Harvard psychologist: 7 things the most passive-aggressive people always do—and the No. 1 way to respond

2 mins read

Disagreeing with one another can help us learn more about ourselves. But it can be frustrating when passive-aggressive behavior is involved.

This is when someone indirectly expresses negative feelings instead of openly addressing what’s bothering them. We’ve all done it, even though it rarely solves anything.

As a Harvard-trained psychologist, I’ve seen how difficult it is for people to navigate interactions when the other person won’t acknowledge their true feelings.

Here are seven things the most passive-aggressive people always do, and how to respond:

1. “Everything is fine!”

This is a prime example of what happens when someone’s nonverbal communication contradicts the message they’re delivering. They’re saying one thing, but it’s clear from their tone of voice, inflection or volume of speech that they’re upset. 

Similar signs: Saying, “I’m not mad!” or “Whatever. It doesn’t bother me.”

2. Silence 

3. Sarcasm

A common sign of passive-aggressive behavior is when someone responds to you with an underlying tone of resentment, hostility or general displeasure.

Similar signs: Making a rude comment or joke that is indirectly intended to offend.

4. Mumbling under their breath

Another way people communicate in a passive-aggressive manner is by continuing to have a dialogue with themselves, under their breath, about what they would actually like to tell you about their emotions. 

Similar signs: Making dismissive or aggressive facial expressions at you or talking to someone behind your back, but within earshot of you.

5. Withholding affection

Avoiding touch, for example, whether it’s holding hands or a pat on the shoulder, makes it clear that they’re dissatisfied with you — even if they won’t say it directly to you.

Similar signs: Not making eye contact or brushing off efforts to touch and reconnect.

6. Resentful agreement 

When someone is upset, they may go along with something they don’t want to do, but maintain a bitter attitude through the experience.

Similar signs: Saying, “Fine, you win” — and sulking after the fact.

7. Pretending to cooperate

Sometimes people will say they will do something, like clean the kitchen or help pay the bills, but then deliberately not follow through. Not complying with a request or following through in an incomplete or less-than-ideal way speaks volumes.

Similar signs: Saying yes to something, but doing a poor job to spite you.

The No. 1 way to respond to passive-aggressive behavior

If you get any of these responses, I recommend respectfully communicating your experience of being around them. 

You could say something like: “I know you’re telling me you’re not upset, but it doesn’t feel that way to me.” Or, “I get the impression that you’re upset. Do you want to talk about it?”

Someone who is acting in a passive-aggressive way is feeling a strong emotion that they aren’t admitting directly, so they may react poorly, even to loving efforts to resolve it. If this happens, stay neutral.

Remind them that you care and are willing to talk if and when they’re ready. In the meantime, walk away and focus on what you do have control over: you.

Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, is a board-certified psychologist and author of “Letting Go of Your Ex.” She specializes in marriages, love addiction and breakups, and received her clinical training at Harvard Medical School. She has written nearly 50 peer-reviewed journal articles and delivered more than 75 presentations on the psychology of relationships. Follow her on Twitter @DrCortneyWarren.

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