Try This One Change with a Passive-Aggressive

By: Christine Hammond, LMHC

One of the most frustrating experiences is to live or work with someone who is constantly passive-aggressive (PA). Their refusal to accept responsibility even for the most minuet things is aggravating. At home or work, there is a constant flow of tasks needing completion which are outside normal expectations. PA’s will not take the initiative and they refuse to see that the task needs to be done in the first place. When they finally agree to completing a task, it is rarely on-time, it lacks the quality they are capable of performing, and there is no added creative value.
However, when a PA decides they are going to achieve some level, they shine. This is perhaps because the expectations for their performance are already reduced to lower levels based on previous experiences. Or it could be that they conserve all of their energy by not doing other things so that they have more energy supply to complete what they want. Or it could be that unless they make the commitment, it won’t happen. Supposing that the last argument is the reality, here is the one change a person can do to motivate a PA.

Out passive their passive-aggressiveness. The natural initial reaction is that nothing will ever get done this way. Think for a moment about what methods have already been tried and failed:

  • ·         There is the bulling tactic where the PA is forced into doing something because, “I said so.” This rarely works because the PA will just highlight the other person’s aggression as an excuse to set some arbitrary boundary and therefore not do the task. In fact, many times the PA will incite a person into some sort of rage just to use their behavior as justification for non-performance.
  • ·         There is the cognitive argument tactic. In this case, the other person makes a case similar to a lawyer in a court room outlining all of rational reasons for the PA to complete the task. The person strings the PA along by asking them to agree to smaller points in an effort to get them to concur with the bigger picture. But when the final point is made, the PA will not agree and begin to poke holes in the argument. This conversation usually takes so much time that the other person decides that it is not worth the effort.
  • ·         There is the consequence/reward method. This is similar to an elementary school environment where a student receives a sticker or reward for good behavior. When the behavior is poor, the consequence is no play time. Unfortunately, most PA’s have learned how to outsmart this method at a very early age.  By internally saying they don’t like stickers or having play time, they are now free to do whatever misbehavior they want.
  • ·         Last there is the emotion plea. This is frequently done in the form of a guilt trip. The other person tries to guilt the PA into performing an action by saying, “I wish someone would do this task for me like Karen does it for Joe.” The usual response from the PA is, “Why don’t you get Karen to do it for you.” Again, the PA has not acknowledged the responsibility and has instead tossed it onto someone else.

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." - Albert Einstein 

How to out passive a PA. This is not about not having a conversation; rather it is about changing the manner of speech. Here are the steps:

  • ·         Step 1: Begin with the end in mind. Before the conversation starts, know exactly what point needs to be made. For instance, a person wants a website design to be completed. This is the goal of the discussion.
  • ·         Step 2: Don’t begin the conversation talking about the other person’s wants. Using the above example, don’t even talk about the website; rather make small talk in order to gain some commonality. Be sure to ask a few questions about the PA’s feelings on other matters completely unrelated to the topic.
  • ·         Step 3: Use one area of commonality to demonstrate empathy. This is the disarming step for the PA. When the PA senses an empathic response, they let their guard down.
  • ·         Step 4: Hint at the website. This can be done by saying, “I know you have so much on your plate right now, is there anything I can help you with?” This opens the door for the PA to bring up the subject of the website. If they do, they now own it and step 5 can be completed. If they don’t, repeat steps 2-4 but only do this once. If they still won’t own it, stop the conversation and resume it another day.
  • ·         Step 5: Ask open-ended questions. Do not ask leading or close ended questions which are limited to a one or two word answer. Rather, after they have brought up the website say, “Tell me more about how things are going.” This invites the discussion. Resist the temptation to direct the conversation, make suggestions, or take over the website project. Be vague in answers and responses. This forces the PA into accepting some sort of responsibility.
  • ·         Step 6: Be satisfied with whatever is accomplished. Small steps for a PA are better than no steps at all in the form of resistance.


Remember, this article is for PA’s and should not be used for other personalities. It can be quite dangerous to use this procedure with someone who is on the sociopathic scale because they will use the opportunity to take further advantage. Other personalities might become annoyed at the process and further shut down. But with a PA, this works.

To schedule an appointment with Christine Hammond, please call our office at 407-647-7005.

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