Here’s the perfect response to ‘instantly’ shut down passive-aggressive behavior, says public speaking expert

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Picture it: Your co-worker, who you normally get along with, avoided you at lunch, then grunted when you offered to grab him a coffee. He’s clearly annoyed at you, but won’t address it.

This is textbook passive-aggressive behavior — a hallmark of people who have trouble handling conflict. As a public speaking trainer, I’ve found that the best way to handle passive-aggression is to gently neutralize it with contrary action: act quickly and communicate directly and openly.

This requires bravery. But with practice, your fear of confrontation will diminish.

A simple question to stop passive-aggressive behavior

When dealing with passive-aggressiveness, stay calm and do three things:

  1. Approach the person in a private setting where you’ll both feel comfortable speaking frankly. 
  2. Check your body language and vocal tone. If you feel stiff and defensive, try to relax. You want to convey that you’re genuinely concerned and operating in good faith. You don’t want to seem threatening.
  3. Finally, ask, “Can you tell me what’s bothering you?” 

In just seven words, that last question often solves the problem instantly. If the person tells you what they were upset about, you’ll probably resume normal cordial interactions right way. Maybe you’ll realize it was a misunderstanding. Perhaps it’s something deeper that will take some time to resolve.

In any case, what’s critical for managing this moment successfully is that after asking the question, you shut up and listen. 

How to give a meaningful apology when it’s needed

When your colleague responds, pause. It might not make sense to you. It might seem unfair or inaccurate. But don’t answer until you’ve taken the time to absorb it.

If they’re upset for a reason that merits an apology, conduct yourself diplomatically. A true and powerful apology never includes an excuse or a defense. Focus on what you did wrong and nothing else.

Don’t assume it’s obvious that you’re sorry. Say the actual words “I’m sorry,” and mean it.

  • Bad apology example: “Oh my gosh, I had no idea. Why didn’t you tell me?”
  • Good apology example“I’m sorry, that didn’t even occur to me. You’re right. I’ll try not to do that again.”

Most important of all, resist the urge to argue. The objective is not to be right or to prove your colleague wrong. Your goal is to restore a safe conversational space.

Don’t apologize if it feels phony. But do give them your respect for having this conversation. Are you glad they answered? Thank them for answering. Will you think about what they said? Let them know! Is your relationship important? Tell them so.

In the end, you can only control your own behavior

What do you do if you ask the question and receive just a shrug and a “Oh, nothing is wrong” for your troubles? It happens. 

If your colleague is terrified of conflict or is more invested in staying angry than finding resolution, at least you’ve labeled it and made it harder for them to pretend it’s really nothing.

You’ve done what you can by being direct, and you’ve made it clear you’re open for discussion whenever they’re ready to move on. For now, let the cards fall where they may. 

John Bowe is a speech trainer, award-winning journalist, and author of “I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection.”  He has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney’s, This American Life, and many others. Visit his website here.

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