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How to Navigate Passive Aggressive Communication

We've all encountered passive aggressive people. Some of them may be your close family members. It can feel draining and impossible to know how to respond to this type of communication. I'm going to walk you through how to deal with passive aggression in a way that protects your emotional health and fosters more direct communication.


Step 1: Identify the passive aggression.


Passive aggressive statements have 2 layers: 1) the overt message, i.e. the words literally said, and 2) the covert message, i.e. what is implied in the tone and way something is said. The overt message is usually polite while the covert message can sting.

Pay attention to how your body receives the message and when the words don’t sit right. Your body often holds knowledge that your brain may not have caught up to yet. Because the intent of passive aggressiveness is hidden in the covert message, it can take a second to realize it’s happening.

Once you recognize the passive aggression, allow yourself to acknowledge and validate what your body has noticed. Take a moment to pause and slow down the conversation as not to let it get away from you. Scripts to do so can be found here.


Step 2: Ask for clarity instead of responding directly to the passive aggressive message.


When you've recognized the discrepancy in the overt and covert message, ask them to clear up the confusion. Say something like "I hear you saying this, but for some reason, it feels like you're saying this." Give them the opportunity to speak openly or explain why their words seemed to contradict their implied message. Your directness may open the conversation to the root of their feelings, or the other person may double down.


Step 3: Respond only to the overt message.


Respond only to the overt (spoken) message they are giving you, not the intonation or covert message that may imply something beyond their literal words.


For example, if they say they don’t mind if you go to the movies without them, then go to the movies without them! Even if you detect passive aggression and that they actually do mind.


Ultimately, that person is responsible for communicating their needs and expectations. You aren’t responsible for decoding hidden meanings behind words.

By only responding to the overt message, you are making it clear that honest, clear communication works better than passive aggression.


Step 4: Be a safe person (with boundaries).


It's important to recognize that people who communicate passive aggressively do so because at some point they learned that it was unsafe to express themselves openly and honestly.

In order to improve communication with this person, you can establish safety by being a safe recipient of their emotions. This often involves leading by example. If appropriate, share your own feelings honestly.

Creating this environment of clear communication with boundaries set for covert messages is ultimately better for both parties.

It’s not an overnight fix. Just because you’re attempting to remedy the communication doesn’t mean other people will be ready and receptive to it. We can only control our own engagement. Therefore, be sure to hold space for your own emotional health, validate your experience, and act in alignment with the direct, overt messages being shared.

Unsplash: Maarten Deckers


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