Dealing with Passive-Aggressive People

We all have to deal with difficult people in the workplace. Either as a boss, an employee, as an executive dealing with other executives or boards, or in many other situations. And one of the biggest skillsets is dealing with passive-aggressive people.

In short, dealing with people that never raise a problem to your face, but then prevent progress or sabotage things behind the curtains.

This can be an especially frustrating problem because technically, the person never does something bad enough to create a big conflict, but they just manage to make every single day that much more aggravating, which builds up over time.

In this article, we won’t cover trying to get to the root cause of the problem. It can be anything from someone bitter over someone else being promoted, to just a personal dislike of the person, to many other circumstances.

So, we’ll just talk about actually dealing with passive-aggressive people.

We’ll talk specifically about four techniques you can use (from my Ultimate Persuasion Psychology framework) to better deal with passive-aggressive people in the workplace:

Four Techniques

1. Empathy

Empathy helps people soften up. It’s not often used, but it’s immensely powerful.

And since most passive-aggressive people are usually bitter about something, empathy really helps them lower their guard.

And with more authentic conversations comes higher compliance.

The best way to leverage it is in the form of simple statements of empathy:
“I understand this must be hard”
“I understand this is not an ideal situation”
“I understand you must be feeling disrespected”

Statements of empathy are usually about the person or the situation. And both can work:
– The person (“You must be feeling angry with this, naturally”);
– The situation (“I understand this is a frustrating situation”);

In fact, just using the statement “I understand” already goes a long way.

It’s not a silver bullet. Not everyone will be softened up with empathy. But it does work frequently to disarm the person and allow you to speak about what’s wrong.

3. Rigidity

This technique is a bit about “dropping the hammer”.

If you’ve tried to be kind, to understand them, to be lenient, but they just won’t cooperate… then it’s time to be rigid and turn off the humanity.

(Just kidding. You don’t have to turn off the humanity switch. But you understand my point)

The biggest problem with passive-aggressive people is that they promise to deliver something and then don’t. So… just force them to do it.

Simply be rigid about deadlines and tasks to be done. Then things become simpler.

I would argue that one of the biggest problems when dealing with passive-aggressive people is that the person gives them too much freedom in the first place. So they have the freedom to take their time or… not do anything.

Simply removing that freedom and defining strict rules makes it very clear.

At the end of the day either they did what they needed to or not. Very simple.

3. Implementation Intention

Implementation intention is a persuasion superweapon. It simply defends that, when you force people to visualize the specifics of doing something (the implementation), they are more likely to do it.

For example, saying to someone, “Tell me how you would support project” instead of “Tell me if you would support this project”.

This forces the person to generate options about how they would make something happen. They may not be the perfect options you had in mind, but they will generate options.

The best part is that the person is the one coming up with the solution, so you are getting them to collaborate (whether they like it or not), and they don’t even realize this.

4. Intent Labeling

Intent labeling, in short, means forcing the person to state what they’re going to do. There are usually two manifestations of it.

The forcing is forcing the person to state something in the first person. Let’s say you want to someone to be on time for the meeting tomorrow.

The usual case is you ask them whether they will be on time, and they say “yes”.

But I once knew a great manager that got people to show up on time 99% of the time.

His secret? He would make people state it in the first person.

“John, are you going to be on time for this meeting?”
“Yes, I am”
“Ok, then please repeat it back to me. ‘I will be on time tomorrow'”.
“Uh, OK. I will be on time tomorrow”

This works due to the psychological principle of consistency. In short, when we state something, we are more likely to value it and act according to it.

So when you force someone to state something in the first person, they are more likely to do it, because they don’t want to contradict themselves.

The second type is active choice.

Normal choices are passive. Reactive. “Are you going to deliver this?”, the answers being “Yes” or “No”.

Active choice makes theses choices active. In the first-person. So you ask, “Are you going to deliver this?”, and the person either has to say “I am going to deliver it” or “I am not going to deliver it”.

It’s very similar to the previous usage. By forcing the person’s choice to be active, they have to state in the first-person what they are going to do.


Although dealing with passive-aggressive people can be one of the hardest and most frustrating tasks in the workplace, it can be made easier with the application of a few, simple persuasion techniques.

Naturally, as with everything in life, it’s not a silver bullet, but it will help deal with this type of person.

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