Emotional Competency

Explore the Logic of Passion

Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Hostile Inaction

You are so angry you refuse to act, and no one can ever make you do what you don't want to. This is as violent and destructive as a fist fight but so much more deniable and self-righteous. If you want to look good while doing bad, this is the approach for you, but don't be surprised if you get stuck in a long, painful, and destructive cycle.


  1. Hostile Inaction,
  2. Covert violence,
  3. Covert defiance,
  4. Stealth spite,
  5. Seeking revenge by refusing to act.

Modes and Techniques

Here are some of the passive aggressive ways people express their anger:

  • Grin fake: Saying “yes” and smiling pleasantly while meaning “no way”.
  • Denying hostility; “who me?”
  • Exploiting plausible deniability; “I never would have done that.”
  • Looking good while doing bad.
  • Delay and other forms of obstruction.
  • The “silent treatment” and other forms of pouting and playing the victim.
  • Stonewalling; stalling or delaying especially by refusing to answer questions or cooperate.
  • Manipulation; controlling people without letting them know you are doing so. Acting outside of trust.
  • Passive withdrawal, lack of response, lack of cooperation, sabotage, covert revenge.
  • Suffering in silence . . . while fueling resentment, justifying retaliation, and expecting to gain leverage, pity, or salvation for your suffering.
  • Playing the victim, feigning powerlessness, pretending you don't have any choices, denying your responsibility.
  • Playing the martyr—publicly selecting (or acquiescing to) an undesirable alternative for the purpose of justifying revenge or extracting pity.
  • Talking about your adversary while never talking to him about the troubling behavior.

Fueling the Fire

A particularly destructive cycle happens when a passive aggressive response is used in a relationship with an overtly hostile or violent adversary. The overtly hostile person is provoked into performing a particularly violent anger display. This is then used to justify the passive aggressive response: “I'll show him and I refuse to become violent like he is.” This hostile inaction fuels the rage of the overtly hostile partner and the cycle continues or escalates. End the cycle by working together to travel down a constructive anger path.

Constructive Responses:

This manipulation is difficult to defend against; the practitioners are often experts and they may not even realize how destructive their actions are. Begin by engaging them in a dialogue. Ask one of these questions:

  • “What are you thinking?”
  • “What do you think?”
  • “Why are you remaining silent?”
  • “What would you like me to do now?”
  • “What do you see as the next step?”
  • “How would you like me to react when you do that?”
  • “How do you see this issue getting resolved?” or simply,
  • “What is bugging you?”

Wait silently and patiently and listen respectfully to their response. Avoid insulting or humiliating them, but don't grovel. Keep drawing them out, encourage them to tell their story, don't interrupt, dispute, correct, roll your eyes, wince, show anger, use sarcasm, or retort. Once they are talking they are no longer passive. Work toward a respectful, responsible, and adult dialogue focused on the issue at hand. Act as peers and stay calm and focused. Take appropriate responsibility and accept blame for your contributions to the issue. Offer or accept sincere apology if that is appropriate.

Alternatively, position delay to your advantage. Invite them to take their time, let you know when they are ready for the next step, and that you are in no hurry.

Finally the best approach may be to simply say: “I find your behavior to be passive aggressive. It is hostile and destructive to our relationship and it is not effective in resolving the issue. I would like you to take a more constructive and less hostile approach. What are you angry about?” Be prepared for denial, revenge, self-righteousness, self-justification, insults, and more passive aggressive manipulations. Work together to travel down a constructive anger path.

Helping yourself

Perhaps you recognize passive aggressive behavior in yourself and you would like to change. Here are some approaches that can help:


How to Use Power Phrases to Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, & Get What You Want, by Meryl Runion

The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, by William Ury

Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People: How to Beat Them Without Joining Them, by Ronald M. Shapiro, Mark A. Jankowski, James Dale

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