We all know them, you may even be one of them: The people whose go-to communication style is passive-aggressive.
Those who deny they’re angry; use sarcasm or a pleasant voice to disguise an aggressive overtone; give backhanded compliments; or are critical behind people’s backs, but won’t say anything to a person’s face.
People who are passive-aggressive don’t like confronting issues directly, but unlike passive people, they will make their feelings known. They will show their anger and unhappiness indirectly, through their actions or negative attitude.
They may plan revenge, or try to undermine others rather than have a potentially uncomfortable conversation. They may be deliberately vague, and favour words like “fine” or “whatever” in order to shut down emotionally honest communication.
Like the partner who refuses to talk when there is obviously a problem; the person who deliberately performs a work task badly, because they didn’t want to do it in the first place; or the ‘friend’ who stops calling rather than tell you what’s wrong.
Like the colleague who ‘forgets’ to tell you the time change of an important meeting; the date who doesn’t like your restaurant choice, but rather than suggest an alternative, picks fault at everything on the night; or the family member who buys you chocolate when they know you’re trying hard to lose weight.
Some people don’t even realise their behaviour is passive-aggressive. They may see themselves as being polite, friendly, and well-meaning, or believe their behaviour is ‘kinder’ than being honest.
Others simply lack the confidence and skills needed to have direct and assertive conversations that involve disagreement or conflict.
But there is a big problem with passive-aggressive behaviour: Without even realising it, you are damaging your relationships, career and friendships.
Passive-aggressive behaviour is often seen as ‘playing games’. It’s manipulative, immature, destructive, and it undercuts trust and respect. In extreme cases within relationships, it can be a form of emotional abuse. Like the partner who always turns things around to make you the bad guy.
Communicating in a passive-aggressive way also makes it difficult for you to get your own needs met because people don’t know what your really want or stand for. Eventually they’ll probably stop believing what you say.
Does passive-aggressive communication ever have a place? I argue, no. We’re adults and it’s not high school. Have the courage to own either a passive or assertive response. If something annoys or upsets you, make a conscious decision to either let it go through to the keeper, without holding a grudge or allowing it to negatively impact your behaviour; or stand up and be assertive. Don’t choose the manipulative middle ground.
Being passive-aggressive does not make you a bad person, but it is a bad habit and like all bad habits acknowledging it is the first step.
If you do tend to communicate in a passive-aggressive way, or are guilty of it on occasion (as most people are), ask yourself why. Disagreements need not be a negative thing.
Learn what it means to be assertive and then practice it. Communicate in a calm, respectful, open and honest way, and watch the relationships in your personal and professional life strengthen and flourish as a result.