Passive-aggressive people. You know the type.
They never say they won’t do something. They agree but then, aw shucks, “the dog ate their homework” – and, of course, it’s not their fault.
They never ask for what they want. They whine or charm or sulk… until you offer. But they didn’t ask, so they don’t owe you anything. Hey, you offered.
And they claim to be the kindest person in the world. Would never hurt a fly. But they attack others — always with plausible deniability.
It’s never their fault. They’re not a bad person. In fact, at least according to them, they’re always the victim. Clinical psychologist Randy Paterson explains passive-aggressive behavior as:
In all cases you get your own way, but you have a plausible excuse that allows you to escape taking responsibility for your actions. You manage to avoid being confronted by those who are affected. If they try to confront you, you can always deny any intent (“No, I really wanted to be on time, but the bus was late.”)
These people will drive you crazy. So what do experts recommend you do to win with these types?
Let’s get to it…
(I’m not asking you to keep reading. I don’t care if you read another word. But, if you are so inclined, go right ahead. Now it’s true that one time someone didn’t finish reading something I wrote and I was so upset I was hospitalized for a month — but don’t feel obligated in any way. I wouldn’t want to be a burden. Totally up to you. Do whatever you think is right. I’m just trying to help…)
What’s The Deal With Passive-Aggressive People?
Well-adjusted people are assertive. They’ll explain why they can’t help or ask for what they want. Aggressive folks will respond to requests with a flat “No” and will happily steamroll you to achieve their goals. Other people are passive. They’ll cave and do what you tell them, or give up on what they desire rather than ask for it.
And then we have the passive-aggressive bunch: they’re not going to say no, but they’re not going to follow through either. They’re not going to ask for what they want, but that’s not going to stop them from trying to get it.
The more these hapless vampires like, respect, or fear you, the less able they are to say directly, “I’m angry” or “I don’t want to do that.” They have to rely on misunderstanding, forgetting, or falling apart to do the job for them. That’s the way it is; accept it or pay the price. The most frequent cause of headaches is pursuing the one goal that is absolutely unattainable with Histrionic vampires—having them admit to their actual motives.
Most passive-aggressives live in a fantasy world of denial. They don’t want to be seen as a bad person but they don’t want to do unpleasant things. But if the unpleasant things don’t get done because of an accident, well, it’s not their fault, and they’re not a bad person.
In their minds, they are good children—innocent, happy, eager to please, and always willing to do more than their share. Real people are complex, full of base motivations and unacceptable desires as well as the stuff of angels. Passive-Aggressive Histrionics have the frightening capacity to deny any but the most superficial and attractive thoughts. They blithely ignore the ugly stuff even if it’s plainly visible to everyone else. Histrionics are not perfectionists, they’re more like perfectionist wannabes. They don’t necessarily want to be perfect; they just want to look perfect… Normal people recognize that they can’t act on their impulses. Passive-Aggressive Histrionics try to believe that they have no inappropriate impulses to act on. This is what makes them dangerous.
They’re perpetually innocent. And if you accuse them, you’re a bully. They’re always the victim.
Now there is another type: aggressives who use passive-aggressiveness as a deliberate strategy to act like jerks and not be held accountable. Modern corporate culture has come down hard on aggressive behavior. While noble, this has just driven it underground. Shouting is verboten, so they manipulate you instead.
So what’s the best way to identify a passive-aggressive as early as possible? Look for a past that resembles Hurricane Katrina.
These types often leave a wake of devastation behind them. Of course, it wasn’t their fault. They were the victim. But if someone keeps having bad luck again and again and again… that’s not bad luck.
See them coming and you might be able to stop them from bleeding you dry. And that’s why clinical psychologist Albert Bernstein refers to them as “vampires.”
Often these vampires have a history of interpersonal problems that, according to them, come out of nowhere to plague them. Their world is two-dimensional, full of villains and victims. In an interview they will usually tell you about personality conflicts in their previous job. On a first date they will tell you about their last dysfunctional relationship because you’re a nice person and will understand. Be warned. Nice person or not, in their next interview or on their next first date, they’ll be saying the same things about you.
(To learn how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
Okay, we have met the enemy — and it’s never their fault. As with narcissists, subclinical psychopaths and other oh-so-pleasant folks, if you see them for what they are, the best way to deal with them is not to deal with them. Run.
But there are many cases where that just isn’t an option, like the office. So what do you do about it?
1) Don’t Give In
They’re giving you a migraine. There’s always an excuse. They are always the victim. Wouldn’t it just be easier to give in so they shut up and go away?
No. Don’t give them what they want. Now you’re rewarding the puppy for pooping on the carpet. Guess what’s going to happen next time they want something?
In the short run it seems easier not to deal with them at all and just do whatever they were supposed to do yourself. Big mistake. One of the reasons these vampires are so difficult is that most people deal with their passive tantrums passively, by absolving them of their responsibilities. This approach ensures that the next time there is something difficult to be done, Histrionics will again handle it by not being able to handle it.
(To learn how to deal with psychopaths and other toxic people, click here.)
Maybe if you can just get them to tell you what they want, you can break them of this terrible habit. Or maybe if you just explode on them you can show them how frustrating they’re being and they’ll snap out of it.
