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How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

The term “passive aggressive” can bring up many ideas about what it really means. There are plenty of books written about it and we’ve all seen the term used about different people.

The thing about labels is that they can be a slippery slope. Whether it’s “passive aggressive”, “rude” or just plain old “difficult”, labels can set the tone for how we choose to deal with people.

There’s a famous quote from Martina Navratilova about labels that I think applies here:

“Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.”

Now, I know you’re here for a reason. You probably have someone in your life you think is passive aggressive and you need some tips on dealing with them. But let’s be careful about labelling.

Don’t ever go out and tell the person in your life they’re passive aggressive and slap that label on them because once someone knows you see them a certain way, it’s going to color your interactions with them moving forward. They aren’t going to be happy with you labelling them a certain way and they definitely aren’t going to turn around and thank you for it.

I once had a previous business partner tell me they thought I was passive aggressive. While I didn’t react outwardly, on the inside I was furious. I was telling myself all the reasons I wasn’t what they said I was, and it put me completely on the defensive during our interaction.

Now that we’ve got the labelling thing out of the way, let’s talk about the behaviors.

Check this out:

How to Deal When Someone is Being Passive Aggressive

For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on passive aggression in the form of saying one thing and doing another. It can often feel like being stabbed in the back because we interpret it as someone trying to undermine us.

How do we deal with this sort of behaviour? Here are a few specific suggestions:

#1. Unhook Emotionally

The first thing we need to do is take a step back the emotions of the situation. Whether we’re feeling anger, sadness or plain old shock, we need to try and look things objectively.

Passive aggressive behavior stems from a variety of different places. Maybe the person is insecure. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable expressing their real feelings.

Instead of assuming there is some sinister motivation for whatever they did, especially if it’s the first time it’s happened, it’s helpful to take a moment and realize that there are reasons that sometimes people are motivated to act this way.

#2. Bring the Goal of the Conversation to the Surface

Take a deep breath and decide you’re going to focus on what you CAN do. You need to get clear on what your goal is in this conversation.

If we don’t deal with the passive aggressive behavior by bringing it to the surface during the conversation, we’re likely to get more of it in the future.

Imagine you’re working on a project with a colleague and you’ve put together a presentation that you’ll be presenting tomorrow. You and the colleague are meeting to review and you agree that everything is looking great. Your colleague says they’ll just do a quick final review for things like typos.

You come in next day and head into your presentation. But as soon as you get going, you start tripping over your words, the slides are different from how you left them the day before and your notes are missing. You finish up as best you can, but you end up feeling completely defeated and like you’ve made a fool of yourself.

Now, you KNOW the only person who has touched the presentation is your colleague. Obviously, this will need to be discussed.

#3. Stick to the Facts

In the above scenario, you’re going to have to discuss it with your colleague. However, when you approach your colleague, you’re going to need to keep it factual and use “I” statements.

“I was really concerned when I went to do the presentation today and the slides were totally different.”

“I wasn’t able to deliver the presentation in the way it was intended”

“I thought everything was fine after we met yesterday. Can you help me understand what is going on?”

#4. Prepare for Denial and Excuses

Once you’ve started the conversation, you’ll need to be prepared for the reaction. The person will probably tell that they “just” made a couple of changes, or they thought it would look better, or that they were just trying to help.

Whatever you do, don’t let yourself get sucked into a huge back and forth about their “whys”. Because it’s pretty likely they don’t even think they did anything wrong.

#5. Reiterate Your Expectations

During your discussion, keep your responses on point and clear so they are aware of your expectations moving forward.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with how that presentation went because of the last minute changes. That wasn’t my understanding of what we agreed to. In the future, if you have a concern please speak to me about it.”

Once again, be prepared for more excuses. This is where you hold your boundary.

“I would have appreciated knowing even if was only five minutes ahead of time. Going forward, this is very important.”

And then zip it. Don’t engage in further discussion on the matter. Don’t expect them to apologize or agree.

The key point is that when we bring things to the surface, we’re less likely to see that behavior again in the future because that person now knows that we WILL bring it up if they do.

These tips for dealing with passive aggressive behavior can apply not only at work, but really anywhere in your life when you find yourself in a situation where someone is saying one thing but doing another.

So, next time you’re dealing with someone being passive aggressive, remember to:

  • Unhook emotionally
  • Be factual in discussing what happened
  • Be prepared for denial and excuses
  • Reiterate your expectations

Remember to keep it nice and simple. You have everything you need to tackle these conversations and with grace and confidence.



See Diane's Fearless Conversations Blog for more tips, tools, and strategies for succeeding in difficult conversations and getting what you want need and deserve out of work and out of life.


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