Do you know someone who is overtly cooperative but covertly defiant? Do you live or work with a person who chronically procrastinates, carries out tasks with intentional inefficiency, or acts as if he or she is the victim of your impossibly high standards? If you know this feeling of being on an emotional roller coaster, chances are good that you are dealing with a passive-aggressive person.
Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2016). 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-aggressive behavior can be even more destructive to relationships than aggression. Over time, relationships with a person who is passive-aggressive will become confusing, discouraging, and dysfunctional.
Below, I share a real-life passive-aggressive encounter between a husband and wife, and explain how they could confront and change this destructive pattern of interaction using the process of “benign confrontation.”
For many, confrontation is a scary prospect: Whether out of fear of receiving a person’s anger or out of discomfort with exposing someone’s emotions, some people spend a lifetime hiding from face-to-face, direct communication about others’ behavior. Passive-aggressive individuals know this. They bank on it. In fact, they often select their adversaries based on who will be least likely to attempt to unmask the anger that they so desperately want to keep hidden.
The bad news for those who shy away from confrontation is that without directly addressing passive-aggressive behavior, the pattern will play out against them again and again. The good news is that benign confrontation is nothing to be afraid of. It is not an in-your-face, anger-inspiring, make-them-admit-what-they-did kind of authoritarian tactic. Rather, it is a quiet and reﬂective verbal intervention skill in which an adult gently but openly shares his or her thoughts about a person’s behavior and unexpressed anger. It is based on the decision not to silently accept a person’s manipulative and controlling behavior any longer.
See how the six-step process of benign confrontation plays out in this husband-wife dynamic:
Richard liked to relax at night when he got home from work. He loved his family, but when it came to the evening hours, he wanted time to himself. And for the month of January, he had had it this way. In helping their 2-year-old daughter, Hayley, adjust to a “big-girl bed,” his wife, Kelly, had taken full responsibility for the bedtime routine. By February, Hayley was able to settle down within 15 minutes and stay in her bed to fall asleep. One night, Kelly asked Richard if he could put Hayley to bed. Richard agreed with the request and went upstairs with Hayley.
From downstairs, Kelly could hear squeals of laughter. She thought to herself, “How nice that they are getting some playtime together.” After 20 minutes passed by, she heard the loud slam of a closet door, and wondered if Hayley needed a new diaper or change of pajamas. When 30 minutes had gone by and loud music started to play from Hayley’s room, Kelly could feel her anger rising. Forty-ﬁve minutes after she asked Richard and Hayley to go upstairs for bedtime, Kelly went up to the room and opened the door. Hayley was out of her ﬂeece pajamas and in a bathing suit, sun hat, Barbie sunglasses, and a pair of brand new, too-big, hot pink water shoes.
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Hayley ran to her mother with a huge, wide-awake smile: “Bedtime so fun!”
Kelly glared at Richard and exited the room quickly. When he returned downstairs another 35 minutes later and faced Kelly’s angry barrage of questions about what he was thinking and why he would defy the soothing bedtime routine she had worked so hard to create, Richard feigned innocence: “What? We were just having some fun!”
The situation was clear; Richard didn’t want to bother with bedtime routines. Rather than tell Kelly this, and risk an argument over sharing childcare responsibilities, he chose a passive-aggressive response to the situation. The cunning of his personal choice was unmistakable: If Kelly had argued with his stated intention of having fun with his daughter, she would surely have appeared an uptight, no-fun mother—and an overly controlling wife. Richard’s strategy netted a significant short-term win for both his daughter and him: Hayley thoroughly enjoyed bedtime that night and thought her Daddy was the coolest in the world—and Richard would not be called upon to help with this evening responsibility for months to come. Winning a battle, however, sometimes results in losing the war. The long-term impact of chronic passive-aggressive behavior on Richard’s marriage was already beginning to take its toll.
Not wanting to continue harboring feelings of chronic irritation toward her husband, but also unwilling to carry all of the childcare responsibilities on her own, Kelly can use benign confrontation to communicate with Richard about the incident.
1. Know it when you see it.
Once Kelly is aware of typical patterns of passive-aggressive behavior, she can recognize that her husband is expressing unspoken reluctance to give up his evening free time through the intentional undoing of an established bedtime routine. Rather than responding with anger or having a bedtime tantrum worthy of their two-year old, recognizing Richard’s behavior for what it is will help Kelly keep her cool.
2. Decline the Invitation to argue.
While Kelly waits downstairs for Richard to put Hayley to bed, she should manage her rising anger through self-talk strategies: “Richard didn’t want to put Hayley to bed tonight. Rather than telling me in words, he is showing me through this passive-aggressive behavior. I will not allow myself to get caught up in a no-win argument.”
Read the rest of the article on PsychologyToday, or use the link below:
For more information on how to confront and change passive aggressive behavior at home, in school and in the workplace, please check out The Angry Smile text or register for our online training at https://www.lsci.org/angry-smile-online
This week, I had the honor and pleasure of traveling to one of my favorite cities–New Orleans, LA– to present at the CPI Conference on The Angry Smile and strategies for understanding and changing passive aggressive behavior. This article summarizes some of what I shared with this great group of professionals.
