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Communicating Styles at Couples Counselling in Twickenham

Understanding Passive-Aggressive Behaviour II

The article below is a continuation of the previous page. It is a further recommendation of communication styles which you can practice yourself or with your partner. Hopefully these hints at communication styles will help you develop more effective and empathic communication with each other.

Don’t Over-React or Take it personally

A passive-aggressive person’s anger stems from his or her own background and life situation, and isn’t your responsibility,” says Oberlin. “You are probably just the most convenient person for him or her to interact with negatively.” Reduce your need to personalise. When you experience passive-aggressive behaviour from someone, avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions. Instead, step back and come up with a range of ways for viewing the situation before responding. For example, I might imagine my friend didn’t return an email because he’s ignoring a difficult question, or I can consider the possibility that he’s taking time to decide the answer. When we avoid personalizing other people's behaviours, we perceive and evaluate their expressions more openly and objectively. People do what they do because of their own choices more than ours. Being able to evaluate our perspective can reduce the possibility of misunderstanding.

Be Direct, Boundaried and Non-Defensive

If you’re dealing with a person who resists assignments and requests. The psychotherapist “you need to be assertive and very clear about what you expect, and what the consequences will be if your expectations aren’t met.” Keep everything factual, not emotional, she suggests. Clarity and level-headedness are your two best assets against passive-aggressive behaviour. In some ways, passive aggressives are more difficult to deal with than openly aggressive people. An openly hostile person is direct in words and action, which makes them more predictable. A passive-aggressive, is resistant and behaves unconsciously. They operate using a hidden agenda, and you cannot be certain about their ulterior motives, which may be an enigma to them. When confronted about their behaviour, they will often deny responsibility for their actions or make excuses. For these reasons, when you need to deal with someone who is passive-aggressive, be diplomatic and appeal to their sense of reason. Otherwise, keep a healthy distance if you can. Stay calm, keep your voice neutral, and hold your emotions in check, since the less emotionally reactive you are, the less fuel they have to blame you with.

Don’t Try to Change Your Partner

Some people try to change partners who are passive-aggressive with time-consuming discussions about their behaviour. These efforts often end in frustration and disappointment. The reasons for this are complex and deep-rooted. A passive- aggressive person changes only when they are willing to be more self-aware and mature. It’s not your role to change the person. The best way to deal with passive aggressive people is to focus not on changing your own behaviour and take charge of your own life, not theirs.

Empathize With the Person You Love

Though it may be frustrating, cultivating empathy for a passive-aggressive person can help disarm them. Reflecting on the person’s suppressed feelings by stating in a neutral tone: “It seems like you were frustrated by what happened at work today. That must be very difficult for you.” This might encourage them to open up and express what they feel without feeling judged.

Don’t Get Sucked in. Avoid Tit for Tat.

It’s quite understandable to feel angry or frustrated when you’re on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behaviour. There may be an urge to "strike back" by stoking up an argument or pointing the finger of blame, or even worse, becoming passive-aggressive yourself. Neither approach helps, as a passive-aggressive person may respond to your overt accusations with denial and a sense of victimisation. So, you struggle because you've allowed the instigator to remove your peace of mind. Don’t hand over your power to someone who may turn you into the person you don’t want to be.

Display Superior Composure through Appropriate Humour

Humour can be a powerful tool against passive aggressive behaviour. Imagine a co-worker who is quite arrogant and stuck-up. They may regularly ignore your point of view or even greetings on a daily basis. You might make a harmless joke which disarms this difficult behaviour and shows you can keep your composure under pressure.

Deal with the Problem Early on and Formalize Your Communication

With passive aggressive partners whom you need to interact with on a regular basis, it’s important to put a stop to damaging patterns of behaviour early on. Tolerating it will only encourage their covert behaviours to continue. Don't allow yourself to get dragged in. Be the one who sets the tone of communication in the relationship. Wherever possible at work, formalize your daily communication with clear boundaries or put things in writing. You may even have a third party as a witness. Keep a paper trail of facts, issues, agreements, disagreements, timelines and deadlines. At work when a disputed incident occurs, ensure you have one or more witnesses present before you bring up the issue, or an appropriate individual to whom you’re copying in. Ask clarifying questions to gather information and review the facts, but avoid using emotive language or making accusations which could trigger defensiveness e.g. 'You did this...' Instead, use sentences that begin with "I," "it," "we," followed by facts. For example:

  • Ineffective communication: "You never meet the deadline."
  • Effective communication: "I noticed the deadline we set, wasn’t met today."
  • Ineffective communication: "Your comments are very offensive."
  • Effective communication: "I don’t feel comfortable with such comments. It’s offensive to me."


Give Your Partner a Chance to Help Solve the Problem (If Appropriate)

Quite often passive-aggressive people behave as they do because they believe that they don’t believe they have a voice, or think they’re not going to be heard. When it's appropriate, include that person in discussions or solutions. Invite their input on how they would handle a situation. Allow them to come up with constructive solutions to problems. If a person is constantly making complaints or criticisms, don’t agree or disagree. Simply let them know you will keep it in mind, and get on with what you are doing instead.

Set Consequences to Lower Resistance and Encourage Cooperation

Since passive-aggressive individuals operate at an unconscious level, they may put up resistance when confronted.  Denial, excuses and blaming are typical responses. Regardless of what they say, state a direction forward rather than unpick what went wrong and offer consequences to compel them to reconsider their behaviour. The ability to identify and assert consequences is the easiest way of confronting passive aggressive behaviour as long as you are fair and consistent in your approach. It seek to shift them from obstructive to cooperative behaviour.

At Counselling in Whitton (Counselling Twickenham) I offer couples counselling to help couples find more constructive ways of communicating.