2) Don’t Get Angry Or Call Them Out
If you get furious or make accusations, then you’re a bully. They’re always the victim, remember? So don’t give them a plausible way of accusing you of being a bully.
You don’t want to end up on their enemies list. Not that they’re vindictive — they’re as pure as the driven snow — but your bullying behavior might be something HR should be aware of. You know, for the good of the company. After all, they just want to help.
And trying to get them to take responsibility for their actions is a fool’s errand. They’d have to admit they’re not sweet, kind and lovable. They’d have to admit they have base desires. Not gonna happen.
Forget any attempt to make Passive-Aggressive vampires admit to what they really feel. It’ll only make your headache worse. Don’t make the mistake of demanding that they talk to you directly about problems. You might as well demand that they speak in rhyming couplets. There really are no battles you can win with the Passive-Aggressive. Once the situation turns into a battle, you have already lost. The battles you can win are all with yourself.
(To learn how a clinical psychologist recommends you handle difficult conversations, click here.)
So you know what not to do. But what’s the first step in getting this “victim” who has such horrible luck to behave the right way?
3) Speak Their Language
You need to express your needs in their “I-am-the-victim” reality. Tell them it is truly awful that space aliens stopped them from taking care of that task they committed to. (You’ve dealt with E.T. yourself, and you understand how difficult he can be.) You appreciate them doing their best, and we’re just going to need to try again.
Your words must reflect an understanding of their view of the world, rather than demanding that they accept yours. These vampires live in an alternate reality where their thoughts are pure, their motives are selfless, and all their mistakes are caused by misinterpretation. That is where you must go to have any meaningful communication with them. Phrase everything in a way that doesn’t assault their view of reality. Instead of criticizing, acknowledge that Passive-Aggressives were doing their best, then let them know how to do better. Don’t even think of talking to them when you’re angry. They’ll see it as verbal abuse.
(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s secrets for getting people to like you, click here.)
So you’re talking to them in a way they won’t reject. Now how do you get them to do what they should have already done?
4) Be Direct And Always Reward Good Behavior
Do what they can’t: be direct about what you want. Otherwise, we now have two passive-aggressives dealing with one another. And while that might make a fantastic SNL sketch, it’s not something you want to be a part of. (You’ll lose. They have a lot more practice at this than you do.)
So be direct about what is expected and let contingencies do the work.
If you live or work with Passive-Aggressive Histrionics, you want them to do what they’re supposed to do, and not feel criticized and abused. At least not enough to retaliate. To accomplish this formidable goal, you and the vampire have to relate on the basis of clear, explicit expectations rather than any sort of unspoken agreements.
You were clear about what you wanted and they followed through. Great. Now heap on the approval they’ve been craving. If this sounds like dog training, well, that’s because it is dog training. So give Sparky a treat and a pat on the head.
The most productive goal with these vampires is preventing their Passive-Aggressive outbursts by giving them the approval they want, but making it contingent on specific behaviors. Never let them guess what you want; the consequences are too great if they get it wrong. Tell Passive-Aggressives in explicit detail what it takes to please you and praise them profusely when they do it. The strategy is simple and almost foolproof, but it is seldom employed.
(To learn the 4 rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Some people will say that sounds all too simple. Now it does work, but maybe not immediately. So how do you punish bad behavior with someone who is itching to paint themselves as the victim and you as the jerk?
5) Use “Response Costs”
Overt punishment or retaliation won’t work. That just feeds their narrative of “Me: Victim; You: Bully.”
But their bad behavior causes problems for you and it needs to cause problems for them too. It was awful that a 747 crashed into the post office where they were supposed to mail that letter for you, and you feel terrible they had to suffer through that tragedy. But since it happened, there’s now another step they need to complete.
Filling out an incident report or paying that late fee you incurred. Anything you can think up that makes their “accidental” slip ups not worth the hassle in the future.
If there need to be negative consequences for breaking rules, the kind that work best are called response costs. They aren’t punishments; they’re more like raising the price of messing up. If people forget to do something or do it incorrectly, make them do it over, especially when it would be easier to do it yourself. Creative practitioners may raise the price of misbehavior still further by adding paperwork—incident reports, remediation plans for absences, or whatever else they can think up.
(To learn the 7-step morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. (I wanted to write more but I have just been so busy. Sorry about that. Couldn’t be helped.) Let’s round it all up…
Here’s how to win with passive-aggressive people:
- Don’t give in: If you show them this behavior works, you will get more of it. Period.
- Don’t get angry or call them out: Because then you’re the meanie they always suspected you were. Meanie.
- Speak their language: You know full well how awful it is when vikings prevent you from getting somewhere on time, so be understanding.
- Be direct and always reward good behavior: “Fetch and you get a treat, Sparky.”
- Use “response costs”: When you don’t pay parking tickets, the city doubles the fine. They’re so awful, aren’t they? Might wanna pay the ticket on time in the future.
Ignore the excuses. Pay attention to actions, not words. You cannot control their behavior but you can control your response. Forget trying to change them into an acceptable human being; the best you can do is get the right behavior out of them.
And never forget that they’re the victim here. After all, if an unexpected ninja ambush prevented you from completing that important PowerPoint presentation, how would you feel?
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Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.