5 Tricks to Handle Passive Aggressive People

This week, by request from Steve in Boston, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen helps you deal with the passive aggressive people in your life. Because, after all, you’re not passive aggressive...unlike some people you know. 

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #179

image of a girl looking passive aggressive

Slights with a smile. Silence when you know they can hear you. Compliments with a side of side-eye. Passive aggressive people know how to serve up a veritable buffet of “Oh no she didn’t.” And tacking on “LOL” afterwards doesn’t negate things.

However it manifests, passive aggression is the fine art of being angry without seeming angry. There are two ingredients: anger and avoidance.

The first, anger—or its cousins annoyance, frustration, or irritation—always bubbles beneath the surface. But trying to suppress anger is like trying to keep a lid on a pot of boiling water. Eventually, it will spew out like a steam vent.

In addition to thinly-veiled anger, the second ingredient in passive aggression is avoidance. It’s a way to avoid conflict, avoid feeling genuine anger, and avoid having to be direct in a situation where one feels incapable.

Individuals who are passive aggressive learned somewhere along the way that it’s not okay to be angry. Maybe they were taught that conflict is so threatening it has to be avoided at all costs. Maybe they were taught that being “nice” is the only option. Or maybe it’s their way of expressing their dissatisfaction without outright rebellion.

So what to do when your partner insists through clenched teeth, “I’m not mad.” Or your teenager says with an eye roll, “Geez, you didn’t tell me you wanted me to do my laundry today”? Or your roommate spells out “I unclogged the drain” in bathtub hair that looks suspiciously like yours? Here are 6 tips to try.

How to Handle Passive Aggressive People

  1. Tip #1: Look for a pattern.
  2. Tip #2: Make it clear that it’s safe to talk it out.
  3. Tip #3: For incurable cases, validate them…
  4. Tip #4: ...hold them to their responsibilities…
  5. Tip #5: ...and reward them when they’re properly assertive.

Let's explore each a little further.

Tip #1: Look for a pattern.

We’re all human, and we all have our days. Sometimes a comment or an eye roll will leak out, like a spurt from a steam vent.

But if it’s a pattern, or a default when things get stressful, passive-aggression needs to be dealt with.

But dealing with it is precisely what the passive aggressive person is trying to avoid. Passive aggressive people avoid conflict like the plague. They’re too scared or just don’t know how to handle conflict, so they avoid it. But then resentment builds and their hostility leaks more than a porcupine’s raincoat. Which brings us to...

Tip #2: Make it clear that it’s safe to talk it out.

Passive aggressive people are afraid you’ll yell at them, reject them, stop loving them, or otherwise react in a much stronger manner than you actually will.

It’s particularly important to call out passive aggressive behavior at work. Passive aggressive colleagues are often unhappy or insecure in their jobs. But rather than raising the issue, passive aggressive co-workers create obstacles, waste time, and generally make everyone’s job more difficult, not to mention less pleasant.

Therefore, whether at work or at home, make it clear you would rather hear about problems than leave them roiling under wraps. Critically, reinforce this by not reacting with the very thing they’re afraid of. If you blow your top, belittle them, or otherwise silence their anger, they’ll go right back to letting it bubble under the surface again. They’ll go right back into their shell, like a hermit crab with only the claws hanging out.

Now, if you try to talk it out but they still deny anger or dissatisfaction (“Me? I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” Or, “Sorry I was late, but you should have sent a reminder email,”) things suddenly go to a whole different level. Which brings us to...


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.