passive aggressive

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Communicators

As mentioned before, I like to focus on receptive and expressive intelligence, which I call CQ. Passive Aggressive Communicators (whom I call the PACs) have a low dose of CQ and can often trigger your own CQ to plummet as well. It takes a great deal of skill, self-empowerment, and candor to remain unfettered and productive around PACs.

My way of dealing with these people is simple: when they are being slippery and elusive, I know I need to be forceful and direct. This cuts through their unclear communication and forces them to speak honestly. In the end, it’s better for everybody involved.

You know you’re in the presence of a PAC if you start to think to yourself:

  1. “What is this person getting at? Why won’t they just say it?”
  2. “I don’t understand what this person is saying, but he certainly is talking quite a bit.”
  3. “When will she get to the point? She’s been floating around it for over ten minutes now.”
  4. “I need some clarification before I can commit to this person, but he seems so enthusiastic. Does he understand what he’s proposing?”

This can be frustrating to no end. There you are, standing with a drink in your hand, listening intently to someone you only just met, and they are weaving a tale that doesn’t make a bit of sense. Still, you were drawn to them initially and you don’t want to throw away what may very well be a fruitful interaction. How do you respond? Try something like this:

  1. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’ve lost me. What is it you’re getting at?”
  2. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I don’t understand. I have a few questions before you continue. [Questions]
  3. “Hold on. I’m sorry, but I’m a little confused. In one sentence, what do you want me to know?
  4. “That’s all well and good, but before I make any promises or commitments, I need clarification in a few areas. [Questions]

The important thing to remember is that passive aggressive people get wrapped up in a lifestyle of never being straightforward. Don’t let them pull you into that. Responding assertively to them may be unexpected, but your way of communicating – clearly, effectively – will leave no wiggle room for them to guess at what you’re saying. And, if anything, asserting yourself will raise you in their esteem as someone who is not interested in nonsense. That reputation is more valuable and comforting than all the fluffy chitchat in the world.

Now, you may have noticed that in 3 of my suggested responses, apologizing is always one of the first things I do. That’s because, as useful as candor is, compassion is an important balancing factor. In all those situations I could have said something like this:

    1. “Stop. What are you trying to say? Just spit it out.”
    2. “Hold on. You’ve been saying nothing but nonsense. What are you getting at?”
    3. “Get to the point already.”
    4. “Despite all your grandstanding, I’m still not sure if you’re serious. Do you understand what you’re proposing?”

Saying things like that can burn a bridge that you may want to cross later. Balancing out your candor with a dose of compassion is the best of both worlds: you’ve filled in the gap of your understanding and avoided being rude. By being compassionate, you’re being respectful to someone who you may have, admittedly, judged incorrectly. You cannot know a person’ whole story in a single night, but neither can you afford to waste your evening.

If you’re ever caught in a quagmire of someone speaking passive aggressively (PACs), do not hesitate to be assertive and to communicate clearly and effectively (CQ). You’ll get farther and it will save you a very unwelcomed headache later.

I hope this has been helpful to you.

Be well.

14 Responses to How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Communicators

  1. Great tips. It is always important to be clear and concise in words and deeds. There is nothing worse than the long rambling pointless shifts of someone who otherwise seems interesting.

  2. Dandy says:

    Hi Clare,
    This is a wonderful post, really helpful. Everybody deals with people who are passive aggressive and we all have moments where we are tha passive aggressive. I agree with you that the way to approach this is to be direct and forcefull. It takes them out of their own heads and they don’t take the time it takes to think of something slippery to say. This is a really smart post! Thanks!


  3. Karen says:

    Good post. Thanks for those tips.

    I don’t come across those kinds of communicators all that often, but I like your advice, and will apply it the next time I do.

  4. Steven says:

    I too feel the need to demand clarity when people beat around the bush. However, you have to be careful not to be too forceful about it. It’s a game of balance and proper calibration. Good post!

  5. Dia says:

    Hi Clare,

    Very nice post. I like the tips you gave. Thanks for sharing :)

  6. Maria says:

    When I can’t stand the person, I come up with an excuse and leave him. If he is a nice person, I ask him a question. It must not be a question that has anything to do with what he is taking about. To me it seems that people who talk nonsense just did not know what to talk about, but wanted to start a conversation.

  7. Interesting article on communicating with difficult communicators!

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  9. Nora Femenia says:

    Many thanks for this post! we need to keep educating people suffering from confusing communication, and establish a more decent, healthy way.
    You can find more resources here:

  10. Guest says:

    Thanks for this article! Just figured out that I ended up speaking with a PAC – very frustrating, as the PAC was falsely accusing me… so I had to be the assertive one to ensure that the conversation went straight to the point, and ended with a resolution… oh well, I did the best I could, but bridges were burnt. However, this article will definitely help me in the future if I ever encounter another situation again.

  11. Bee says:

    My housemate just threatened to move out because I ate the last of the spag bol I cooked. Yes really. She’s so passive aggressive and has been indirectly catty and snidy (sp?) all week and tonight she just snapped. Apparently, she’s also had a problem with my boyfriend for ages, but never came out and said it and has just been incredibly passive aggressive all this time. This article rang true on so many levels! 

  12. Brett says:

    Clare, Thanks so much for the clear information.  I have been in a relationship with a woman who is very much a PAC.  I have been warned by her family members which has helped some but recently when our relationship has almost shipwrecked and I have been doing research on what our communication break down really is.  Now as far as her part I know this is a major area and I need the tools on how to deal with her in a direct yet compassionate manner.  These tips will certainly help! 

  13. Meredith says:

    Clare:  My boss is like this and I hadn’t put together her rambling communication with her passive aggressive behavior before I read this (I was searching “dealing with PA people” when I found this).  I had actually started incorporating some of these tips in my communication with her already, and understanding where it’s coming from really helps.  What about the next step, though?  What comes after I say, “You said you don’t want me to do it this way, but I am not sure how you want me to change”, and you get nothing more than “I’m really not giving you an answer here, am I?”–true interaction last week!

  14. Lola says:

    What I am seeing with passive agressives is that they are manouvering around issues,  so I totally agree with the article. I owuld however also like to point out that they are deeply resentful and have a lot of pent up anger,  some of which is generated from fear of being honest and fear of communicating their needs, because in a PA environment it is often used against them.

    So I would say the fear is actually rational. Although this pattern will remain even when they are not in a PA environment any more, which is a shame

    However, I was also able to observe that they have a need to punish people they could not stand up to and that is sometimes why they are not direct in communicating what they want.

    An example: if I want to go to the cinema really badly and the PA is trying to punish me by preventing me from going, he will not say that because he knows it will not be accepted.

    So what I am saying is, PAs have different needs to normal healty people and so there comes a point when they HAVE to hide it because they know they are trying to cause harm and most people will not want to be seen responsible for causing harm.

    The pay off for the PA is that the other party suffers.  That is their reward.  So they want two things in a relationship. Things they want to get and things they don’t want you to get.

    So getting them to be direct is good, but will only accomplish so much.

    The way they operate is they identify the key needs you want and make sure they imply/promise that they will give them to you but in a vague manner so you can not hold them to account. They then make sure you get very little of what you want and very slowly, but that they do enough to get by and keep you in the relationship, so that they can obtain the things they want out of it, while trying to make sure you only get very little of what you want.

    This gives them a sense of control. The trouble is, the party on the receiving end will usually become unhappy pretty soon. And at the end of the day, whoever causes the problem if it’s not working, it’s not working.

    Even if the PA can not be blamed directly, the fact there is a problem is obvious.

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