How To Stop Passive Aggressive Behavior

How To Stop Passive Aggressive Behavior

Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who says everything is okay but you kind of feel like they are mad at you?  You have tried to figure out what is wrong but the more you press, the more confused you get?  More than likely, you are dealing with someone who is passive aggressive.  It can be frustrating, confusing, and annoying.  In this blog post we will explore what passive aggression looks like, its origin, and how to navigate it.

What is passive aggressive behavior?  This behavior is first of all passive.  The behavior you are experiencing by someone else may not even be known by the person.  They are not “actively” trying to be a problem or show that they have a problem with you.  This is why dealing with passive aggressive behavior can be so difficult to resolve.  You go to a person and say, “You seem to have a problem with the way I am leading.  Can we talk about it?”.  They respond, “I don’t have any issue with your leadership.”  But later in the day you overhear them talking negatively about you.  Or, you find that same person dragging their feet and not doing what you were leading them to do.  “Passive” doesn’t mean that they are not doing anything.  Most often, the person modeling this kind of behavior is not aware they are doing it.  If they are aware of it, they are trying with all their energy to try and hide it because they don’t want to be doing it.  They may actually hate that they are feeling this conflict inside of them and just want it to go away.  They truly don’t want to have an outright conflict, but it leaks out in other ways.

Let’s talk about the other side of passive aggression – the “aggression”.  Aggression can take many forms.  It is not just in your face opposition or anger.  It can be disguised in a myriad of ways.  Aggression is behavior known or unknown by the perpetrator whereby they express their disagreement, anger, or opposition to someone else.  Some forms of aggression that are passive are slowing work down, making comments that under-mind, not showing up on time, cutting you out of communication, or not giving you time with them.  Any aggression that helps people avoid how they really feel and want may come out in passive ways.

Before we get worked up about other people who have treated you this way, let me challenge you to remember that we have all done this at some time in our relationships.  Most people hate conflict and will go to great extent to avoid confrontation.  The root cause of passive aggressive behavior is a core belief that the best way to deal with conflict is to avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist.  When we do this, it comes out in other ways.  The destructive effect of passive aggressive behavior over time can be as devastating as all out war.  It destroys trust because there is an ongoing lie about your relationship that extends into the past and has no end in the future.  There is a better way to deal with conflict.

If you struggle with passive aggressive behavior with others, there are ways to avoid it and work out things in a healthier and productive way.  The key to doing this is to examine your perspective on conflict.  As long as you see conflict as scary, dangerous, and to be avoided at all costs, you probably won’t overcome your passive aggressive tendencies.  Those who struggle the most with this issue have a lot of BLUE (Motivational Value System that is people oriented and want to keep strong relationships).  This is ironic because passive aggressive behaviors are destructive to relationships.  The truth is that conflict avoidance is the precursor to passive aggressive behavior.  A shift must take place that believes that direct confrontation is better than avoidance.

The Scriptures teach us that overlooking someone’s sin (offense) is permissible.  Proverbs 19:11 teaches, “A person’s wisdom yields patience;  it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.”  We don’t have to confront every offense we experience.  It is our choice.  But it is not ok to “overlook” an offense and then act in ways that are hurtful to that person.  To truly overlook an offense means that we don’t let it impact how we relate to that person.  We must be careful not to fool ourselves.

If you can’t overlook an offense, it would be better to go to that person and confront them with the issue.  To confront doesn’t mean to be confrontational.  Think about why the person has caused an offense for you and be clear about it.  We go into conflict about things that are important to us.  They are so important to us that we can’t let them be ignored.  They are related to our MVS.  When speaking to the offending party, help them to see and understand what is so important to you and why.

You also need to understand what is so important to them.  This is something we often forget.  Everyone wants to be heard and understood.  If you don’t do that, they will feel judged and misunderstood.  Think about the other person’s MVS and how it impacted their behavior.  Why did they do it?  What were they hoping to accomplish?  By addressing what is important to the other person, you greatly increase the likelihood of relational success.  For instance, if they are RED (performance orientation), you might say, “I know you want to move quickly to capture a win, but perhaps you might get a better win if…”.  Identify the value of the other person and use communication that validates the value.

Another thing to think about is whether the offense you have experienced is really a conflict or perhaps just opposition.  Many people see these as the same things, but they are not.  Conflict is when your own values and what is important to you is being threatened in some way (i.e. the person’s decision is going to hurt someone you care about).  Opposition is an idea that is different from yours.  Opposition can be a good thing because it brings out the best ideas. If you see opposition and conflict as the same thing, you will be in conflict unnecessarily much of the time.  Ask yourself the question, “Is this simply opposition or is this conflict?”  Remember that if your values are threatened, and you don’t confront, it will come out in passive aggressive ways, which is often destructive.

If you are the person who is experiencing passive aggressive behavior from someone else, there are things you can do to address it more successfully.  You may be tempted to attack them and tell them to stop the passive aggressive behavior but that is likely to escalate the problem.  Here are a few things you can implement that may help you:

  1. Recognize that passive aggressive behavior is a signal that someone’s values are being threatened.  Think about what you might have done or said that challenged the other person’s values and what is important to them.  Take responsibility for what you have done.  You might have been careless in your decision making or didn’t consider the impact on others.
  2. Identify the MVS of the other person and what is important to them. Knowing this will help you know how to communicate more effectively and give you a greater likelihood of relational harmony.
  3. Affirm the value of the other person. If you become aware that you have failed to consider those things prior, you could also ask for forgiveness and affirm the values.
  4. Share what values are important to you and how they impacted your behavior. Getting clarity for yourself and the other person will help you connect at the heart level and give opportunity for new solutions.
  5. Be sure to affirm the relationship with the passive aggressive person because often the greatest fear is that the relationship will be broken (lots of BLUE MVS). Eliminate this obstacle and fear by saying something like this, “I know we have some conflict here, but I am confident and committed to maintaining a strong relationship with you”.  This affirmation of what is most important to the other person is key to an open discussion and resolution of the issue.

Remember that you cannot control other people or their response to you.  However, we are responsible for our own behavior and communication.  By learning new ways of relating in the midst of passive aggressive behavior we may increase the likelihood of better relationships.

Bruce Terpstra

Our President, Dr. Bruce Terpstra, has 36 years of pastoral ministry experience. He is a veteran of 17 years in denominational leadership and developed more than 70 new churches in the New York metro area and has given oversight to almost 400 pastors. He holds a doctorate in Leadership Development and is also the founder of 3KeyCoaching and the author of Three Passions of the Soul.