Dealing With Passive Aggressive Behaviour

An annoyed woman holding a phone away from her ear and looking frustrated

Dealing With Passive Aggressive Behaviour

Tara Thomas

Hey, I'm Tara, relationship coach & couples therapist.

I'm definitely a weirdo, and have never traveled a conventional path-
It sucks because the world isn't designed for misfits, sometimes it's myself I'm rebelling against, and being a weirdo can be lonely.

I swear a lot, think life is too short to waste on drama & bullshit, and dream of a world where we ALL belong.

Tara Thomas

Hey, I'm Tara, relationship coach & couples therapist. I'm definitely a weirdo, and have never traveled a conventional path- It sucks because the world isn't designed for misfits, sometimes it's myself I'm rebelling against, and being a weirdo can be lonely. I swear a lot, think life is too short...

Nothing is more frustrating than the low key buzz of passive aggressive behaviour. Like, did they really just fucking say that?! And what do I do now? Tara Thomas & Kia Handley talk about how to navigate the PAP (Passive Aggressive People). LOL. I just made that up.

Table of Contents


    You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on socials here, or listen to more of her works here: This Retro Life & Let's Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

    While no longer behind the microphone at ABC Newcastle and NSW, she now spends her days working in communications and advocacy in the Aged Care and Community Services sector. 

    Kia: Let's talk about passive aggressive behaviour. Do you wish you could deal with that a little bit like this:

    [plays audio clip]

    deep voice: Well you don't have to suffer any longer. Introducing a revolutionary spray called "real talk": rehabilitating evil liars to act candidly.

    Let's see this baby in action, folks!

    high voice: Is this yours by any chance? Oh shirts… they hate being on the floor!

    *sound of spray*

    Is it possible for you to not leave your things on the floor? We could both help each other keep the apartment clean.

    Is There Really a Spray for Passive Aggressive Behaviour?

    Kia: Unfortunately there is no magic spray for passive aggressiveness, so what can you do instead? Relationship Coach Tara Thomas is here, good morning

    Tara: Good morning Kia

    Kia: Do you wish there was a magic spray?

    Tara: Oh my gosh that's so funny… shirts, they hate being on the floor

    Kia: They HATE being on the floor [both laugh]

    Tara: Yes! I wish there were a spray, I do. But interestingly, to tie in with your theme, one of the things that can defuse a passive aggressive behaviour super-fast is to bring copious amounts of joy

    [Kia laughs]

    They hate it.

    Kia: But it's not always easy to do in the heat of the moment.

    Tara: No, that's right.

    Passive Aggressive Lego Knight
    Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

    What Does it Mean to be Passive Aggressive?

    Kia: Alright, let's talk about what passive aggression is to start with. What do we mean when we say that?

    Tara: So I guess, in its simplest form, it's indirectly expressing anger or displeasure. It's emotional manipulation, actually, so it's behaving with someone as though you mean one thing. You might say one thing but your actions indicate you feel another way,

    Or it can be more, I guess, kind of manipulative. Like it can be more deliberate.

    So there are really two types of passive aggressive behaviour. One is someone who just isn't good at communicating and can't ask for what they want, and the other is really covert aggression, so it's very calculated and deliberate.

    Why Do People Behave Passive Aggressively?

    Kia: Why does it happen? Why do we see this happen? Why do some of us do this more than others?

    Tara: Yeah, I think for the people who just aren't aware that they're doing that, they might be someone who is conflict averse, so they believe that anger is bad or that it's dangerous. Or they don't feel like they can say no. they feel like that might threaten a relationship.

    And then for the people who are covertly aggressive, that's a sort of a different thing. That's someone who is in a quite calculated way, deliberately trying to undermine you or manipulate you in some manner.

    So there are the people who don't know they're doing it it's the way they've been patterned, you know,  We want to be good, we don't want to rock the boat, we don't want to ask for what we want,

    And then the people who are deliberately doing it, I think it's something a little bit more sinister.

    Confident woman flipping the bird with both hands and sneering.
    View more by Khosro

    What Should We NOT Do?

    Kia: How do we on the whole instantly react when someone is being passive aggressive towards us?

    Tara: It can be really hard. It can be hard to get a clean read on whether its really happening or not. Because the thing about passive-aggressiveness is it's often such small instances of it that in the moment you could be wrong. Am I being oversensitive? Are they really doing that? But the cumulative effect over time means that it does become a really big issue for you.

    Kia: Yeah, and…

    Tara: Yeah, in the moment, I guess the initial response for a lot of people is to be defensive.

    Kia: Yeah, surprised, defensive, a little bit like, almost double taking. Like wow, did they actually just say that?

    Tara: Sure, and the reason why you feel defensive is that while it's called 'passive', it really is an aggressive move. So the interesting thing about it is that the person who is doing that behaviour usually perceives themselves as a victim, but they're actually behaving as the aggressor.

    How COULD We Respond to Passive Aggression?

    Kia: Alright, so you mentioned joy is a way to turn it around, how should we react in that moment? What is a better way to deal with passive aggressive behaviour?

    Tara: So, of course it depends on the specific type of behaviour, so it could look like silent treatment, punishment, procrastination, sulking, doing things resentfully, or it could be a completely different thing at work, it could be undermining you. So it depends on the situation.

    But the key is, to


    Manage your own emotional state

    Manage your own emotional state, and to keep your own boundaries clear. So don't buy into that drama.

