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Passive Aggression: Meet Your Needs by Communicating Clearly

A couple of weeks ago, while reading a post on a different personal development site, I found a comment from a reader who seemed to question the blogger’s intentions and integrity, as it pertains to how he does business.

This reader was direct. She didn’t beat around the bush; she came right out and communicated how she felt. For this reason, and because the comment was based in assumptions, it read as somewhat harsh and judgmental.

Another reader responded to that comment, starting with something along the lines of, “Wow, now isn’t this a wonderful learning opportunity for both of you!”

In other words, this experience (of the reader offering a critical comment) provided room for the both the blogger and the reader to learn something.

However, this reader then went on to defend the blogger with wording that seemed passive-aggressive.

While she first wrote that it was a learning opportunity for both people, her comment then read like a list of reasons the first reader was completely out of line—albeit phrased with words that seemed positive and constructive.

I realized that I recognized passive-aggression because it’s something I’ve experienced before—on both sides of the table.

In our attempts to be “positive people,” we might feel a need to stifle our anger and avoid directly confronting people—as if critical thinking is always negative.

But sometimes we may want to address something that’s bothered us, whether it’s something that pertains to us, or someone else we care about.

It’s only by having the courage to speak up, respectfully, that we can all help each other learn.

Speaking up respectfully isn’t the same as phrasing everything positively.

Speaking up respectfully requires us to be clear and direct with our intentions and message, and to accept the consequences of offering it—meaning, understanding that we can only control what we say, not how it is received.

You’ve probably been on the giving and receiving end of passive-aggression at least once or twice.

It’s the note your roommate leaves that reads, “I know you probably meant to do the dishes! Don’t worry—I’ll do them tonight, even though it’s not my turn!”

It’s the fifth time your boyfriend “forgets” to wash your white clothes separately, and the argument he later makes for why he’s just not good at laundry.

It’s your wife’s inexplicable hostility, when underneath that is something she wants you to do, but without having to nag you to do it.

(Or it’s your note, “mistake,” or antagonism.)

It’s anger, suppressed and expressed indirectly—and it’s both ineffective and confusing.

Someone can only meet our needs when they understand them; and someone can only recognize the potential impact of their actions if we’re brave enough to call their attention to it.

When I first started trying to become more positive, I quickly squelched all critical thoughts, labeling them as “bad.” Ironically, I did this because I thought it was bad to be critical of other people—and in making that judgment, I set myself up to frequently judge myself.

What I didn’t realize is that I needed to be more discerning between critical thoughts with some constructive intention, and critical thoughts that came from my ego.

The critical thoughts with a constructive intention served a valid purpose, whether it was to help me maintain my boundaries, communicate my needs, or honor my values.

The critical thoughts that came from my ego usually had to do with fear, wanting to make someone else wrong to feel superior, or even projecting onto someone else the character traits I wished I didn’t have.

The first type of critical thought is crucial, since it’s a prerequisite to taking care of ourselves. And sometimes, it may also pertain to taking care of people we love, by speaking up when we see someone mistreating them.

So how do we recognize and avoid passive-aggressive behavior?

The first step is to accept that you have a right to feel angry.

You can still be a positive person and feel emotions we typically label as “negative.” And you can be a loving friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, mother, or daughter while still feeling anger in response to something the other person has done.

Trying not to feel angry doesn’t make anger go away; if anything it makes it more powerful.

The next step is to foster self-awareness about what it is you need, or want to express.

If you don’t realize why you’re angry, it will be impossible to communicate it to someone else.

When you’re feeling something that confuses you, step back and take the time to ascertain the deepest root problem.

Are you really angry about a comment someone made, or does it have to do with something you assume that comment means—for example, that your friend doesn’t respect you?

Are you really upset over one thing someone failed to do, or is it about a pattern of behavior that you think means something—for example, that your significant other doesn’t take your needs seriously?

Ascertain exactly what’s bothering you, not just on the surface, but also underneath the event itself.

Of course, it could be just the surface level behavior—someone didn’t do what you expected that person to do, and that upset you. (It’s worth noting, once again, that other people can only meet expectations if we express them clearly.)

Once you know why you’re angry, ask yourself: Do I have a constructive intention in expressing these feelings, or is this coming from my ego?

The last step is to have the courage to be clear.

