How To Deal With Passive Aggressive People

I often get asked during my ‘Managing Difficult Conversations’ training workshops “How to deal with passive aggressive people.” So, of course I decided to write a blog about how to manage people who try to manage us.

Sure, some people are naturally manipulative or angry… but I believe the majority of people aren’t aware they are being passive aggressive; instead they are unconsciously using a learned behaviour (from dramatic parents, daytime soap operas and 100 other examples in society), to avoid difficult uncomfortable conversations. Also, we need to accept that all of us are passive aggressive sometimes… it just slips out.Passive Aggressive People

So, instead of facing difficult conversations, passive aggressive behaviour is an effectively covert albeit manipulative way to:

  • Express anger
  • Show disagreement/disapproval
  • Manage someone or a situation
  • Get our way

Examples Of Passive Aggressive Comments:

It’s difficult to deal with passive aggressive people because their behaviour can be so subtle it’s not immediately recognizable. Lets look at examples so we can learn to recognize it quickly.

  • The Hapless Victim / Teflon Man: Often play the “You never think I do it correctly” card so might ask “How would you like me to do it”
  • The Sarcasm Master: They say things like, “Sure, I’d love to stay late. What else would I be doing?”
  • The Silent Treatment Snubber: Nuff said
  • The Withholder of Information: They say things like, “I thought you knew.”
  • The Controller: Say things like, “No one else would help you like I do.”
  • Back-stabber / showing artificial concern: “I don’t want to hurt you; I’m saying this because I care.”
  • Deliberately Poor Performer: So they won’t be asked again rather than having to say ‘No’
  • The Late Runner: Someone saying, “I’m coming,” and then shows up even later.
  • The Procrastinator: Not doing something that’s asked of him/her… or “I Didn’t Know You Meant Now.”

Still not sure you can recognize passive aggressive behaviour quickly? One of the best indicators that you are running into passive aggressive people is when you notice you feel uncomfortable about how someone is behaving or if you’re getting angry, upset or disappointed by someone’s behaviour.

How Leaders Deal With Passive Aggressive People

When you notice somebody being passive aggressive it’s the time to begin preparing to find out what’s bothering them or what they are avoiding.

Like I mentioned above, everyone exhibits passive aggressive behaviour from time to time. But, when it’s happening often there’s a great opportunity as a leader for you to offer to help them correct their behaviour and support your whole team.

The biggest mistakes leaders make is letting the behaviour slide. When we let it slide it will almost always get worse and eventually can destroy relationships. Instead, see it as an opportunity to making a situation better – even if you have to have a difficult conversation or two to get there.  Here are three things to keep in mind:

  • Passive aggressive behaviour happens at home and at work. Give your employees and your family members safe space to have conversations when they are feeling frustrated.
  • Be clear about your purpose. Global phrases like “You’re always this way!” will put someone on the defensive. Don’t be aggressive; be respectful with timing and language. Use phrases like, “I’ve noticed that I feel XYZ when you enter the room… vs., Every time you enter the room…”
  • Be patient to what is happening. Don’t react to them, take a moment to respond with controlled intention. This likely isn’t about you at all – it’s about them. Be mindful of your goals and values and if responding to their passive aggressive behaviour will jeopardize your integrity.

Passive aggressive behaviour will escalate conflict if left unchecked. Don’t let your or your team be manipulated. Approach the situation the same way you would approach a difficult conversation. One of the most important steps is to show how this is impacting you – like Point 3 in my most recent Difficult Conversation blog post, show emotion but don’t be emotional. Use ‘I’ language not ‘You’ language.


People who don’t feel they have permission or who are worried about how the other person will react will often use passive aggressive behaviour as a ‘safe’ attempt to express their needs, anger and/or frustration. Sometimes the person is aware that they are doing it and sometimes they are not.

Avoiding a passive aggressive situation is almost never the best solution. If this is happening at work or with your family / friends, if the problem isn’t dealt with honestly and respectfully it ends up either creating more problems or escalating current problems until they get too big to handle.

Happy communicating and dealing with passive aggressive people.

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Bruce Mayhew Consulting facilitates courses including Email Etiquette, Managing Difficult Conversations, Mindfulness and more. Give us a call at 416 617 0462. We’ll listen.

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About Bruce Mayhew
Bruce Mayhew is a Leadership Coach, Keynote Speaker and Corporate Trainer who builds strong client and co-worker relationships that give clients a competitive advantage. Our training and development programs include: ■Generational Differences ■Effective Business Email Writing ■Email Etiquette ■Phone Etiquette ■Behaviour Event Interviewing (BEI) ■Mindfulness ■Using Linkedin to Build Client Relationships ■Objective Setting Made Easy

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