Dealing With Difficult Behaviours Part 3: Conquering Passive Aggression

In part 1 and part 2 of this series about dealing with difficult behaviours, we looked at what this behaviour is and the main ways of dealing with it.

Aggression can be a scary form of confrontation. It’s intimidating, it’s uncomfortable and it can be humiliating. We encounter it every day, whether you are using public transport and jostling for space or whether you are having a full blown argument with your partner, it’s a normal part of human interaction.

Some psychologists view anger as an iceberg. It’s a protective emotion for a whole range of others which we may feel too vulnerable to express. These could include:

  • Hurt                                                                                      
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Disappointment
  • Stress
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Sadness
  • Insecurity
Photo by Jean-Christophe Andru00e9 on

You could just feel anger. However, usually, it’s a mask for something more difficult to express.

Aggression is a way of communicating that anger. We may do this directly or passively.

Passive Aggression  

I find this the most difficult type of aggression to deal with because it’s disarmingly suppressed. It’s hard to know how to tackle it because unlike direct aggression, sometimes you can feel like you are just imagining it.  

It usually has the following characteristics:

  • Friendliness and politeness which contradicts behaviour such as constantly being late to your meetings, agreeing to do something for you but never doing it.
  • Sulky moodiness or the silent treatment with no explanation or indication of the reason. 
  • Sabotaging your work.
  • Agreeing politely with you but doing something different to what was agreed.
  • Talking negatively about you behind your back.
  • Non-assertive communication about emotions, needs or desires.
  • You may even get a feeling that something isn’t right, but you can’t put your finger on it.  

I once set up a group to deal with a certain type of conflict. All of my colleagues attended weekly meetings except for one. He always accepted my invite but never turned up. I asked him about this and I said that we could reschedule for a more convenient time if that was the problem. He nodded and told me that he’d try and make it next time.

He told my other colleagues that he was angry with me because I had in his view, been offensive towards him. I had no idea what this related to and I racked my brains to think what it could be. Apparently, it was my objection to several sexist comments he had made.

My ex-colleague may have learned this behaviour from his parents in some way. However, sometimes expressing your anger passively may be because of other reasons. I would probably not be as confrontational with my manager as I would with a colleague who is more junior to me. Similarly, I feel unconditionally loved by my mother and so my conversations with her are more direct and open, even when I am angry. It all depends on context and sometimes, safety.

What To Do About It

For somebody like me who in general, feels comfortable with confrontation, dealing with passive aggressive behaviour is hard.


If you think confrontation might work, then I would suggest the following phrases:

“I have noticed that you agree to attend meetings but never do. I’m saying this because perhaps we could work out a way of helping you to attend. These meetings are important because your ideas are valuable, and we need to hear them.”


“I felt disappointed that I had gone to a lot of trouble to complete the project on time but you didn’t contribute promptly.”


“I feel confused that we had agreed to change our way of dealing with this file, but it doesn’t appear that you have put that agreement into practice. How would you like to deal with it?”

Stating your feelings about a fact, asking open questions and listening carefully to the response is crucial if you want to appear non-threatening. Your tone should be calm and neutral, and it also helps to reassure the other person that you are here to listen and to understand. Here are some more tips on assertive communication.

What you are not doing is blaming the person for not being direct with you. You might feel irritated and angry about this but for somebody who communicates non-assertively, the best way to get them to state exactly what they feel is to ask open questions, be polite and allow them, without judgment to say what they want. That’s also your responsibility.

Photo by Gratisography on


You may be able to think of ways to influence the passive aggressive person to take a more direct and assertive way of communicating.

In meetings, when you notice that somebody is staying silent, ask them what they think. Ask them their opinion after the meeting to see how it went.

If somebody fails to meet deadlines, chase them. Put a meeting in the diary to discuss progress. Make everyone equally accountable for their contribution to a team effort.

Sulky, moody behaviour or the silent treatment, I believe, should either be ignored or confronted. This type of response arises out of a childhood belief that this is how you gain approval and power over others. It has no place in grown up relationships.

Can I Ignore It?

Yes.  In fact, if it has no impact on you then you should ignore it. Choosing your battles is a crucial response to conflict management.

The overriding question is always, “what do I want to achieve out of this”. The answer to this should determine the strategy you intend to implement.

Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment!

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