Passive Aggressive Behavior – How To Communicate Better, Per Experts


If you’ve ever dealt with a mother-in-law (or some other hard-to-please Patty!) who says something is “Totally fine!” when it clearly Isn’t, been on the receiving end of the silent treatment, or been slighted by sarcasm, you’ve been face-to-face with a passive aggressive communicator.

The opposite of assertive, people who are passive aggressive never say what they mean. Instead, they indirectly hint that they’re dissatisfied or peeved and hope you pick up on it, explains Dr. Carolina Pataky, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of South Florida’s Love Discovery Institute. “People who are passive aggressive appear to be passive on the outside, but are actually angry on the inside and may act that anger out in subtle ways towards their partner(s), friend(s), or co-worker(s),” she says.

The trouble with passive aggressive communication is it often leaves both the communicator and listener unsatisfied at best, and resentful at worst. When repeated over and over and over again, Pataky says passive aggressive communication can ruin a relationship. Yikes!

The good news: Your communication isn’t like your eye color—with diligence, it can be changed. Ahead, experts explain how to become a more direct communicator, plus how to help the people in your orbit leave passive aggression behind.

What does it mean to be passive aggressive, exactly?

At its most distilled, passive aggressive communication is the opposite of direct communication. It’s a “communication” style that involves masking your true intent or feelings, says Jor-El Caraballo, a licensed therapist and co-creator of Viva, a mental health and wellness practice in Brooklyn, NYC. (Yes, the quotation marks are intentional!).

Typically, people respond passive aggressively in order to appear more diplomatic or agreeable than they really feel. At face value, this kind of communication may seem totally innocent, but dig deeper, and you’ll uncover a more aggressive motive at play.

Why are people passive aggressive anyway?

The above definition may make passive aggression sound super sinister, but it usually doesn’t come from a place of malicious intent, says Caraballo: “Usually, people communicate this way because they are trying to two competing goals: getting one’s own needs met and not risking damage to the manage relationship. “

Unfortunately, passive aggression communication and behavior doesn’t usually achieve those two goals. On the contrary, people who communicate passive aggressively rarely get their needs met because they don’t explicitly ask for or state their needs. And in a relationship, repeatedly not getting your needs met can breed resentment, contempt, and a feeling of powerlessness, says Carabalo.

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Worse, “long term, being passive aggressive can cause more conflict and intimacy issues within a relationship and can create a sense of mistrust between the two individuals,” says Pataky. It can also keep a relationship from evolving because you’re never able to address the real issues at play, she adds.

What’s the difference between being passive aggressive and straight-up aggressive?

Simply put, it comes down to the language, says Caraballo. “Aggressive communication relies on harsh, often abusive and/or violent language in order to get one’s needs met,” he explains. In other words, it’s blatantly disrespectful.

Passive aggressive communication, on the other hand, masquerades itself with “nice” language, he says. But it’s the tone and the intended meaning—contrary to what is being said—that makes a statement or question aggressive. “Typically, someone is saying things far more nicely than they actually feel inside in order to get what they want,” Carabalo notes.

Whether you’re dealing with passive aggressive or aggressive communication, neither is ideal for strengthening relationships (only direct communication is). So, do your pals and partners a favor, and try to abstain from both.

What are the signs of passive aggressive communication and behavior?

Generally, passive aggression communication is marked by a discrepancy between what someone says and what they mean. Meanwhile, passive aggressive behavior can be identified when there is a difference between what someone says they’ll do and what they end up doing. A little post-situation reflection will clue you in on whether someone was being passive aggressive or not.

But if you want to play Passive Aggressive Detective, keep your eye out for the following clues under your magnifying glass.

1. You sense a twinge of sarcasm.

      Sarcasm and passive aggressive communication both involve someone saying the opposite of what they mean. “It’s a way of hiding your true feelings and needs,” explains Caraballo, and as such, “sarcasm certainly can be an indicator that someone is being passive aggressive.”

      That said, you probably need to be friendly with someone in order to discern if their sarcasm is doubling as passive aggression or merely is a facet of their sense of humor.

      2. You walk away confused.

      Leave a convo with your noodle in knots? You might’ve been dealing with a passive aggressive person.

      Generally, what you want to look out for is a misalignment between what someone is saying and what they are doing or how they’re acting. “If you walk away from a conversation or interaction feeling confused, that’s also a clear sign that there might be a misalignment between what was communicated and what was meant,” says Caraballo.

