2 Magic Phrases to Stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior

In college I took a class on assertiveness. I learned how to ask for what I want and speak up when people do things I don’t like.

The principles were straightforward. Be direct, honest, and respectful.

Over the years since taking that class, I’ve had many instances of not living up to these simple guidelines.

At times I don’t speak up when I know I should. At other times I get loud and pushy, although that is rare for me. Most of the time when I’m not on my best behavior, I communicate in a passive-aggressive manner.

Recognize these passive-aggressive behaviors?

If you don’t have a clear grasp of what this looks like, common forms include:

  • Sarcasm
  • Backstabbing
  • Subtle innuendo
  • Zingers
  • Jokes that are meant to hurt
  • Gossip
  • Foot-dragging
  • Eye-rolls

It misses all three elements of assertiveness. It’s indirect, less than honest, and in no way respectful.

It can also be extremely difficult to stop. Since many of the messages are clouded in ambiguity, you are never quite sure you know what the person meant. And even if you are pretty sure that you do, your accusation will be met with a denial, using one of two favorite phrases: “I was just kidding” or “You have misunderstood me.”

Yeah, right.

Two magic phrases

The next time someone pulls one of these on you, ask, “What are you trying to say?” The person will likely deny any hidden message. This is when you come back with, “No, I think you want to tell me something. I’m just not sure I understand what it is. Please be more clear.”

A long time ago, my wife figured out how to do that with me. It works. How well? Think Kryptonite on Superman.

With those two comments you’ve told people doing this that you’ve caught them (they hate that), and you’ve invited them to communicate more assertively.

Respond in this manner consistently and chances are some of the people who most often use passive-aggressive behaviors will go find another target, and maybe even change their methods.

If you think people in your organization could benefit by learning how to be more assertive and how to deal with people who aren’t, click the button to learn more. I’ve done hundreds of workshops on this topic and would be glad to help.

By Tom LaForce

Tom LaForce owns LaForce Teamwork Services, a Minneapolis-based consulting company. He's on a mission to create better results through teamwork. He wrote Meeting Hero: Plan and Lead Engaging, Productive Meetings.