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    How to Spot Passive-Aggressive Behavior

    settling or sensible

    Is there someone who really gets under your skin but you’re not exactly sure why? You may be dealing with a passive-aggressive individual.

    Passive-aggressive behavior is an indirect expression of hostility. Here’s an example: Imagine you’re a manager and you ask an employee to get you a report by the end of the day. The following responses might be passive-aggressive expressions of hostility:

    • Contradicting you but pretending to agree: He replies, “Yes, I definitely need to get that to you today, along with the three other things you told me are top priority.”
    • An overly respectful response with not-quite-detectable sarcasm: “Yes, ma’am, absolutely. I will make sure I get that to you by 5:00 p.m. sharp.”
    • Subtle acts of defiance: The employee takes out his smart phone while you’re explaining to him why you need the report.
    • Vacating the premises: When you go by the employee’s office to get the report, he’s left a note on his door that says, “Not feeling well—gone for rest of day.”
    • Failing to meet deadlines: The employee claims to have had a problem with technology that prevented him from finishing on time, which has happened several times before.

    Bear in mind that it’s often hard to identify passive-aggressive behavior, so sometimes behavior that seems passive-aggressive may really be innocent. For example, we all come up short on a deadline occasionally, so if this is the first time that this employee has been late, it’s probably wise to assume the best. Passive-aggression is more likely when we see a repeated pattern of behavior, like chronically failing to honor commitments.

    Probably the best way to know if someone is being passive-aggressive toward you is to note your feelings about the interaction. Passive-aggression usually will leave you feeling dissatisfied, frustrated, or disrespected but powerless to resolve it effectively. Ignoring the behavior doesn’t seem appropriate, but addressing it directly isn’t likely to fix it. For example, the employee may become angry if you note that he often seems to disappear when he has a deadline.

    What’s the best way to handle passive-aggressive behavior? Unfortunately there’s no simple answer; like most things it depends on the situation. When possible, simply minimizing interactions with a passive-aggressive person might be best. Other times we may have to address the behavior directly, like when it involves a close family member.

    If you do decide to address the behavior, it’s better not to hurl the passive-aggressive label at the person, which tends to be more incendiary than helpful. Rather, explain what you’ve observed and calmly ask the person if they’re unhappy about something; listen carefully to their response.

    Finally, resist the urge to respond in kind; while it may feel satisfying in the moment, it’s better to practice more effective ways of communicating.


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