Co-Worker: Impossible

UPDATED: December 4, 2012
PUBLISHED: December 4, 2012

When you were 5, it was all about getting the cookie. Did you ask respectfully and get the cookie? Or did you yell and scream? Did you avoid making waves to get it? Or did you go behind your parents’ backs to get that cookie? Kids figure out what works and that communication style becomes part of their personality.

Being direct and open—communicating assertively—is healthiest and most efficient. While most people have a default style of communication, we all tend to use all four styles, depending on the situation and the person with whom we’re speaking. Communication is a learned skill, but it’s important to know we have a choice in how we communicate.

“I will be nice to your face, but behind your back…”

Passive-aggressive communication is the most challenging for others. If you’re faced with it, you don’t know where you stand; you may think the passive-aggressive is your friend, and you probably open up without realizing you risk being sabotaged. The passive-aggressive mode of operation is: “I will be nice to your face, but behind your back, I will do things to make you suffer in hell for the rest of your life.”

If you’ve ever thought about making that certain someone who needs to be taught a thing or two suffer—even just a teensy bit—you’re stepping close to that sneaky and devious world of the passive-aggressive. Don’t go there.

One passive-aggressive trait is gossiping and tattling. Anyone who says, “I am not a gossip,” probably is. If you hear disparaging words one minute followed by, “But she really is my good friend,” that’s another red flag.

When confronting someone for their passive-aggressive tendencies, realize they are motivated to seek revenge when they perceive an injustice done to them. You didn’t necessarily do them any wrong, but they believe your behavior inappropriate, unacceptable or unjust. Because they often believe their lives are controlled by others, they lack the skill, knowledge, desire and confidence to be assertive.

To deal with someone who communicates in a passive-aggressive style: • Talk openly and honestly to set an example of healthy, assertive communication and to minimize attacks. • Confront them and hold them accountable. Have them say to your face what they usually would say behind your back. If they’re giving you the silent treatment, ignore them. • Do not back down when they’re openly disagreeing with you. • Challenge inappropriate behavior in a positive, upbeat way, but prepare for the counterattack.

Indecisiveness: The Passive Personality Another difficult personality is the passive person, who wants to avoid confrontation at all costs. Passives don’t talk much and question even less. They don’t want to rock the boat because they have learned it’s safer. Passive people lack self-confidence to communicate assertively. They don’t trust other people to respond positively to their assertive attempts. Passive people act like everything is perfect and put everyone else first, but inside, they often are a seething mess.

“Anyone who says “I am not a gossip,” probably is.”

Why bother learning how to deal with passive people? They are the saintly, never-cause-a-fuss, do-whatever-you-want people, right? In truth, passives constantly create havoc because they never let you know where they stand. They’re too busy keeping the peace.

To deal with a passive person: • Be open, direct and honest, modeling assertive behavior. • Establish trust. Help passive people have the confidence to share their feelings and concerns by making them feel worthy and respected. • Encourage an environment of solving problems and discussing options. • Don’t let the passive person avoid confrontation. Resolve the issue immediately, rather than avoiding the problem as a passive personality is accustomed to doing. • Give the passive person permission to be decisive and praise them for their participation.

Inflicting Anger and Hurt: The Aggressive Personality Aggressive personality types use manipulation by inducing guilt, hurt, intimidation and control tactics. Covert or overt, aggressive people simply want their needs met—and right now!

People who communicate aggressively do it because it works. They’re bullies with words.

Aggressive communicators differ from those who are being assertive. While assertive people are forthright and open, aggressive communicators say what they mean, but they hold nothing back, usually at the expense of others’ feelings.

To deal effectively with someone communicating aggressively: • Assert yourself to neutralize the onslaught. • Confront them. Don’t let them get away with their manipulation or they won’t respect you. • Avoid emotional impulse reactions. • Be clear that the aggressive behavior is unacceptable.

The Healthy Personality: Assertiveness An assertive communication style is the only way to effectively deal with difficult people. Unfortunately, people use it the least. Communicating assertively lets people know your needs, concerns and feelings in an open and honest way without threats, manipulation or hidden agendas. Assertive people ask questions, seek answers, look at all points of view and engage in meaningful,open-ended dialogue without anger, hurt feelings or defensiveness.

Remember, you always have a choice in your style of communication. You also have a choice in how people talk to you. Assertiveness will help you diffuse anger, reduce guilt and build relationships professionally and personally

Connie Podesta is a board-certified therapist, licensed professional counselor, comedian and author of several books, including the popular series, Life Would Be Easy If It Weren't For Other People. Podesta is a well-known speaker providing positive and inspiring messages to hundreds of companies and more than 2 million people.