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