This isn’t always easy, especially if you’re a recovering people-pleaser like me. Owning your opinion or directly expressing your needs opens you up to a potential confrontation. But confrontation isn’t always a bad thing.

It doesn’t have to imply an argument or an attack. Confrontation can be direct and respectful—and even when it’s not couched with words that imply positivity.

It’s perfectly valid to say, “When you don’t return my calls for days, I sometimes assume that means you don’t see me as a priority.”

That’s a lot clearer than saying, “I probably shouldn’t even say anything, because I know you’re really busy and you have a lot on your plate!” While this might seem more positive and understanding, it doesn’t communicate your feelings. And communicating your feelings is integral to addressing them.

This is something I’ve been working on for a long time, and admittedly, I still struggle. When you’ve spent years being passive-aggressive, it can feel like a knee-jerk reaction.

But I know one thing for sure: Every time I am clear and respectful about what I feel, I feel proud of myself for having the courage to own that. And every time I resolve an issue that might grow if left unaddressed, my relationships feel stronger.

The woman who left that comment on the post, I know she’s a lot like me—and all of us, I imagine. We all feel strongly when we believe someone is attacking or judging us, or someone we care about.

For me, that was the learning experience—the reminder that we’re allowed to feel what we feel, and we’re most effective when we communicate it clearly.

Photo by Michael Dorokohv

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About Lori Deschene

Tiny Buddha Founder Lori Deschene is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook series and co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an eCourse that helps you change your life. She's now seeking stories for her next book, 365 Tiny Love Challenges from Tiny Buddha. Click here to share your story and follow on Facebook for inspiring posts and wisdom quotes.

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  • http://www.Furries-happyclub.com/ The Furries & The Happy Club

    Absolutely true in every word! Thanks!

    Giving critique or advice is a delicate area of life but being clear and direct in your communication is the only way to go.

    Think before you give advise to somebody

  • friend forever

    Lori,
    I think this article of yours clearly reflects and shows how much deep you delve into topics and your simply wonderful ability to provide the best solutions to them.

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Lori, this is a truly helpful article. I know it helped me a lot when I met my partner who just wouldn’t “play” the passive-aggressive game with me. She wouldn’t attend to any of my stuff that had worked so well in the past for me! ;-)

    While that helps, it also takes a LOT of awareness to catch myself being passive-aggressive, especially when I cloak it in terms of just “trying to be nice.” I really appreciate you gently calling us out on this behavior.

    I’m sure you’re familiar with Brene Brown’s work on shame, vulnerability, and authenticity. She encourages us to live wholehearted lives in which we be as genuine as we can which includes assertive communication.

    Thanks for a great post! Will be sharing it today most definitely!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000638362807 Julie Lombardo

    “Speaking up respectfully requires us to be clear and direct with our intentions and message, and to accept the consequences of offering it—meaning, understanding that we can only control what we say, not how it is received.”

    Yep.. the “how it is received part” is the greatest challenge to accept and sometimes deal with no matter how well we communicate. This is where my mom’s advice of “choose your battles well.” comes in handy… not every grievance needs to be aired… sometimes letting go is the best option… sometimes doing the dishes yourself is better than dealing with a potential meltdown from another’s ego.

  • Chris

    Thanks Lori,
    Love this article. I’ve been dealing with similar issues but specifically this was a large part of my ex’s frustration with our relationship. I am also a (hopefully) recovering people-pleaser having found out I am severely codependent. The straight-forward tips in this article are very succinct. I have been trying to figure out how to change my behavior and this article has helped change my perspective on how I look at my (re)actions.

  • lv2terp

    Fantastic!! This is hard to overcome..oh boy! Thank you so much for sharing your experience :) Another blog that resonates within me, you are a gift to me everyday! :)

  • Mother

    Thank you for writing this at the absolute perfect time for me to read it.

  • http://optimalternative.com/ Mark B Hoover

    “You make me feel like ……” Another form of passive-aggression. No, nobody makes you feel anything, unless it is physical pain, then you have reason to withdraw or strike back. What is needed is to clearly convey to the other that what is done causes you to feel a certain way, “I feel this way because……” Put the onus back on the one creating the situation, but accept responsibility for your response.

    When we attribute our feelings to another’s action[s], we simply abdicate our responsibility for those feelings. Then we become the victim. It may seem a safe place to be, but the anger and resentment bury themselves beneath the surface and wait to burst forth at a moment when we may not want them. Toward something totally unrelated. We never properly address the original situation. Then it deepens into depression.

