You're telling a story when a friend rolls his eyes, or maybe you're at a holiday party when your aunt says, “I normally don’t like the way you dress, but that sweater looks great on you!” These slights are sneaky and often covered up with a smile, but you walk away feeling confused and bad about yourself.
That’s because passive-aggressive behavior is a way of expressing anger in a seemingly non-hostile way, says Andrea Brandt, Ph.D, a therapist and author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness. You’ve been caught in the crosshairs, but you don’t know you’ve been hit.
The behavior encompasses more than just eye rolls and faux compliments though. Maybe it's that friend who’s chronically late but won’t say she doesn’t like hanging out with you, or a co-worker who’s constantly killing productivity with mindless distractions but won’t say he can’t stand his job.
We all have moments when we respond sarcastically or say yes but really mean no (it's complicated, Justin). Both are hallmarks of passive-aggressive behavior, and that’s OK, says Ken Braslow, M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of Luminello. It becomes an issue when the behavior is chronic, a crutch to bypass emotionally authentic conversation.
The cause of this behavior? Passive-aggressiveness most often stems from a family that avoids overt conflict, but it’s also reinforced by a society that tells us anger isn’t a healthy emotion, Brandt says. “We’re often taught to be compliant and not say things that will create problems,” she says. “Because then there might be a blow up, and no one has given us the recipe for how to deal with anger.”
While there's no cure-all for dealing with passive-aggressiveness, and context is important (you’ll probably respond differently when dealing with your boss than with your S.O.), these five strategies are a good place to start.
Your Game Plan
1. Don't take the bait.
There’s a fine line between responding to someone who’s being passive-aggressive and engaging in the drama they’re creating. You want to respond without doing the emotional work for them, Braslow says. That means avoiding asking questions like: “Why did you say that?” or “What did you really mean?”
Example: If a friend says “thank you” but doesn’t sound pleased, answer the content, not the context of the situation. Simply saying “you’re welcome!” meets the person where they’re at, but doesn’t take their bait, which is a great way to disarm them.
2. Stay present.
If you’re calling someone out on their behavior, chances are this isn’t the first time they’ve acted this way. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to bring out the laundry list of past offenses or make sweeping generalizations, says Scott Wetzler, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine as well as the author of Living With the Passive-Aggressive Man. Instead, focus on what just happened.
Focus on that specific moment and tell her how her words make you feel.
Example: Your mom says, “That dress does a great job of hiding your weight gain.” Don’t respond with a generalized statement about how she always criticizes the way you look (even if you feel that way). Rather, focus on that specific moment and tell her how her words make you feel.
3. Be assertive when talking.
The passive-aggressive person is being avoidant, so this is no time to beat around the bush. Instead, address the issue head-on: Focusing on how you feel, use “I” statements, which bring understanding and empathy, rather than “you” statements, which can feel accusatory, Brandt says.
Example: You’re at a family dinner and notice a relative adding spices to a dish you made (it's not the first time they've messed with your recipes). Approach them and say, “I noticed you adding in spices. I feel disrespected when you do something like that without telling me. It’s fine if you want to tweak your own dish, but I don’t want to change the whole recipe.”
4. Make sure the punishment fits the crime.
One way to get passive-aggressive people to change their behavior is to have clear consequences for their actions. But those punishments can quickly go overboard (e.g., screaming "I'm never ever talking to you again!" in the heat of the moment). Evaluate how their behavior has affected you, and then determine the best response, Wetzler says. (Should you tell your friend you need some time apart? Or is it time to end the friendship altogether?)
Example: This is the third time your friend has been late to the movies without giving you a heads up. Next time it happens, be direct and tell them it bothers you when they leave you hanging. If they continue to do it, let them know you'll invite another friend instead.
5. Understand your audience.
No matter how hard you try, some people won't be responsive when you talk to them, says Stacy Kaiser, a therapist and editor-at-large of Live Happy. “Many people who are passive-aggressive aren’t going to change because you’re bothered by it,” she says. If you're deciding whether to bring up a person's behavior, it can be helpful to do a quick cost-benefit 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.)
Example: Say it's your boss who's giving you the silent treatment after another leader at the company compliments your work. 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? (In the meantime, try these six strategies to spread more positive vibes at work.)