Dealing with Passive-Aggressiveness and Defensiveness

A Dive into Dealing with the Scene Stealers

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,…”

Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

Have you ever seen a theatre production that went sideways as a plot point in a movie or TV show? The moment when scenery falls apart, entrances and exits are wrong, collisions happen on stage, lines are forgotten, and wardrobe malfunctions. In a comedy of errors, the players learn to communicate and band together. When the chaos is from anarchy, a strong director steps up and saves the day. And when there was sabotage, the antagonist accepts the blame and learns a lesson.

As a scene in a movie, it’s often funny while neatly teaching a lesson. In real life, it is a frustrating hot mess that requires leadership and communication to navigate toward a healthy work culture.

As the leader, you’re the director and it’s up to you to explicitly guide your cast and crew — they can’t read your mind. In the workplace, these collisions can happen when navigating two challenges to communication and growth — passive-aggressiveness and defensiveness.

What Does That Even Mean?

How do you feel when you experience passive-aggressive behavior? Frustrated and confused? Or when someone says “Don’t be so defensive!”?

Do you, like me, ask yourself ‘What does that even mean? What is happening here? And how can I change it?’

Passive-aggressive and defensive behavior derails communication and constrains growth. But to change how we navigate these reactions, we need to understand what is going on. And then we practice how to do things differently the next time they happen.

Passive-aggressive behavior is particularly pervasive but what exactly is going on? When we feel unsafe to express anger or conflict directly, we show avoidance on the surface to keep ourselves safe and we feel aggression under the surface. The problem is the anger, resistance, and resentment will always end up surfacing in some way. Without a direct, clear channel to communicate these feelings, this anger is expressed passive-aggressively. Dropping a comment here or there. Sending a snarky text or email. Slightly sabotaging the costume so it might rip on stage.

These behaviors can be particularly evident during the feedback cycle if clear channels and boundaries aren’t established.

Defensiveness is another challenging behavior that bubble ups and causes issues. We want to protect an image of ourselves and so it’s difficult to listen when we are being criticized. It threatens our identity and feels unsafe. When we react defensively, we focus our listening on things we do not agree with such as exaggerations or inaccuracies. We jump in with all the evidence to contradict and protect our perception of ourselves. I was on time yesterday, I’m not always late. That conversation was on Tuesday, not Wednesday, and it was in the conference room upstairs, not downstairs. I exit upstage before she enters stage left.

Responding versus reacting is another piece of the puzzle that it is necessary to understand. It’s important to differentiate between the two. Reacting can feel rushed and out of control, with adrenaline and instincts kicking in. It is when you hear words leaving your mouth and causing chaos while your brain is still blinded by the lights. Responding happens when you slow down, breathe, recognize what is going on, and then move through the situation. It’s the pause for dramatic effect so you regain control of the stage and play your part well.

Responding in a New Way

Understanding and articulating what is going on is the first step. We can recognize what happened backstage to cause the chaos onstage. The show must go on and the next time we are suddenly back in the spotlight we have a plan to respond in a new way.

When we feel cornered defensively it can be difficult to hear our calmer selves over the rush and intensity of the situation. So, practice responding to situations you know will trigger you because that topic has tripped you up before. Do a tech rehearsal before the meeting. Acknowledge that you feel defensive when your expertise or authority are questioned by others. Practice the quick costume changes when you know it might cause you to miss your entrance.

Navigating passive-aggressiveness and defensiveness requires attention and communication. When you notice the behaviors popping up, open a line of communication, and start a conversation to address them.

Keep in mind:

  • Listen to understand and gain clarity.
  • Resist the desire to explain or defend yourself while listening (save it for later).
  • Notice themes or details you agree with; even if they are buried in exaggerations.
  • Listening does not equal agreement. We can listen, understand, and disagree.
  • Pay attention to the larger story, don’t get caught in the details.
  • Respond, don’t react.
  • If you are swamped by strong emotions or feel blindsided, just stand still and quiet. Let yourself adjust.

These challenging behaviors often make a splashy entrance stage left or a frustrated exit stage right at exactly the wrong time. Pause for dramatic effect. Take a deep breath. Then, ad-lib the lines to navigate you and your cast back to moving the story forward.

The time to address the issue is after the curtain is down, the lights are off, and adrenaline has dissipated. Listen and respond. Ask questions to understand and for clarity. Talk about the underlying anger that is fueling the passive-aggressiveness. Give specific notes about how behavior and communication will change. Notice and talk about situations where defensiveness shows up. Practice responding differently to situations that trigger it.

The Play of Life

Shakespeare’s collection of tragedies, comedies, and histories all end. Romeo and Juliet don’t grow up and learn from their experiences. Real life is not nearly so neat or so final. We make entrances and exits every day. Our parts change as we grow and learn. We build lives and businesses where we want healthy cultures. Learning to navigate through challenging behaviors like passive-aggressiveness and defensiveness makes room for smoother growth as new stories are written and new roles are learned.

As the director of your life and leader in your work, it is important to do the work to grow. Model the behavior you want to see and provide clear direction to your cast and crew. We won’t wake up with our issues only a dream.

“So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I

Originally published on a now defunct personal blog in June 2018

Rachel is a writer, podcaster, and self-employed designer and visual facilitator. She lives in NC with her dog, Devin. Learn more at

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