How to deal with passive aggressiveness

By Claire Munnings,
updated on May 5, 2022

How to deal with passive aggressiveness

Struggling to know how to respond to an awkward person in your life? Unspoken tension and passive aggressive behaviour can wear you down, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Our experts have coping strategies and top tips to help you tackle the situation…

The chances are we’ve all experienced passive aggressive behaviour in one form or another. Whether it’s a friend giving you the silent treatment, a work colleague ‘misunderstanding’ your instructions, your partner making subtle comments about the division of chores, or a sullen teenager slamming their bedroom door, a sense of indirect hostility can fester under the surface of many situations.

But just how can we deal with it effectively? And what is at the root of this behaviour?

“To put it simply, passive aggressiveness is a way of behaving that is indirectly aggressive rather than directly aggressive towards others,” explains mindset coach Ruth Kudzi. “It can show up in a number of ways – someone may claim that they are fine, when it is clear this isn’t the case, they may refuse to respond to requests, share negative feelings through subtle actions, or make you feel guilty about a situation.”

The problem is that this type of behaviour is often so subtle we tend to brush over it, or pretend it hasn’t happened – which doesn’t help in the long run.

“It’s the passive nature of the aggression that means it can be so covert it’s hard to identify as aggressive,” says love and relationships coach Emma Spiegler. “But, passive aggression must not be underestimated for its slow and detrimental effects, as it can ruin a relationship. And this is the thing – when we’re on the receiving end of passive aggression, we can end up second guessing our own behaviour. This can have a devastating effect on our confidence, self-esteem, and our emotional health. It can also impact other areas of our life, including our relationships, social life, and work life,” said Emma.

The more that we allow the energy from the passive aggression to impact us, the more it can erode our wellbeing

Time to take action

Keen to stop these endless conflict circles, or understand how to react in different situations? Our experts share their tips…

Identify it: “The first step to dealing with these situations is to watch out for signs of passive aggressive behaviour, so you can be aware of when you’re experiencing it,” Ruth advises.

Emma agrees. “The key here is to not get sucked into the covertness of this behaviour,” she says. “You need to name it for what it is – aggression. This can be a hard step, because often denial is easier than challenging something head on, and change can be uncomfortable.”

Passive aggression can take many forms, and you may not be fully aware you’ve been experiencing it. But, if something feels hurtful or someone is being deliberately awkward, it’s likely that they’re being passive aggressive – even if they don’t realise it.

Consider what is driving the aggression: While there are not necessarily excuses for this behaviour, understanding its triggers can be useful. “Many people who display passive aggressive traits are uncomfortable having difficult conversations, or believe that sharing emotion is to be avoided,” explains Ruth. “Equally, some people are more likely to display this behaviour as they may view passive aggression as more socially-acceptable than direct anger.”

Deep-rooted emotions and long-held views can have an impact, too. “Some people may have simply not learned how to communicate directly, openly and honestly about their feelings,” Emma says. “They may also have a low sense of self-worth, driven by wounds and beliefs developed in childhood or adulthood, that means they resort to this type of behaviour to gain a sense of power,” she adds. It may be the case that they feel simply unhappy in a certain situation, or underappreciated, too.

Talk about it: “Once you’ve identified that someone is displaying passive aggression, it’s time to address it in a non-confrontational way by recognising this behaviour, and giving them an option to talk about their emotions,” recommends Ruth. Employing different communication strategies can be useful, and it’s important to prepare for these conversations properly. How you broach the subject will depend on a lot of different factors – who the person is, your relationship, the type of behaviour you’ve been experiencing, and the length of time it’s been happening.

Emma recommends trying a four-step process that involves explaining your observations without judgment, expressing your feelings calmly, clarifying your needs, and then conveying specific requests based on these points. “At the more extreme end, where this passive aggression is chronic and has severely impacted your self-worth, I would advise seeking help before you confront the behaviour,” she adds.

Take a step back: In some cases, the best thing to do is remove yourself from the situation as much as possible. “If you can’t physically remove yourself, try to emotionally remove yourself so you don’t let the behaviour impact how you feel,” says Ruth. “The more that we allow the energy from the passive aggression to impact us, the more it can erode our wellbeing. Remember this isn’t about you: it is down to the person being unable to communicate how they are feeling effectively.”


Photography | Hunter Matthews /

How to react

Emma shares her tips on how to cope with passive aggressive behaviour in different situations:

With work colleagues
It’s important to acknowledge that your feelings matter in the workplace, and your emotional wellbeing should be looked after here. Many people fear they can’t say anything in case they lose their job, but this shouldn’t be the case. Address the situation directly with your colleague, or speak to someone higher up. The chances are that others feel the same way.

With friends
Passive aggression in close friendships can be tricky to address, as it’s easy to let certain behavioural traits become part of your relationship dynamic. Let them know something has been playing on your mind, and arrange a time to speak. When you do so, share a few recent examples of the behaviour, and express your feelings. It’s good to open up the dialogue, and be prepared to listen in case there are ways you might have been contributing to this dynamic.

With strangers
Crossing paths with a sulky shop assistant or a rude family at the park is not unusual, but it can still knock your confidence. As you’re not invested in this relationship, remember that you don’t need to engage with it. With strangers, you have no idea about their level of empathy or communication skills, so it’s best to just walk away.

You might also like

Ruth Kudzi is a mindset coach, mentor, author, and speaker. For
more information visit

Emma Spiegler is a relationships and sexuality coach, and the co-founder of The Feel Good Rooms. Visit

By Claire Munnings

Claire Munnings is a health and wellbeing journalist, interested in helping people find happiness in their everyday lives. She enjoys writing about how we can live more mindfully.

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