Nice but Unhelpful on the Outside, Angry on the Inside

A person who is passive-aggressive may be very angry or upset but instead of expressing those feelings they resort to a toolbox full of behaviors to get through situations in ways that are more socially acceptable than confrontational. You may have to deal with other attorneys or other parties who can be passive-aggressive as well as your clients.

Passive-aggressiveness expresses hostility by subdued, seemingly indifferent and indirect channels of negative behavior, according to Outofthefog It can involve:

  • Passive resistance to tasks in the form of procrastination, learned helplessness, deliberate inefficiency, and apparent forgetfulness
  • Stubbornness, resentment and contradictory behavior, such as, appearing to be enthusiastic but acting in a way that’s unhelpful and possibly damaging
  • Being agreeable but then resistant

Psychologists and psychiatrists who work with people who show passive-aggressive tendencies make a distinction between passive-aggressive behavior (which many of us engage in at times) and passive-aggressive personality, which is ingrained and habitual according to a column in the New York Times.

Passive-aggressive behavior can result from positive, socially protective instincts, such as keeping peace at home, avoiding costly mistakes at work and preserving some self-respect. Insolence can be a tool to protect oneself from what’s perceived as unreasonable, arbitrary authority and an adaptive behavior to try to preserve some independence during extreme pressure to conform. One study showed that those with a highly cautious personal style and who are sensitive to rejection are much more likely to respond to conflicts by becoming silent, withdrawing affection and acting cold.

If you need to work with someone who exhibits these traits and behaviors, what should you do? The goal would be to improve your interactions, your relationship, and communication. Experts suggest the following techniques:

  • Try to identify passive-aggressive behavior when it happens. Identifying this behavior isn’t always easy because the act itself is meant to be indirect.
  • Consider your behavior and how you respond to the passive-aggressive behavior directed to you. Have you contributed to the conflict? Have you escalated or de-escalated the confrontation?
  • Don’t become manipulated by the other person. Stay calm and try not to respond with passive-aggressive tactics.
  • Disarm the person with honesty and focus the conversation on the real issue. You may want to start the conversation and tell the other person they can always speak directly to you if they have an issue.

Another suggestion worth considering is from Preston Ni’s piece in Psychology Today. Since people who are passive-aggressive operate covertly, there will be resistance when confronted with their behavior.

  • Whatever their response, state what the consequences will be. If the passive-aggressive behavior has gotten to the point where it’s interfering with your ability to be their lawyer or if the problem is with the other party(ies), negotiations are going nowhere.
  • Identifying and imposing consequences such as your inability to represent them or that negotiation will conclude, may compel the other person or party to shift from obstruction and tactics to cooperation and better dialogue.

It may be easier to deal with people who are outwardly hostile instead of those who may be friendly on the outside but seething on the inside. If you can successfully manage the relationship with this sort of person, the effort will be worthwhile.