Imagine you’re in the jungle. You’re treading along carefully when suddenly a poisonous rattlesnake strikes out at you. What do you do? You steer clear of it and run for safety! Now imagine that you are walking along such a path, and you find yourself in the grip of a boa constructor. Without knowing it, very gradually it tightens its grip until it’s too late for you to get away. The first trigger is a metaphor of a confrontational response, whereas the second is a passive-aggressive one.
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Whether you find yourself in a relationship with someone who displays their anger in a passive-aggressive manner, or you recognize such behavior patterns within yourself, in order to relate more effectively with others consider eliminating this emotional response by recognizing the behavior, checking your perceptions, confronting it and creating a safe space to communicate in more assertive ways.
1. Recognize Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, author of “You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger: Executive Coaching Challenges,” defines passive aggressive as “a behavior pattern where negative feelings are expressed indirectly rather than directly.”
A passive-aggressive person may agree to a request, but express their resentment by simply ignoring the task at hand. They say they’re going to do one thing, and they do another — there is a clear disconnect between what they commit to and what they actually follow through with. On the surface they may be compliant, polite and friendly, but when you start digging below, you can find that things aren’t what they seem. The first step in eliminating passive-aggressive behavior is to learn to recognize it.
2. Practice Perception Checking
Since you cannot read someone else’s mind, the closest you can get to that is learning more about what another person is thinking. Patty Ann, author of “Passive-Aggressive Communication - Cope With Conflict & Succeed,” recommends practicing perception checking to help facilitate more effective communication. She encourages taking the following three steps: 1) Describe the behavior you noticed; 2) Discuss several possible interpretations of the behavior; and 3) Request a clarification, or an explanation, about how you should interpret the behavior.
Confirming your understanding of what you think the other is saying by checking your perceptions can be a bridge toward more accurate interpretations of what is being communicated, and yield better explanations for the reasoning of their actions.
3. Confront the Behavior
Psychologist Tim Murphy and Loriann Hoff Oberlin, authors of “Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Work and Happiness,” discuss how by enabling a passive-aggressive person to continue their behavioral patterns, you are participating in perpetuating the destructive pattern. In other words, “enablers empower others.”
If you allow this behavior to occur, even when you think you’re being helpful, deep down you’re reinforcing that which you would like to eliminate. Instead, point out to the person the behavior that indicates passive aggressiveness on their part. Make the inconsistency between their words and actions be known, and pay attention to their actions rather than their words, giving the person feedback regarding what their actions tell you about their feelings. Try to be assertive, open and honest, and in doing so you can invite the other to do the same. Interacting that way with people can make your relationships more honest.
4. Create a Safe Space
At the end of the day, for a passive-aggressive person to open up and eliminate their behavioral patterns, there needs to be an atmosphere of trust, where instead of hiding their beliefs and their emotions they can feel free to be open and fully express themselves.
In the words of Murphy, “when people feel emotionally unsafe, they resort to blaming, denial, projection, repression, isolation, etc.” Reassure the other person that there are no right or wrong feelings, that it is ok to share negative thoughts and emotions. Work at being more honest with people even if it results in a conflict, and when that happens, use it to find a compromise and come to a "win-win‘’ solution. In time, the behavioral patterns can modify toward a more constructive communicative relationship.
People who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior aren’t doing so on purpose or with malice — they are simply not conscious of it. If you focus on creating an atmosphere of understanding, you can invite people to become more assertive with you — sharing both positive as well as negative feelings. And a word of caution: be prepared for unexpected reactions when you begin — the nature of passive-aggressive behavior can be unpredictable.