How to Respond to Passive Aggressive People: 8 Strategies to Try

Medically reviewed by: Erica Munro, MSc
Tuesday, November 21 2023

How To Respond to Passive Aggressive People: 8 Strategies To Try

Passive aggression can be frustrating to deal with, and it can take many forms. Maybe you can’t quite tell what’s bothering someone, but you can sense tension in the air. Or perhaps you’re left trying to untangle someone’s words to determine their true meaning.

Sometimes, it can be hard to know how to respond to this behavior in a way that doesn’t make the situation more hostile. Below, we’ll explore passive aggressive behavior in more detail and offer some tips for handling this behavior productively.

What is passive aggression?

Passive aggression is an indirect expression of hostility, resentment, or negative feelings. It’s not a clinical diagnosis; rather, it’s a behavioral pattern or certain behaviors, like when a family member gives you a backhanded compliment about your outfit instead of telling you directly that they don’t like it. 

Why do people engage in this behavior? Some do it due to low self-esteem and insecurity, trauma, or stress. Others behave this way due to learned helplessness: They don’t know or never learned how to confront people directly, so they resort to passive aggressive behaviors. 

No matter why someone behaves this way, it’s not helpful. Passive aggression is a maladaptive coping measure, and treating others this way can lead to conflict and other problems in relationships — which you might already know if you’ve been on the receiving end of this behavior. 

How to identify passive aggression

Passive aggression isn’t always easy to notice. It’s subtle, which is part of what makes it so destructive. In the sections below, we’ll explore some examples of passive aggressive behavior that may help you identify when someone is being passive aggressive with you in your daily life. 

It’s important to note that passive aggressive behavior isn’t always malicious, and can sometimes be completely unintentional. However, that doesn’t change that it can still have significant impacts on your relationships and interactions with others. 

Insincere compliments 

Compliments are supposed to be pleasant comments that make us feel good. But they can become personal attacks or a source of conflict when someone uses passive aggression. These insincere compliments might sound nice at first, until you realize that they’re actually criticisms or veiled insults. For example, someone may smile and gush, “Wow, your new haircut is so different!” But in this context, they don’t mean ‘different’ as a good thing.

Being able to tell the difference between genuine praise and backhanded compliments can help prevent conflicts. When you know someone just gave you an insincere compliment, you might choose to let it slide. Or you can use adaptive methods of dealing with this behavior, which we’ll explore later in the article.

Deliberate procrastination or inefficiency 

An employee deliberately takes too much time with a task, forcing you to pitch in and help or reassign it. Your partner does a poor job with the laundry on purpose, so that you won’t ask them to do it again. These acts are red flags of passive aggressive resistance. 

This behavior might be a way for others to express discontent without being openly confrontational. Your employee might be too intimidated to let you know they don’t feel like doing their assigned task. Your partner might not want to risk getting into an argument over the laundry, so they use indirect ways instead.

The silent treatment

Communication is a cornerstone of healthy relationships, but people who show passive aggression sometimes withhold it to show displeasure or exert control. They might use silent treatment to avoid direct conflict — but instead, it can fuel more conflict.

Being treated this way may be a major source of distress. You might become anxious about what the other person is thinking and why they’re acting this way. You might agonize over what you did wrong and worry that their behavior is your fault. This maladaptive approach to communication (withholding it) can take an emotional toll on you and be harmful to the relationship.

Shifting the blame back to you 

When someone showing passive aggression does something wrong, you might not get an apology. Instead, they might simply refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. They might also take this a step further and shift blame onto you. 

Some people might act this way as a method of controlling other people’s emotions. This kind of behavior deflects attention from them and manipulates others into feeling guilty. This behavior is commonly called “playing the victim,” and although it isn’t a clinical term, it can cause resentment, anger, and conflict in relationships. 

Cynicism or denial of feelings 

Some people might act like they have a chip on their shoulder, harboring emotional damage that may make them prone to defensiveness and hostility. They might keep their true feelings hidden behind a wall of sarcasm or make snarky, sarcastic comments. 

Often, this cynicism is a defense mechanism that prevents productive open communication — which is a must for strong platonic and romantic relationships. 

8 methods for dealing with passive aggression 

Dealing with passive aggression involves taking a balanced approach. It’s important to try to understand the underlying reasons for this behavior, while also taking steps to protect our own emotional well-being.

