“Nothing’s Wrong!” Dealing with Passive Aggressive Personalities

“Not everything that is faced can be changed easily, but nothing can be changed that is
not faced.” –James Baldwin

I have always prided myself on being able to work through conflicts using the
interpersonal skills I have taught in business in the last 26 years. I am talking about
strategies like listening to understand, repeating what you hear before you disagree,
and looking for agreement when facing an opposing viewpoint.

I would always try to figure out the behavioral style of my challenger. Was this person
a bottom-liner? Perhaps someone who gets into the detail of a situation? Task-oriented?
A people person? An active, on-the-go type? Reflective, likes to think before speaking?
Someone who thinks out loud and works the problem out right then and there? Or
someone who gets very quiet in conflict, goes inside to analyze and sort it out? No
matter the type, I was almost always able to determine where this person was coming

But I was not prepared for people who concealed their true nature, keeping many issues
locked up inside. I was thrown for a loop. Passive Aggressive personalities do a very
good job of not saying what they really mean. In fact, they may never tell you what they
are really thinking, and may often tell everyone else but you.

I was raised in Chicago in an outgoing Italian family where anything you thought, you
said. My mom used to say, “Put the cookies on the table,” and that is what we did. If
someone did not like your haircut or the shirt you were wearing, you would hear it right
then and there. You did not hear it later from someone else. There wasn’t any fear or
wondering what people thought about you; it was in your face!

So the first step for me was to figure out what this Passive Aggressive style was and how
best to deal with it. As Baldwin says, if you don’t face something you cannot change it.
With the Passive Aggressive type it is really tough to change situations or problem-solve,
because often this person refuses to engage in dialogue with you.

So let’s start by defining types of Passive Aggressive behaviors:

  •   Does a deliberately poor job at tasks he or she does not want
  •   Makes sure someone else is to blame
  • Uses subtle manipulation to get you to do what he wants
  • Is skilled at shifting attention away from failings
  • Expresses feelings of aggression as stubbornness, sullenness, procrastination or intentional inefficiency
  •  Does not say what she means, do what she says or ever tell you what she is really thinking
  •  Conceals anger, acts inappropriately

Anyone looking over this list can admit to doing some of them some of the time. The
problem lies in the person who chooses Passive Aggressive behavior all of the time. So,
what are some strategies for dealing with that type of person?

1. Adjusting Attitudes: Choose to be the one to break the cycle by becoming
aware of what is happening. If people are gossiping about someone else instead
of talking directly to him or her about problems, choose to walk away or say
something to break the cycle. In his book The Other 90%, Robert Cooper
suggests saying this: “I’d like to not talk about anyone who’s not here. I’m concerned we’re making faulty assumptions. If we have a concern about another
person’s motives or intentions, I want to ask her directly before we talk about it.”
2. Creating a positive focus: Even if only one person chooses to make a change in a
relationship, it changes everything. Do your part to create a fun, upbeat, positive
work environment. Walk away and then return with an upbeat or humorous
3. Deciding to confront: Confronting is easy to talk about and hard to do.
Sometimes it is really necessary to break the cycle of negativity, gossip and Passive
Aggressive behaviors. But sometimes things are better left alone. And sometimes
even when you speak up the situation may not change, but you will feel better
for at least having gotten it off your chest! But only you can decide. To help you
decide, think about and plan what you would say. State the problem very clearly
and specifically. Outline your response and then list some alternatives. Visualize
the consequences and finally evaluate the likely results. Decide after you evaluate
if you should confront or not.
4. Confronting: Be very specific about what behavior you are confronting, in a
nonjudgmental style. State your feelings if appropriate. Describe the results or
impact of this behavior. Here is an example: “John and Lisa both confirmed that
you mentioned my pregnancy with Dr. Dutton in last week’s meeting. When you
involve yourself in situations that don’t concern you I get real frustrated and angry
since it is my place to address this situation and my plans with him myself. I am
offended that you have taken it upon yourself to predict my plans.”
Confronting the Passive Aggressive person is never easy. But if you face the problem
(remember what Baldwin said), perhaps by using one or more of the above strategies,
you will have taken the first step to changing the situation.
Cathy Vestrand is the Principal of Vestrand Consulting Services. Cathy has over 25 years
experience training clients in Interpersonal, Communication, and other business skills.
Cathy will be conducting “Be Heard: Assert Yourself With Confidence” for ASE members
soon (see accompanying sidebar on page 5).