We all have our own ways of dealing with conflict. Some people are more confrontational than others, while some people are more submissive. Some people say what’s on their mind without thinking twice, while others swallow their feelings in favor of peace. And while no method of coping with conflict is perfect, passive aggressive behavior can do a lot of damage to your relationships, your career and your emotional wellbeing.
What exactly is passive aggressive behavior? If your husband ever left an empty carton of milk on the kitchen counter along with a note saying “I guess you forgot to buy more milk” then he was being passive aggressive. Rather than asking you politely to buy more milk he expressed anger without actually admitting he was angry. According to o Everyday Health, typically passive-aggressive behavior “is defined as the unassertive expression of negative sentiments, feelings of anger, and resentfulness. So instead of verbally or physically expressing frustration or anger—or even simply saying “no” when asked to complete a task—someone described as passive-aggressive might simply act agreeable but then not follow through with completing the task.” Sound familiar?
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We’ve all been there, whether we were the one committing the passive aggressive communication or we were on the receiving side. It doesn’t feel good no matter which side you were on, and it can actually do a lot more damage than good. Signe Whitson L.S.W., co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces explains that “in relationships, passive aggressive behaviors are often used to avoid the direct confrontation of short-term conflict, but in the long-term, these dynamics can be even more destructive than outright aggression.” It’s ironic, but by trying to avoid conflict, and instead letting your anger bubble up until it pours out of you in an unassertive way, you can create more conflict in the future.
Similarly, when it comes to the workplace, passive aggressive communication can sabotage the future of your career and damage a positive and collaborative work environment for everyone involved. According to entrepreneur Amy Rees Anderson in a piece for Forbes.com, “passive-aggressive behavior in any company is one of the most destructive cancers to a culture that ends up killing both a great company, and the self-esteem of the individuals working there.” She continues, “honesty with respect is always the best policy, in life and in the workplace. Voicing your opinions, if done in a respectful way, is always positive and should be welcomed, encouraged, and even rewarded.”
It’s clear that being passive aggressive has a lot more cons than pros, but what can you do to avoid such behavior in all aspects of your life? For starters, speak what is on your mind. It can be hard to train yourself to share your opinions and confidently express what you think, but being honest about how your feel will help you work through your frustrations, rather than keep them inside until they get worse. The goal is to expose your anger and take about it, instead of trying to hide how you feel, and ultimately showing your resentment in unintentional (but hurtful) ways.
Don’t use the words “fine” or “whatever” when faced with confrontation. We all do the “ugh, fine, whatever” sulk when we want to avoid a fight, but that reaction isn’t really hiding any emotions, it’s just limiting your ability to actually resolve your anger. Instead think about what is upsetting you, what you would like to happen and then say what is on your mind. Speak clearly and calmly, and be open to hear what the other party has to say as well.
Do not procrastinate. If someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, or don’t feel right doing (whatever your reason may be), don’t agree to the task and then just keep putting it off until someone notices. Instead, say no. Seems simple, but for a lot of people it’s a really hard word to say to others. According to relationship expert Nicole Zangara, being passive-aggressive “has 100 percent deniability and zero percent accountability.” You can pretend you forgot to do something or that you never got the email from your boss or friend, leaving you able to hide your true sentiments. A convenient way to keep the peace for as long as possible, but in the end, nothing will get resolved.
Lastly, don’t waste energy or time focusing on blame and anger. You need to let go of what is making you upset or frustrated so that you can move forward and make room for the actions and relationships that fulfill you and bring you joy. Don’t hold a grudge—instead talk about something when it bothers you so you can be freed from that anger, which will quickly turn to resentment if it is not dealt with.