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4 Ways to Turn a Passive-Aggressive Communication Style into an Assertive One

Find yourself feeling resentful of others who make their desires clear? Frustrated that your needs are unmet, yet indirect communication is a common pattern?  

You might have a passive-aggressive communication style. 

Don’t worry, passive-aggressive communication doesn’t make you a bad person. Everyone has emotions, it’s how we deal with and control them that matters. 

In this blog post, we cover the difference between passive-aggressive and assertive communication, how to tell if you are passive-aggressive and ways you can turn this communication style into a more assertive one. 

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How is a Passive-Aggressive Communication Style Different From an Assertive One? 

Passive-aggressive people will use indirect behaviours, often caused by unmet needs or desires which they don’t openly discuss with others. Meaning, sarcastic comments occur more often to avoid meaningful conversations and repressed anger increases because of an inability to be more assertive. For the most part, passive-aggression is an ineffective communication style that often causes tension and discomfort for the individual and those around them. 

On the other hand, an assertive communication style demonstrates honest and direct verbal and non-verbal behaviours that represent respect for one's own opinion and others. Unlike passive-aggressive communication techniques like judgement or blaming to "get payback," assertive individuals use active listening to understand others and how their opinions can benefit the conversation or situation. 

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4 Signs That You Have a Passive-Aggressive Communication Style 

You might not notice your own communication style, but it’s extremely helpful to understand because it will help you communicate more effectively in the future. Here are some telling signs your passive-aggressive communication style could be doing more harm than good for your relationships at work or in your personal life… 

  1. Your opinions are sometimes misunderstood – You may think you’re expressing your opinions and ideas in the best way possible, but if you find people responding with confusion or misinterpretation, it could mean you’re coming across in a pushy or overly passionate way about subjects others have differing opinions on. 
  2. You use your emotions to “get back” at people – those with a passive-aggressive communication style often allow their emotions – usually anger and frustration - to take control of their verbal or non-verbal actions. This can often backfire as although it can show you care, some may find it too intense to deal with and would prefer to talk about it in a calm and professional manner.  
  3. You intimidate some people – Do people fear you because they’re unsure of your next move? Or do you notice that others communicate as if they’re walking on eggshells? This might be because they are fearful of your reactions or presence. It’s good to have a commanding presence, especially as a manager or leader, but you shouldn’t want people to feel intimidated in your company. 
  4. People always listen when you talk – it’s good to have people that listen, but are they listening for the right reasons? People should want to hear what you say because you’re engaging, not threatening.  

Don't know how assertive you are? With our interactive quick-fire quiz, you can find out how assertive you really are in the workplace in just one minute. 

Why is a Passive-Aggressive Communication Style Considered “Bad”? 

Passive-aggressive communication is ineffective because while individuals appear passive on the surface, they really feel angry and often act out in subtle or indirect behaviours which undermine the subject. If you’re aiming to reach goals as a team or organisation, passive-aggressive behaviour will make this harder because true thoughts and opinions are kept undercover. This results in a lack of resolution and can create long-standing issues that show no signs of being dealt with directly.  

Some examples of passive-aggressive communication include backhanded compliments, procrastination, sulking or refusal to communicate and silent treatment, which is a form of common non-verbal passive-aggressive behaviour. While you may feel these verbal and non-verbal signs are getting the message across, they’re often lost on the listener as they won’t be able to fully understand the meaning of the indirect message – resulting in guessing games which no one has time for except the individual being passive-aggressive. 

4 Ways to Turn a Passive-Aggressive Communication Style into an Assertive One 

1. Use direct communication in your everyday style 

If you’re aware of your passive-aggressive communication, that’s a great first step as some people don’t recognise how they really communicate with others unless they’re told.  

One of the key characteristics of passive-aggressive communication is indirect and subtle comments that can damage relationships and workplace interactions. To start moving away from this communication style, the first thing to develop is the courage to actually be direct with others. This can be daunting, especially if you have a long-standing habit of indirectness, but it is possible to grow away from it. 

Give these four tips a try:

  • Start being more open and honest with your opinions – direct communicators will appreciate transparency from you 
  • Don’t rely on non-verbal communication more than verbal 
  • Aim to offer ideas not for consideration  
  • Reduce the number of times you use words such as “maybe” or “just” as this can undermine your confidence

2. Share your perspective while acknowledging others 

Closing the gap between passive-aggressive communication and assertiveness is only achieved by removing angry emotions and breaking the silence. It’s well-known that passive-aggressive communicators are aware of their needs and desires, but ultimately struggle to voice them openly to others. 

Whether you’re in a meeting or just a casual conversation with a colleague, be open with your perspective on the conversation topic and use active listening to show you’re aware of theirs. Breaking the silence may be uncomfortable but advocating for yourself and your opinions is important and using passive-aggressive communication won’t help them be heard.  

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3. Start to make requests supported by logic 

If you’re worried people won’t hear or listen to your opinions or ideas, start to suggest ideas or requests that are backed up by logic known to everyone. While it might make clear sense to you, think about how others might perceive them. 

These requests or inputs may feel like demands but using language that explains your thinking in a clear and calm way will help your listener understand your perspective. Take this one for example: 

Since we all share this kitchen, please don’t clutter the space with dirty mugs or plates that you’re no longer using.”  

The ‘since’ and ‘please’ gives you a certain level of authority that isn’t overly demanding but helps to set a standard for how people should act, which usually increases the chance that the person will comply with it.  

4. Let others know and practice 

Whether it’s colleagues or a close friend, talk to them about how you recognise your passive-aggressive communication style and that you’re trying to work on it. Sometimes this communication style can go unnoticed by the user, but having people around you to gently make you aware of when you are most passive-aggressive can help you improve and take responsibility.  

By understanding situations where your passive-aggressive behaviour occurs the most, you can prepare and practice your responses in advance – making you more prepared for the less common ones.  

Ready to Boost Your Assertiveness Communication Style? 

Whether you want to communicate more confidently in the workplace, improve your presentation skills or learn how to speak with greater impact in team meetings. View our range of Confidence & Resilience courses and secure your place to avoid missing out on bundles of insights.  

Chloe Martin
Content Editor

2+ years in SEO and content marketing. Striving to help public sector professionals develop their skills and learn something new through high-quality content.