Helpful Responses To Passive-Aggressive People

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In my previous post, I outlined several common passive-aggressive behaviors. Go check it out if you haven’t already. After skimming through these behaviors, I hope you asked the man in the mirror some difficult questions. All of us exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors from time-to-time.

Once you addressed number one, something else probably happened. You identified someone you know (a co-worker, friend, family member or spouse) as passive-aggressive. And now you’re wondering how to respond.

Chronic passive-aggressiveness has tangible effects on everyone. For the passive-aggressive person, their behaviors erode their self-confidence. A spouse or friend of someone who’s passive-aggressive can become insecure. If you employ a passive-aggressive person, their behaviors can disrupt team chemistry and potentially undermine business.

So, there’s that.

But, if you’re a Christian, there’s something else, a more important motivation to address passive-aggressiveness. It’s primarily a spiritual problem. Passive-aggressive people have bought into some lies. Again, I detailed these in the previous post, but these lies, I believe, directly impact the passive-aggressive person’s relationship with God.

In my journey to overcome deep-seeded passive-aggressiveness, viewing these behaviors as a spiritual problem has been game-changing. Realizing, for example, that regardless how uncomfortable it is to share my feelings and opinions honestly, God calls me to speak truth and delights in me doing so (Psalm 51:6).

So, I’m going to give you some practical and helpful responses to passive-aggressive behavior, but before addressing these behaviors in someone else, check yo self. Specifically, check yo heart.

If your end goal is to improve your relationship or work culture, you’re doing it wrong. The end goal should be to help the passive-aggressive person draw closer to God.

Why is this so important?

In my experience, if you make the end goal about your relationship or friendship or whatever, you will try to change or fix the person. That rarely ends well.

Write this down: you are powerless to create lasting change in another person.

If, however, you make the primarily goal spiritual, you place yourself in the position of mediator, a middle man of sorts. And, more importantly, you leave the changing up to God. This is a far better approach. Leave the outcomes up to God.

With that said, here are some helpful responses to passive-aggressive people.

1. Do not enable passive-aggressive behavior.

Take gossip, for example. If your friend or spouse is passive-aggressive, you have an obligation to call out and redirect any such talk.

This obligation extends beyond passive-aggressive people, though. If you follow Jesus, you should not allow gossip among your brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, in my five years as a pastor, gossip was far too prevalent among. Even more unfortunate, I perpetuated the problem. Sometimes indirectly by allowing it. Sometimes directly by initiating it.

Rather than unloading our frustrations and true feelings on other people, Jesus calls us to approach the individual directly (Matthew 18).

Imagine how different our relationships and churches would be if we responded to conflict this way? Gossip erodes trust. Don’t tolerate it.

The same can be said for all passive-aggressive behaviors. Identify when someone refuses to comment or procrastinates and address the issue with the person.

2. Speak assertively and specifically.

Passive-aggressive people avoid conflict and confrontation like a plague. And that’s precisely why you must initiate it. When you do, address a specific behavior, rather than speaking in general terms. Don’t say, “You always give me the cold shoulder.” Mention a specific time when the shoulder was cold and explain how it made you feel.

And, please, don’t do this over text message or e-mail. Talk with the person directly.

Even if a passive-aggressive person shares their feelings via text or e-mail. Respond with, “Can we talk about this tonight after dinner?” or “Let’s discuss this in my office this afternoon?”

3. Create a safe environment. 

Passive-aggressive people believe that if they express their true feelings, particularly ones involving anger and frustration, they will be rejected. Most likely, they heard this message as a child. But because anger is a normal human emotion, passive-aggressive people are left with a dilemma. They can’t avoid feelings of anger, but they also can’t express them. So, they opt for a passive approach, hence passive aggression.

Whether you’re married to a passive-aggressive person or you employ one, it is imperative that you create and reinforce a culture of honest and open sharing. Your spouse, your employees need to know they’re free to disagree and share frustrations without fear of rejection or isolation. They must do this respectfully, of course. And because passive-aggressive people don’t have examples of this, you need to model it.

4. Defuse with humor when you can.

This requires considerable self-awareness. Infusing humor at an inappropriate time can lead to more harm than good.. When applied at the right time, however, humor can be a powerful communication tool. It can defuse and disarm a tense situation. It can also shine a light on difficult behaviors.

I would love to hear from you. What are some helpful responses to passive-aggressive people? Leave a comment below.

Grace and peace, friends.

Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.

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