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How to Respond to Passive Aggressive Behavior

by Becky Swain

Although psychiatrists no longer define passive-aggressive behavior as a mental illness, the symptoms of the behavior can present obstacles to personal and professional relationships. People who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior appear to comply with others' needs but passively oppose them. Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Dr. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin reports that symptoms of passive-aggressive behavior include procrastination, memory lapses, a hostile attitude, irritability and opposition to requests from others. Counseling can assist passive-aggressive people to learn positive behaviors, and you can learn how to respond to individuals who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior.

Ignore behaviors designed to anger or upset you, such as acting sullen, blaming you for problems, sarcasm and irritability. Don't reward the passive-aggressive individual's efforts and increase the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated by losing control of your own emotions. Steal their reward by recognizing your feelings and controlling them.

Stay connected to a supportive circle of family and friends who validate and appreciate your accomplishments and goals. Passive-aggressive people revel in painting their world and yours with negativity. They embrace a misery-loves-company mentality and it is usually your company their misery seeks to sadden. You cannot diminish the passive-aggressive individual's misery, but you can protect your sources of joy.

Exclude the passive-aggressive individual as a source of psychological or financial support. Vulnerability in any life area serves as an invitation to the passive-aggressive individual to impact you where it hurts most.

Avoid verbal confrontations and power struggles with a passive-aggressive individual. Power struggles produce reinforcement for the passive-aggressive person and heightened frustration for you. Rather than detailing inappropriate motives for problem behavior, describe the behavior and its negative effect on a goal. Offer a positive alternative and briefly state its advantages. Give the passive-aggressive person an opportunity to contribute positive options.

Clarify the inconsistencies presented by the passive-aggressive individual's actions and words. For example, the passive-aggressive person can agree to complete a portion of an important project but deliberately miss deadlines, make excuses or even sabotage the project's success. Calmly point out the discrepancies between the words and actions of the passive-aggressive person.

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