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Changing Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Part 1: Why some people choose to mask their anger.

Call it hostile cooperation, sugarcoated hostility, or compliant defiance. Call it all of the above. Passive aggression does not alternate between passive behavior and aggressive behavior, but rather combines the two into one behavior that is both confounding and frustrating to others.

Passive-aggressive behavior is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger. It involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger. In the long run, passive aggression can be even more destructive to interpersonal relationships than aggression, and, over time, all relationships with a person who is passive-aggressive will become confusing, discouraging, and dysfunctional.

Why Do People Use Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive aggression is motivated by a person’s fear of expressing anger directly. The passive-aggressive person believes life will only get worse if other people know of their anger, so they express anger indirectly. The passive-aggressive person derives genuine secondary pleasure out of frustrating others. For this reason, we call this pattern of behavior “the angry smile.”

What Does Passive-Aggressive Behavior Look Like?

People who are passive-aggressive often will ... :

  • Deny or repress feelings of anger.
  • Use brief, deflecting responses such as “I’m fine” and “Whatever” when someone asks them if they are upset.
  • Withdraw and sulk.
  • Use the silent treatment.
  • Create minor but chronic irritation in others.
  • Be overtly cooperative but covertly uncooperative.
  • Procrastinate or carry out tasks inefficiently.
  • Be evasive and secretive.
  • Use email, texting, social media, and other forms of technology to avoid direct communication.
  • Project angry feelings on others.
  • Cast themselves into the role of victim of an overtly angry person.
  • Be quietly manipulative and controlling.
  • Cause others to swallow their anger and eventually blow up.
  • Make endless promises to change.
  • Create a feeling in others of being on an emotional roller coaster.

How Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior Confronted and Changed?

To effectively manage and alter this pattern of behavior, one must be equipped with skills to recognize it early on, avoid the natural human tendency to mirror it, and carefully expose the hidden anger. To accomplish these complex tasks, we developed the six-step process of Benign Confrontation (Long, Long & Whitson, 2018).

Benign Confrontation works by identifying underlying anger. While a passive-aggressive person directs their cunning and effort into hiding anger and getting others to express it through their out-of-control reactions, Benign Confrontation helps put the responsibility for the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors squarely back in the hands of the passive-aggressive person.

While Benign Confrontation has a powerful impact on the passive-aggressive individual, it is equally influential as a tool for an adult dealing with a passive-aggressive child, student, spouse, friend, or coworker. Instead of getting caught up in frustrating arguments, endless cycles of conflict, and relationship-damaging wars of words, the step-by-step process of Benign Confrontation gives the adult a framework for conflict navigation and problem resolution.

In Part 2 of this post, we share an example of how a teacher used the steps of Benign Confrontation to address a student's non-compliance.


Long, N., Long, J. & Whitson, S. (2018). The Angry Smile: Effective Strategies to Manage Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Relationships, in the Workplace & Online. Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.

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