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.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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