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18 Things to Say to Stop Passive Aggressive Behavior

January 2, 2018


Last week I wrote about a 4-step process for effectively addressing passive aggressive behavior. 


Passive aggressive behavior is when someone is acting one way overtly, generally agreeable and appropriate but the subtext is the opposite, something critical and disagreeable. It’s a mixed message. A middle finger with a bow tied around it. 


Because you are getting two messages (one overt and false, the other subtle but subversive and real) it’s difficult to know how to address the situation. This is really irritating. 


Most people get tripped up on passive aggressive behaviors by making one of two mistakes: 1. Ignoring it or 2. Engaging defensively in the content of the comments/behavior. 


This means that either you choose to ignore the behavior and it continues because you aren’t holding the person responsible for being passive aggressive, or you are getting lost in the weeds because you are talking emotionally about whatever the situation is seemingly (but not really) about. 


Recently a friend recalled a situation where her sister chose to convey a message to her by loudly talking to her young child, for example, “You know Auntie likes to be asked to do activities too.” I sometimes see this done with pets. Something like, “It looks like mom is too busy working on her blog to take you out for a walk.”


These situations are usually pretty easy to spot. But what do you do? Often, ignoring will not solve the deeper problem or help you feel less frustrated with the manipulative delivery of the message. 


The real solution is to shine a light on the behavior without engaging defensively and emotionally in the content. 


For example, you can say to your sister, “Hey, it sounds like you have some feelings related to my choices. Let’s talk about that you and me.” Or you could say to your dog co-parent, “You seem to have some feelings related to my choices right now.” 


If you ignore, you’ll continue to feel irritated with no relief and will have paved the way for this means of communication to continue. If you start defending or explaining yourself based on the content of the comment, you’ll likely get in a tangled mess. They may deny their real feelings or the accusations on both sides will start to fly.


It’s more effective to step back and highlight the dynamic. They have feelings they need to state directly or they need to drop it. Those are the two acceptable options if they want to address issues with you.


You need to call it out in the most neutral, simple, and powerful way possible. Show them you see what’s up with a clear statement. 


Just for you, I have my 18 favorite things to say that will highlight the behavior and cut straight to the chase.


Here are the “stop them in their tracks” questions and statements:

  1. “What do you mean?”

  2. “What’s this really about right now?”

  3. “I feel like you have a problem you aren’t sharing with me right now.”

  4. “What am I supposed to be understanding from what you’re saying to me?

  5. “Help me understand what message you’re trying to give me right now.”

  6. “I’m confused. What you said sounded nice, but it didn’t feel nice.” 

  7. “Excuse me, can you say that again?”

  8. Long pause. “That tone didn’t feel right to me.” 

  9. “That sounded like a mixed message to me.”

  10. “What I heard just then was. . . . Is that what you meant to say?”

  11. “I’m not sure what you wanted me to take away from that comment.”

  12. “Can you help me understand your true feelings about this?”

  13. “Something feels amiss here – like what you’re saying isn’t what you really feel.”

  14. “I’m not sure what to do with what you just said.” 

  15. “Can you clarify for me what you mean?”

  16. “I can’t work with non-information. If there’s something you need me to know, I’ll do my best if you can say it to me directly.”

  17. “I’m not sure how to take that.”

  18. “That statement didn’t sit right with me.”


Remember, the goal is not to resolve any issue, but to let them know you see the behavior for what it truly represents, an indirect and ineffective way to communicate, manipulate, or control. 


Choose a few of your favorites from the list and put them in your pocket for the next time you encounter passive aggressive behavior. Here’s to a 2018 full of powerful, direct communication! 


Want more inside tips and tricks to being a confident communicator? Stay in the loop by joining my Facebook community



I'm Hannah and I teach really nice people-pleasers and conflict-avoiders how to be kick-ass, courageous, and confident while enjoying the freedom that comes from authentic, powerful communication. Get your free Confidence Action Plan here!

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