When dealing with difficult people, it is important to remember that it is the behavior, not the person, which is the key focus. Behavior is what we see displayed by the person – how one acts. Difficult people may display either direct aggressive behavior or passive aggressive behavior. Behavior that is passive aggressive occurs when a person has feelings of anger, frustration or discomfort (aggressive), but displays those feelings in an indirect way (passive). Dealing with behavior that is passive aggressive can be challenging, because it is subtle. You may sense that “something isn’t right”, but it may not be clearly obvious about why that is.
You may ask “Why would anyone display behavior that is passive aggressive?” Consider this: the main reason we all behave or act is to have our own needs met. For example: Let’s say that you received a promotion at work – one which you earned ‘fair and square’. You notice that Susan, one of your co-workers, seems to be avoiding you; she is smiling and making eye contact with everyone in the hall – but you. This is not how you have experienced her in the past, and you feel puzzled and unsupported. You later hear through the office grapevine that Susan (who had also applied for your position) has been running down your credentials, saying that you are too young, and that you are inexperienced. When her own needs of recognition and achievement were not met, she displayed behavior that was passive aggressive. It was aggressive in that the intent was rude and non-supportive; and it was passive in that Susan did not approach you directly. Instead she ignored you, and criticized you behind your back.
If we don’t feel comfortable or confident in bringing our true needs forward, for possible fear of rejection or confrontation, or for fear of embarrassment, such as in this case, then we may, for example, decide to “be pleasant” to gain favor; but underneath we do not feel pleasant at all. We remain frustrated and misunderstood, even hurt. What happens next is that the person attempts to have his or her needs met indirectly. For example, people may:
- Make others feel guilty (guilt trips)
- Play the martyr (they are always wronged)
- Use a sarcastic tone of voice
- Constant gossiping (telling others rather than speaking with the person directly)
- Use excuses or justifications
These are indirect attempts to gain attention and favor from someone in the hope that “they will come around”, or change their behavior and instead do what we want. Very often, one who is displaying behavior that is passive aggressive is not directly aware of their true needs – they do not even know what it is that they want! In this case, we may assume that the person who is jealous does not want the other person to have favor – BUT – what does she want to do? It is hard to read. Ideally, it would be best for her to accept the situation, but rather than doing that, we sometimes display these passive aggressive behaviors in order to soothe our own hurt feelings.
When dealing with difficult people, how can you use leadership skills to effectively handle someone who is displaying behavior that is passive aggressive? Here are some well researched steps you can take:
- Let the person know that you sense there is something “different” going on for you. Gently draw them out, rather than confronting them directly, in order to give them the opening to possibly respond to you: “I sense that you’re not 100% – is everything okay?” You can follow up with a more specific question that is more direct: “Is there anything I’ve done to cause any problems?”
- Provide a safe environment that is free of rejection, in order for the person to express their needs. For example, you might encourage someone by saying “Whatever you’re thinking or feeling is okay – I’m not going to judge you”. Let them know that it’s okay to share anything.
These first two techniques let the other person know ‘that you know’, and it also sets a boundary, letting them know that at some level you’re onto them.
- If the other person does openly acknowledge their behavior that is passive aggressive, use Self Disclosure – the “Me Too” factor. “I’ve often felt frustrated as well”.
- Use the “X, Y, Z” formula to state how the other person’s behavior makes you feel:
- “When you do X(behavior), I feel Y(feeling).
- What I would like instead is Z(desired behavior from the other person).
- Can you do that? Yes or no?”
Be sure to get their agreement, otherwise the behavior may not change!
An example of this would be:
- “When you sighed heavily and rolled your eyes when I said I couldn’t join you for lunch, I felt guilty and frustrated.
- What I would like instead is for you to accept my needs with a simple ‘okay’.
- Can you do this? Yes or No? Thanks for hearing me out – I appreciate it”.
The key? When dealing with people who display behavior that is passive-aggressive, know that it says more about them, and their needs not being met, than it does about you! The best thing that you can do for yourself is to gain awareness, trust your own feelings, and be prepared to implement the techniques mentioned above. Dealing with difficult people is an art – which can be learned! Know that as you continue to add tools to your tool kit, you will increase your confidence and ability to handle any difficult situation.