How to set boundaries with passive-aggressive people

People who resort to passive-aggressive behaviours – such as sulking, making pointed remarks or eye-rolling, are usually hiding a deep, simmering resentment. They don’t feel confident about expressing their feelings openly and perhaps lack the skills required to be assertive. So they express their anger indirectly, using annoying behaviours to get their point across.  Passive-aggression can be hard to manage because it is so oblique and difficult to pin down. If you want to limit its impact on you, then you need to set firm boundaries and limits. This means speaking up assertively and letting passive-aggressive people know you want their behaviour to stop.

Boundaries are the limits you place on how others treat you. They help you communicate what you will and won’t tolerate. When you set boundaries with passive-aggressive people, there are three key steps involved.

Setting boundaries

1. Make their behaviour explicit

The reason passive-aggressive behaviour is offensive is that it sends a double message. Incongruence is created – so that what is said verbally clashes with the meta messages sent by the difficult person’s voice tone or body language. For example, if someone rolls their eyes and says ‘That report was really interesting’ you will know they are being sarcastic. The first step of setting a boundary in this situation is challenging the other person’s incongruence.

Calmly point out that you have picked up on their passive-aggressive behaviours. Be explicit and focus on playing back exactly what have said or done. You can use an ‘I frame’ message (also known as an ‘I statement’ to do this).  For example, you can say ‘I notice you rolled your eyes when you said my report was very interesting…’ You can find out more about how to create ‘I frame’ messages in Eleanor Shakiba’s upcoming book Difficult People Made Easy.

2. Spell out their real message

Step two of challenging passive-aggressive behaviour involves making the meta message overt. This sends a clear message that you are not willing to ignore the other person’s psychological game playing and passive-aggression. To bring a meta-message into the open, clearly explain the assumption you have drawn from the difficult person’s behaviour.  For example say ‘…because you rolled your eyes, I assume you meant you didn’t find my report interesting at all.’ Your aim at this stage is to show you know how to deal with passive-aggression assertively.

3. Use their denial message to open your boundary statement

Many passive-aggressive communicators will respond to your challenge by denying that their behaviour was meant to offend. For example, the difficult person who rolled their eyes as you were speaking might say ‘I didn’t realise I was rolling my eyes.’ Don’t be thrown by this denial. Simply respond by saying “Well, your behaviour sent a very clear message to me. If I see you rolling your eyes again, I will point it out straight away. I am happy to receive your feedback, but I expect you to deliver it appropriately.’

Have YOU got a people problem to sort out? Use Eleanor Shakiba’s Behaviour Analyser questionnaire to pinpoint what’s going wrong. Find out whether you are dealing with passive-aggression. Then receive a free ebook on how to handle your situation.

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