3 Ways to Stop Yourself from Being Passive-Aggressive

When I walked into our small apartment-building gym at 7:30am Monday morning, there was a yoga mat and foam roller lying in the only open space where I was planning to do my workout. Mary* was running on the treadmill.

“Hi Mary. Is this yoga mat yours?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she replied, “I’ll use it soon.”

So I began my workout in the small space squeezed between two posts.

Forty minutes later — after I finished my workout — Mary got off the treadmill and began to use the space she had been saving.

Throughout those 40 minutes, I found myself fixated on what felt like rude and inappropriate space-hogging. But I didn’t say anything.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t reacting. On the contrary, I was silently fuming. How could Mary be so inconsiderate? And why wasn’t I standing up for myself?

You might be wondering why I didn’t just say: “Mary, do you mind if I move your mat while you finish your treadmill and then I’ll put it back?” The problem is that while it seems straightforward, in that moment it didn’t feel straightforward. Maybe it was my fear of conflict, or the way Mary acted like she owned the space, but, somehow, I didn’t muster the courage to assert myself.

Think about how often you see this happen: Someone does something that upsets others — they yell, leave people out, ignore emails, do shoddy work, show up late, text message during meetings, play favorites — and the people around them don’t say anything. They’re reacting, they’re just not doing it openly.

I used to think that passive aggressiveness was simply some people’s way of being obnoxious. But while exercising for 40 minutes in my little confined space, I experienced the cause of a lot of passive aggressiveness: the feeling of powerlessness that grows in the fertile ground between anger and silence.

Passive aggressiveness is an attempt to regain power and relieve the tension created by that gap between anger and silence. People complain to each other. They withdraw, use sarcasm, and resist the person in quiet, insidiously defensible ways.

Dealing with a passive aggressive person is one thing. But what if it’s you who’s the passive aggressive person?

I ran through a number of ways to respond to Mary. Everything I considered fell into one of four categories.

Do nothing. Just live with the discontent. This would be a fine approach if I wasn’t so bothered by Mary’s behavior. If something doesn’t matter to us that much and our anger dissipates, then silence can be productive. In other words, if there’s no anger, there’s no gap. But the longer I did nothing, the more infuriated I became and the more likely I was to respond passive aggressively.

Gossip. Eventually I did have one conversation about Mary (e.g, can you believe what Mary did? ). The person I spoke with was supportive, which made me feel better. On the flip side, of course, that conversation created ripples of discord in our little gym.

Claim the space. I considered simply moving the equipment and taking over the space, but that felt obnoxious and it almost guaranteed a conflict, which is what I was trying to avoid.

Be direct. This is, of course, the most mature way to respond and it’s our way out of the passive aggressive pattern. But it’s harder to do than the other three options because it requires that we talk about what’s bothering us and ask the other person to change their behavior. And that’s challenging to do gracefully when we’re feeling emotionally charged.

To reduce the challenge, it helps to have an established method for being direct about someone else’s poor behavior.

I considered telling Mary it’s simply not cool to take up space when you aren’t using it, but that’s a criticism and I felt like it might elicit a defensive reaction which would escalate our conflict.

I also considered asking her if I could use the space while she wasn’t using it, but I didn’t want her to step in and take the space back at her whim. And I didn’t want to give away my power – something many of us do to our detriment because we’re polite.

What I realized is that no matter what I do in a situation like that, I will end up feeling at least a little uncomfortable. That’s because, when we’re dealing with someone who is being selfish or inconsiderate, we need to be willing to assert our interests at least as strongly as they are willing to assert theirs. We need to be polite but also stand our ground. And that feels uncomfortable.

Here are three steps that might help:

1. Ask a question. Is there a particular reason you are holding this space for your workout while you’re on the treadmill? The key is to really be curious (otherwise the question itself may be a passive aggressive move). Your curiosity might be the only move you need to make. If you hear a legitimate reason behind a person’s offensive behavior, your anger may simply dissipate. And, if they have no reason, they may simply shift their own behavior. If neither of those happen, then:
2. Share your perspective while acknowledging theirs. I understand why you want to hold this space for after your treadmill, but it’s frustrating to work out squeezed between two posts while the larger space sits idle.
3. Make a firm request supported by logic. Since we all share this small gym, please don’t hold space that you aren’t using. Saying it this way (“Since . . . Please . . .”) imbues you with a certain amount of authority. It’s somewhere between a request and a demand. You are setting a standard for how people should act and increasing the likelihood that the person will comply.

