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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Are You Being Passive-Aggressive?

Dear Steve,

I recently took the Crucial Conversations course and learned about the silence-dialogue-violence spectrum. I believe my tendency is to go to silence at work, but violence at home. I’ve wondered why I react differently in these two situations. I speculated that perhaps the reason was that I felt safer at home. However, I recently realized that what may look like silence at work may truly be passive-aggressive behavior. This prompted the following question: Where does passive-aggressive behavior fall on the spectrum? Is it silence or veiled violence?

Earnest Self-Reflection

Dear Earnest,

Some years ago, I happened upon an article in the Money section of USA Today. The section started with an article about former IRS repo men, and, quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine anything being more riveting. I was wrong. There on the next page, appeared a title as if illuminated in neon lights: “When You’re Smiling, Are You Seething Inside?” Hmmm . . . repo men? Or smiling while seething? I think you can guess that I quickly switched articles. What I thought would be an exposé on specific individuals’ behavior turned out to be an exploration of organizational behavior—or, more accurately, collective behavior within organizations. It not only outlined the impact of passive/aggressive culture, but also the industries that were most prone to foster this type of culture. Reading this article started me on a path of thinking about and observing (and on occasion participating in) both individual and collective passive/aggressive behavior patterns. And so, after years of study, I can definitively say that the answer to your question is yes. If that seems confusing, let me explain.

Over the years, I’ve noticed something interesting about the silence-violence continuum. It doesn’t always behave like a true continuum. There are many instances where it is more accurately represented as an arc—and not the altruistic kind like Noah’s or Joan’s. In the case of this arc, silence and violence remain the anchors, but instead of being represented as polar opposites, they bend back toward one another. In many situations they touch, facilitating the surprisingly quick jump from silence to violence or from violence to silence. And so to your question. Passive-aggressive behavior can easily assume the form of veiled violence or silence because it is.

This may seem a little counter-intuitive, but silence and violence are rooted in the same value—fear. And while it might seem easy to make the connection between silence strategies and fear, the fear-to-violence connection wasn’t as easy for me to figure out. Some examples of violence motivated by fear might be: “I’m afraid you won’t agree with me so I have to assert control,” or, “I’m afraid I’ll be seen as less, so I have to go on the attack.” So if we think about silence and violence strategies as different expressions of the same feeling, what used to be well established boundaries start to blur. And sometimes, they blur to the point of not being able to clearly categorize the behavior.

And now, on to a question you didn’t ask but that I feel warrants being part of the discussion. There are two types of passive/aggressive behavior that I see most often as I work with different organizations. They take different forms in different regions of the world. So as you review them, see if you can identify how and where they show up where you live and work.

Sarcasm. This first type is more of an aggressive/passive strategy. It’s one of the most common signs that someone doesn’t feel safe while, at the same time, causing feelings of insecurity in others. Because it’s readily available—and we are surrounded by so many examples—it’s widely used. To be clear, there is such a thing as playful, fun sarcasm. But a lot of what I see in organizations is sarcasm rooted in the origins of the word. Derived from the Greek sarkazein, sarcasm literally means “to strip off the flesh.” Ouch! And in a lame effort to ease the pain of the cut, it’s always followed-up with some version of the old classic, “I’m only kidding! Can’t you take a joke?”

Gossip. This second strategy is more of the tried and true passive/aggressive approach. The idea is that whenever you feel you’re in a weaker position, you launch an assault behind the other person’s back. Never share your concerns, reservations, or controversial perspectives in the moment while talking directly to the other person. Instead, wait until you find an uninvolved third party with absolutely no ability to resolve any of the issues you bring up. Extra bonus points if you can talk to someone who might eventually leak the details of your concerns, without naming who had them, to someone who can do something about it. This version may seem less vicious when compared to the previous example, and yet it’s just as real in its long-term impact on the health of both the relationship and the culture of the organization.

Just to be clear, I don’t dwell on these wedge-driving behaviors for fun. I believe that the sooner we recognize we aren’t in dialogue—especially when we find ourselves on more artful, subtle departures—the faster we can get back to dialogue and the fewer the casualties. I wish you many passive/aggressive-free conversations!

Best of Luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

8 thoughts on “Are You Being Passive-Aggressive?”

  1. Sandra Shill

    Good article! Passive-aggressiveness drives me far more crazy than plain old aggressiveness (even if it’s negative), and, at work, it comes in more forms than just sarcasm and gossip. For example, there’s sabotage — someone doesn’t like a person or an idea that a person has but, instead of talking to them about it (or sharing their thoughts with the group during a meeting about that idea), they find ways to quietly sabotage the implementation of the idea.

  2. Gayl Bowser

    That last sentence really got me. “As soon as we recognize that we aren’t in dialogue….”

    That is the phrase I will hold on to and ask myself all the time. Simple, I know, but just what I needed

  3. Peter Eastman

    Interestingly, I have seen passive aggression used to an unusual extreme.
    I once witnessed a coworker (who was overwhelmed by a situation) slam down some books near a fellow worker. The fellow worker turned to a third coworker and said, “Tell him he can’t do that to me.”
    As you can guess, the situation overwhelmed coworker nearly lost it over that comment, the third coworker felt made responsible for the initial behavior, and the fellow coworker, when asked about that, didn’t understand the reaction – “I never even spoke to him.”
    I had quite of bit of coaching:
    * Attending to the emotional state of others was important part of that person’s job
    * Although the first coworker was out of line, setting someone up to fail was not one of our values
    * A more helpful response might have been – ‘You look really upset – what’s up?” which probably would have resulted in an immediate apology, a coworker who regained their own control, and nobody in trouble.

  4. Dave Colpo

    I’m sure it’s semantics but I don’t understand the term passive-aggressive. As a very young man a mentor described the following scenario. A lioness is lying in the grass calmly watching a herd of zebras. She’s not moving, seems relaxed … passive, right? But as soon as one of the zebras strays a bit too far from the herd she’s up like a shot chasing it down. Passive? Heck no, she was just patiently biding her time to maximize her chances of success. She was aggressive the entire time.

    Using silence to buy time, not tip your and at the attack that is building is aggressive. Even the description in your 2nd paragraph of jumping back and forth from silence (resting lioness) to violence (attacking lion) is the same.

    Sarcasm, gossip – nothing passive at all. Sarcasm is bad enough. Following up with the dig about not being able to take a joke just rubs salt int he wound in the attempt to make the object of the sarcasm the problem. There wouldn’t be a problem if you weren’t so sensitive.

    Sandra’s comment above (Passive-aggressiveness drives me far more crazy than plain old aggressiveness) is spot on. At least aggressive people who don’t hide behind pseudo-passivism are being honest about it.

  5. Bobbie Pepper-Penn

    Good article. I have a better understanding of passive/aggressive in conversations

  6. Brannon Burton

    I had an employee deliberately mess up new hire paper work because he knew I would take the brunt of the correction. It got to the point that my job was in jeopardy. Passive aggressive behavior can be extremely violent when executed with extreme aggression.

  7. Steve W.

    Thanks for you comments and examples. I love to hear how these things play out in your organizations and personal lives. Glad to know this has helped you to think about these patterns.

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