You are so angry you refuse to act, and no one can ever make you do what you
don't want to. This is as violent and destructive as a fist fight but so much
more deniable and self-righteous. If you want to look good while doing bad, this is the approach
for you, but don't be surprised if you get stuck in a long, painful, and
- Hostile Inaction,
- Covert violence,
- Covert defiance,
- Stealth spite,
- Seeking revenge by refusing to act.
Modes and Techniques
Here are some of the passive aggressive ways people express their anger:
- Grin fake: Saying “yes” and smiling pleasantly while meaning “no way”.
- Denying hostility; “who me?”
- Exploiting plausible deniability; “I never would have done that.”
- Looking good while doing bad.
- Delay and other forms of obstruction.
- The “silent treatment” and other forms of pouting and playing the victim.
- Stonewalling; stalling or delaying especially by refusing to answer
questions or cooperate.
- Manipulation; controlling people without letting them know you are doing
so. Acting outside of trust.
- Passive withdrawal, lack of response, lack of cooperation, sabotage,
- Suffering in silence . . . while fueling resentment, justifying
retaliation, and expecting to gain leverage, pity, or salvation for your
- Playing the victim, feigning powerlessness, pretending you don't have any
choices, denying your responsibility.
- Playing the martyr—publicly selecting (or acquiescing to) an undesirable
alternative for the purpose of justifying revenge or
- Talking about your adversary while never talking to
him about the troubling behavior.
Fueling the Fire
A particularly destructive cycle happens when a passive aggressive response
is used in a relationship with an overtly
hostile or violent adversary. The overtly hostile person is provoked into
performing a particularly violent anger display. This is then used to justify
the passive aggressive response: “I'll show him and I refuse to become violent
like he is.” This hostile inaction fuels the rage of the overtly hostile partner
and the cycle continues or escalates. End the cycle by working together to
travel down a constructive
This manipulation is difficult to defend against; the practitioners are often
experts and they may not even realize how destructive their actions are. Begin
by engaging them in a dialogue. Ask
one of these questions:
- “What are you thinking?”
- “What do you think?”
- “Why are you remaining silent?”
- “What would you like me to do now?”
- “What do you see as the next step?”
- “How would you like me to react when you do that?”
- “How do you see this issue getting resolved?” or simply,
- “What is bugging you?”
Wait silently and patiently and listen respectfully to their response.
Avoid insulting or
humiliating them, but don't grovel. Keep drawing
them out, encourage them to tell their story, don't interrupt, dispute, correct,
roll your eyes, wince, show anger, use sarcasm, or retort. Once they are talking they are no longer passive. Work toward a
respectful, responsible, and adult dialogue focused on the issue at hand. Act as
peers and stay calm and focused. Take appropriate
responsibility and accept blame for your
contributions to the issue. Offer or accept sincere
apology if that is appropriate.
Alternatively, position delay to your advantage. Invite them to take their
time, let you know when they are ready for the next step, and that you are in no
Finally the best approach may be to simply say: “I find your behavior to be passive
aggressive. It is hostile and destructive to our relationship and it is not
effective in resolving the issue. I would like you to take a more constructive and less hostile
approach. What are you angry about?” Be prepared for
denial, revenge, self-righteousness,
self-justification, insults, and more passive aggressive manipulations. Work together to
travel down a constructive
Perhaps you recognize passive aggressive behavior in yourself and you would
like to change. Here are some approaches that can help:
How to Use Power Phrases to Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, & Get What You Want,
by Meryl Runion
The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes,
by William Ury
Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People: How to Beat Them Without Joining Them,
by Ronald M. Shapiro, Mark A. Jankowski, James Dale