Ask Conflict Resolution:

Guest Author

Dear Conflict Resolution,

I’ve always assumed that I could “keep calm and carry on” when I’m upset. However, in a recent conflict with friends, they accused me of being “passive-aggressive.” I think they might be right.  How do I change?



Dear P.A.,

Kudos for your willingness to recognize and let go of behavior you don’t want! When we use passive-aggressive behaviors, it is because we have one or more of these underlying beliefs:

– People won’t care or understand how I really feel.

– If I say how I really feel, people will not like me.  

– Conflicts are bad, and must be avoided at all cost.  

The reality is that conflict is an unavoidable part of life. Everyone has basic needs – food, water, shelter, respect, choice and more.  Conflicts arise when someone does something (intentionally or unintentionally) that challenges our ability to meet our needs. Often, the best way to resolve conflict is to express our feelings and ask for what we want/need.

Unfortunately, not everyone is comfortable being so assertive. Maybe you received the message at some point in your life that asking for what you want makes you seem selfish, bossy or rude. Maybe prior conflicts have gone badly, and you learned it was safest to keep your true feelings and desires to yourself. Whatever the reason, the fact is that unpleasant emotions usually don’t stay hidden for long. “Passive-aggression” is when these emotions sneak out in indirect ways. Instead of saying we don’t want to see “Paul Blart 2,” we shrug our shoulders and say “I guess we can see it if you really want to,” cancel at the very last minute because “something came up” or grudgingly go to the movie – and on your way out, you sarcastically say, “That was money well spent.”

Worse, if someone does something that makes us angry, we don’t tell them how we feel. Instead, we find ways to “get back” at them. For example, instead of having a talk with our roommate about the dirty dishes, we may loudly play music while they’re trying to study. Classic examples of passive-aggressive behavior include the silent treatment, back-handed compliments, intentional mistakes or delays and non-verbal expressions of frustration such as loud sighs or eye-rolling.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior, you know just how maddening it can be. You can tell something’s wrong, but you’re not sure what.  Someone says one thing, but their actions seem to say something entirely different.  And if you attempt to confront them, they’ll often deny that there’s a problem.


In order to stop being passive-aggressive, recognize that healthy, worthwhile relationships depend upon honesty, trust and open communication. There are ways to ask for what you want and say how you feel without being aggressive or hurtful.

Next time you are upset, take a moment to self-identify how you’re feeling and what you’re needing. Figure out exactly what you would want to happen in order to feel better, and then take a risk and ask for it. Out loud. Your friends may appreciate this more than you’d think. Oh, and be sure you do this face-to-face. It’s way too easy for people to misinterpret texts or emails.

If you’d like more help overcoming your passive-aggressive tendencies, call (970) 491-7165 to book a free conflict coaching session with one of CSU’s Conflict Resolution staff.