This week, INC Magazine online published a nice feature article about passive aggressive behavior at work, featuring several strategies from my first book (co-written with Drs. Nicholas & Jody Long) The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, Check it out here:
A middle school Special Education teacher from Wisconsin recently reviewed my book, How to Be Angry, on her blog, Half-Past Kissin’ Time and on Amazon. She has some great insights about using the book with tweens and teens. Please check her review out here:
Is there a person in your life who procrastinates, carries out tasks in intentionally inefficient ways, is quietly manipulative, creates minor but chronic irritation in others, and makes you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster? If so, you may be working or living with a PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE person.
REGISTER TODAY FOR THE ANGRY SMILE ONLINE TRAINING to discover how to stop frustrating arguments, endless conflict cycles, and relationship-damaging wars of words.
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Six students from the Freetown Elementary School in Maryland recently completed the How to Be Angry curriculum. They were kind enough to share with me their feedback on the activities, lessons, and games and gave me permission, in turn, to share it with you! Special thanks to Aimee Meyer, their teacher who led the lessons, and all of the kids who are such gracious and enthusiastic learners!
Most important thing I’ve learned so far …
- “Bullies are not cool.”
- “I learned how to use I messages instead of you messages all the time.”
- “I learned about passive-aggressive behavior. That’s what I do.”
- When prompted for more information, the student said “You know, like when I mope around, shuffle real slow down the hall, soft-talk and work real slow or not at all. Now I know how to calm down better.”
- “I learned that you don’t have to take things out on someone else all the time. I only knew how to do that.”
What I have enjoyed the most about these lessons …
- “I liked when we did the activity with putting magnets underneath the types of anger. The magnets told us what the types of anger looked like and what we could do when we feel these.”
- “I’m moving to different parts of the room when we gained our opinions to something. We learned how to respect others’ opinions and that it’s okay to have different opinions.”
- “I really liked the game where we lined up by our birthday but we couldn’t talk. It was hard and we had to use our hands, fingers and faces to do it. We learned about nonverbal communication. It’s important.”
- “I liked how there were a lot of games. There was one at the beginning of each lesson and they were pretty fun.”
If I could improve on this book in one way I would …
- “Add more games. They are a lot of fun and active.”
- “Give the kids a workbook so they each have their own.”
- “Add pictures and colors to the worksheets or a Kid’s Workbook.”
Note for Educators: Handouts for kids in How to Be Angry are reproducible! You may feel free to make kids their own workbook to use as you are conducting each session. The kids recommend it and so do I!
Thanks again, kids!
All the best– Signe
This week, two new reviews of How to Be Angry were posted on amazon.com by two new readers–both Moms–one a therapist, one a manager. I am completely honored to get this feedback from both of them:
Leslie TenBroeck writes:
As a licensed therapist (a good one) and a parent (a so-so one), I found this book helpful in all realms. I’m always on the lookout for good group therapy curriculum, at the same time, trying to help my very emotional and rigid son find new ways to manage his anger. The book is written without a lot of jargon, which I find to be a plus. This would be great for schools as well.
PA Mom writes:
I am not a therapist or a teacher. I am a mom and a manager of a large team. WOW – this book is an AMAZING tool. As soon as I started reading it, I became instantly aware of how I express anger, and how my son expresses it. But what I learned also applied to my management role. I’ve already started applying some of the principles and techniques at home and at work, and I’m amazed at the results. A little awareness goes a LONG way. And I must agree with one of the other reviewers – the confirmation that anger is healthy is really refreshing. What this book does, is help us — ALL of us — to learn how to express anger in a healthy way. Highly recommend this book!
Check out these and other reviews at:
Amber had been giving her mother the silent treatment all week. She was angry about not being allowed to sleep over at a friend’s house. Late Thursday night, she left a note on her mother’s pillow, asking her mom to wash her uniform before Friday’s soccer game. When Amber returned home from school on Friday in a rush to pack her gear, she looked all over for her uniform. She finally found it in the washer-perfectly clean, as per her request — but still soaking wet! Amber was late for her game and forced to ride the bench.
When all was un-said and done, Amber’s mother felt defeated. Having one-upped her daughter in the conflict, it was clear to her that she had lost by winning. As parents, most of us have been in situations where traveling the low road is irresistible and we become temporarily reckless in our driving. But anytime we mirror a child’s poor behavior instead of modeling a healthier way to behave, our victories add up to long-term relationship damage and lasting hostilities.
So, what could Amber’s mother have done differently in this hostile un-confrontation? What can any parent do to avoid the agony of victory and the defeat of healthy communication? The following guidelines offer parents strategies for maintaining their calm in a passive-aggressive storm and responding in ways that lay the groundwork for less conflictual relationships with their children and adolescents.
To read more, please click the link below or visit the original post, on the Huffington Post Parents section.