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Passive-Aggressive vs Assertive Communication

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson looks at the differences between the use of veiled aggression or non-assertive communication versus assertive communication. The types of communication and tips for correcting passive-aggressive communication are provided.

Does Everyone Communicate?

Stan had been having difficulty making friends in school because his family had just moved to accommodate a new job opportunity for his mom. He was still able to keep up with what his old friends were doing on social media, and they tried to include him as much as possible, but it wasn't the same. Even though he knew he could go back on vacations, the distance was changing relationships forged in childhood. His girlfriend was already talking about seeing new people after just a few weeks.

The situation led Stan to start resenting the fact that his mom had moved the family for her own selfish gains. She wasn't thinking about anyone else in the family; she was selfish and Stan needed to find some way to get back at her.

This is the beginning of a very dysfunctional type of communication. Stan resents the fact that his mother moved their family, for the betterment of the family, but he feels powerless to confront her about it. He realizes that direct confrontation will only lead to further frustration, so he is determined to smile while demonstrating his anger in other ways. Instead of talking respectfully to his mother about his situation, Stan has decided to engage in passive-aggressive warfare to show her his displeasure. In essence, Stan has decided to stop communicating.

What is Passive-Aggressive Communication?

To begin with, since communication is bidirectional (meaning it takes two or more people speaking, emoting or in some other way sharing thoughts or feelings and understanding), thus passive-aggressive actions are not true communication because it is not between two people. In passive-aggressive behavior, one person feels that they have been wronged in some way, but they also feel powerless. It could be an employee, a spouse, a child or anyone who is in a relationship that makes them feel that they cannot directly communicate with the other person. To act in a passive-aggressive manner means that an individual says one thing, but either acts or thinks otherwise.

People acting in a passive-aggressive manner will use different means of communication in an attempt to, in small ways, undermine the person they see as an authority figure. They may:

  • Mutter under their breath to themselves rather than talk to the object of their displeasure.
  • Speak sarcastically.
  • If confronted, they will not acknowledge that there is an issue.
  • Try to sabotage the individual even if that means self-sabotage.

In Stan's case, he goes from being an A student to one who is lucky to make a C. He starts hanging out with a set of teens who are disruptive and experiment with illicit substances. His behavior causes his mother to miss work because she has to speak with his principal and answer to the police. Instead of confronting his mother directly, he makes life as difficult for her as he believes she has made it for him.

Is There a Better Way to Bridge the Communication Gap?

In broad terms, there are four ways in which people communicate. They can be passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, or assertive. Passive communicators will not speak up for themselves no matter what the situation is. Aggressive speech is characterized by people who tend to push their own agenda in a harsh and uncompromising manner. Passive-aggressive behavior was described above. Assertive communication is a way to state individual wants/needs without infringing on the rights of others.

The assertive communicator understands that every person in a conversation or relationship is valued. They will communicate by:

  • Using 'I' statements. Say 'I feel that you never talk to me' instead of 'You never talk to me.'
  • Expressing ideas respectfully
  • Listening to other people actively. Ask questions of the speaker, and pay close attention.
  • Feeling relaxed
  • Speaking calmly. Even if you are angry, by keeping your voice calm, it is more likely the other person will listen to you.
  • Remaining in control of their emotions

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