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Learn the 5 Tactics Passive Aggressive People Use—and How to Fight Back

A quick look at what this toxic behavior looks like in real life--and what you can do about it.

Photo by Abigail Keenan via Unsplash
Photo by Abigail Keenan via Unsplash

Have you ever had a situation in which someone agreed to do things your way, only to then quietly sabotage your plan and do all they can to make it fail?

This subtle, toxic behavior is known as passive-aggression.

Passive-aggressive behavior is the demonstration of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in a discreet or “passive” manner. It’s characterized by subtle comments or actions that indicate a person disagrees or is displeased with a course of action. 

Unfortunately, we’re faced with passive-aggressive behavior in all walks of life. You’ll get it at work from that colleague, the one who always has something to complain about. You encounter it when you’re running errands, from disgruntled service industry employees. And you might even face it at home, coming from your partner or child–especially if they’re having a bad day. 

So, what does passive-aggressiveness look like in real life? And how can you fight this toxic behavior?

In my book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, I take a long, hard look at how people use emotions to try and manipulate you–including the use of passive-aggression.

Here are a few ways passive-aggressive behavior may manifest itself in the real world:

1. The giver of silent treatment.

After agreeing to do things a certain way, the other person avoids you as much as possible. When you try to have a conversation, they remain tight-lipped, provide short answers and refuse to engage, or turn a cold shoulder.

2. The sulker.

We’ve all seen this behavior in kids, but plenty of adults do it too. When the person doesn’t get their way, they suddenly become sad and bitter, immediately sucking the joy out of any room they enter.

3. The forgetter.

In this case, a person agrees to help with a task but then simply doesn’t follow through. They may claim they “forgot” when in reality they had no intention of helping out in the first place. Or, they simply procrastinate to the point that you (or someone else) has to take over.

4. The low performer.

Instead of completely failing to follow through on a task, this person carries it out but does so sloppily or with little effort. On the outside they feign support, but by performing way below expectations they let their true feelings shine through.

5. The needler.

This person uses sarcasm or backhanded compliments to try and undermine your sense of self-confidence or eat away at your nerves. They try to be ambiguous, but they know exactly what they’re doing.

How to fight back

In most of these cases, the person will deny anything is wrong. They may claim ignorance or simply refuse to acknowledge genuine feelings of anger or negativity. 

In other cases, a person who regularly employs passive-aggressive behavior doesn’t even realize they’re doing so. But that doesn’t make their words or actions any easier to bear. 

So, how can you combat passive-aggression once and for all?

Since the person refuses to confront their negative feelings, you have to help them do so. 

“It’s not an in-your-face, anger-inspiring, make-them-admit-what-they-did kind of authoritarian tactic,” writes Signe Whitson, co-author of The Angry SmileRather, it’s “a quiet and reflective verbal intervention skill in which a person gently but openly shares his or her thoughts about the other person’s behavior and unexpressed anger.” 

In other words, you want to work with the person to get to the root problem. 

To do this, be sure to clearly communicate your own feelings and expectations. If you suspect that you know the specific cause of the other person’s aggression, ask specifically if that’s what’s bothering them. If they deny that’s the case, take their word for it–but gently try to keep the discussion going. If appropriate, take initiative to apologize for anything you’ve done that could contribute to hurt feelings and ask what you could do to make the situation better. 

Most of the time, your genuine interest in the other person will cause them to begin changing their behavior. And once a problem is identified, you can often work together to find an agreement that satisfies both parties moving forward. 

Follow these steps, and you’ll stop passive-aggression dead in its tracks–and make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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