Passive … Aggressive

In many 12-Step meetings, it is traditional for members to stand in a circle holding hands as they say the closing prayer, usually the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer.   Some years ago, someone changed my experience of this little ritual forever.  If someone puts their hands in front, they’re aggressive, they said.  If they put their hands in back, they’re passive.  So I’ve been doing informal research during every closing prayer for 15 years and that research says it’s true.   Then again, give me a couple of weeks in a meeting with someone and I can figure out of they’re passive or aggressive without holding hands.   Here’s what I need … a way to tell if someone is passive-aggressive.  That way, I can avoid them completely … or at least be ready their antics.    So, why this foray into the field of human communication styles?  Well, Tuesday night the topic in my Men’s Meeting was Triggers and How You Deal with Them.   You know. Triggers … those things that set your temper and blood pressure rising.   At the time, I really didn’t relate to the topic, although I did talk about the way my no-longer-kids problems can set me off.   But on the way home, it came to me: one of my biggest triggers has always been passive-aggressive people, especially men.   Me?   I would say I’m a former aggressive turned assertive by years of 12-Step program and self-help books.  No one has ever accused me of being passive.  Shoot me if I ever turn passive-aggressive. There’s a good article on the four communication styles here.

I think most of us have someone in mind when we speak of passive aggressive behavior.   That someone probably asks for things without really asking (Did anyone do the dishes?  Shall I do them? Sigh) or tries to get their way through the silent treatment or hurt feelings.  They agree to our propositions, then sulk or sabotage them through inaction.  When we confront them about their failures, it’s never their fault and somehow always ours.   They are masters of the sweet but scolding note and the backhanded compliment (That was a pretty hip answer for someone your age).  When you finally lose your temper from dealing with their veiled hostility, they’ll be shocked and hurt by your over-reaction.   And if they are really good at their art, you will never be quite sure whether the problem is you or them.

If you search the internet for information on passive-aggressives, you’re liable to come away with the notion that they are the devil incarnate.  Divorce support sites call them masters of covert abuse, business sites call them the quiet enemy, and they have been compared to snowballs with rocks inside.   Dr. Phil’s website,, offers advice on confronting passive aggressiveness (naturally) and has suggestions for eliminating the behavior in ourselves.  There are even articles on businesses with passive-aggressive cultures and outlines for interventions for passive-aggressive students.  Yet there are sites offering humorously passive-aggressive notes, commercials and pages of passive-aggressive quips on pinterest.   I even found an ad for a passive-aggressive writer on craigslist.   We can believe they are demons when we’re knee-deep in dealing with a passive-aggressive person but we find them funny because most everyone (excepting Older Eyes) resorts to passive-aggressive behavior on occasion.

I have friends and family with passive-aggressive tendencies and with apologies to Dr. Phil, I don’t want to damage our friendships by confronting them.  Nineteen years of  12-Step work has convinced me it’s not my job to change them anyway.  In thirteen years as a consultant, I’ve had to learn to deal with whatever personalities come my way in my client’s organizations.  So, here’s my list of ways to do that when what comes my way is passive-aggressive behavior:

1. Be concise in what you have to say and frame it in terms of what you need and your own feelings.  Be precise about what is expected.  Get agreement, in writing if the situation warrants it.

2.  Don’t expect someone operating passive -aggressively to do as agreed … follow up by asking for status and when they forgot or misunderstood, reiterate the plan in terms of your needs and what is required without personal attacks.  Unless your goal is to change them, don’t point out their passive-aggressive behavior … they’ll only use that as an excuse to cite your aggression and further delay living up to their agreement.

3. Don’t lose your temper … that supports their agenda.  If they try to shift blame to others or to you, calmly deflect it with phrases like, That was your choice and I can’t make you feel anything.

4.  Don’t take their behavior personally: they do it to everyone and, besides, it often has deep psychological roots that have nothing to do with you (unless it’s your kid … even then, it’s not intentional).

5.  Have an alternative plan in case they don’t follow through because there’s a reasonable change they won’t.

If you don’t like my list, there are lots of others out there.  Google dealing with passive-aggressive behavior or look here and here.   If this sounds like a lot of work, it is sometimes.  The alternative is homicide.   Most states have leniency clause for murder of passive-aggressives.   You’ll probably get off with only a few years jail time.   Only kidding.

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3 Comments on “Passive … Aggressive”

  1. territerri Says:

    You just helped me realize that my office is full of passive-aggressive personalities! Of course, I recognize a bit of it in myself too… mostly in my marriage. Poor Mark!

  2. Pam Says:

    Thanks I understand what is passive aggressive, being an asian I struggle with my husband till today, I grew up without much anger though my parents were very very strict until I married him my life just sank.
    No one understand what i am going through….

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