Encountering passive/aggressive behaviour is inevitable. Sooner or later, we all have to deal with difficult people. And very often, these situations are steeped in passive/ aggressive behaviour. It can be uncomfortable, emasculating and can even make us lose our self-respect. All of which eats away at our sense of confidence, especially when it happens in the place we work. In this article, we're going to look at why these encounters happen, and what we can do to engage positively with the people behind the behaviour.

As human beings, we tend to grow with every challenge placed before us, and when we look at life's obstacles from this kind of perspective it can create meaning to motivate us to grow. If something doesn't feel right, if we feel less confident or confused, it's usually because our mind is trying to tell us something. Some of us will remember being constantly picked on at school, and how that experience made us feel like the world was out of our control. For many, that same feeling continues into adult life.


When we don't have a foundation of self-confidence, encountering passive/ aggressive behaviour can often make us feel bad, and very often, angry. But there are a few things we need to understand about the people who are passive/ aggressive. Okay, so every single one of us can be passive/ aggressive from time to time, but when someone else directs that kind of behaviour towards us it can be because they feel like their needs are not being met, or something is out of their control. Passive aggression is an emotional device that someone uses to confront something or someone without being direct. It can be confusing, unnerving, and it can even make us question ourselves.


Let's pause for a moment to clarify the above statement; not all passive/ aggressive behaviour is as malicious as it sometimes sounds. In fact, many people are passive/ aggressive because they fall into a habit of addressing things indirectly, often without realising they are doing it. This might be because they've been reprimanded early in life for confronting authority and have developed a backdoor method of addressing a concern. Other's might use the behaviour as a kind of self-defence mechanism and a means of concealing what they perceive to be their own personal weaknesses.


Whatever the reason, it's important for us to understand that difficult people have a place in our lives, and it's up to each one of us to determine that place. We can allow them to really get under our skin and let our feelings fester inside of us, or we can use the situation to assert ourselves when we feel a line has been crossed. Of course, it's best to decide up front what our line in the sand is before we enter into a confrontation. The idea is to rise above their behaviour and regain control of our own feelings.


In some respects, humans are not much different from primates. Yes, we've reached a much higher level of consciousness in our evolution, but we still have those primal instincts within us. And much like apes, we tend to poke at the weak spot.


For example, most of us are aware that chickens have a pecking order. The pecking order is simply just that; if we have a group of five chickens, one of them will be the dominant alpha and will peck on the other four. The second most dominant chicken will peck on the other three, but never the alpha. This chain of dominance is carried all the way down to the fifth chicken, who is pecked on by the entire brood.


We are a special species on this amazing planet, but these instinctive traits are still a part of us. And this baked-in behaviour of dominance often reveals itself in the form of bullying; in school, in the office, and at home. Make no mistake, in some cases, passive/ aggressive behaviour can be a form of adult bullying and we should stick up for ourselves as soon as we encounter the behaviour.


The emphasis here is on the word 'behaviour' because we are looking to solve a behavioural problem, not a 'person' problem. We should always try to separate the person from their actions and understand that at some point, that person was an innocent child. They had to learn to behave the way they do. The goal is not to change that person, but to correct their behaviour, just as we should be constantly correcting our own.


The first thing we want to do when confronting passive aggression is to assert ourselves with our bodies. Standing face to face, with our shoulders back and our hands on our hips, or in our pockets, we are, on a basic level, showing that we have no fear. And while we might not be in charge of the environment, (think of confronting a passive/ aggressive boss or supervisor) we at least feel comfortable in that situation. Most of us have more emotional strength than we realise and adopting a confident stance will transmit that aura of strength to the person we are confronting, on both a conscious and a subconscious level.


Sometimes, however, body language isn't enough. If the behaviour continues we might need to assert ourselves with words. Speak matter-of-factly, and cut straight to the core of the conversation. If necessary, we may have to clearly call out that person on their behaviour. By doing this, we force the passive/aggressive person to either accentuate the behaviour, which leads to more confrontation, or they immediately understand that we will not let them push us around and they cease their behaviour.


Situations like these invariably lead to one of the two outcomes, so it's best if we are prepared for both. So, what do we do if the passive/ aggressive behaviour continues? Asking, reasonable and rational questions is a good way of stopping the situation from escalating further. Ask the antagonist why they are behaving the way they are, and why they are saying the things they say.


Of course, they will tend to deny everything, but typically for passive/ aggressive people, we won't be the only ones who have noticed their behaviour. We can call on our colleagues for support and if possible, to provide proof. There comes a point where each of us has to decide how much we are willing to put up with. If the behaviour persists then, generally speaking, we have no other choice but to take the situation to HR, the manager of another department, or even the boss.