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How to Outsmart Passive-Aggressive Behavior Using NLP

Passive-Aggressive Behavior NLP

Table of Contents

How do you deal with passive-aggressive behavior? And what is my approach as an NLP and effective communication trainer? In a sense, we see passive-aggressive behavior all the time: at work, in our relationships, and at the grocery store!

In today’s world, I have noticed that people are very keen to attribute a disorder to anyone who hurts them or gets in their way. We diagnose our ex-partners, ex-friends, and complicated family members as narcissists, and if they aren’t that, they are sure to be borderliners or have substance abuse disorders. The reality is that, often, when these people are evaluated by a professional, they merely have some traits of these disorders. And guess what? Most of us have some traits to some degree with most personality disorders.

In my opinion, it is more useful to arm ourselves against “traits” or “behaviors” people have, rather than diagnosing them with a mental illness and educating ourselves about these. We end up being solution-focused rather than problem-focused.

How to Spot Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is fairly easy to spot quickly. You don’t need to be an NLP practitioner or a communication expert to observe others having negative emotions like anger, frustration, or irritation. When these occur, some people avoid direct confrontation, expressing their emotions, or openly communicating. Instead, they exhibit behavior that seems kind, good-natured, or harmless but has an undercurrent of hostility.

You Don't Need to Be an NLP Expert to Spot Passive-Aggressive Behavior

If you avoid getting caught up in your own emotional responses to people’s passive-aggressive behavior, then it is easy to observe.

Think of things like:

  • Subtle digs
  • Snide remarks
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Ignoring someone
  • Blaming
  • Stubbornness
  • Avoiding responsibility
  • Sabotaging others
  • Not fully completing jobs
  • Deliberate inefficiency
  • Persistent forgetting
  • Making excuses
  • Intentionally turning up late or missing deadlines.

What Causes Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Psychological Factors

Usually, people who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior have other psychological issues that cause them trouble expressing their emotions in a better way. Think of things like fear of confrontation, rejection, low self-esteem, and lack of assertiveness.

Some of these individuals may need psychotherapy, but many may fare better taking personal development classes or hiring a coach.

Upbringing & Poor Parenting

If you grow up in a family, culture, or religion where expressing emotions was never encouraged or even punished, passive-aggressive behavior can be the automatic result.

Another reason is simply imitating the adults around us.

Situational Triggers

Some people display passive-aggressive behavior only in certain contexts. Usually, these are situations where direct confrontation may be punished or frowned upon. Think of professional settings, where you are disempowered to openly express a negative emotion.

When you think of it, passive-aggressive behavior has less risk associated with it than aggressive or negative behavior.

How can NLP Help With the Emotional Effects of Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Emotional Effects & NLP

Being on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior can be quite emotionally taxing, causing pain, confusion, frustration, and anxiety. Often, the behavior can be hard to understand or interpret, ultimately leading to self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, impacting your mental health and well-being.

NLP operates in the realm of:

  • Observing emotion & behavior
  • Changing behavior and emotions
  • Changing your responses
  • Changing thoughts
  • Communication
  • Understanding someone else’s map of the world

Relationship Dynamics & NLP

Passive-aggressive behavior often comes with a cycle of misunderstanding, resentment, and conflict.

NLP offers tools to:

  • Understand others better
  • Resolve conflict
  • Understand positive intents, values, and beliefs
  • Build rapport
  • Develop communication strategies

Long-Term Consequences and the Use of NLP

The long-term effects of being near someone with passive-aggressive behavior can affect mental health and self-esteem. Ideally, using concepts at the NLP Master Practitioner level and timeline-based work is most effective. In fact, for many people, I recommend taking an NLP training course. And I am not saying that because I benefit from it.

NLP Strategies for Managing Passive-Aggressive Individuals

Identifying the Behavior & Maintaining Composure Using NLP

In the Moment

Take a deep breath, and step out of the emotion rather than engage with it. Float your awareness out of your body, and imagine seeing yourself and the individual on a movie screen. From this neutral and non-emotional space, observe what the person is doing.


For some people, it is difficult to do the above in the moment. The best place to start is doing the exact same thing in hindsight. Observe from a space where you are neither on your side nor the other person’s.

  1. Start the movie from when either of you stepped into the room.
  2. Watch the movie for the duration.
  3. End the movie a day after the behavior is over (long enough to see the results and how you navigated it).

Effective Communication Using NLP

After doing the above techniques, it is good to ask yourself a few relevant questions using NLP (meta-model):

What specifically is the emotion I feel as a result of the passive-aggressive behavior? For example, frustration.

What specifically and FACTUALLY is the effect the passive-aggressive behavior has? For example, the person remained silent and did not engage in conversation.

Make sure that neither answer has a judgment or an assumption. It needs to remain absolutely factual. Otherwise, your communication starts to have signs of aggressive communication, which is not useful.

Then combine the two into an identity-level statement:
“I feel frustrated because our communication was affected.”

If you must, you can add: “In order to fulfill my need to find a way forward and find a solution.” What you do here is link it to a need that must be fulfilled and communicate specifics you request from the other person without being judgmental.

A good book to read is “Non-Violent Communication” by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg.

This will help you set clear boundaries.

NLP Matching & Mirroring

I would not copy the behavior of the person to make them understand the impact of what they are doing if the shoe were on the other foot. But what you can do is reflect the behavior you observe back. For example, when someone is procrastinating, you could say: “I noticed the task isn’t completed. Is there a reason why it’s being delayed?”

Creating New Behaviors Using NLP

A small NLP technique:

  1. Observe yourself handling someone else’s passive-aggressive behavior like a pro (using the NLP techniques and comebacks described in this article).
  2. Rewind the movie.
  3. Float your awareness into yourself, and practice in your mind what you will see, hear, and feel, doing this behavior.

Other Ideas Relating to NLP for Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Do You Have a Model?

Is there someone you know who handles people with passive-aggressive behavior really well?

What specifically do they do?

Hire an NLP Coach or a Therapist

If you find yourself unable to do the above, it may be a good idea to hire an NLP coach or even a therapist who has learned NLP.

Clever Comebacks for Passive-Aggressive Behavior


Use a little lighthearted humor without being passive-aggressive yourself.

Assertive Responses

The easiest way to give an assertive response is to introduce the elephant in the room without accusation. For example: “I notice you are quiet. Is there something we need to discuss?”

Other Examples of Good Comebacks
  • “I get the feeling something is bothering you.”
  • “I appreciate your feedback.
  • “Can you help me understand what you mean?”
  • “Is there a way I can support you?”

Conclusion: Passive-Aggressive Behavior and NLP

While passive-aggressive behavior can be frustrating, there is a lot you can avoid and improve upon to serve yourself better. All the above suggestions, strategies, and comebacks require practice and effort. By doing so, NLP will help you combat passive-aggressive behavior in your world instantly.