Dissolving Passive Aggressive-ness and Communicating Assertively

There are many sources that condition us for passiveness, aggression and passive aggressiveness.  You could write a lengthy blog on how religion, environment, and culture can cause these behaviors, but my intentions for this post are to help us undo this conditioning so that we can move into much healthier relationships with spouses, family, friends and strangers.  Communicating assertively allows us to express our thoughts and feelings without attacking or hurting others in return.  We are then prepared to listen to others more empathicly, while also handling putdowns constructively and standing up for ourselves.

Communication Styles
Passive Aggression generally makes itself known through various communication methods, both verbal and/or non-verbal.  It is generally easier to spot it in others than it is to recognize it in ourselves.  Besides passive aggressiveness, we might also be outright aggressive and/or passive in our communication at times, which may be hurting ourselves and others.  I have identified some forms of each of these communication styles below for your reference and introspection.

Aggressive Communication Behaviors and Styles
Controlling, critical, domineering, impatient, bossy, disapproving, insensitive, intimidating, relentless, pushy, always right, threatening (verbal or non-verbal).

Aggressive communication usually attempts to guilt, shame, or otherwise manipulate through hurtful verbiage using "You" and "Why" messages:

"You <insert: need, should, better, have to, always, never>..."

"You <insert: move over, be quiet, shut up>..."

"Don't [you] <insert: do that, think that, feel that, say that>..."

"Why <insert: don't you, haven't you, can't you,>..."

Passive Communication Behaviors and Styles
Withholds information, thoughts, feelings, needs, and/or wants.  Avoidance, deferring, fearful, sensitive, intimidated, or soft spoken.  Uses victim language that avoids or defers responsibility.  Communication exhibited by passiveness:

"I can't..."  "I don't know"  "I don't care"  "I have to..."  "I gotta..."
"Whatever"  "Maybe"  "We'll see"  "Sorry" 

Passive Aggressive Communication Behaviors and Syles
Subliminal or confusing messages intertwined with their speech that can be belittling and mean, but with a smile.  Tone of voice often communicates their disapproval without outright saying it.  Communication styles exhibiting passive aggressiveness:

Sarcasm, guilting, teasing, gossiping, joking in a sexist, racist or bigoted manner

All of these communication styles and behaviors usually end up hurting ourselves or others at some point.  When being passive, our lack of assertiveness regarding our thoughts, feelings or needs usually leads to resentment, distrust, un-fulfillment and depression.  When being aggressive, we directly guilt, insult or hurt others, which says more about our happiness level than it does theirs.  When being passive aggressive, we send out mixed, confusing messages where we say one thing, while feeling or thinking another, using our tone to subtly hint at our disgust or other feelings.  More importantly, all these styles avoid communicating our feelings assertively, without hurting others or ourselves.

The good news is that once identified, we can begin to practice assertive communication, validating our feelings and fulfilling our need to be heard or understood.  Some of the easiest relationships to observe aggressive, passive, or passive aggressive communication are with our own spouse or children, such as when we tell a child "you need to clean your room", or "you better pick up your laundry".  These may seem like harmless parenting styles, but they fail to communicate in a way that doesn't manipulate or hurt others.

Assertive Communication Styles
Assertive communication removes the hurtful aspects of the other communication styles and simply states how you feel about something.  It also establishes clear expectations and boundaries by stating what you want, need, or won't put up with.  This allows you to communicate in a non-attacking manner while making your feelings, needs and wants known, without sarcasm or subliminal messages.  Further communication and listening skills can help stop criticisms and insults from others, while reinforcing more desirable communication styles with appropriate expectations and boundaries.

Use "I" messages to state your thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, preferences, decisions, desires, plans, expectations and so forth.  For example, if your child uses language that you disapprove of, instead of saying "You shouldn't say those words", try "I feel disgusted when you say those words".  This helps the child (or whomever) realize how their actions or words affect others without attacking or labeling them as "bad".  You can followup such a statement with "I would prefer you use these other words that are less offensive when you feel upset", or some other appropriate feedback recommendation that can help them know what speech or actions are okay in your presence.  It is up to us to teach others how to respect our boundaries.  None of us are mind readers and often we are unconscious of how we influence others.  You can equally use "I" messages with spouses, friends or any relationship that could benefit from the clarity this communication style provides.