Avoiding the slide into passive aggressiveness requires closing the gap between our anger and our silence — either by dissipating our anger or breaking our silence.

Breaking the silence isn’t easy, doesn’t feel comfortable, and risks open conflict. But standing up for yourself is important and, in the end, open conflict is preferable to underground discord.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review


  1. George says:

    I find myself struggling with these very issues around conscious and unconscious passive-aggression.

    While I like your three steps that you close your article with, I’ve found that I still fall into the trap of using each of these three steps with a hint of passive-aggression! Part of the challenge is my tone of voice and cadence of delivery. So it’s not just words; it’s also my attitude during the delivery.

    When I can catch myself, I’ve found that I least likely to go PA (passive-aggressive) if I do this: 1) Re-center myself and do my best to understand the other person’s perspective, 2) ensure that I’m in the right place to communicate respectfully, and, if #1 and #2 check out okay, then I can do step #3, which is to make a request by leading with a question: “Would you mind if….”

    I have to remember that a request is just that. A request can be accepted, declined, or negotiated.

    One trap is a demand, disguised as a request. That’s a “no-pass.”

    By setting the context for my request in the form of a question, I’ve found that I am less likely to adopt an arrogant, snooty attitude only worsens the situation.

  2. Peter K says:

    George, why try to understand other people’s perspective in the first place? Do not try to justify selfish attitude of those who are used to take advantage of others because of their sex or society position? You are thinking and making judgements for that person at this point. You might think it will get you prepared for conversation – it won’t. Can never predict what happens in other person’s head.
    I agree with starting with a question. But in this case I would ask “mind if I use that spase for my exercises while you are on the treadmill?”. Then you would either see how Mary gets off the treadmill really really soon or you get yourself that space. If the conversation continues, this means the opponent does not take your point and probably won’t or is looking for conflict. Then it is up to you how to resolve it: go workout in a tiny corner or show how arrogance can be turned against them (I would put her mat aside to make exercises till she comes over). Here could be many scenarios.
    On the other side when the person comes with the questions to you (like Mary after you put her mat away), then you take a look at one’s perspective.

  3. Cynthia Moeng says:

    Hi Peter (Bregman), I don’t understand how the situation you describe above is “passive aggression,” especially when you decide not to say anything. My reaction would be to ask Mary if I could use the space while she is on the treadmill or use the small space without feeling that I have been disadvantaged by Mary’s behavior, since I am not willing to do anything about it.

    I have also found out that sometimes when you decide to keep silent, the people who are misbehaving when they do not get a reaction from you, then they end up correcting their own behavior…

  4. Peter Thompson says:

    Passive aggressive behaviour is quite often portrayed in a negative sense and a behavioural style that should be discouraged or even eliminated. I would suggest however that PA is actually a legitimate behavioural style that can be just as effective as being aggressive. To my mind both behavioural style are legitimate however it’s the motivation behind their behaviour, to control, manipulate or cooperate) which can either built or destroy relationships.

  5. Carlos Lopez says:

    don´t be PA, be Smart, Ask yourself a simple question: Can I do something will Mary be Pleased?, then Just Do It, Always be Nice with your neighbors and you´ll be happier, Next Day Wake up Early, Bring some almonds, and a Extra bottle of Water to share with her… Who knows? She may felt in love with you.

  6. Binoy says:

    What is wrong in asking Mary if you can remove her mat till she comes?
    I don’t see it hurting the ego or authority even if it means that you would have to give away the space. What if Mary had come half way during your exercise even when you were exercising in that cramped space? What would you have done? Do that now!
    One good thing about asking is that either
    you would know how long you have before she comes and you could plan yours accordingly or
    she will be forced to step off the treadmill or
    be on it till you are done or
    move on to another equipment!!

  7. Stuart Booker says:

    Hello, Peter I’m not sure how the scenario you just described constitutes “passive aggression,” especially when you choose to remain silent. Since I have no intention of stopping Mary from using the treadmill in the room, my response would be to politely request krunker the use of the room during her workout.

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