• I recently helped a divorced couple to sharpen their co-parenting skills. Because I’m not a therapist, I focused my attention toward arriving at a better way for each to listen to the other with a goal of reaching an understanding. Ever the optimist, I’m hopeful that they will do a better job communicating with each other about the kids.

    What I observed, practically from the very beginning, was that the mom had a passive-aggressive style of communication, and it led to the dad’s confusion rather than his understanding. 

Here are some examples of what she did and/or said: 

  • When the dad stated that he wanted a closer relationship with his kids, the mom rolled her eyes
  • Then she sarcastically replied, “of course you do.”   
  • She went on to condescendingly say, “Sweetie, then why don’t you want to see them more than once a month?” 
  • And before he could even respond, she concluded the moment with unsolicited advice:  “If I were you, I’d give them a call every night after dinner.” 

She provided four direct examples of passive-aggressive communication in the span of mere minutes!  

I’m reasonably certain that you’ve witnessed passive-aggressive behavior in others.  Yet what about your own behavior?  Are you sometimes passive-aggressive in your interactions?  Ask yourselves these four questions:

  • Are you habitually late
  • Have you ever given a back-handed compliment
  • Do you ignore voice mails and texts from someone you no longer like? 
  • Do you cancel plans with friends by making excuses?  

Psychologists have often concluded that there are several reasons why people turn to passive-aggressive communication tactics.  Some of us were taught as children to avoid direct conflict.  Even when we’re not aware that our behavior may be labeled as passive-aggressive, we rely on it as a safety net so that we don’t have to be vulnerable.  And some of us are actually out of touch with our own feelings, because we’ve never actually learned how to express them, or because dealing with them may reopen long-buried emotional wounds. 

Whether you think have a good reason to employ a passive-aggressive communication style, or whether you’re simply unaware of it, you might need a well-intentioned tap on the shoulder to let you know.  And if you’re on the receiving end of this communication style, you don’t have to justify it or ignore it. 

Instead, you can nicely point it out. For example:

  • When your sister says, “I’m so glad you got your hair cut,” you might express your confusion at her statement.  “Are you saying you like my hair now, or that you hated the way it used to look?”   
  • If your partner says, “I’m sorry I’m late for dinner, but you made me stop at the store for milk,” you might ask them to repeat what they just said because you want to make sure you heard it correctly. 

Your response just might help the person to think about the words they use in the future.   In my opinion, it’s worth a try.