How to deal with passive-aggressive people

How to properly deal with a passive aggressive person

Matt Stephens
Matt Stephens, CNS Transformation coach, competitive bodybuilder, certified nutritionist

At some point in your life, you’re going to be faced with passive-aggressive behavior. If you don’t learn how to deal with it properly, it can cause an immense amount of frustration and quite possibly ruin things for you.

What is “passive-aggressive behavior”?

of or denoting a type of behavior or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation, as in procrastinating, pouting, or misplacing important materials

Covert contracts

Most likely, this behavior is born out of a “covert contract”. A covert contract is an uncommunicated agreement that someone gives to another.

For instance, let’s say I expect something in return for a favor I’ve done for you. But instead of communicating that to you, I withhold that information. Because you are unaware of those expectations, you aren’t able to deliver on them. Instead of understanding that you didn’t know, and therefore couldn’t deliver, I hold it against you.

Covert contracts are done unconsciously. It’s likely the person who issues them doesn’t realize what they’re doing until it’s brought to their attention. Until that happens, they will develop negative emotions from their end of the agreement not being fulfilled. This is often where the passive-aggressive actions come into play.

A passive-aggressive situation

At my first job, I had a co-worker who was very passive-aggressive. Although I saw the multiple situations as obvious issues, they were never large enough to bring any attention to. So, I had to deal with it for the time being. But I learned a great lesson from this.

For one example, I had to communicate with him when we made certain changes in the system we were managing. Both of our departments were central locations. Because we made the changes for other locations, we would have to relay the sign-off sheets to everyone electronically. When we did it locally, we would just pass around a sign-off sheet to the different departments and then file it.

When we made changes to the outside locations, he would insist on me printing out the sign-off sheets to give to him to sign because he kept forgetting them in his email inbox. This was his personal predicament, but he wanted to delegate it to me for reasons I am still unaware of today. The problem was that if we did this, it would need to be typed back into the document to be sent by email to the next department at the other location. This was completely unnecessary and created extra work for me, in order to make his job easier. I told him that he was more than welcome to print it out himself, but he insisted that I should be the one to handle the workload. This continued for weeks and it was a pain in the ass to deal with.

Not only did he mess with me, but he messed with many of my other co-workers, who were great people. I had respect for all of them.

Plausible deniability

The problem with many of the situations I had with this co-worker was that, if I ever brought them up, he could deny the allegations or come up with whatever seemingly reasonable excuse as to why he was doing such a thing. This is known as “plausible deniability” and it’s the biggest weapon the aggressor has in their arsenal. Here’s the definition:

the ability to deny knowledge of or responsibility for any damnable actions committed because of a lack of evidence that can confirm their participation

If you’re ever in a position where you do not have clear and concise evidence of any wrong-doing against you, and you decide to bring attention to it, you are at a great risk of making yourself look like an ass. After all, you have no proof. This is exactly what the perpetrator wants. A passive-aggressive person aims to make things difficult for you. They want to make your life a living hell out of revenge, or so that you’ll submit to their will.

The benefit the doubt

Here’s the good news: the weapon you have at your disposal is much greater than theirs. The greatest challenge you’ll have, in order to make any use of it, is practicing emotional self-control.

I understand that it’s frustrating, but you must do your best to pretend like it doesn’t faze you. What does this do?

It forces the enemy to step their game up.

When you have no evidence, you have to play it safe. It doesn’t mean that no wrong has been done to you, but when you don’t show your frustration, the aggressor will be the one who gets frustrated. Their plan did not work. They’ll have to be bolder and make a more noticeable attempt if they want to get under your skin.

Because I handled it the way I did, my fellow colleague realized it was going to take much more to get me aggravated. One morning, he noticed I was coming in late. Of course, he said some smart remark about it. I knew he’d try to use that against me at some point.

Get this. The very next morning, before I got to work, I received a text from him:

Him: “Good morning my man, have you decided yet?

Me: “Good morning! Decided what?”

Him: “Wrong person. Be on time today.”

The last statement was completely unnecessary and unprofessional. It crossed a personal boundary. Not only was this before business hours, but it was on my personal phone and he was not my manager. It bothered the hell out of me, but I didn’t respond. This was considered borderline harassment, but this was a good thing. I finally had my evidence.

When to confront your aggressor

When someone crosses a major boundary of yours, you have to put your foot down with authority. Whatever you do, you can’t show any mercy. After all, they’ve shown you that they have no mercy for you. One of my favorite books, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, reads as such:

Law 15: Crush your enemy totally. All great leaders since Moses have known that a feared enemy must be crushed completely. (Sometimes they have learned this the hard way.) If one ember is left alight, no matter how dimly it smolders, a fire will eventually break out. More is lost through stopping halfway than through total annihilation: The enemy will recover, and will seek revenge. Crush him, not only in body, but in spirit.

The moment you get your evidence is the moment when you either need to confront them or speak to the proper disciplinarian, so that they can do the confrontation for you. If you confront them, let them know that what they did was unacceptable and will not be tolerated. If you have the ability to do so, tell them to leave. This is not a person you want to associate with. If you are not in a position where you can force them to leave, you need to get away from them and stay away.

In my case, I spoke with a manager who understood the person we were dealing with. The manager told me the incident was significant and should be reported to HR, so that’s exactly what I did.

After the incident was reported, that colleague kept his interactions with me to a minimum. He also stopped bothering my other co-workers. A month or two later, he left the company.

I won.


At some point in your life, you will cross paths with a passive-aggressive person. As long as you keep your cool, and devise a plan that is outlined similarly to this one, you’ll be prepared to deal with them properly.

When someone disrespects you, and you ignore it, you are essentially asking for more disrespect from them. You are letting that other person know that it is okay to disrespect you. If they are able to get away with it once, you can bet they will do it again.

For your own well-being, establish boundaries for yourself. Once you establish those boundaries, you cannot be afraid to enforce them when they are crossed or they will be crossed over and over again.

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    Written by

    Matt Stephens

    I’m a competitive bodybuilder, nutritionist, and professional coach.

    I help men and women look and feel good using evidence-based bodybuilding methods applied sustainably to everyday life.