Dealing with someone who communicates passive aggressively can be an ongoing uphill battle. This communication style creates a road block to collaboration and growth. Passive aggression or communicating from a defensive standpoint can be treated successfully.
Passive aggression or being defensive is a form of protection. While not all people are the same, some people who learn to communicate this way may be doing so to protect their inner child or true self. Communicating openly, honestly, and directly may cause them to feel too vulnerable so lashing out at others, jumping to a defensive position rather than openly listen to others, or over reacting to stimulus when it doesn’t seem to fit may be signs that your dealing with someone who uses this communication style. However whether or the communication seems to be all about you, really it shows a lot about the other person.
Ways to cope with someone who is passive aggressive:
1. Don’t take it personally: Getting a reaction that doesn’t fit the situation usually means it has nothing to do with the situation at hand, nor is it personal. Remind yourself when you are feeling attacked that this is not about you, it is about them.
2. Identify the feelings you hear: There might be a lot of hoopla but beneath the pouting, anger, and lashing out are some pretty powerful feelings. These might include feeling rejected, lonely, hurt, in pain, sadness, guilt, shame. When there is anger, it usually stems from one of the feelings I just listed. Try to cut through the exterior show and get to the point.
3. Create a safe space: Passive aggression can be caused by learning how to express oneself in an environment that wasn’t safe. For example, if as a child you proudly displayed a picture you drew for your parent and they criticized it as being ugly, you might not want to draw a picture for them any more not to mention reveal one you made to them ever again. Even if it is just a picture, it is a display of love and affection. By creating and showing the picture that child embraces his/her vulnerability. However when the parent chastises the child, the child will learn that it is not safe to be vulnerable and build a wall around that part of themselves, their true self. You can create a safe space by not criticizing the other person when they communicate, but rather lay down firm boundaries, like no name calling, blaming, or criticizing. You can also ask the person “this reaction doesn’t seem to fit this situation. I really want to understand why you are upset so we can work together to fix it. Let’s slow down a second. What does (insert situation here: ie. not emptying the dishwasher) mean to you?”
4. Affirm acts of vulnerability: When the person takes a risk and opens up, thank them for their honesty and willingness to trust you with that expression. Let them know if it helps you feel closer to them. You will probably be able to realize that it feels different when they are communicating with a wall between you and communicating directly. It can greatly improve the connection one feels to another and expressing that in the moment can help model what open communication is.
5. Modeling Open Communication: Expressing yourself openly, honestly, and taking appropriate emotional risks can set the example for your friend or partner. Try to put your thoughts and feelings into words as they come up, express vulnerability by making what is inside known to the other person. For example saying, ” I am confused, I am sad you are hurting, I want to get to know you but I feel like there is something in the way…” is an example of modeling open communication. Your friend or partner can learn from you.
I recommend “Message: The Communications Workbook” by McKay, Davis, & Fanning to my clients dealing with learning direct communication.