Expert Source: Loriann Oberlin, MS, LCPC, licensed counselor and coauthor of Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness (Da Capo Press, 2005)
“A passive-aggressive person is basically angry, but he or she is expressing anger in indirect ways,” says Loriann Oberlin. Dealing with somebody who is unhappy but unwilling to talk about it directly can be confusing, even infuriating.
Ask a person who is in passive-aggressive mode to complete a task, for example, and the “positive” response you get (“Of course, I would love to make 200 copies of this memo!”) may be so full of unspoken resistance that you wonder if the job will get done at all.
A passive-aggressive co-worker’s thinly veiled resentment and hostility can sap the energy of a whole group. The net result — on morale, teamwork, communication and results — can be devastating. That’s why Oberlin suggests taking decisive steps in coping with this type of high-maintenance colleague.
Barriers To Overcome
- Confusing communication. Passive-aggressive people might say one thing (like “Sure, sounds great!”) and mean quite another, which can be disorienting and disconcerting. You may simply have no idea how to respond.
- Mixed messages. You may be tempted to consider a passive-aggressive individual’s apparent agreement as a commitment: She said she’d handle the project, didn’t she? And yet, on some level, you may sense there’s a very real possibility that she will not do what she “agreed” to do — or that she’ll do it but resent it, perhaps making you wish you’d never asked.
- Fighting fire with fire. Since the passive-aggressive person is angry to begin with, he or she is likely to meet anger with even greater defiance. “You won’t get very far if you roll your eyes or get sarcastic in return,” says Oberlin. You’ll just escalate the situation.
- Bad boundaries. “Passive-aggressive people tend to seek out people-pleasers,” says Oberlin, “because they know that they can push their buttons.” If you’re conflict-averse or have trouble setting boundaries, passive-aggressive people may tend to target you, making you the focal point of their hostilities. They may create dramas that directly affect you at work.
Strategies For Success
- Don’t take it personally. “A passive-aggressive person’s anger stems from his or her own background and life situation, and isn’t your responsibility,” says Oberlin. “You are probably just the most convenient person for him or her to interact with negatively.”
- Moderate your response. Oberlin recommends developing a “Teflon coating” for yourself when dealing with passive-aggressive people — stay calm, keep your voice neutral, hold your emotions in check. “The less reactive you are, the less fuel they have for their passive-aggression,” she says.
- Empathize. Though it may be difficult, cultivating empathy for a passive-aggressive person can help disarm him or her. Oberlin suggests reflecting the person’s suppressed feelings by saying things like, “It seems as if you were frustrated by what happened in the meeting today. That must be difficult.”
- Be direct. If you’re dealing with a person who resists assignments and requests, says Oberlin, “you need to be assertive and very clear about what you expect, and what the consequences will be if your expectations aren’t met.” Keep everything factual, not emotional, she suggests. Clarity and level-headedness are your two best defenses against passive-aggressive behavior.