Business of Well-being

Passive-aggressive Behavior Destroys Relationships

Much stress in life comes from interactions with colleagues, family, and friends who are less-than-direct. Particularly stressful is being on the receiving end of a passive-aggressive person. Passive-aggressive behavior, in my opinion, is the most destructive to the health of a relationship. It is a form of manipulation. It's indirect and dishonest. Anyone can be passive-aggressive at times.  

We exhibit this behavior when we're too unassertive to speak directly and truthfully for whatever our reasons. Passive-aggressive people resist you in covert ways, like the angry person who slams the door - but says nothing with words, or the person who sighs dramatically about something they are displeased with - but says nothing. Other typical conscious or unconscious behaviors include:

  • Gossip;
  • Refusal to talk but give off the cold shoulder;
  • Sabotage, like discrediting your idea;
  • Obstructionist behavior, like purposeful procrastination;
  • Exaggerated interest or sweetness (but you feel like you'll be stabbed in the back the moment you leave the person.

Because this kind of behavior is covert, you may not be able to put your finger on what's bothering you about an interaction. This is one reason it's so harmful. Someone who openly disagrees with you is easier to deal with than one who rolls her eyes when you present an idea in a meeting. Wouldn't you rather a co-worker who's upset with you tell you directly rather than talk about you behind your back?  

Indirect attacks can be more exasperating than direct ones.Another reason passive-aggressive behavior is so harmful is because the behavior is so indirect you may think the problem is with you. For example, when your co-worker rolled her eyes you may have assumed your idea was stupid rather than considering the possibility that she's too unassertive to communicate her reservations about your idea directly to you.

A key to understanding passive-aggressive behavior is to realize that it's an attempt to get even with you; it's an indirect expression of anger or frustration. Apparently your co-worker feels the need to discredit your idea and doesn't have the courage to do it openly.

Defuse manipulative behavior by exposing it�.speak up!

To deal with this behavior you'll need to expose it.  Here's one very effective three-step surfacing technique:

1. State your observations of the person's behavior to that person;

2. State how you interpret your observations;

3. Ask if your interpretation is accurate;

For example, when the co-worker rolls her eyes you could say,"Jane, when I gave my idea in the meeting I noticed you rolled your eyes. I'm wondering if that means you disagree with me. Do you have a problem with my idea?" If the passive-aggressive person were a customer or a boss with whom you'd be unlikely to use the above surfacing skill, here's another idea.  

Let's say you have a customer who says, "Your employees were over yesterday and they actually did a good job!" Doesn't it sound like they usually don't do a good job? Is he being indirect because saying something negative is difficult for him? To clarify the customer's real message you could say,"Gee, Todd, it sounds like what you're really saying is that they usually don't do a good job.  

Is that right? This could open the door to get some honest feedback from him. Whenever you expose the person's indirectness you'll need to be prepared to deal with what s/he has to say. Passive-aggressive behavior is very difficult for most of us to handle well, especially when the relationship is one of love, friendship or of power. Learn to surface the passive-aggressive behavior in a non-defensive manner to create an opportunity to resolve the underlying issues. Then and only then can you know what you're dealing with.

Deal with Manipulation

Remember, manipulation, such as passive-aggressive behavior, harms relationships. Even though we all manipulate subconsciously or consciously at times, the real stress comes when you have someone in your life who manipulates you habitually. For instance, have you ever been on the receiving end of the stereotypical maternal manipulation to get you to visit more often,"I carried you for nine months and you can't come to visit your poor old mother once in awhile?"  

(Parents' manipulations carry extra punch given their authority status in your mind.) Or, how about the co-worker who softens you up with a compliment, only to hit you up for a favor?" Susan, you did a wonderful job on the XYZ project. It turned out so much more creatively because of your ideas. I can hardly wait to get you involved in this next project.

Here, let me tell you about it and get your input. "When manipulated, are you part of the problem? When you believe you're being manipulated keep in mind that "it takes two to tango." If you want the manipulation to stop you must change what you're doing - or, wait for manipulative people to stop. But when will that happen? Never!

Why should they change? They're probably getting what they want through manipulation. It works for them!A better option is changing your own reaction to the manipulator, such as using the above mentioned surfacing skill. If you still have a chronic manipulative person in your life, you are almost certainly part of the problem. Focus on how you can change your reaction, something that is within your control.For manipulation to work two conditions must be present:

1. Manipulation must remain hidden. A person doesn't warn you before he manipulates you. He wouldn't say, "OK, I'm going to compliment you now but I don't really mean it. I'm just softening you up so I can then ask a favor of you." He would simply say, "You are the greatest. I don't know how this office could function without you." (He'd allow this compliment to sink in and have its desired softening effect, then,) "By the way, I could really use your expertise in writing this report.  When could I get a few minutes of your time?"

2. For manipulation to work, you must cooperate with the manipulator. When your mother uses the "I carried you for nine months" line, and you scurry over to visit her you are teaching her that manipulating you works. Or if you help the co-worker after he praised you, you're teaching him to say something nice to you and then you'll help him out. To deal with manipulation:

  • Identify your desired outcome in the situation.
  • With Mom, maybe it's to expose her manipulation in hopes of discouraging it. Exposing it is within your control. However, her response back to you is beyond your control.
  • With the co-worker you'll request he directly ask for the favor rather than couching it in a compliment.
  • Surface the manipulation, then ask for what you want (if anything) or say how you feel about it:
  • "Mom, I get the feeling I'm being manipulated when you say that and I feel uncomfortable with it."
  • To the co-worker, "It seems when you compliment me you will soon ask me for a favor.  I would much prefer you directly make your request."

To diminish others' ability to manipulate you, you must take responsibility for your own complicity. Since you have no power to make others be different (less manipulative) and since all you have true control over is your own choices, you must make the choice of exposing the manipulation and striving for the outcome in the situation that you desire --- or continue to dance the manipulative dance.

When You're Manipulating

When you consciously or unconsciously manipulate another person remember you are harming the relationship. Also, remember that manipulating someone means you are being indirect because:

  • You are overly passive and fear being more direct for whatever your reasons;
  • You're normally quite assertive, if not aggressive, but the person you're being indirect with has more power than you so you're hesitant to be honest and direct;

To change any behavior you must first be consciously aware that you are doing it and that you're uncomfortable with doing it. Without conscious awareness, you'll change nothing.To become more conscious, look for red flags that you might be manipulating:

  • You get your feelings hurt by someone and rather than speaking directly to that person you tell someone else about it; you're being indirect;
  • You're negatively judgmental of someone but say nothing directly to that person but likely say it to someone else;
  • Judgments are assumptions you make of others. Don't confuse facts with judgments. Judgments are not factual, they're opinions;
  • E.g., You label the person boring, stupid, unfair, ignorant, lazy, etc.
  • You do something to get even with a person; E.g., Sabotage their idea, do something you know irritates them, negatively judge them to another person;
  • You're very frustrated with someone but say nothing, but rather you stew over it;

The Cure~ Be Assertively Direct

Regardless of why you're manipulating someone, the basic cure is to be assertively direct. This doesn't mean you need to be a bull-dozer in your directness. Just state what you think or feel and be sure to use the "I" message (e.g., "I think this is unfair," versus "You're unfair.") Think before you address your manipulative person to avoid reacting defensively, the subject of my next article.

About the Author

For over 25 years Jackie has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity, workplace harassment, motivation, and communication skills. Jackie is also a Stress & Wellness Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress. Order her 2010 published book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple and request her weekly, published, emailed column, Stress for Success, published in a Gannett Newspaper, at

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