7 phrases to use when someone is being passive-aggressive towards you

Passive aggression comes in many different packages.

What makes it so insidious, so sneaky, is that it’s so hard to pin down.

If someone came up and yelled at you or punched you in the stomach, you’d be absolutely sure there was a problem. You’d recognize that as clearly aggressive behavior.

However, passive-aggressive behavior is much harder to prove and even identify.

Still, if you’re observant enough, you can definitely tell when someone is being passive-aggressive toward you.

So what can you do about it?

The trick to dealing with this behavior isn’t to be aggressive back to them or to passively ignore their behavior. Nor is it to try to passive-aggressively out-do them.

The only effective way to deal with passive-aggressive behavior is to be assertive, standing up for yourself in a clear and direct yet non-aggressive way.


To help you in the fight against this infuriating behavior, here are seven phrases to use when someone is being passive-aggressive toward you.

1) “Can you clarify what you meant?”

When you think you’ve just heard a passive-aggressive comment, one of the best things to do is to ask the person who said it to clarify what they meant.

Suppose you’ve just submitted a project at work, and the feedback you get is, “This will do, I guess.”

Hmm, that’s not a very clear or positive comment to make, is it?

If the person has an issue with your work, wouldn’t it be a lot more effective to talk about it so that you can improve or make changes and they can find some satisfaction?

Asking for clarity is a perfectly fair and non-aggressive thing to do as long as you phrase your request in the right way.

Make it clear that you want to know what they meant by their comment. If they say “Nothing,” then try again.

But if they absolutely refuse to clarify or qualify their comment, you’ll have to leave it at that. Pressing the issue will definitely make you seem aggressive.

But by asking for clarity, even with a simple, “What do you mean?” you’ve highlighted their passive-aggression and hopefully snuffed it out for the time being.

2) “I’m very interested in hearing your perspective.”

One of the most passive-aggressive things a person can do is to shut themself up and then accuse you of censoring them or not listening.

Obviously, this is completely unfair because they’re blaming you for an action that you have no part in.

Think about this example: “I’d love to talk to you about that, but I’m sure you don’t want to listen.”

When a person says something like this, they’re casting you as the bad guy in their made-up drama without your consent.

So, a very easy way to deal with that is to turn down the baddie role by making it very clear that you are open to hearing what they have to say.

There’s no way they can keep up this pretense if you clearly state that you’re ready to listen and adopt the body language to back it up.

Sit down, face them (non-aggressively), and give them your focus.

This will either force them to be direct and fair with you or run away with their tail between their legs.

Either way, you’ve dealt with the issue head-on without having to resort to any kind of negativity.

3) “Could you tell me again? I want to make sure I understand you correctly.”

I’m sure you’ve run into this passive-aggressive phrase in your life: 

“I told you already.”

I know that life is short, and no one wants to waste their time repeating themself.

Yet, it probably takes as much time to utter this little phrase as it does to repeat what it was they think they told you in the first place, so it’s kind of a silly thing to say.

Again, you’re also asking for clarity because although they think they’ve told you something important, they’re clearly not impressed by your reaction to it.

Asking for them to repeat their message isn’t bad in any way and it doesn’t do anything to make matters worse.

If they’re already upset because of this communication problem, then they should also want to clear it up, right?

4) “I appreciate your input.” 

What do you do when someone is being sarcastic and really trying to push your buttons?

This is some classic passive-aggressive behavior that is designed to get under your skin.

At the same time, it’s totally deniable because if you ever accuse the person of being sarcastic, they can just say they really meant it, and you’ve misinterpreted things wrong.

So what can you do?

Imagine someone has just said to you, “Wow, that’s some great work!” in a tone dripping with sarcasm.

“I appreciate your input” is a delicious phrase to use in reply.

You haven’t fallen into their nefarious trap by taking the compliment at face value, nor have you thrown an accusation of sarcasm at them that they can neatly sidestep.

If anything, you’ve thrown them a positive bone that they’re then left having to decide what to do with. Most times, this will silence them since they won’t know how to respond at all.

5) “That’s an interesting perspective.”

Any idea what this is code for?

If you said, “I don’t agree with you,” then you guessed right!

People use passive aggression all the time to criticize others without actually contributing anything to the discussion.

An example of this is if you put forward an idea and they say something like, “I don’t see how that will work,” or even something nastier like, “That’s a great idea… if you want to ruin everything.”

These sorts of comments can really get your hackles up, but making you angry and defensive is probably exactly what they were going for.

Answering with “That’s an interesting perspective” or a similar statement can turn things around, however. 

This phrase really doesn’t mean anything, but it does give that person a chance to explain themself or be more direct. They can either show up or clam up, and normally, they’ll choose the latter. 

6) “It seems like something is bothering you. Can we talk about it?”

One very passive-aggressive behavior is when a person says they’re going to do something, but then they put it off or simply don’t do it at all.

Imagine you have a roommate who agrees to clean the kitchen but then doesn’t do it.

How should you deal with this kind of thing?

If you accuse them of breaking their word, it’s quite possible they’ll get their back up and accuse you right back of being overly aggressive – “Are you calling me a liar?”

If you don’t do anything about it, the kitchen will stay a mess, and you’ll never find out what they’re upset about.

So a great phrase to deal with this is “It seems like something is bothering you.”

This may sound like, “Are you mad about something?” or “What’s your problem?” but it’s so much less accusatory.

Saying “it seems” focuses on your perception and doesn’t blame them for their feelings or their behavior. And, of course, offering to talk about things shows you’re open and ready to deal.

If they’re not, at the very least, you’ve made your position clear, and they certainly can’t accuse you of ignoring them or not being willing to address the issue.

7) “Let’s focus on a solution.”

There are times when people want to wallow in their own negative feelings and not get to the root of the problem that’s causing them to be unhappy.

Passive aggression is about indirectly displaying anger, resentment, or hurt.

The problem with it is that because the person with the negative feelings doesn’t assert themself and deal with things head-on, their issues almost never get solved.

Instead, you get into repeated cycles where they might pout, give you the silent treatment, mutter under their breath, or make disrespectful comments.

If you find yourself in a situation where someone is behaving this way with you, at work or even in your relationship, things will go on and on. They’ll never get anywhere unless you take the reins and address the problem directly because they never will.

That’s why this phrase is so effective.

It puts the problem into focus (even if you don’t know what it is) and makes it almost impossible to deny.

At the same time, it doesn’t place any blame on anyone, and it doesn’t attack the other person for their passive-aggressive behavior.

But hopefully, it will be the first step to ending it.

Final thoughts

Now that you have these seven phrases to use when someone is being passive-aggressive towards you, I hope you’ll be able to gracefully sidestep these issues and work toward solutions.

After all, no matter how many times someone says, “Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine. Really,” there really is something wrong, and it needs to be dealt with directly.

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