How to Respond to Passive Aggressive Behavior

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Although psychiatrists no longer define passive-aggressive behavior as a mental illness, the symptoms of the behavior can present obstacles to personal and professional relationships. People who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior appear to comply with others' needs but passively oppose them. Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Dr. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin reports that symptoms of passive-aggressive behavior include procrastination, memory lapses, a hostile attitude, irritability and opposition to requests from others. Counseling can assist passive-aggressive people to learn positive behaviors, and you can learn how to respond to individuals who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior.

  • Ignore behaviors designed to anger or upset you, such as acting sullen, blaming you for problems, sarcasm and irritability. Don't reward the passive-aggressive individual's efforts and increase the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated by losing control of your own emotions. Steal their reward by recognizing your feelings and controlling them.

  • Stay connected to a supportive circle of family and friends who validate and appreciate your accomplishments and goals. Passive-aggressive people revel in painting their world and yours with negativity. They embrace a misery-loves-company mentality and it is usually your company their misery seeks to sadden. You cannot diminish the passive-aggressive individual's misery, but you can protect your sources of joy.

  • Exclude the passive-aggressive individual as a source of psychological or financial support. Vulnerability in any life area serves as an invitation to the passive-aggressive individual to impact you where it hurts most.

  • Avoid verbal confrontations and power struggles with a passive-aggressive individual. Power struggles produce reinforcement for the passive-aggressive person and heightened frustration for you. Rather than detailing inappropriate motives for problem behavior, describe the behavior and its negative effect on a goal. Offer a positive alternative and briefly state its advantages. Give the passive-aggressive person an opportunity to contribute positive options.

  • Clarify the inconsistencies presented by the passive-aggressive individual's actions and words. For example, the passive-aggressive person can agree to complete a portion of an important project but deliberately miss deadlines, make excuses or even sabotage the project's success. Calmly point out the discrepancies between the words and actions of the passive-aggressive person.

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