I was wondering earlier this week if there was a topic we have not tackled in the People Solutions newsletter. I looked back through the archives and realized we have covered a lot of stuff. Then it hit me, like a bear coming out of the woods, startled then contemplative . . . I don't think we have ever tackled the subject of Passive-Aggressiveness. Why? It is a subject I find incredibly interesting, which borders on the edge of mysterious and comical if it were not so hazardous to the health of all involved.
Even as I begin to write, I wonder if I’m practicing a little bit of the ol' Passive-Aggressiveness myself as I recall the many instances and individuals I have observed and the strangling hold I’ve witnessed this strategy put on many relationships and careers. I’m also wondering if by chance any reading this may think I’m writing about them. (If you are thinking this, please don't. It is probably not you because most passive-aggressives would not think to identify themselves as such. And if they think I’m writing about them, they will have only one almost uncontrollable choice and that is to retaliate in some way . . . passive aggressively, causing me to respond in turn. No, probably best not to react and participate in a PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE spiraling circle that always seems to be headed downward.
I should stop for a moment and explain that I am in no way an expert on the subject, the cause, or the cure. I am writing about passive-aggressiveness just as we have written about goals, reading books, happiness, discouragement, family and the multitude of other subjects covered through the years. I speak simply from an observer’s viewpoint. I am curious about passive-aggressive behavior and want to explore it. I am sure we all resort to this dangerous approach on occasion, and I have worked with many people throughout my career who have actually practiced passive-aggressiveness to an art. I hope writing about it here may spark new observations and contemplation in my own behaviors and the behaviors of others. At the end of this newsletter, I am going to ask you to help me in researching and debating this topic further, but for next few minutes, let’s think through the definition and my initial observations below.
Toward a Definition
Merriam Webster - passive-aggressive: being, marked by, or displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness)
"Passive-aggressive behaviors are those that involve acting indirectly aggressive rather than directly aggressive." If I were one that would be prone to passive-aggressiveness, I would read this definition and think, "No kidding, I wonder what genius wrote that over-simplified definition" (sarcasm). I would not respond to the author who wrote it directly (avoidance). I would however mention the stupid definition I read on passive-aggressiveness to someone else that I am hoping would also support my opinion (insecure). I would possibly top that off with a declaration to myself or others that I am never going to Google anything again, because all you get is junk (belittling, sullenness, and making general statements that leave others feeling uncomfortable). I could have done all of that. but if I had, I would have missed reading an insightful article on passive aggressiveness at verywellmind.com (missed opportunities and relationships).
Excerpt from Verywell Mind article titled "What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?"
How to Cope
So what can you do when confronted by a friend, co-worker, or even a romantic partner who regularly engages in passive-aggression? The first step is to recognize the signs of such behavior. Sulking, backhanded compliments, procrastination, withdrawal, and refusal to communicate are all signs of passive-aggression.
When the other person begins acting in such a way, try to keep your anger in check. Instead, point out the other person's feelings in a way that is non-judgmental yet factual. If you are dealing with a child who is clearly upset about having to do chores: "You seem to be angry at me for asking you to clean your room."
The reality is that people usually deny their anger anyway. At this point, it's a good idea to step back and give them time to work through these feelings.
Recognizing Your Behaviors
If you feel that passive-aggressive behavior is damaging your relationships, there are steps you can take to change how you relate to others. Here are some ways to address your behavior.
- Improve your self-awareness. Passive-aggressive actions sometimes stem from not having a good understanding of why you are upset or what you are feeling. Start paying attention to what is going on as you react to different people and situations.
- Give yourself time to make changes. Recognizing your own behaviors is a good first step toward change, but altering your patterns and reactions can take some time.
- Practice expressing yourself. Understanding your emotions and learning to express your feelings appropriately is an important step toward ending passive-aggressive behaviors. Conflict is an unavoidable part of life, but knowing how to assert your feelings effectively can result in better resolutions.
A DOWNWARD SPIRALING CIRCLE
A passive aggress approach usually provokes a returned response from the "victim" only to be retaliated with even more of the same until two individuals are both feeling victimized in the valley of complacency.
A MYSTERIOUS APPROACH
It is hard to explain why one person chooses to ignore another person and expects them to totally understand why they are being ignored and avoided.
COMICAL (only in a dark way)
Very often it is inexplicable why a person could conceive that being passive-aggressive toward another person will cause that person to respond in an appropriate way to their needs or expectations.
A STRONG BRAND
When a person is branded with having passive-aggressive behaviors, those around them know exactly what to expect after repeated experiences and are seldom disappointed in their assumptions.
That's right, passive aggressiveness accomplishes absolutely nothing. In my observations of people and companies over the past 35 years, I have never witnessed anyone getting pats on the back or being congratulated for their commitment to being passive aggressive. NEVER!
Yes, stop it right now! It is the only hope any of us have to break free from the shackles of this self-inflicted prison. Stop it by becoming aware of your actions, monitor the words you are using, and the actions you are taking or not taking. We must toss ourselves a life preserver, hang on tight and start honestly expressing our feelings. Practice the words, "Let me tell you how your actions made me feel.” We can stop placing ourselves in the center of the universe and start welcoming others in our world by making them feel welcomed and appreciated.
My final observation is this: when I have witnessed an individual become passionately committed to halting their passive-aggressive tendencies as an appropriate response to any situation, then amazing things happen. They start to become incredibly effective in their work, relationships, and family. Deep down inside they are great people that have simply engaged in a poor communication tactic.
Continuing Our Research
I have a one-question survey, and I would really value your feedback. I am asking this question because I’m truly curious if passive-aggressiveness is ever an appropriate strategy.