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How to Deal With Passive and Passive-Aggressive People

Three tools to neutralize passivity.

Key points

  • Passive and passive-aggressive behavior is frustrating to others.
  • Coping requires differentiating between passive and passive-aggressive behaviors.
  • Using the tools presented will restore some control to those dealing with passive and passive-aggressive behavior.
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay
Source: Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Passive behaviors frustrate others by preventing them from efficiently pursuing goals by not making decisions or acting. Frustrated individuals feel disempowered as they wait on passive individuals who do not respond in a timely fashion or at all. Three tools are offered that will restore a sense of power, or agency, to those dealing with passive individuals.

Passive vs. Passive Aggressive

Passive individuals are followers. They lack the confidence to make decisions and fear making errors. Often, they become paralyzed with fear when decisions are necessary and become unable to act. These individuals also struggle to initiate actions or activities. They wait for others to define a strategy to compel them towards action. Once others do initiate activities, they often can function adequately.

Passive aggressive behaviors occur when individuals intentionally do not do what is expected of them in order to manipulate or punish others. Examples include not picking someone up who is expecting a ride or not cleaning up after themselves in shared spaces.

Passive as well as passive-aggressive behavior leaves others waiting for these individuals to make decisions, pick them up, clean up after themselves, etc. This is disempowering and frustrating. The tools offered below allow individuals dealing with passive people to take back some control over the situation.

Passive Patty*

Carol asked her friend Patty to go on vacation with her several weeks ago. Patty expressed some interest but said she needed to think about it and would get back. Two weeks later, Carol still had not heard from Patty. They had the following conversation.

Carol: Patty, I need to know whether or not you will go on vacation with me.

Patty: I am still thinking about it.

Carol: I have to make arrangements at work and book a hotel.

Patty: I will get back to you.

Carol: This is the third time I am asking you.

Patty: Sorry.

Carol is left feeling helpless and frustrated. She feels that she cannot make her plans until she hears back from Patty and is afraid that it may be too late to make arrangements by the time Patty responds.

Default Tool

The default tool involves creating a statement that sets a time limit for a response and defines the absence of a response as an affirmative declaration. In the above example, Carol’s use of the default tool might sound like this:

Carol: If I don’t hear from you by Saturday night, I will assume that means you are not coming.

Using the default tool, Carol has now forced Passive Patty to respond by Saturday by treating her non-response as a negative one. When this tool is used with passive-aggressive behavior, it may result in conversion to aggressive behavior. This is illustrated in the following dialogue.

Passive Aggressive Andy*

TJ asked his friend Andy to pick him up after work and take him to a medical appointment. He was concerned because a few months ago, Andy agreed to lend TJ a car and then, at the last minute, refused to do so because he was angry at TJ for forgetting his birthday the previous week.

TJ: Andy, can I count on you to pick me up at work tomorrow?

Andy: You already asked me that.

TJ: I know, but I don’t feel like I got a commitment from you.

Andy: I said I would do my best.

TJ: If I don’t hear back from you by tomorrow morning, I will assume you can’t make it.

Andy: Why don’t you just assume I can’t make it now and call an Uber?

After that response, TJ may conclude that in the future, it will be easier to just go straight to Uber and not bother asking Andy.

Plan B

If you must offer someone with passive-aggressive tendencies the opportunity to help you, you should have a backup plan in case they don’t show up. This is a plan B. TJ should ensure that his cell phone is charged and that he has an Uber account in case Andy does not show up. When dealing with a passive-aggressive person, always have at least one backup plan and be prepared to use it.


When in a close relationship with someone with passive-aggressive tendencies, such as when you must live with the person, confrontation may be a useful tool. The purpose of the confrontation is to transform the passive-aggressive act into a discussion about the aggression so that the difficulty can be worked out through discussion rather than behaviors. In the following example, Rita confronts her daughter Kim about not cleaning up her room.

Cantankerous Kim*

Kim had generally kept her room clean until last week. Rita noticed that it was also last week that Rita told Kim her boyfriend could not sleep over at the house. Since then, Kim has stopped cleaning up after herself at home.

Rita: Kim, make sure your room is clean before you go out tonight.

Kim: I said I would clean it.

Rita: Yes, you have said that several times lately, but you haven’t done it.

Kim: There are things you haven’t done yet, either.

Rita: What are you referring to?

Kim: Treating me like an adult.

Rita: Adults clean up after themselves.

Kim: Adults get to have their boyfriends sleep over.

Rita: Adults discuss things they are angry about instead of acting out.

Kim: What do you mean?

Rita: Clean up your room, and then we will talk about your feelings about your boyfriend.

If Rita gives into Kim’s acting out behavior, Kim will continue acting out when she does not get her way. If Kim agrees to clean her room and engage in discussion, Rita should try to address Kim’s wish to be intimate with her boyfriend in a way that satisfies Rita’s parental concerns.

Coping effectively with passive and passive-aggressive behavior requires differentiating between the two and choosing the tool best suited to a situation.

* Examples are constructed from aspects of different transactions involving different individuals.

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
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