“Passive-Aggressive” in Plain English

Each of us probably knows at least one person who deals with relationships and responsibilities in an “indirectly direct” way; failing to get things done — but always ready with an excuse. This type of personality is referred to as “passive-aggressive.”

Passive-aggressiveness manifests itself as a quiet, obstructive resistance to following through on tasks and obligations. Through the skillful use of “learned helplessness,” stubbornness or procrastination, a person fails to fulfill tasks for which he or she is responsible. A good example would be the employee who, when asked, happily agrees to organize a meeting. But he takes so long to complete each step — offering excuses such as calls not being returned, a slow computer or whatever — that things aren’t ready when the deadline arrives. A co-worker ends up scrambling to complete the task.

In a way, passive-aggressives are worse than openly aggressive people. At least aggressive people make it clear where they stand. Where they stand may be wrong, but at least you know. Passive-aggressive people won’t tell you where they stand. And it’s not just shyness or lousy communication. It’s a deliberate intention to leave you wondering, so they don’t have to take responsibility for what they’re actually thinking and feeling.

A passive-aggressive person says one thing and then does another. Comment on what he said, and he’ll act as if he never said it. Comment on what he does, and he’ll refer back to what he said. If she always “forgets” about your plans, she’ll insist that she still wants to do them. If he commits to one kind of relationship or association and then proceeds to do something different, he’ll insist the initial commitment is what he wants.

There’s a way to short-circuit passive aggressiveness. Just tell the person whatever it is you intend to assume if they don’t respond. Say, “OK, I’ll assume you’re NOT coming unless you tell me otherwise.” Or: “I’ll assume that the information I gave you is accurate unless you tell me otherwise by tonight.” A therapist I know tells her passive-aggressive clients that, “Your words say one thing, but your actions say another.” This might not change their behavior, but it will certainly make your life easier.

Passive-aggressive isn’t a disorder. It’s a behavior — sometimes a perfectly rational behavior that lets you dodge unpleasant chores while avoiding confrontation. Most human behavior — even dysfunctional behavior — is adaptive. People sometimes learn to be passive-aggressive in childhood. For example, their parents might have been arbitrary, erratic or abusive. Passive-aggressiveness can become a defense mechanism; a way to cope against difficult odds. From a child’s point of view, it’s quite reasonable. But you don’t have to grow up to be what your childhood shaped you to be.

Passive-aggressives are obstructive. You might tell a passive-aggressive person what you want, and he may promise to get it for you. But he won’t say when, and he’ll deliberately do it slowly — or not at all. He blocks progress. If you accuse him of that, he’ll reply, wide-eyed, “What do you mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I once dealt with a passive-aggressive accountant. If I received a routine but (to me) confusing notice from the IRS, I would pass it along to her — and she’d never reply. Finally, I started leaving her voicemails like, “I’m assuming I don’t have to take any action on this notice. If I’m wrong, let me know. Otherwise, I’m throwing it away.” Wouldn’t you know that once I started doing this, she would promptly reply, since it was, after all, her responsibility.

Passive-aggressiveness leaves people frustrated, while still leaving one’s options open. If someone asks you to do something, and you don’t reply, well, you didn’t turn them down, but you didn’t agree, either. I know a person whose spouse never agrees or disagrees with any request. When finally confronted with whatever request he (implicitly) agreed to, he looks surprised and says, “This is the first I’ve heard of it!”

When dealing with a passive-aggressive, don’t be a victim. You can’t control another person’s choices or behaviors, but you can control your own. Passive-aggressives run roughshod over people who try to be reasonable. But you can be reasonable while handling passive-aggressive people they way they deserve. Who knows – you might even get results.

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