    Kia: Easier said than done I feel [laughs]

    Tara: Right! It is! It is. But the thing is, you know, the whole setup of a passive aggressive behaviour, the whole setup is to make you do what they want you to do, without them having to assume responsibility for asking, or for letting you know how they feel. So if you don't buy into that, then it automatically defuses it. Of course that's not as easy as it sounds, though.

    Kia: Yeah

    Reflect Incongruence

    Tara: So another thing that you could do, is you could reflect that incongruence in their behaviour back to them. Some people don't even realise they're doing it, it's just a… the way that their family interacted, you know, so it's a lifetime pattern.

    So you can say things like "you're words say that it's okay for you, but your tone makes me think that maybe it's not. Are you sure that it's okay for you to do that?"

    And just kind of, reflect that mismatch in the way that people are approaching you.

    Fragile friendships -friends arguing
    Image from Canva

    How Do I Know If I Am the One Who is Passive Aggressive?

    Kia: Cause that, I think, brings us to the other side of the conversation. Is if you are completely oblivious to the fact that maybe that is how you are coming across, if someone then says "hey did you realise that what you're saying is quite passive aggressive", how can you then take that on?

    Tara: It can be hard to hear. You know, it can be hard to hear that the way that you are doing things is causing harm in that way. So if someone is saying that to you, you might want to reflect "am I being obtuse?" one of the things about someone who is passive aggressive is they often think you know everyone is so unfair, they're so mean to me, or they treat me so badly, no one wants to help me, cause they're expecting someone to mind read what they want.

    So I guess if you're not sure if you're passive aggressive, you might ask yourself "do I ask clearly for what I want? And do I say no clearly when I don't want something, or am I kind of hinting at it?"

    Is it Ever Okay?

    Kia: Is there a time and a place for passive aggressiveness?

    [both laugh]

    Tara: Ah… um… no [laughs]

    I mean, you know, we all do it. We all do it. The silent treatment is a classic example. Sometimes you don't want to go into the detail or the depth… but what's important is to you have the capacity to clearly ask for what you want, and to manage the feelings that youre having.

    Because often as well, someone who is really passive aggressive is filled with resentment and this bubbling anger, and they're not expressing that well, and that can be really physically and mentally harmful for them.

    How Do We Move Forward?

    Kia: Ten minutes away from ten o'clock, you're on ABC Newcastle mornings with Kia Handley on this Monday morning, in the middle of chatting relationships with Relationship Coach Tara Thomas.

    We're talking passive aggressive behaviour today, so how do we move on from this? Cause often it can cause a little bit of bitterness. So if we are now at that point where we can have that conversation, how do we then reset, from both sides of the discussion.

    Tara: Yeah, so, I mean it's a really difficult conversation to have. Especially if someone is oblivious to the fact that they are behaving in a passive aggressive way. So one thing that I would suggest is to be really kind and to just understand that you know what? They're just trying to manage difficult feelings that they've never been taught to manage. And it really plays into that whole wanting to be good, and wanting to be nice, and wanting people to like you. So it might take time. So be kind, and give it some time. It might not be something that's resolved overnight.

    But in terms of moving forwards, you really also need to be able to assess;

    How important is this relationship? is it family, is it friends, is it someone who you maybe don't need to see again?

    And what's the level of risk of having a deeper conversation. Because if it's someone who is in a position… say it's your boss, for example. If it's someone who is in a position of power, where there's a power dynamic and you want to get into that conversation, it might ramp up. You know, it might get worse.

    So you have to assess that and then kind of just see how you go…. If you start reflecting to someone "oh hey, the way that you're behaving is kind of passive aggressive and it makes me feel like maybe it's difficult to have conversations with you or work with you, because I have to guess what you want. And then see how they respond to that.

    And you're going to need to then decide beyond there, on your own strategy. Am I going to engage deeper? Or am I going to need to set up some firm boundaries when I'm interacting with that person?

    A coffee cup that says "I'm sorry for what I said before I had my coffee" there are biscuits on a plate and a pink vase of flowers.
    Image by freestocks-photos from Pixabay

    Should We Just Let it Go?

    Kia: Yeah, and if they keep playing it off… because some people keep playing it off "oh well im just joking", playing it off as a joke, how do you… is there a point where you just have to let it go?

    Tara: Well yeah, there is… if they're not responding to you reflecting that to them, there's a point where you need to let it go. But let it go might mean, you know what? I don't want to spend time with that person. You might say "hey, you're continuing to do this thing and it's really getting to me, I don't want to spend time with you." or you might just stop spending as much time with them.

    But I would also be asking yourself from the other side, am I being oversensitive? Some people are patterned as well so that as you're growing up, you think that a compliment is a veiled criticism.

    Or that someone asking if you want any help, "oh can I help you with that" is telling you that they think that you don't do a good job.

    So there are all of these other ways where we might be oversensitive, so reflecting as well, you know, am I reading too much into what they're saying? And could I maybe be working on my self-esteem in that instance as well.

    Kia: We are very confusing as humans,[Tara laughs] there is always more than one side to everything , Tara thanks for going into this with us this morning.

    Tara: My pleasure Kia

    Kia: Relationship Coach Tara Thomas there, talking about dealing with passive aggressive behaviour.

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    For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been edited for readability and flow, and to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "passive aggressive behaviour" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same.

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