Outsmarting Passive Aggressiveness


Hi and welcome to Talk RX with Doctor Neha. I’d like to have you start to think about the friends, and family, and bosses, and colleagues, and neighbors around you and what kind of communication questions you might have to ask me. As you listen to this question that came in, I’d like you to be thinking about your life as well. Maybe you’ll have the next question that I address.

Here is a question that came in about family: “My sister-in-law and I butt heads at every family dinner and it’s just driving me crazy. Now, I love my brother so much and I want family harmony, but she makes such underhanded and passive-aggressive comments, that I don’t know how to handle them. I leave feeling infuriated. An example of this is last weekend when the Johnsons came over, she said to me, ‘Well, the Johnsons really liked you, but of course, they’ve only just met you so they don’t really know you.’ What should I say the next time she does this?”

This is a great question because it speaks to several dynamics. First of all, the age-old dilemma of in-laws. I have seen many Bollywood movies made about in-laws not liking whom their son or daughter married. It creates a lot of drama. What I want you to remember is that if you’re struggling with an in-law in your life, one thing you definitely have in common is that you love the same person. For this person who is writing in, she loves her brother. She’s struggling with her sister-in-law, who also loves the same guy. So what she has in common with her sister-in-law is that one of the people she loves most in the world they both share and probably both love equally.

The second thing you want to remember is that sometimes the in-law experience of, “Hey, now you’re family,” can feel a little awkward. Here her sister-in-law is trying to give her a compliment by saying, “The Johnsons really like you.” Now, we might be able to chalk it up to awkwardness that she does follows it with a backhanded piece: “But they don’t really know you because they just met you.” She might have said that because of her own discomfort with an in-law or as a truly conscious backhanded comment.

What you want to do is check it out. I’m going to make up her name. I’m going to say her name is Susie. You’d want to set up the conversation for success, so you’d say, “Hey, Susie, I know we just saw each other yesterday at dinner and there’s something that I’ve been thinking about that’s been on my mind and I’d love to talk to you about it. It’ll take 10 minutes. When’s a good time for you?” You always want to give her a heads up. Once she says, “Today at 4:00 would be great. Why don’t I give you a call?” Once you’re on the phone with her, what you do is you just state what you heard and then get curious.

It would go something like this, “Yesterday when you said the Johnsons really liked me but it was the first time they’d met me and they don’t really know you—what did you mean by that?” Then you have to manage your own body’s discomfort as you’re trying to breath and calm yourself down as you listen to what her interpretation was. Now let’s say she says, “I didn’t really mean anything by that.” What you can say is, “I noticed when you said that I was really appreciative that you relayed to me that the Johnsons liked me. Then when you went on to say but they don’t really know you, it’s the first time they’ve met you, it seemed like it wasn’t very genuine compliment or maybe I need to read more into this if they actually do get to know me, maybe they wouldn’t like me? So was there any other meeting that you were trying to get across or something you and I need to talk about?”

Depending on what she says, you’ll have your answer. She may just say, “No, I didn’t mean anything by that.” Your job now is to believe her.

You want to feel confident that when something like that comes up you have the skills to go ahead and have a talk with someone. The part that I left out was the piece about all the judgments you might have about her.

“What did you mean by that?”

“You don’t really like me, do you?”

“You’re just trying to be a jerk.”

For all those types of thoughts, leave them out.

Talk about the facts: “Hey, this is what I heard. This is what you said to me. Can you tell me what happened?” I call that the curiosity tool. If you’re interested in learning more about this, it’s in chapter one of TalkRx. The curiosity tool helps you take out the judgments, thoughts, opinions, beliefs about a situation and actually connect to someone.

Please have that conversation with your sister-in-law. Either she didn’t mean anything negative by it, she might have felt awkward, or if there was something underneath it, you want to be the one who opens up the dialogue to having a good conversation about it.

Send me your questions—drop me a tweet at #askdoctorneha or write your question and comments down below.

Your Awareness Prescription

  1. Ask the other person when is a good time for a conversation.
  2. Then state what you heard (leave out your judgments, opinions, and beliefs).
  3. Get curious.
  4. Be aware of your own physical discomfort and manage yourself (breathe!).
  5. Believe what the other person says.

To meaning what you say and saying what you mean,



2 Responses

  1. First, thanks so much for these resources. They are extremely well done and very helpful.

    I think it might be difficult for most people to ask “what did you mean by that?” without the sister-in-law (or other person) becoming defensive. Even if you intend your question to come from curiosity, it might not land that way.

    Can you suggest a way to soften and perhaps avoid the natural tendency for the other to become defensive?


    1. Wow John! Sorry for the late —somehow I missed this. Thank you for your kind words. There’s good news and bad news about the question you asked. The good news is you care about the other person as well as yourself. That bad news is – you can’t WANT FOR ANOTHER. What I mean by that is – your fear may be that the other person will get defensive or the question might land wrong. This is where you can pay attention to your own tone & trust that you can handle whatever comes next. If you stay curious and breathe through it, your true intentions have the best chance of coming through!! Hope that was helpful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Sign Up For Our Newsletter


Related Posts

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Get notified about new articles.