How do you deal with people who are passive aggressive (paggro)?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How do you deal with people who are passive aggressive (paggro)?

Usually passive aggressive people do what they do because they want do avoid confrontation. The reasons for avoiding confrontation varies. Sometimes it’s because the matter seems too trivial to warrant a direct confrontation and so feels like s/he has no outlet to vent his/her frustration about the matter; or the person is afraid of the repercussions of confrontation; or the person is aware that s/he’s so bad at handling direct confrontation that s/he will make the situation worse (it may also be because the person has a very bad temper and is avoiding have to reveal this awful side to you).

It would be incorrect to assume that the passive aggressive person is the incarnate of evil in the form of a paggro individual.

Often times, it’s because we ourselves are doing something to upset them, but not enough to trigger direct confrontation. So it would help to pause and reflect on what it is that we might be doing to upset them, and try to do less of that.

It may surprise you, but it’s usually the little things that drive people mad. This is especially true when you live with other people, or work with them regularly. Someone might be typing way too loudly, or handle things in a way that upsets them. It’s ok when it’s once or twice. But it does make people get crazy upset to have to endure it repeatedly for days or weeks.

Notice how such things seem so trivial that it feels so petty to bring up the matter? But it’s not petty at all. It’s human nature to get upset over the disruptions or small annoyances that make up our everyday routines. But many people think it’s so petty that they can’t bring themselves to talk about it, and so passive aggressive action is, the only outlet to vent their frustration for those who don’t know how best to deal with such issues.

If you can’t figure out what it is, or if it’s not possible to stop it entirely, then dialogue is important. You yourself must be prepared for what they will tell you, and you must assure that person you will not get mad. All you want to do is to solve a problem and make things better for both parties. You can try saying something like, “Hey, I noticed you seemed rather upset yesterday. And I want to better understand what is upsetting you, and what I can do about it to make it better for you.” Make sure you are mentally prepared to respond in a calm way whatever the answer may be.

I once went on a 3-week work trip with someone who made passive aggressive snide remarks at me almost every day. It upset me a lot and I finally told the person how I felt and that I could not understand why he would behave like this. His response was that we hated how I conducted myself, as he interpreted that it meant I was a certain sort of person which he despised. That was an answer I did not expect, and it did catch be off-guard. But I talked it out with him and tried to explain that I’m not such a person. In the end, the resolution was a sort of compromise: I can’t change myself completely, but at the very least, I would not do certain things that would trigger him. The conversation helped as he stopped making the snide remarks thereafter.

This incident happened 16 years ago, but it stays with me as a vivid memory, as a successful model on how I handle difficult situations with people, especially passive aggressive people. Now, as with all things with life, use your own discretion on how you might use the ideas I share here, and assess for yourselw how you might want to adapt to your own unique situation.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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