    People need to learn how to live more authentically. Many disguise their shortcomings by transferring them to others, veiled as criticism or saccharine retribution. In short, they really are giving away their power. “It’s anger, suppressed and expressed indirectly—and it’s both ineffective and confusing.” It’s projection. It’s aiming an arrow at the sky and missing. Again, authenticity from the get-go keeps it crystal clear, understandable. Negotiable. Once that is established, communication abounds.

    Thanks, Lori, for the synaptic effervescence.

  • julia elena calderon

    Thank you so much. This is exactly what I needed to read.

  • Gen

    Some people can’t handle the truth and call others over emotional. Bs

  • Bobbie

    Thanks so much for that! I practice passive aggresive-ness with my family and its exhuasting for everyone involved!
    I think sometimes we are passive aggresive because we want people to notice our distress and take action, and work towards making it better. What we don’t always recognize, is that when being positive, we might not appear to be upset and therefore cannot convey the need for care and attention appropriately!
    Excellent bog!

  • ck

    What a good article! Feeling the anger and expressing your thoughts and not being Passive Aggressive is so hard to do. It is especially hard for me when I am trying to juggle too many emotions at one time. I was in a relationship for a long time that was all Passive Aggressive. Its been very hard for me to unlearn and I am often defensive with others because of the experience.

  • Kheisty

    As always, your timing is amazing. I struggle with wanting everyone to be happy even at my own expense. It makes my responses rather snarky. Now, to avoid that, I just shut down for a day or two until I feel rational. Still doesn’t really work. Thanks for reminding me that its okay to be justifiably angry.

  • Kathryn A

    This is a fantastic article, Lori, thank you. I will definitely revisit this one, and share!

  • Jess

    I am a people pleaser and consequently suppress anger because I don’t like confrontations. I know that communicating emotions is important for but I’m working on communicating effectively and getting my MAIN POINT across instead of worrying about how I’m making the other person feel. Thank you for this, it reinforces what I already know but need to practice on!

  • http://www.sixsimplerules.com/ David Singer/SixSimpleRules

    Lori:

    This is an extremely valuable and well put together post. Thank you.

    In addition to personal life experiences, this happens ALL THE TIME in workplaces.

    People are afraid of confrontation. When you want the same outcomes as the other person, when you have the same goals, constructive criticism is collaborative. As long as the criticism is constructive, a way around fear of confrontation is to view it as the collaboration that it is. You ARE being nicer by collaborating than by avoiding confrontation.

    Thanks again.

    Best regards,

    David

  • Irving Podolsky

    Dear Lori,

    The more I follow your blog, the more I’m impressed with your mind and the level at which you use it. You would not be happy with a life partner who did not go as deep as you do to understand the nature of souls.

    But getting to one aspect of your article, and there were many, I’d like to expand the idea of why a people-pleasers might send coded messages that come off as passive- aggressive.

    I think people who softly confront issues are afraid of losing a friendship or commitment from a romantic relationship. Consequently they establish their resentments in ways than later can be denied if emotionally challenged by their partner. It’s all about the loss of perceived love and caring.

    But what it there to begin with?

    You have to ask yourself, what truly IS the relationship? Is it loving and caring or is it something that is approaching that level? Or is it none of that but you wish it were that?

    The bottom line is: sustaining HONESTLY. What kind of relationship do you have without it? Is it worth fighting for if you can’t feel and BE free within it?

    Because if you can’ freely express your feelings within a personal relationship, perhaps the quality of that union isn’t worth the sacrifice of suppressed and potentially damaging emotions. And if the bond IS something worth saving, then it MUST be tested. Only they will you TRUST it.

    Without TRUST, there cannot be love.

    Irv

  • charles

    could you not add to ““When you don’t return my calls for days, I sometimes assume that means you don’t see me as a priority.”” “Is that true?”?

    This would, I suspect, enable the other to reflect without feeling attacked. And, if not true would enable a compassionate response or maybe if true promulgate a valuable conversation which would clear the air.

    As I understand a basic Buddhist teaching, the observer and the observed are one in the consciousness of the observer; so, if it helps the observed to have space for reflection and dialogue, then it also allows the observer to essentially have a valuable conversation within their self with the aid of the the observed.

