How to Deal With Passive Aggressive People

Effective responses to passive aggressive people take thought, and a few deep breaths.

But with some practice, they get easier and faster. Let’s dive in!

In an early blog post, I wrote about how to recognize a passive aggressive person. Once recognized, the next step is what to do with the relationship you have with them. There is no question that it will be somewhere between mildly frustrating and passionately infuriating!

Most frequently in these situations, you cannot quite put your finger on what the issue really is. You’re left feeling cut off, cut down or cut up, bleeding with no one noticing, but, how did it happen? From the previous post, you have some insights into how to recognize the behaviors in your relationships.  (If you didn’t see that post, you’ll find it here.) Identifying the behavior is the first step. And from there you can master how to deal with passive aggressive people.

So, now you recognize that they somehow just never quite take responsibility for what they do, don’t do, and say. It’s always someone else’s fault.  Isn’t that amazing?  Here are some insights to help you respond:

  • Passive Aggressive people are secretly afraid to express their opinions openly, They may not have the confidence to stand up for what they think, believe or want directly.  They will not behave assertively. So, they take the passive aggressive route: passive up front when they could be honest and direct, and aggressive on the back end as s/he is secretly angry at not having their true thoughts or desires solicited or considered.  With all the kindness you can muster, ask an honest question:

“Did you bring your ideas, insights, concerns or suggestions to the meeting?

  • Passive Aggressive people secretly harbor the idea that they are superior, above reproach, or even perfect. They have to because they are so uncertain of themselves without that stance.  From that supposed perfection,  s/he attempts to deal a death blow–verbal and emotional–to anyone who could possible threaten his/her power. Unfortunately, this is often everyone!  When you are meeting this behavior in a relationship, be direct with your body language. Meet them with full eye contact and fully inhabit your space. Remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said:

“No one can make your feel inferior without your consent.”

  • P-As do not take initiative and are the  queens and kings of self-sabotage. There is much more mileage, they think, in being a victim than in being their vision of success. In fact, passive aggressive people are often scared silly of success and have an endless array of reasons why success eludes them–all of them someone else’s fault, of course, the times, or the parentage, or the lack of opportunities, or….  If you are observing this pattern in someone, watch with new eyes: are they truly just so lacking in self-esteem and self-confidence that they need boosting and kind words, or, are they hooked into their victim role to avoid responsibility for themselves and their results?

In this case, these victims are really volunteers!

  • P-A behavior needs two people to exist. No one can be P-A by themselves because there is no one to try to control by their behavior. P-A REQUIRES a relationship of some kind. Remember, as I said in the last post, passive aggressive people are not doing this on purpose. They are on cruise control. Somewhere along their living, there have been role models for this behavior, or situations in which they learned to engage in this manner.  If you are living or working with a P-A, your mission–should you choose to accept it–is NOT TO PLAY.  Be clear, straightforward, direct and honest with the P-A at all times. Don’t wobble, vacillate or sway, especially when s/he uses the P.A. anthem:

“I couldn’t help it.”

  • Passive aggressive people like to use “can’t” when they really mean “won’t.” This is a huge distinction and being in relationship with a person who repeatedly relinquishes all responsibility for their actions is, as I said earlier, frustrating and infuriating.  A P-A is simply being dishonest to his/her self as well as anyone they speak to when they confuse “can’t” with “won’t.”  They particularly “can’t” do things they don’t like to do, especially if you have asked them to do it. You’ve likely noticed that. This is one place where you have to sit up and smell the herbal tea: if a person won’t do something and you continually ask them to do it, who really has the problem?  Of course, if this is a colleague and you need the person to fulfill their job functions and they can’t/won’t, the frustration level escalates. If you are not the boss, try only to ask for things you know they can and will do. If you are the boss, take note: if you hired them because you think they can and will and find out they can’t or won’t, it is time for a performance review!


  • P-As usually discount the problems they create. That is, if they cannot first deflect them entirely to being someone else’s fault.  Be kindly direct. Don’t make excuses for them. Don’t make nice. Don’t humor them. Don’t ingratiate yourself to passive aggressive people…really, really, really don’t!  Give the behavior a name and place it directly where it belongs: in his or her own court!

“When you say something mean or judgmental, and then say you didn’t mean it, you are giving me a very mixed message. How can I know when to believe you?”

  • Trust is a big issue with P-As. When they say they will or can and then complain that they can’t or won’t, trust erodes like chalk: instantly. And thus, so does the relationship. It only takes a couple of times and there simply isn’t any trust at all. P-A behavior tends to be immature behavior. So, this time you have to put on your big girl panties and deal with it directly:

“In any relationship I want in my life, there has to be trust. Trust occurs when each of us does what we say we will do when we say we will do it.
Right now, I’ve learned that I cannot trust you. Would you like to make an agreement to both do what we say we will do in a timely manner?
Then, we will also be agreeing to demonstrate that we are trustworthy.”

There are many, many faces of Passive Aggression, and learning how to deal with passive aggressive people will save you a lot of stress, pain and aggravation. Hopefully, these insights will serve as a primer for approaching some of the most obvious ones.

What folks have said…
I listen to your podcast and your YouTube videos. I like the guest speakers. Your voice soothes and strengthens me. My emotional mother.
Past client

Join like-minded folks who know what you're going through.

No matter where you are on the journey – from recognizing to recovering from a toxic relationship – we have a safe place for you to learn, ask and share.

Live Zoom group calls, online discussions, ebooks, videos and more.

Log In is required for submitting new question.