Relationship Help: Are you enabling a passive-aggressive person?

Dr. Rhoberta Shaler writes the Sow Peace blog to help readers resolve relationship problems.

I've mentioned before that it takes two for there to be passive-aggression. That means that, if you are not the passive-aggressive one, you may well be the enabler.

What does it mean to be an enabler? That’s simple. You allow the person to continue to behave in ways that are relationship- and/or team-destroying. You do not confront the behavior or indicate that there are consequences to it continuing if they want to have a relationship with you or continue to be employed. You simply make it possible for the behavior to continue, no matter how much you complain, moan or whine to others, augmenting the drama. You enable them to be passive-aggressive. It is a dance for two. When you stop enabling, they cease to have a partner in crime!

“Oh, that sounds so straight forward. But, what if I work with them? I’m not choosing to be with them all day. I didn’t hire them.”

That’s true. You may not have chosen them to spend your day with, but, you’re there, earning your living together. So, you can create some clarity about how you work best, and/or want to be treated. You do have some input into the relationship every day.

Here are a couple of scenarios that you might find familiar:

  • You have an important conversation and, from it, create a set of agreements with a colleague. She swears blind that the neither the conversation, or particularly the agreements, ever took place.
  • You take the time to carefully go over a task you are assigning. You take particular care to be clear and specific about how the task is to be done. When you get it back, it looks nothing like what you so carefully requested. When you debrief with the person and challenge them on the specifics, they say, “You never told me to do it that way.”
  • Everyone at the team meeting is clear about the upcoming deadline and the tasks they have been assigned and agreed to complete in a timely manner. On the day of the deadline, a colleague calls in sick and has not finished her tasks.

These are three prime examples of passive-aggression in daily work life. Familiar?

What can you do? You do have options. They are not instantaneous fixes but rather incremental ones that require you have the strength and clarity to create and hold boundaries and systems. Here are some suggestions:

  • Take the time to send a colleague a confirming email with a summary of the conversation and the agreements steming from it. Ask them to respond immediately and affirm the details. Print it out. This creates a dated paper trail.
  • When a task has clear, specific directions, put them in an email. Again, ask the receiver to affirm receipt by return email. Print it out. Tedious? Yes. Clarifying? Yes. Imperative? Unfortunately, when dealing with passive-aggressive co-workers.
  • If a pattern of not coming to work on days work is due has been established, it must be brought out into the open using direct facts. In my opinion, twice is a pattern worth discussing. Also, if you have used emails to confirm deadlines, details, agreements, and timelines well, the facts of the current matter will be simple. This is unacceptable and definitely anti-team, uncollaborative behavior.

If you find it difficult to have confrontative conversations, you can acquire the skills to make it easier. Few people enjoy confrontation, however, it is not a four-letter word! Practice stating your preferences on small issues. Then, when it is imperative to confront a pattern, you’ll be more comfortable.

But wait! There’s more. Stay tuned for info on handling the passive-aggressive boss!

If you have questions, send them to me by commenting on this blog post. I’ll answer you in an upcoming post…promise!

Let me know if I can help you in any way. Some folks find it mighty helpful to book an hour with me to create a strategy to manage a conflict or communication more constructively. You can do that by emailing me at


Spread the word. Share this post!


  1. Paul -

    It’s posts like this that keep me coming back and checking this site regularly, thanks for the info!

  2. Diane -

    Thank you for all you’ve written. Just finding it, and so on reading and taking it all it. So, you touch on PA in a relationship here, but then only seeing that you discuss where it involves work situations. Could I ask you please to discuss further where it involves an intimate relationship? I am very involved with an extremely Passive Aggressive man. My passive and loving personality so very much fed into and enabled his PA behavior for many years. I always the one who ended up apologizing for trying to discuss very wrong doings to me… after he actually beat the heck out of me for what he was doing in the first place. In the past couple of years, I have stood up to his madness and wrong doings… and he now “get’s” that he is PA. BUT, so also doesn’t get it. So, while working with him to identify and work on change (of course, he agrees, starts to, then insists it’s not his problem)… I am trying to figure out if I am doing anything to further enable his PA. Might you please cover this as it applies to interpersonal relationships? Thank you so very much,

    • DrShaler -

      Hello, Diane,

      Passive-Aggressive people have a very difficult time understanding why others find them frustrating, difficult and infuriating. Your husband even beginning to understand is a good step forward.

      I’m glad you have found the information valuable. Everything that I write applies to both home and work.

      The important first step is for you to read my ebook which you will find HERE. That will be a big help to you. You’ll find much information about passive-aggressive behavior, how to recognize it, respond to it and recover from it. That’s the best next step for you. Also, read my responses to others who have written comments and questions on the blog. You’ll find valuable information there, as well.

      I am happy to answer any further questions you may have after reading the book. I know how frustrating all this can be!

      I wish you well.
      Dr. Shaler

Comments are closed.

Log In is required for submitting new question.