  • Kareena

    I needed to hear this today. I am usually a assertive person, but I was having trouble with owning my feeling, and doing something about it.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi everyone! Today is my sister’s wedding, so I might not respond to comments until tomorrow or the next day. I look forward to doing that when I have time!

  • Bee

    i was in a cafe today and looked up to see a woman with a push chair trying to squeeze behind me. i said, you just have to say excuse me and i will get out of the way. i could not see you there. she still said nothing as i moved. and then i left. i felt like a villain because the whole place was silent. all day i have been running this around in my head . . .was i unreasonable? am i over-reacting?

  • Sarah

    These are good points, but I’d like to hear more. The line still seems fuzzy. When people say things indirectly, hinting at what they are really wanting to say instead of saying it, it strikes me as disrespectful that they don’t honor me enough to come out with the truth. Sometimes they may be aiming at tact, but it seems like passive aggressiveness. I’d like to see some tips for how to avoid being perceived as passive aggressive.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much. I’m glad you found this useful!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I’m glad you found it helpful Bobbi! I know what you mean, about awareness. There have definitely been times when I wasn’t fully aware of what I was doing (and times still when it takes a strong effort to catch myself). I am a huge fan of Brene Brown’s work. Her TED talk on vulnerability really inspired me!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s wonderful advice! Not everything requires a confrontation. It can be tough sometimes, at least for me, to recognize when I need to speak up, and when I can/should let something go. I work at it!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I’m glad this helped Chris! I’ve been codependent as well, and it’s been a life-long journey of recognizing and changing that behavior.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome–and thank you so much!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! That’s a great point, about the “you make me feel” line of thinking. At one point, this seemed frustrating for me, as I thought it let people off the hook for thoughtless things they did. Then I realized that victimizing myself in this way was disempowering. I think you hit the nail on the head, regarding authenticity!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I know what you mean Bobbie–it *is* exhausting! You bring up a great point, about how we sometimes want people to recognize and make a change without a direct confrontation. There have been times when I’ve been annoyed that I even *had* to speak up–as in, “They should know without me needing to!” Then I’d feel even more frustrated with them–both the first offense, and for not recognizing my passive anger. I try to remember now that it may not feel comfortable to speak up, but it saves a lot more discomfort!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I know what you mean, about juggling emotions. It can be hard sometimes to recognize what the root cause of the problem is. I know it has been for me!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! I often feel that way as well–about wanting everyone to be happy. I need to remind myself often that I don’t need to be responsible for everyone else’s feelings; I only need to be responsible for respecting them.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome Jess! I’m glad this was helpful to you!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much David. That’s one thing I don’t have much (recent) experience with–relationships in the workplace. I’m a workplace of one! But I know what you mean, about collaboration being nicer than avoiding. I think while it may create one uncomfortable moment, it’s much better than creating unnecessary drama!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much Irving! Very insightful, about the fear of losing a relationship and the required trust. I have found that whenever I’ve found the courage to be clear (in times when I had that fear) I’ve either lost a relationship that wasn’t actually worth keeping, or strengthened my relationship.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Sure, you could add that. Great idea. =) I think it all comes down to taking responsibility for our feelings, and allowing someone room to address our concerns.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I’m glad this helped Kareena. =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I don’t think what you said was unreasonable; it’s true! I think sometimes when someone doesn’t know someone, they’re less apt to accept an honest assessment of this sort because they might feel judged or embarrassed (especially in a public situation).

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s a good idea Sarah. Perhaps I will write a follow-up post!

  • Sharmistha

    Lori, I loved the phrase “people pleaser”. For ages, I have been so…… Now, I am accepting myself in baby steps….