To help you get started on dealing with passive aggression, we’ve put together the following list of helpful methods. When you have relationship concerns related to passive aggression, professional support can help alongside these suggestions. Consider working with a professional therapist, such as those at SonderMind, to work through these concerns in a safe environment. 

1. Practice staying calm and collected 

When you interact with someone who’s acting passive aggressively, be careful not to mirror this behavior. Don’t engage in passive aggressive communication, like trading veiled insults or arguing over who’s to blame. Instead, try to stay calm and collected. Take deep breaths to calm yourself if needed, and if you have to momentarily step away, do so. 

Maintaining emotional balance keeps these situations from escalating. Remaining calm also allows you to have constructive dialogue with the other person.

2. Address the issue directly 

Ignoring someone’s passive aggressive behavior might be tempting, but it won’t resolve the issue. Addressing it head-on through open communication can help you work things out — or at least understand why someone is acting this way. 

When you approach these situations, do so curiously rather than accusingly. Being accusatory can put the other person on edge and make them feel defensive, which can trigger more passive aggressive behavior. 

3. Be assertive and seek clarification 

Passive aggressive behavior may be a minefield of misunderstandings and ambiguities filled with insincere compliments and dismissive statements. Speaking assertively and communicating clearly can help you navigate these situations and seek clarification.

Clarifying comments or other passive aggressive behaviors can help you understand the root causes behind them. Discovering these causes can make it possible to approach these situations with empathy. For example, you may learn that a coworker’s passive aggressive behavior toward you stems from jealousy after your idea was praised by a manager and theirs wasn’t.

4. Focus on solutions (not blame)

Putting the spotlight on blame isn’t helpful in dealing with passive aggression. Using solution-focused dialogue instead can help both parties move forward. Focusing on blame can prevent any kind of progress or make the situation worse if either party becomes defensive. 

It always helps to look at passive aggression through an empathetic lens. This allows you to try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Doing so can help you understand why they might act this way, so you can work on finding a solution. 

For example, your partner may act passive aggressively when you forget to do a chore you promised to take care of. However, you may recall they promised to do it. Rather than playing the blame game, you might communicate and decide to come up with a chore chart or schedule with reminders for both of you.

5. Concentrate on your own reactions 

When dealing with passive aggression, being aware of your own reactions is important. This self-awareness can help you figure out your own triggers. For example, a relative’s passive aggressive comments might make you angry, or a coworker’s deliberate procrastination might frustrate you. 

If you know your triggers, you can be more proactive about your responses for them. For example, if you know you’re going to a family event where you’ll see a relative who always makes snide remarks, you can mentally prepare for them in advance, which may help remove their sting and help prevent unintentional escalation.

6. Consider professional help from a trusted therapist 

Seeking help from a professional can provide valuable insights and resources — whether your sessions are one one-on-one or through couples therapy or family therapy. 

Therapy gives you a neutral third-party perspective, which can help bring underlying issues to light. All parties can then focus on working through these issues with professional care and guidance. 

SonderMind can connect you with an experienced therapist who can help you build the skills to deal with passive aggressive behaviors. Learn more about SonderMind’s commitment to helping individuals find the right therapist.

7. Use active listening 

Being able to understand someone else’s perspective is a powerful way to deal with passive aggression. You might not agree with their actions, but you can at least have some context about why they’re acting passive aggressively. 

Active listening is a great way to learn more about another’s perspective. This involves giving them your undivided attention, paying close to attention to what they say, and focusing on understanding it. Active listening can lead to mutual respect and improve communication between you and the other person.

8. Set clear boundaries 

Having firm boundaries in place communicates what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable to you. Setting boundaries with someone who acts passive aggressively lets them know what you will and won’t tolerate. They might not respect your boundaries at first, so it’s important to stand your ground and keep enforcing them. 

Keep in mind that others might also set boundaries that they expect you to respect. Boundaries help ensure that both parties feel understood and are treated with respect. 

Let SonderMind lead you down a path toward stronger relationships 

Passive aggression can introduce conflict to relationships and create other problems. Thankfully, there are several methods that can help you deal with these behaviors gracefully and effectively — and they’re even more powerful when used alongside therapy. 

With professional support from a caring therapist like those at SonderMind, you can build the skills needed to cope with passive aggression in your personal and professional lives. 

Connect with a therapist through SonderMind, and start on the road to stronger relationships today. 

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