Have you ever been in a situation where you are talking with someone, and while their words were saying one thing, everything else was sending a different message? Their words may seem friendly, but you cannot seem to shake the feeling that they are setting traps for you. There seems to be hidden layers of meaning behind their words.

There are several different communication styles through which people express themselves. These styles include aggressive, passive, assertive, and passive-aggressive. Each of these communication styles has its respective strengths and weaknesses. This article will address the negative effects of a passive-aggressive communication style.

Understanding the passive-aggressive communication style

It can be difficult to communicate effectively with others, and there are many ways for one’s communication to be dysfunctional. The aggressive style of communicating will often result in being insensitive toward the needs of others, while a passive style will mean not being able to stand up and speak for yourself. The passive-aggressive style will look more like smiling while simultaneously quietly undermining someone.

A person who communicates passive aggressively will not be direct about their displeasure in a situation. Instead, they will act in an inoffensive and seemingly innocent way but indirectly display their aggression in various ways. This may include agreeing to do something, but then procrastinating, using sarcasm, giving the silent treatment, being disruptive, giving backhanded compliments, rolling one’s eyes, or intentionally making mistakes.

A passive aggressive communicator will, when asked, say that everything is fine and that they are not angry. However, they may be exceptionally angry, but they will not admit as much, choosing instead to display that anger in more subtle ways.

Why do people resort to being passive-aggressive?

There are myriad reasons why a person might communicate in a passive-aggressive manner. For instance, being passive-aggressive can allow a person to voice their displeasure in an indirect way so that what they are really doing is deniable. Some of the reasons why people resort to a passive-aggressive communication style include the following:

As a defense mechanism

When you do not want to experience the pain of the response that might come your way of expressing anger directly, a passive aggressive communication style will often function as a defense mechanism. If you are afraid of being reprimanded or rebuked for expressing your feelings openly, doing so passively may be appealing.

Your upbringing

In some families, expressing your feelings, including your anger, is something that may be frowned upon. Given such a situation, it may be difficult to either be openly aggressive or assertive. Being passive aggressive allows one to express their anger in a way that does not violate the norms in one’s family.

Avoiding conflict

When you openly express what you are feeling, it is possible that it may lead to a confrontation, where you will have to stand up for yourself. If a person feels uncomfortable with confrontation and would rather avoid conflict, being passive aggressive may feel like the appropriate way to respond to an aggravating situation.

Low self-esteem

If you lack the confidence to express yourself clearly and assertively, you may resort to a passive aggressive style of communication to articulate your needs toward others. Instead of making the move and acting yourself, you might leave it to someone else to recognize what you are going through and move toward you.

Specific circumstances

A person may typically be aggressive in their communication style, for example, but when they find themselves in a specific setting, being passive aggressive may seem the better approach. If you are in a public setting such as at work, at a party, or in a restaurant, social decorum might make it hard to express displeasure. You may find it easier or more acceptable to respond in subtle ways.


If someone feels powerless to express themselves without incurring any penalties for doing so, they may opt to communicate with a passive-aggressive approach. In relationships that have a power imbalance, being passive aggressive may be the only way of expressing yourself without getting in trouble.

Maintaining a certain image

Some people want to cling to the image they have of themselves, or that other people have of them. They may see themselves as the friendly person who is nice, amiable, and kind to everyone. This, in combination with a faulty understanding of what being assertive means may result in passive-aggressive communication to maintain that self-image or the façade of friendliness.

The negative effects of a passive-aggressive communication style

When you do not express what you are thinking and feeling, your behavior and communication style will have consequences. A passive-aggressive communication style may seem ideal for avoiding conflict, but results in avoiding authenticity about what you are feeling. This can prove devastating for a relationship. Being passive-aggressive:

Shuts down communication

For one thing, being passive-aggressive shuts down communication because it puts up a screen that is hard to probe. If someone looks angry, and then you ask them if they are angry, they will respond, “I’m fine; everything is okay.” Meanwhile, they are sighing or pursing their lips in a way that shuts down further conversation.

Undermines trust

If what a person says is different from what they mean, that makes it difficult to develop trust and any meaningful emotional intimacy. When you are authentic, and that means sometimes having unpleasant but necessary conversations, you develop a real connection with someone.

Undermines the relationship

If you are in a relationship with someone, and they express themselves in a passive-aggressive manner, that can make it much harder to get at the root of any issues you may be facing. It also makes it difficult to find mutually beneficial solutions. You might find it difficult to trust what they are saying if they agree with a proposed solution, because they could be holding back their true feelings.

Causes confusion

When someone is angry at you, but they do not tell you why, it can be confusing to understand what is going on. If someone is giving you the silent treatment, for instance, it is difficult to know whether you’re the reason why they aren’t talking, or what it is specifically you did that caused the problem. This confusion, over time, can cause significant hurt and have a detrimental effect on the relationship.


When you resort to subtle means of communication to get your point or your needs across, you risk your message being misunderstood or not being received. The lack of clarity that accompanies passive-aggressive behavior means you are less likely to get what you want. This, in turn, may foster deep resentment toward the other person for not giving you what you want, and the situation will spiral downwards.

A passive-aggressive communication style confuses by sending mixed messages. These can ultimately undermine the health of a relationship. It is important to learn how to express difficult emotions such as anger, disappointment, and hurt, in a constructive way that will not undermine the relationship.

Overcoming a passive-aggressive communication style

Many factors influence a person’s communication style, including their culture and upbringing, their personality, and various life experiences that shape their comfort with communicating about conflict. A person’s communication style can change with time and consistent effort. A person with a passive-aggressive communication style can change.

Some steps toward overcoming a passive-aggressive style of communicating must include, first, recognizing your passive-aggressive behaviors and ways of communicating. We can be oblivious to how we communicate. Ask yourself if you feel comfortable telling people that you are not happy about something. Do you avoid people with whom you are upset? Do you worry about your dishonesty leading to conflict or awkwardness with others?

It may also be necessary to explore certain beliefs that underlie passive-aggressive communication, such as feelings of powerlessness or the idea that expressing your displeasure is somehow inappropriate. Speaking with a counselor can help you to unearth these beliefs and begin replacing them with a healthier perspective on issues such as conflict and the value of expressing yourself clearly.

Lastly, give yourself time and opportunities to learn how to express yourself assertively. It may take time for you to become comfortable with the idea of conflict, and to learn how to express yourself clearly without being insincere.

Getting help

With the guidance of a counselor, you can learn to embrace healthier forms of communication that will promote your own well-being and the quality of your relationships. Reach out to our offices today and we will connect you to a Christian counselor who will walk the journey with you.

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