"When" messages are when you state a given behavior and how that behavior affected you.  Example: "When you leave a mess in the kitchen, I feel frustrated and used".  This again allows for you to communicate how you feel, think, or otherwise affected by an undesirable behavior in others without resorting to your own aggression, passiveness or somewhere in between that ends up hurting yourself (being taken advantage of) or hurting others (attacking, resenting or guilting them etc).

When others make demands or requests of you that you are not okay with, you can make that known best through short, concise, and unapologetic "No" messages.  The fewer words the better, as giving them too much information will just have them trying to find ways to negotiate or arm wrestle you back into fulfilling their request.  Just repeat the same "No" message for each time they repeat their request.  Studies show it usually takes 3-5 times of just saying "No" before they give up.  Those numbers approach infinity the younger the person making the request, as children can be relentless in asking for something.  In those cases, you may have to intervene by making it clear that their repeated demands may have their own consequences, such as a time out, grounding or revoking of some other privilege.  An example of a "No" message is as follows: "No, I cannot babysit your kid today".  Notice that no reason was given for why they cannot babysit.  Giving them a reason or excuse just allows them to try get you to change your mind and put off whatever else you had plans for, or get you to give something you aren't in a place to give.  

The more you practice identifying communication styles that are passive, aggressive or a combo of the two, and replace them with assertive styles, the more natural they will come to you, and before long you may notice a shift in your own levels of confidence, security and peace, as well as note a shift in how others act around you.  Assertive communication is all about respecting yourself first, while maintaining a respect for others to own their decisions and responsibility.

To communicate most effectively, we also need to pay attention to how we listen to others, so that we better understand what they are experiencing, and whether they want anything in return from us.  Whenever anyone comes to us with something that is bothering them, it is important that we listen in a way that gives them what they are seeking, or else they may stop coming to us and look for other outlets that may be considered less safe.  

Empathic Listening
Most often when we decide to air our thoughts or feelings to a confidant, we merely want to be heard, validated and accepted for what we are experiencing.  We want someone to verbally wrap an arm around us and say, "Sounds like this really bothers you", or "I can see why you feel that way", or "You must be excited for winning that game".  Empathic listening focuses primarily on what the person is feeling, helping them know that it is okay for them to feel that way, and that you care.  9 times out of 10 they aren't looking for you to solve their problem.  Too often we jump first to problem solving mode instead of just validating thoughts and feelings.

Clarifying Listening
At times you may not understand at first what someone is expressing, feeling or thinking.  In these times, it helps to restate what you heard or understood, and ask if you heard/understood correctly.  Some simple statements for clarifying are as follows: "What I heard/understood was this..., is that correct?" or "Let me make sure I heard you correctly.  You're saying..., is that right?"  You can repeat this further if they explain it differently each time, helping to narrow down the communication gap as sometimes what we say is not what we mean, or what we hear isn't always what others intended.  This also helps the other person feel that we care about what they are trying to communicate, and that we are listening instead of just tuning out and pretending to care.

Feedback Listening
Feedback listening expresses how what the other person said affected how you feel or think.  This can involve the "When" and "I" messages discussed above under Assertive Communication.  Example: "When you expressed how you feel, I feel..." or "I feel closer to you when you share your thoughts/feelings with me".  Feedback listening also expresses whether you're ready to hear more, or if now is not a good time: "I am too upset to discuss this right now.  Can you give me an hour to calm myself and then I will be ready to listen?"

Problem Solving or Advice Giving
This is usually the last listening style people want to hear in response to their sharing a problem or experience.  For this reason, it is handy to ask them directly whether they would like your advice, input or perspective.  They may not be looking for you to solve their problems, but for someone to hear and validate them, to connect with them.  This is often the first thing we want to do when a spouse or child comes to us with something that is troubling them.  For this reason, we are often surprised when they express to us that they don't want us to fix it, but just to be heard.  I know this was confusing to me at first when my wife mulls over some problem from her day with me.  Our left brains want to solve everything, and are the dominant hemisphere most of us approach life from.  So to re-emphasize, ask them first for permission to share your input.  Here are some tips for giving advice:

  • Be sure that you have already done empathic, clarifying, or feedback listening to an appropriate extent
  • Ask for their permission to share your input
  • Find out what they have already tried or considered
  • Ask them what other ideas they may have
  • If you hear hesitation, "yes, but..." that might be a clue that they aren't looking for a solution from you

Handling Criticisms
Criticisms, putdowns and insults come in many styles, and can be recognized as uninvited, destructive comments that damage our self esteem, destroy relationships and drain our psychological energy.  Criticisms can come from anyone, but seem to be most destructive when they come from ourselves, our spouse, family or friends.  Self-criticisms are especially harmful because we can repeat the criticism to ourselves silently to no end, even to sabotaging our relationships and well-being.  We can deflect and dissolve criticisms by invalidating them, followed by reinforcing our self worth and value.  We can also turn criticisms into constructive feedback if the source is someone we trust and value the opinions of.

