” The first statement is a you-statement. Typically, you-statements imply blame, judgment, or accusation. In contrast, I-Statements let you express feelings without pointing fingers.
    • The person who is being passive-aggressive is beating around the bush. Don't beat around the bush back at them. Be straight, but kind. Be honest, but gentle. Don't sugarcoat it either, though.

Part 3
Protecting Yourself from Passive Aggressive Behavior

  1. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 8
    Set limits with the passive-aggressive person. Although you don’t want to provoke an angry confrontation, you also don’t need to be a passive-aggressive person’s punching bag. Passive aggression can be very damaging and a form of abuse. It’s your right to set boundaries.
    • One of the biggest mistakes people make is to be way too lenient. Once you give in to passive-aggressive behavior, you lose your options. This is, at its root, a power struggle. You can remain positive and calm, while still being strong and firm about how much you are willing to take.
    • Follow through on the limits you set. Make it clear that you won't tolerate being mistreated. If a person is constantly late and it bothers you, make it clear to the person that next time she is late meeting you for a movie, you're just going to go in without her. That’s a way of saying you’re not going to pay the price for his or her behavior.
  2. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 9
    Figure out and address the root of the problem. The best way to deal with this type of anger is to detect any changes as soon as possible. The best way to do this is to get to the root of the anger.
    • If this person is one who doesn't typically show anger, then talk to someone who knows the person well enough to tell what angers him or her, and what subtle signs that the person may give when angry.
    • Dig deeply, and honestly assess what might be driving the passive aggression. Passive-aggressive behavior is usually a symptom of another cause.
  3. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 10
    Practice assertive communication. There's aggressive communication, there's passive communication, and there's passive-aggressive communication. None of these is as effective as assertive communication.
    • Assertive communication means being assertive and nonreactive, yet respectful. Show confidence, be collaborative, and express that you want to solve the problem in a way that works for both people.[7]
    • It's also important to listen and not inject accusations or blame into the conversation. Consider the other person’s point-of-view, and acknowledge it. Validate their feelings, even if you think they are wrong.
  4. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 11
    Determine when to avoid the person completely. If a person is passive-aggressive towards you on a regular basis, it is perfectly reasonable to avoid that person. You have to put your own well-being first.
    • Find ways to spend a limited amount of time with the person, and try to interact with them when you are in a group. Avoid one-on-one interaction.
    • If they are not contributing anything significant besides negative energy, ask yourself whether it is worth keeping them around in your life at all.
  5. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 12
    Give the person little information that they can use against you. Don't tell the passive-aggressive person your personal information, emotions or thoughts.
    • They may ask questions about your life that seem innocent or kindly concerned. You can answer such questions, but avoid giving detailed information. Keep it brief and vague, but friendly.
    • Avoid topics that are sensitive or reveal your personal weaknesses. Passive-aggressive individuals tend to remember such things you've told them, sometimes even little things in passing, and will find ways to use it against you later.
  6. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 13
    Solicit the help of a mediator or arbitrator. This person should be an objective third party, whether it is an HR representative, a close (but objective) family member, or even a mutual friend. The point is to use someone whom the passive-aggressive person can trust also.
    • Before meeting with the mediator, give him or her a list of your concerns. Try to see things from other people's points of view, and understand why they are so angry. Don't be obnoxious and just get all passive aggressive about them pushing you away, even if you are trying to help.
    • When you confront the individual yourself, you may hear "relax it was a joke" or "you take things too seriously." That’s why having a third party intervene can work better.
  7. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 14
    Articulate consequences if they continue with the behavior. Since passive-aggressive individuals operate covertly, they will almost always put up resistance when confronted on their behavior. Denial, excuse making, and finger pointing are just a few of the likely retorts.
    • Regardless of what they say, declare what you're willing to do going forward. Importantly, offer one or more strong consequences to compel the passive-aggressive person to reconsider his or her behavior.
    • The ability to identify and assert consequence is one of the most powerful skills we can use to "stand down" a passive-aggressive person. Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the difficult individual, and compels her or him to shift from obstruction to cooperation.
  8. Image titled Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior Step 15
    Reinforce appropriate/good behavior.[8] In behavioral psychology terms, reinforcement is something you do or give to a person after they perform a certain behavior. The goal of reinforcement is to increase the rate of that behavior.
    • This might mean rewarding good behavior that you want to perpetuate or punishing bad behavior you want to eliminate. Positive reinforcement is easier said than done, because bad behavior is more noticeable than good behavior. Be on the lookout for good behavior so you can take every opportunity to reinforce it.
    • For example, if a passive aggressive person is open and honest about their feelings — “I feel like you are being mean to me on purpose!” — that's a good thing! reinforce this behavior by saying “Thank you for tell me how you feel. I really appreciate it when you tell me how you feel.”
    • This will draw positive attention to the good behavior, communicating their feelings. From there you can work to open up a dialogue.


  • When you nag, scold, or get angry, you escalate conflict and give your partner more excuses and ammunition to deny responsibility.
  • When you go along with your partner’s tactics or take on his or her responsibilities, you enable and encourage more passive-aggressive behavior.
  • People who engage in such behavior often feel a sense of pride in their ability to control their emotion.

Article Info

Categories: Assertiveness & Self Esteem | Managing Negative Feelings