Saul left the meeting with his boss in a fury. He’d held it together during the meeting but was incredulous that his boss would have the nerve to ask him to pick up the slack for the part of the project that his boss had assured him would be taken care of by someone else. Saul knew he would do it, no matter how he felt about it, but he certainly wasn’t going to prioritize it, or put any undue effort into it. He’d let his boss deal with the fallout if it wasn’t up to the client’s standards.
Edwina was tired when she got home. She felt like she never stopped running. She walked into the kitchen to find dishes everywhere. She wasn’t surprised. She’d given up expecting much help from her teenager daughters or her husband. She sighed and started cleaning. When her husband got home from curling, later that night, he found her just finishing the dishes. “Sorry, I was going to get to that, I just got busy,” he said. “I’ve heard that from you three times this week, already, and I don’t buy it,” she thought to herself. She responded out loud with sarcasm,”No worries, you can always count on me to get things done.” He didn’t respond, he was checking his phone. Edwina rolled her eyes and went up to bed.
Passive aggressive communication and behaviour takes a variety of forms. The chief purpose is to communicate unhappiness in an indirect way. This may not be intentional. The person who is using passive aggressiveness may not be completely conscious of what they are communicating, they may be pre-occupied with how they feel, but for some reason, feel unable to communicate this feeling clearly. Examples of passive aggressive communication/ behaviour include: procrastination, gossip, sarcasm, the silent treatment, pretending everything is fine, backhanded compliments, snubbing, aggressive interrogation, keeping score and many more.
Most people have used passive aggressiveness as some time in their lives. Here are some of the reasons I’ve used passive aggressive communication or behaviours, in the past:
- When I am intimidated by another person and feel that they have some kind of power over me and that if I express my true feeling about a situation I will somehow be punished.
- I’m dealing with someone whom I have tried to express my feelings clearly towards, in the past, and it has not been well received. So then I decide to bottle up these feelings up instead of communicating them, thinking there is no point in expressing them, and find myself responding passive aggressively towards that person.
- There have been instances where I do not know someone well, am not invested in the relationship, and don’t expect to get an opportunity to respond to a situation which I am unhappy with, and so, use passive aggressive communication to get a point across.
- Other times, I realize, in hindsight, that I’ve used passive aggressive communication or behaviours when I have not been fully conscious of my feelings about a situation. I might tell myself that everything is fine, that I am not offended or hurt, or annoyed and so don’t say so and then find myself responding in ways that indicate that I am unhappy even though I have not yet admitted that to myself.
- When I have not taken the time that it takes to communicate clearly and directly with someone I love, about what is working or not working for me, in our relationships. This might be with kids, friends or a partner. I find that especially when I am busy, I can shoot of a sarcastic comment or a cheap shot instead of slowing down, noticing what I’m feeling and communicating that clearly.
A child/teenager and adult observing a parent communicate and behave passive aggressively throughout their lifetime will learn the lesson well, that passive aggressive communication and behaviours are the best way to respond to things that bother you.
Other times, children learn that if they communicate their feelings directly they might be punished for it, and so, learn other ways to express themselves. This can be difficult to change in adulthood.
Still others find themselves locked in a pattern of passive aggressive communication/ behaviour with a partner or a particular individual in their life, and don’t know how to get out of it.
How to stop using passive aggressive communication/ behaviours
I feel that the best way to break free of this pattern of communication/behaivour is to start by learning to identify our feelings about life situations. We need to name those feelings and figure out how to care for them. (See An Emotionally Conscious Resolution).
Caring for ourselves, once we’ve identified our emotions, may involve the following:
- Sometimes we may need to challenge our assumptions about a situation and check our facts. (See COGNITIVEdistortions).
- Other times we need to accept the reality of the situation, grieve the parts that are outside of our control and learn to take care of ourselves. (See Grief Without Death).
- And sometimes we need to talk to the person who has hurt/offended us about what we need for them to take responsibility for and what we’d like them to do differently. (See How to Start a Good Fight).
- There are times when that person will be unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their actions or to respond to what we want them to do differently. In these cases we may need to consider how strongly to press for what we are asking (See Where Do I Draw the Line?).
- We may also need to consider whether forgiveness would be appropriate as a form of self-care. (See ‘Forgiveness,’ A Dirty Word? ).
Addressing passive aggressive communication/ behaviours in others
In an earlier post, Responding to Passive Aggressive Communication, I linked to a blog article by Erik Stutzmann, where he spoke about ways to address passive aggressiveness when you observe it in others. He speaks about the following:
- Ensuring that you are a safe person for another person to confront, if they need to. If you become very aggressive or even passive aggressive when others tell you they are unhappy with you, you may find others using passive aggressive communication around you. You may need to address your own defensiveness in order to be able to receive feedback in more constructive ways. (Check out When You’ve Been Accused).
- Erik speaks about separating the behaviour of another person from who they are and separating the impact of their behaviour from their intention. Everyone uses passive aggression from time to time, it is not a definition of character or necessarily meant to cause harm. You will need to ask about a person’s intentions to know what they were, but, again, be sure that you are a safe person to talk to about this in order to get a clear response form someone you are asking this. (See previous bullet). Also, just because you were hurt, offended or something bad happened as a result of another person’s behaviour, does not mean that they had bad intentions.
- Erik notes that if this is a pattern, there may need to be further discussions about this. Continuing to check in with people about how they are feeling when we see words or behaviours that don’t line up with other contradictory actions or words. Inviting respectful, assertive communication regularly, and modelling it is part of shifting patterns in communication. Making room in our schedules to listen and working at reducing our own defensive impulses in order to hear negative feedback from others will also contribute to a change in these behaviours/interactions.
Knowing our feelings and being able to communicate them is not something many people excel at. It is a skill that requires work and commitment. We often avoid our feelings and when we are not acknowledging them, they don’t actually disappear. They just come out in other ways. When this happens, we send mixed messages to the people around us and our relationships can become strained. We need to acknowledge and take responsibility for our emotions, honouring them and communicating them clearly and respectfully. In this way we are best able to get our needs met and don’t need to carry the negativity that comes out in these unhelpful ways.
Also check out Erik’s Stutzmanns’ article Direct Talk on Passive Aggression.