To stop criticisms and put downs, we first need to recognize them, some of which we may have internalized and no longer recognize as hurtful, as we've grown to accustomed to hearing it.  The tone, body language or eye movements can be good indicators of putdowns and criticisms.  More importantly, our feelings and body's response to the hurtful comments can clue us in to being putdown or criticized.  Putdowns often incorporate blanket statements with words like "always" or "never", such as "you never help get the kids ready for bed".  Once we determine that the comment expressed was intended to hurt us, we then jump at the opportunity to invalidate the comment, verify what the sender intended, and validate our worth.

Look them right in the eyes (use a mirror if the putdown sender was yourself), and then respond in one or more of the following ways:

  • Ask the sender: "That felt like a putdown/insult.  Is that what you intended?"
  • Ignore the worded message and address the hidden message with a response similar to "I am not <insert putdown> and I am not okay with your tone of voice"
  • Make a stand for yourself through one or more of the following: "That's not true", "I don't buy that", "That may be true, but it's not up for discussion" or "That may be true, but I'll handle it on my own"
  • Walk away
  • If the sender is relentless at putting you down, end the relationship

After addressing the intent of the message, again make eye contact and make a verbal validation of yourself to the sender, such as "I am a smart/good/loving/other person.  I have the same rights as everyone."  Followup with a pat on your back and another silent or verbal affirmation to yourself, for example: "I love myself just as I am" or "I am perfect just as I am".

Turning Criticisms into Feedback
If the criticism or putdown came from someone you trust or value the opinion on, you can help them turn the putdown into a constructive criticism by validating them and inviting further discussion.  Use the steps below to setup further feedback with the person giving the criticism:

  1. Acknowledge the person with a comment similar to, "I value your opinion and would like to hear what you have to say" or "Your feedback is valuable to me"
  2. Set a time/date to receive the feedback, "Do you have time to share your feedback with me right now?" or "Now is not a good time.  Can we discuss this tomorrow morning?"
  3. Listen non-defensively.  Try not to take their message personally and resist the urge to excuse, justify or rationalize it.  Just listen while taking deep breaths.
  4. Use the Clarify Listening from above to make sure you understood their message, such as "What I heard/understood was..., is that correct?"  Ask for examples of times when they have observed whatever it is they are giving you feedback for to help you tie-in what they shared.
  5. Thank them for the feedback, recognizing it was likely difficult for them to bring up.  You can choose whether you respond further to their information, that you will think about it, or just refuse to respond further to the information.

You can then take their message to heart if you see validity to it, or choose to ignore it if inaccurate.

As we strive to eliminate aggression, passiveness, or passive aggressiveness in ourselves, we can create a much more authentic and peaceful existence for ourselves and those we interact with.  We can't control the actions or words of others, but when we communicate assertively, we can provide a positive environment for understanding, respect and love to grow.   The most important listening we can do is empathic, validating the person's thoughts, feelings or experience as valid and important to them.  Putdowns from ourselves and others can be detrimental to our self-esteem and well-being.  We usually have to teach others what our boundaries are and how we would like them to act towards us.  Deflecting criticism, not taking feedback personally, and affirming your self-worth can make a big difference in how you feel about yourself.

More reading on Passive Aggression and Conflict Resolution styles i...

Views: 11903

Comment by MikeUtah on February 24, 2012 at 8:20am

Hi Heather.  Unfortunately, until you know what your witnessing or being subjected to and how it (passive aggressiveness) behaves, you don't know why you're feeling the way you do.  If your hubby is willing to look at himself, the good news is that he can change, but only he can make that change.

Comment by Edward L. Fernstrom on October 1, 2013 at 2:01pm

Mike for me the most important part of your excellent conflict resolution thesis is the ask permission statement. For example, "I do understand what you are saying to me, would it be O.K. if I explain my feelings in more detail" If you are going to ask questions get permission. 

Comment by KosherKittie on June 11, 2015 at 12:07am

Great post, Mike! Very helpful and informative. Sounds like someone took a Communications class somewhere along the line.   


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