Difficult Conversations – Dealing with Passive Aggression


What makes a conversation difficult?

Each conversation is unique, but there are often common reasons why they are difficult.  These common reasons include:

  • Human nature – I always try to avoid conflict
  • Embarrassment – I don’t like awkward situations
  • It might all go wrong – I could end up with a grievance or worse
  • It might become emotional – I can’t deal with  tears
  • It will take too long – Isn’t it HR or someone else’s job anyway?

What should I do if my employee becomes passive aggressive?

Passive aggression is where the employee closes down and becomes totally unresponsive, often crossing their arms, tensing their jaw and staring.

This reaction makes holding a two way conversation impossible.  A passive aggressive employee is unlikely to respond to questions or voice concerns during your difficult conversation.

Maintaining your composure is vital.  Ensure that you have conveyed the necessary information clearly and concisely.

If necessary repeat the key messages several times.  Continually inform the employee that you welcome their input to the conversation and continue to ask even if you are being stonewalled.

Do not be afraid of the silence.  Often the impulse to fill silence will overcome the most passive aggressive individual.

Be careful not to overdo silence as it can be perceived as passive aggression on your part.

Leave the door open for the employee to come back to you with their responses at a later point.

Always ensure that you:

  • Document the meeting as soon as it is over
  • Ideally have a witness present at the meeting to be an independent pair of eyes observing proceedings
  • Prepare well.  Have all the information you need to hand, consider the likely responses you will encounter and how you might react.
  • Be clear on the outcome that you want to achieve from the meeting.  This will enable you to be better able to manage your reaction to events as they unfold

If you would like to know

  • What can go wrong?
  • How you ensure your message is heard and accepted?
  • How you can reduce the risk of things going wrong?

Read our Difficult conversations Blog


Deal with matters as they arise, don’t leave until they become a problem

Approach issues on an informal basis first

Prepare well, gather evidence, articulate key points, devise questions & responses

Ensure you document the conversation in case matters are not concluded

Be prepared to adjourn and continue the conversation at another time, place or with expert help alongside you

Be prepared for the unexpected!