  • Jenny

    I’m passive aggressive, but i’m that way because i see how the “direct” type people are and they do come across as hostile and when a direct person isn’t happy it makes it worse because everyone that is around them gets to hear their unhappiness. So I think of it more as, i’m picking my battles lol The only thing is the past 4 days me and my boyfriend haven’t spoken, only the quick polite “acquaintance” talks for a brief period or really even slept in the same bed. We know it’s over but it’s kind of a touchy subject since he was the one to fly into his state away from my home state, and it started off with good intentions and VERY high hopes for a future. But sadly the reality is right there in front of us. I already have a bus ticket to go back home, but i have two more weeks of being here….haven’t told him yet but a room mate said that he had said “He now knows its not a forever thing and that he’s just enjoying the ride till it ends”. So that takes the pressure off of me, but two more weeks of this behavior…..It’s really fine by me since his presence of even being in the room with me brings negative feelings, it just seems like we’re both walking on egg shells, and the fact is we are still technically dating. So when i hear from the room mate of his behavior, like when the 2 other room mates were giving me the silent treatment and i didn’t know what was wrong, but he was there in the living room with them while i was isolated in our bedroom trying to avoid the negative vibes they were sending out with body language, KNOWING what they were saying about me….and he said nothing, and i know what kind of guy he is, he was adding on with his false comments about me. He’s on their side and it’s unacceptable. Till one of us says out loud that it’s over, he still needs to respect his girlfriend, it’s the least he can do for his behavior during this past month of being there with him and how he treats me. He can at least not embarrass me in front of the people i have to see and occasionally talk to, and now knowing what they are probably thinking of me because of something my suppose-of boyfriend said. And before moving in with him i hadn’t talked to him in 4 years, back when i was 17, so anything he says is totally from assumptions and not facts. SOOO, how the hell do i go ahead and start a heart to heart with this asshole and politely tell him that i’m leaving. I don’t know what to say to coax the topic up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.steines Chris Steines

    A beautiful post, and a wonderful perspective on how to deal with our emotions in a healthier way!

    One of the things that I find curious – and perhaps a little disturbing, although not really surprising considering our fast-paced world and general fear of interacting with any emotion that might be “negative” – is that so many people (myself included) have problems dealing with our more intense emotions, like anger, in a healthy way. There’s even a diagnosis for it now – Intermittent Explosive Disorder – which suggests, to me at least, that so many of us socially, globally, culturally need better ways to live and communicate.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s great, about accepting yourself! I take baby steps, in that regard, as well.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Wow, I’ve never heard of that disorder. I wonder if some of the diagnoses out there are a means to get people to pay for treatments they don’t necessarily need. I suspect a great deal of the emotional challenges we face can be addressed more effectively holistically. As someone who spent years on a cocktail of unnecessary medications–and felt limited by labels I’ve since shed–I can attest how damaging and inaccurate some “diagnoses” can be!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I know what you mean Jenny. I think it’s about finding a balance, so that we both choose our battles, and learn to be direct when we really need to speak up. I’m sorry to hear about what’s been going on with your boyfriend. I can understand how it might be difficult to have this conversation. I suspect there isn’t any suave way of bringing it up. In these kind of cases, I think it’s about mustering the courage and then just diving in…

  • OneDayAtaTime

    Let us know when you do I would like to read also!! Follow up on it.

  • Kali

    It may help to realize the person hinting is not dishonoring you, they are dishonoring themselves. Likely they do not know how to identify and deal with their own emotions, how to take appropriate action. Many of us are taught to deny our real feelings, hence we can not express them honestly and directly.

    The most helpful tip for not being passive-aggressive is to work on identifying your own emotions, feelings and where they are in your body. This brings clarity, then one can step back, deep breathe and look at intent. We ask ourselves what is my intention about communicating this feeling? What is an appropriate way to respond, rather than react.

  • Gourmet Prince

    Lori is super hot and wise. There. I was aggressive with my feelings!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much! =)

  • da Boss

    PA people need to just relax. They get so uptight and pissy about every little thing that bothers them even slightly. I am so tired of my friends passive aggressive nonsense. Ever thing is sarcastic and annoying, or just plain rude. And it makes things so damn awkward. Sooo done with those types of people. Do nothing but ruin your life. Sad thing is they don’t mean to do it, its just in their nature (due to stress, anxiety, etc), but they need to deal with it and learn how to overcome this “mental disorder”.

  • da Boss

    You people need to relax. Passive aggression just ruins the lives of people you “care” about and your own life. It ruins your image and destroys any character you once had. Your lives are a complete joke, and you act like this bullshit you’re living through is my fault or his fault or her fault, but in REALITY (something passive aggressive people hate) its your fault. Your attitude and actions got you where you are today. An angry, depressed, friendless, lifeless shell of what you could have been if you weren’t such a god damn prick! Man i hate people like you, i have a friend like you, he nearly drove me to insanity. He can’t even have a straight conversation with ANYBODY without making it weird and awkward.