Replacing Passive Aggression with Honest, Clear, and Kind
Passive aggression likes to show up when we're unhappy with someone, but we're unwilling or unable to say so directly. And in my experience, naturally-thoughtful people like us who love to feel helpful (and who hate confrontation) can be some of the most likely offenders.
In general, we’d rather hint at our unhappiness, and hope that the other person offers to meet our wants or needs, without us having to ask for those things directly. That approach feels safer, more comfortable, and less likely to start a conflict. The problem, of course, is that most of the time, people can see right through it.
In the end, it becomes a real barrier to connection and trust — not to mention that all those upset feelings we hold in have nowhere to go except to build up, and wreak physical and emotional havoc over time. It’s essentially a lose-lose: we fail to fully honor our own needs, while still managing to irk the other person.
It all raises this bigger question: is there a better way, and what does it look like?
With that, let’s get into the good stuff!
To Read First:
Today, we’re wrapping up this series by answering the question, “so, what do I do with all this new insight?” — we’re talking all about the process of unlearning passive aggression, and how to replace it with something more productive.
Let’s start with some good news.
Passive aggression is a learned behavior, and not a character trait. And if we’re capable of learning it, that means we’re also capable of UN-learning it. Not only does that mean it’s possible to hold ourselves to a higher standard of communication, and adopt more productive communication habits that help create the types of relationships we want — it also means we can do so without changing who we are. We don’t need to become someone more confrontational or bristly, or let go of our natural warmth and compassion, to be able to communicate with clarity.
Still... like any new habit, unlearning those comfortable passive aggressive responses and replacing them with new, less comfortable ones isn’t going to be a cake walk — at least at first.
So, is all that work worth it?
My short answer, of course, is a resounding YES. And if you’re not convinced after reading the first two parts of this series, here are just a few arguments for ditching the thinly-veiled hostility and embracing a more forthright style of communication with the people in your life.
Learning how to communicate our wants, needs, and ideas clearly and directly — and without passive aggression:
helps us cultivate more self awareness around the things we need, or want to express.
reduces built-up tension in our close relationships, and helps us clear the air.
eases the turmoil within ourselves, by giving us a productive release valve for those pent-up feelings.
fosters more trust, by creating a safe space for more honest conversations.
creates less confusion.
pushes us to see a frustrating situation as solvable, and do more than just stew in our frustration.
builds up our courage muscles.
reminds us that we have more power than we might realize.
...gets easier with practice. :)
So then, how do we start reversing the pattern?
Here’s the big secret, and the biggest lesson to carry with you into your life when it comes to communication: honest, clear, and kind can — and must — coexist.
To be HONEST is to prioritize truth over likability. It means checking in with yourself and getting grounded in your own wants and needs, before you speak — and to acknowledge those things in yourself without guilt. It means resisting that impulse to speak in half-truths or say what you think the other person wants to hear, and instead, bringing your authentic self to the table.
To be CLEAR is to remove what I like to call the ‘bubble wrap’ that’s padding your truth, but doesn’t add anything meaningful. Whether your brand of bubble wrap looks more like sarcasm, or heavy-hinting, or extra pleasantries and apologies to soften the blow — the truth is, all that stuff tends to create more confusion and tension than good. In this case, clarity means resisting the urge to bury truth in something that feels more comfortable.
To be KIND is to make an earnest effort to create a safe and inviting space, where hard conversations can happen. It means deciding to engage with our full attention and respect, and taking responsibility for what we bring to the table. It means resisting the urge to dismiss or assume the worst, and instead, choosing to lead with curiosity and a solution-oriented mindset.
I think what drives us toward passive aggression more than anything is a fear of being unlikable; that if we’re too direct, or raise a concern we think the other person doesn’t want to hear, we'll lose our 'Warm and Friendly' status; that hinting at our frustration is the only real option we have, without starting a bigger confrontation. But luckily, we’re wrong! Because there are so many ways to have an honest conversation that doesn’t turn into a confrontation.
We don’t have to choose between being warm, or being forthright. Our job is to see the opportunity to marry the two — and honest-to-god magic happens when we become evangelists of both, together, at the same time.
Here are a few specific things you might try, as you’re getting started:
Watch for examples, both good and bad. Now that we’ve been talking about this, you’ll almost certainly start to notice more of these kinds of interactions in the wild. The next time you spot a hard conversation — whether you’re involved directly, or more of an observer — pay attention to how others respond. If you notice someone being passive aggressive, ask yourself: Do I do that, too? What could that person had done or said differently, to have made it a more productive interaction?
On the other hand, if you notice someone handling a tough conversation like a pro, or responding in ways that feel especially clear and productive, take mental notes! You might even jot down some of what they did especially well, to try out for yourself the next time you’re in a challenging situation.
If you get stuck or overwhelmed, reboot and simplify. It’s easy to get lost in what you’re trying to say and how to say it, especially as you’re getting used to being more clear and honest in your conversations. It’s a lot to juggle in your head! If you feel that overwhelm feeling start to happen, try this:
Pause, take a breath, and say to yourself, “Here’s what I’m really getting at….”
This always helps me clear some the fog, and refocus on the clear, honest nugget that I’m trying to say. Plus it’s a great way to take responsibility for whatever it is you’re saying or asking for, which helps create a more collaborative and productive atmosphere.
Practice more productive communication in private. Don’t try and tell me I’m the only person who talks through my side of a hypothetical conversation out loud when I’m alone in the car, or in the shower, or doing dishes. Whether you’re most comfortable practicing out loud, or in a journal, or with a trusted friend — try finding a safe space to get used to expressing your perspective with the same kind of clarity, honesty, and kindness you hope to be able to channel when you’re on the spot. The more comfortable you get with this on your own, the easier it’ll be to tap into when the pressure is on, or the stakes are high.
Finally, be patient. There are going to be moments during this process when you get it wrong, and want to put your foot in your mouth and/or burrow under the nearest piece of large furniture. But remember: change doesn’t happen overnight, and mastering a new skill takes time. Learn from your missteps, practice forgiveness, and keep showing up with a willingness to try again. The other important thing to keep in mind as far as patience goes is that it may also take time to feel the benefits of this shift — that while your old ways probably felt more comfortable in the short term, choosing to communicate from a place of integrity will pay off in spades, both in your relationships with others and with yourself.
I want to wrap things up by saying that this has been such a fun and fascinating topic to explore with you. I have plenty more I want to share in the future about how we can show up for hard conversations in ways that feel honest and productive, without abandoning our natural warmth and kindness — so you can expect to hear more about this going forward!
For now, I’d love to hear how this goes for you!
Definitely let me know if you try some of these tactics, or if any questions about this pop up for you. I’m pop up for you. I’m all ears. Here’s to more honest, clear, and kind conversations!