      3. You get a complimented—backhandedly.

      Far from sincere, these comments cut like an insult and can indicate an underlying message. For example, if a family member says something like, “You folded the laundry, I’m stunned,” they might be peeved that you never spearheaded that chore previously. Similarly, if your partner says, “Wow, you showered before climbing into the sheets. How uncharacteristic,” they could be suggesting that they wish you’d do that every night.

      4. You see it on their face.

      You should have seen the look on their face is common rhetoric. But seeing someone’s face really can be helpful when you need to suss out if they’re being genuine or passive aggressive, says Pataky. Usually, passive-aggressive individuals will show their true feelings in their eyes or (lack of) smile.

      What should I do instead of communicating passive aggressively?

      Listen, almost everyone has been there, passive-aggressively said that. Know that you’re in good company, but hey, there’s always room for improvement, right? Here are some expert-approved tips to level up your communication game.

      1. Don’t judge yourself too harshly.

      There are a number of reasons why you might resort to this communication style, according to Caraballo. It’s typical for people to communicate passive aggressively because that’s how their caretakers communicated around them. Others may resort to indirect rhetoric because they’ve been told, either explicitly or implicitly, that advocating for their needs is self-involved or burdensome.

      In fact, it’s especially common for women, girls, other gender minorities to believe that direct communication is bitchy because they “often get the message that they need to over-manage the feelings and experiences of those around them,” explains Caraballo.

      Never fear, here’s your fool-proof guide to responding to passive aggressive work emails:

      2. Don’t beat around the bush.

      This might be a challenge if you grew up worrying about the Polite Police, but “get right to the point and say what you really mean,” advises Pataky. If, for example, a friend’s comment hurt your feelings, tell them at the moment. And this is a biggie: If you really do have a preference for where to go out to dinner, share that with the class!

      3. Use a forthright tone.

      That means leaving sarcasm, syrupy-sweet epitaphs, and silence at the door, says Pataky. Enter every room genuinely, and the right words will follow.

      4. Be patient.

      Bluntly, it’s going to take some time to make the shift from being a passive-aggressive communicator to a direct communicator. (After all, you’ve probably been communicating this way for decades!) So be gentle with yourself as your brain and mouth adjust to the transformation.

      5. Recognize that disagreements happen even in the happiest of relationships.

      “It may be difficult at times to remember, but you need to believe that disagreements on points of view with others is okay and doesn’t need to result in you disliking them,” says Pataky. “Learning this will help you become more aware of your emotions and teach you how to react to an individual’s disagreement without taking it to a personal level.” (Sage advice!)

      How should I deal with someone who’s being passive aggressive to me?

      The most important thing to do, according to Caraballo, is to invite them to communicate more directly.

      Sounds simple, but how? Start by asking them to explicitly state what they need or want. Try some lines like these:

      • I’m having a hard time figuring out what it is you actually want. I’d love it if you shared what would happen in your dream world.
      • I want to make sure I’m understanding what you’re saying, can I ask you to please clarify what you mean?
      • I’m not sure I understand what you mean. What is it that you want right now?

        “Asking for clarification can save you the headache of trying to decipher someone’s coded messaging,” says Carabalo. Of course, there is a chance that this individual may not be any clearer the second go-round.

        If this is an ongoing issue with someone you’re close with, you may consider expressing your concern directly, like this:

        • I’ve noticed that the last few fights we had taken place after we miscommunicated. I’d love to sit down and talk about how we can both work to communicate more directly. Is that something you’d be open to doing?
        • I’ve noticed that you’re having a hard time communicating your needs directly. Would you be open to book-clubbing a book about how to communicate in a relationship with me?
        • From my point of view, our last few spats have arisen after we didn’t communicate effectively. Would you be open to going to therapy either individually or as a couple to shoot this issue?

          Regardless, Pataky warns against trying to diffuse the situation with an apology. “Someone who is passive aggressive may make you feel like you’ve done something wrong, but you haven’t,” she says. “So, you should never apologize for things you have not done and allow them to be held accountable for their actions.” Stay present at the moment, be open and inclusive to communication with the individual, and set boundaries and limits when needed.

          Ultimately, though passive aggressive communication may be a common way to communicate, it is neither effective, nor optimal for the health and longevity of interpersonal relationships. Luckily, the type of communicator you are not fixed! With diligence, patience, and intention you can teach yourself to be more assertive—and directly start reaping the benefits of direct communication.

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