Everyone knows at least one person who just can’t be straightforward with personal feelings and needs, and instead subjects others to the least-fun guessing game to figure it out. But the next time your S.O. positions the full trash can in front of the door in lieu of just asking you to take it out, don’t just shake your hands at the sky in a fury. Follow this psychologist-approved five-step action plan for dealing with passive-aggressive people. (Seriously, bookmark it—for the sake of your mental health.)
- Look for a pattern
- Make clear that you’re safe to confide in
- Provide validation
- Maintain an expectation of accountability
- Gas them up for being assertive
In order to start communicating more effectively with passive-aggressive people who possess this personality trait, Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, explains that you first need to understand why they’ve developed a tendency toward it. “Individuals who are passive-aggressive learned somewhere along the way that it’s not okay to be angry. Maybe they were taught that conflict is so threatening, it has to be avoided at all costs. Maybe they were taught that being ‘nice’ is the only option. Or maybe it’s their way of expressing their dissatisfaction without outright rebellion,” the expert says in a recent episode of the Savvy Psychologist podcast.
Next, identify the pattern. For instance, maybe your coworker keeps CC’ing you randomly in emails to indicate that you’re dropping the ball on certain projects. In this case, let said coworker know that you’re totally okay with hearing their grievances face-to-face. “Passive-aggressive colleagues are often unhappy or insecure in their jobs. But rather than raising the issue, [they] create obstacles, waste time, and generally make everyone’s job more difficult, not to mention less pleasant,” says the psychologist.
“Passive-aggressive colleagues are often unhappy or insecure in their jobs. But rather than raising the issue, [they] create obstacles, waste time, and generally make everyone’s job more difficult, not to mention less pleasant.” —Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Once you’ve had this heart-to-heart, the situation will go one of two ways: Either that person will start filling you in on what’s bothering them, or they’ll make themselves the victim. If the latter scenario occurs, Dr. Hendriksen suggests being as empathetic as you can. “It’s vital to align yourself with them, because working against them is slippery at best, antagonistic at worst.” Instead, use phrases like, “I hear you,” to let them know you want to be on their side. However, there’s a huge caveat here: You want to be kind to them while still holding them accountable for their work. Otherwise, you’re playing into their desire to be pitied. “If they get a free pass because the dog ate their homework, you can bet they’ll be dipping tonight’s homework in gravy and making it happen again,” the psychologist says.
Lastly, to cement the new, more symbiotic dynamic between you and the passive-aggressor, gas them up when they show assertive behavior. (“Thanks so much for letting my know the trash needs to be taken out!”) As Dr. Hendriksen points out, “Passive-aggressive people, as aggravating as they are, are just like everybody else at heart: they want love and approval.”
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