The Best Way to React to Passive-Aggressive Behavior

It can be difficult to be on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior. It can leave you feeling agitated, angry, or insulted. But what's the best way to react? What steps can you take to point out the passive-aggressive behavior without escalating the situation?

I deal with this in the context of bullying and take a behavioral approach to the problem. Here are 6 steps to take to deal with passive aggressive behavior.

1st, understand that a passive aggressive person probably isn’t in enough control of their behavior to stop. They aren’t doing this to be jerks – they can’t help themselves. It’s a control issue thing that is most likely beyond their control. In other words, don’t expect them to magically stop. They won’t.

2nd – Don’t take it personally. They are the one with the problem. Once you understand they are passive aggressive, it isn’t about you. It’s about them and their inability to function normally. It’s entirely possible that they have a mental health problem they are dealing with.

3rd – Document everything. If you have a verbal agreement with them, send them an email to confirm the agreement. That way when they don’t do what they said they would do there is a document that proves they didn’t do what they said they would do. This prevents these situations from devolving into a he said/she said argument. This allows you to win the argument without arguing!

4th – Be consistent over time. By remaining calm, polite and documenting everything, so as to avoid confusion, you prevent the passive aggressive person from being able to play their normal games. They will respond to this lack of control by getting increasingly frustrated. In other words, they will start to behave worse. Their behavior will become more overt & egregious. This is an extinction burst, and it’s predicted to happen. Just stay the course and allow them to dig their own hole.

5th – Don’t think that others don’t see it. If someone is passive aggressive with you, they are that way with everyone. Again, most can’t help themselves.  So when they start to attack your character, don’t worry about it. It means you have knocked them out of their comfort zone and they are starting to panic. Passive aggressive people don’t normally engage in overt attacks. They are passively aggressive. When they become overtly aggressive it means their cover has been blown.

6th – remain professional and polite. Don’t worry about how poorly they are behaving. Don’t sink to their level. Rise above and showcase how professional and nice you are. As the passive aggressive person escalates their bad behavior – the contrast between you as the professional and the passive aggressive person as the problem will become clearer and clearer.  You will end up winning this battle without even fighting, because sometimes you win – by not fighting.

To learn more about how to deal with bullies and passive- aggressive people, get my book The Bully Vaccine

Or take my course – how to stop harassment & retaliation in the workplace.

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