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Mar 292016

It is the nasty note about the shared refrigerator that is dirty… Or that one report your colleague keeps “forgetting” to finish for you or the “yes” or “no” answers to an open-ended question. The behaviors of a passive aggressive are killing the joy in the workplace.

I used to work with a woman who was a skillfully passive aggressive. I often asked myself: “What am I doing wrong?” when she gave me the silent treatment or made rude comments “under her breath.” I felt like I was walking on eggshells all day, and I probably was doing something wrong. Sounds like a familiar struggle?

What am I doing wrong?

In order to know what we are doing “wrong” it is important to understand passive aggressive behavior.  The bottom line is that passive aggressiveness is easier to resort to than assertive behavior. Passive aggressive people don’t typically have the courage to speak up. The message that they are sending with their often non-verbal aggression is: “I am afraid of your response, when I respond to what you say, because your response might hurt me.” Passive aggressive people know very well how to drive others away, because the truth sometimes hurts too much to face it. They are simply protecting themselves.

Actually, there is no foundation for truth in the relationship with a passive aggressive, because it lacks authenticity. As a result there is no trust, no respect, no relationship, which is often the safest and, unfortunately, most lonely place to be for a passive aggressive.

How can we help a passive aggressive person come out of their protective shell and start building a relationship based on trust and respect?

Once you’ve noticed a pattern of passive aggressive behavior with someone, you want to avoid doing something “wrong.” This doesn’t mean that you are responsible for their behavior that often comes from old hurt.

It means that, with some effort, we can avoid being the trigger for their behavior by for example constantly confronting them about their behavior, wanting to rescue or coach them, provoking conflict, or making them openly ridiculous for their “nobody understands me anyway” attitude.

Evaluate your own behavior in the situation

“How did I contribute to the conflict or what actions did I take to escalate the passive aggressive responses?”

Once you realize that your passive aggressive colleague doesn’t feel listened to or think they don’t have a voice, you can solicit their input by speaking directly with them. Be honest, direct, listen and focus the conversation on the real issue. Let them know that you are there to listen and that you want to understand them.  Stay calm in the conversation, take ownership for your feelings and most importantly, don’t reciprocate the passive aggressive behaviors by storming off. Stay in the dialogue!

Although you can’t change a person and it is not your role to heal the fear and past hurt that a passive aggressive is carrying, dealing with a passive aggressive person in a constructive way is possible. It takes time, patience and consistently demonstrating constructive behavior in challenging situations.

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