If you’ve ever left a difficult conversation thinking, “What just happened?” and then later thought to yourself, “Hey, s/he screwed me out of that promotion,” or “Wait a minute — s/he didn’t even answer my question,” then you’ve probably been the victim of a passive-aggressive person on the move.
In all aspects of life we are going to run into family members, co-workers and bosses, and service and business people who use conflicting behavior and language to confuse, all the while dismissing the importance of either and instead keeping the focus on your behavior and language. To counter it productively, get to know what you’re up against and learn to think quickly on your feet.
What am I up against?
“Overly simplistic” is a way to describe a proposed solution that doesn’t take the parts of a whole into account. If you need an empty bucket so you can transport water, but only have access to a bucket full of gasoline, emptying the bucket into the river is overly simplistic.
This phrase and others like it are a tool of the passive-aggressive (PA) person. Instead of using it correctly and in proper context, though, they use it to deflect, redirect, and deceive. The PA uses this phrase, among others, in a very sweeping way when they’ve already made a decision (about your proposal or suggestion), but don’t want to tell you. As often, the PA will say s/he hasn’t made a decision, when in fact they have.
If you’ve seen Toy Story, you may recall the dinosaur who said, “I don’t like confrontation!” The dinosaur was passive-aggressive. He took no initiative or responsibility, made no suggestions of his own, and felt the need to find fault in suggestions made by others. This was endearing in Toy Story because the character was a toy. In real life the character is a person, and this kind of behavior is the opposite of endearing.
The passive-aggressive (PA) has but one very powerful tool: their passive-aggressiveness. Don’t underestimate its power or the PA’s willingness to use it – even as it may undermine or destroy whatever they appear to have wanted. The PA can slice you to bits and leave your thinking you’re thankful (or ungrateful) for the opportunity. Fortunately, most PAs only have that one tool, and its use is totally dependent on two things: you losing, and them never being found out.
Thinking fast on your feet requires that you stop looking at them.
The only thing worse than a PA is someone who says they want a direct answer, but isn’t really prepared to hear it. These people are the PA’s fodder and are the sole reason s/he continues to enjoy a place in the food chain. If you are PA fodder, get professional help so you can stop being their chew toy. (This is not simplistic advice. Getting professional help is an investment that takes a commitment.)
Without a target, the PA has no reason to interact with others and would eventually turn on him or herself. Use this to your advantage, and be prepared for it to get worse before it gets better. Once they turn upon themselves they will desperately seek attention, sympathy, and assistance. Their story is charming, convincing, and lethal.
If you’re not sure whether or not you’re on the receiving end of a PA, go the other way. PAs don’t usually physically follow or seek out; rather they do whatever will attract the attention of those who are drawn to others. By walking the other way, you will know if the person in conversation was a PA or not.
In a social setting, for instance, there are two kinds of PA men: the loud and the quiet. The loud PA will have just been turned down for a date and can then be heard making disparaging remarks about the woman – often within earshot of that woman, but as he speaks to someone else.
He does this as revenge and to solicit the attention of women in the room who love what looks like a bad boy, but mostly he’s doing it because he actually thinks the disinterested woman will magically become interested.
Conversely, the quiet PA man will sulk. His body language is so loud that every needy, insecure woman in the room who is looking for a fixer-upper will go on alert. Any woman who follows up behind the woman who turned him down will have to live up to the PA man’s expectations of the original woman which (because those expectations weren’t realistic to begin with) no woman will be able to meet.
If you say yes to PA man, expect a cat-and-mouse game like none you’ve ever seen before. His favorite movie should be Catch Me If You Can.
The non-PA man who was turned down by a woman will have already gone on to his next conquest or back to his friends. If you must meet a man, go for this guy.
Many adult children are familiar with PA mothers. These women have and will use manipulative guilt, insults wrapped in compliments, and the almighty assertion, “I was just trying to help.” Some mothers go so far as to use tears, histrionics, and hypochondria. The words “just” and “only” are fire to the ears of anyone who grew up with it. Take their heed: make the speaker stop right there and begin again with something that doesn’t seek to minimize, belittle, or humiliate. For the record, they won’t be able to do it. Change the subject or walk away.
Other favorites of the PA include the words “if,” “but,” and “however.” Used properly, these words are qualifiers that define and differentiate between phrases of a sentence. For the PA, these juicy conjunctions are used to oil the wheels of the train they will run right over you.
What s/he said: “I would love your new hair style if it were longer.”
What s/he means: “I hate change – and your new hair style.”
What s/he should have said: “I prefer long hair. I will get used to your new look.”
What s/he said: “Your proposal is great, but it doesn’t meet our need.”
What s/he means: “I barely read your proposal.”
What s/he should have said: “Your proposal doesn’t meet our need.”
What s/he said: “Your cooking is fine; it’s just not my mother’s.”
What s/he means: “I’m a creature of habit – and mac ‘n’ cheese.”
What s/he should have said: “Let’s take a cooking class together.”
In the workplace, if you think the PA has already made a decision, say so and walk away: “So you’ve already made a decision. Got it.” This sends a clear message: We both know you’re full of it.
Do not respond to anything a PA says as you exit – even and especially if it is a question. The loud PA will have something to say and is notorious for getting in the deepest cuts at mach speed. This is not for the purpose of resolution or communication. It is for the sole purpose of inciting you, standing back while you go down in flames, and then roasting marshmallows over your career, friendship, or relationship.
If you’ve ever heard someone say, “Be careful of the quiet ones,” know they were talking about quiet PAs. This person, when slighted (or rather perceives that they were slighted), will work behind the scenes to take you down. Watch your back – and theirs. Another cliché that applies: Keep your friends close and PAs closer.
Politely inquire about their day, everyday. If they catch on and attempt to overwhelm you with their life story, excuse yourself to the bathroom, a phone call you have to make, an appointment you were on your way to, or my personal favorite, “I have something in my eye.”
If you know your PA co-worker is on the warpath, catch them on their way to the water cooler (when we all know they were really on the way to the manager’s office) and ask them about their spouse, child, dog, car, or whatever. PAs are unbelievably self-involved and more easily distracted than you might think. Get them going about turbo engines or their tulip garden and the next thing you know, the boss is already hearing about your great ideas from someone who isn’t out to pour gasoline all over your dreams.
The good news is that a PA who deep-cuts upon your exit or who is broadsided by your polite delay feels vulnerable. This is exactly how you want them to feel.
Once vulnerable, the PA quickly segues into sabotage. This person will resort to anything (including self-sabotage) that takes you down. Any error you make or that they assert you made puts the focus on you – and most importantly, not on them. Some PAs are so good at this that they can keep you busy defending yourself and keep everyone else busy questioning you until everyone, including you, has forgotten all about their mistake(s) or true goal.
It’s understandable that someone who has been knifed focuses on the hole in their chest instead of their assailant, but do remember that unless you’ve been physically knifed, the PA hasn’t done anything life threatening – so catch your breath and regroup. It is imperative then that you ignore everything they say that steers the conversation away from them and onto you – especially insult wrapped in self-deprecation (“I could talk to the boss that way, too, if I didn’t have a family to support”) and sabotage wrapped up in compliment (“You’re so articulate the way you talk to the boss. I hope he didn’t take it the wrong way”).
Knowledge is power, and being secure in that knowledge and power is the key to thinking quickly. If you need professional help to get through your insecurities so the difficult people in your life no longer victimize you, proceed without shame. If all you need is a quick read on the PA type, gets to steppin’.
The PA isn’t a fan of knowledge or power unless it is his/her own. Get it and use it.