The Angry Smile


Part 3 of 3: Benign Confrontation: 6 Steps to Change the Behavior of a PA Person —

(Editor’s Note: “The Angry Smile” covers many scenarios at work, home, school, and more. For the purposes of this article, we are focusing on workplace scenarios. This article is adapted from the book “The Angry Smile”.)

Benign Confrontation is the only technique that is successful in changing the behavior of Passive Aggressive (PA) persons. At its core, it works by identifying under-lying anger. Benign Confrontation puts the responsibility for the thoughts, feelings, and behavior squarely back in the hands of the PA person.

Instead of getting caught up in frustrating arguments, endless conflict cycles, and relationship-damaging wars of words, the step-by-step process of Benign Confrontation give you a road map for conflict navigation and hidden anger management.

This step-by-step approach helps you recall, even in the heat of the moment, where you are in the process with a PA person and where to go next.

Following is an abbreviated outline of the 6 steps of Benign Confrontation.

Step 1: Recognize the Patterns of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Be able to recognize PA behaviors as they are acted out. And know the 5 levels of passive aggression. (See Chapter 4 of the book The Angry Smile.)

Step 2: Refuse to Engage in the PA Conflict Cycle

The PA person not only masters concealing his anger bus is also expert at getting an unsuspecting adult to act it out by entangling the adult in no-win power struggles.  Following this 2nd step, the adult (you) behave unpredictably. For the PA person accustomed to getting adults to act out their hidden anger, an adult who stops the PA Conflict Cycle sends the message that he/she is different, and that the PA person will therefore have to relate to the adult on a different level. Step 2 requires you to:

A. Acknowledge how frustrating it is to live with, teach, work with, and interact online with a person who is chronically PA.

B. Use self-talk strategies, such as “He is being PA, and I will not participate in his routine.”

C. Replace counter-passive-aggressive “You” messages with assertive “I” statements.

D. In the case of PA behavior that occurs via technology, the best strategy is to literally unplug for the time being. Disengage from the hostile back-and-forth electronic communications, and wait until you can interact with the person face-to-face or on the telephone.

D. Discontinue any reinforcement of PA behavior.

Step 3: Affirm the Anger

In this step, you turn the corner from management of your own responses to the Benign Confrontation of the PA behavior. It starts, logically, with an affirmation of the existence of the PA person’s underlying anger. Your acknowledgement of the anger will be unexpected; it is likely that the person has spent most of their life guarding and disguising this emotion and has never had anyone name it so directly. But the angry smile will not likely be dropped right away. It is important to know that the admission of anger is not the goal of Benign Confrontation. The PA person’s self-protective instincts will engage, and they will use various defense mechanisms to protect their anger and redouble their efforts at concealment; this is an expected part of the process.  Step 3 requires you to:

A. briefly recount the pertinent events leading up to the incident in which the person behaved passive aggressively. For example: “I have thought about shy you didn’t change our sign to notify customers about our upcoming sale.”

Share a thought about the hidden anger that motivated their behavior: “It seems to me that the issue is you are perhaps upset with me for making this request.”

State that a difficulty in the relationship is the PA person’s reluctant to talk about their anger: “I am wondering if your delay in getting the sale advertised is your way of saying your are angry about the task.”

Keep in might that Step 3 is a quiet,. Reflective skill of sharing a thought. Benign Confrontation is the skill of gently dropping a pebble of a new idea into the AP person’s static pool of hostile thoughts.

Step 4: Manage the Denial

“I forgot.” “I didn’t hear you.” “I didn’t know you wanted it done today.” “No, I’m not angry. Why would you say this?”

When the person denies the role that their anger play in the relationship, or claims they are misunderstood, you should verbally accept that defense for the time being, with a response, such as “Okay! It was just a thought I wanted to share with you.”

Do not argue or correct the person’s denial and rationalizations at this time, but rather quietly back away from further discussion. Leave the person with the thought that you are aware that there are some feeling of anger behind their behavior. By sharing your awareness of their covert anger, you send a bold and powerful message to the PA person that the relationship needs to change.

Step 5: Revisit the Thought

Benign Confrontation is an approach whose best results come from repetition. Another moment will inevitably come and your point will be best made by revisiting the thought at that time.

“I just had a thought I want to share with you. What just happened between us just now reminded me of a problem we last week. Remember when I mentioned I thought you were angry at me? Well, this incident seems similar to that one. What do you think?”

PA persons are usually quite intelligent, and though they may resist behavioral change, they are still likely to comprehend the point. A typical response is: “You probably are going to say that I am angry.” Benign Confrontation is an exposing, anxiety-provoking experience the PA person wants to avoid; they face 2 choices: to change the PA behavior, or to be benignly confronted again and again.

Step 6: Identify Areas of Competence

This final step is a relationship-building strategy. It is important in motivating the PA person toward change. When you confront the PA behavior and are also able to identify and communicate areas of competence within the person, you succeed in conveying the all-important message that the person is worthy and that behavioral change is worthwhile.


If you are going to guide a PA person to be more direct and open with their anger, then you also must be willing to receive that anger. For many people, this is truly difficult. For lasting change to take hold for the PA person, they must know that the Assertive expression of their anger will be tolerated, accepted, honored, and even welcomed.

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About the Book and Authors: This article contains excerpts from the book The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage & Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online, by Nicholas J. Long, Jody E. Long, and Signe Whitson. The Angry Smile brings together 5 decades of research and study of passive aggressive behavior. Learning from the book and online training from the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute (LSCI), you can learn the powerful skills of Benign Confrontation, and begin to recognize the patterns, refuse to engage, discover how to channel and express your own anger appropriately, and more. For more information, please visit



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