4 Leadership Pivots to Prevent Passive-Aggressive Communication

Throughout their workday leaders typically bounce in and out of unplanned challenges. Some of us are more able to roll with the missed deadlines or customer demands while others just become overly frustrated. When these imperfect scenarios erupt we need to be able to share our thoughts clearly and calmly. But what occasionally happens is that leaders can be caught “off-guard” and feel unprepared to respond in the most professional way. Instead of staying solution focused, they can escalate the encounter. This is what happened to an individual I have been working with. Their exchange with both a team member and their shared client was a classic case of a swinger- swinging from passive to aggressive communication. As they unfolded their story it was evident that they had wished things had come down differently. So did I.

Here are four leadership pivots to prevent passive-aggressive communication:

1. Prepare And Prepare Some More

Prior to walking into any meeting with a team member or customer it is critical to understand the purpose of your time together. Think about what the pain points may be for the other individuals or company. Do tons of research on what may be frustrating them. Ask questions of others who have worked with them before and know how they interact. The last thing a leader wants to happen is to “react” rather than “respond” to a problem or hot topic.

2. Recognize The Eruption Signals

For leaders who may have a high EQ (emotional intelligence) it may not be as difficult to identify, but for many others reading another person’s emotions and body language can be quite challenging. Having the ability to recognize the signs of an upset or frustrated person can stop a leader from becoming an aggressive communicator. Some things to look and listen for are:
  • A person’s voice level becomes louder.
  • The individual starts to squirm, wave their hands, or seem more emotional.
  • The words you hear sound like attacks towards you and less about the problem.
  • People are throwing you under the bus and becoming accusatory.

3. Focus On The Issues Not The Person

When an interaction becomes heated it is usually because the conversation has moved away from the facts and issues and towards the people involved. This occurred with the person I was working with. The issue was actually minuscule compared to the personal attacks. That led to inappropriate accusations about the individual instead of trying to resolve the problem. When that happens it is important to take hold of the communication by speaking calmly, lowering your tone and reminding everyone that they have the same goal. In a short space of time, a perfectly professional interaction can escalate into an outright brawl. Say what you need to say in a respectful way. Don’t hold in the essential information you need to share but rather state it with honesty and clarity.

4. Sum It Up and Let It Go

A final strategy for leaders to prevent passive-aggressive communication is to pull the conversation together and look at the next steps. The goal is to have everyone on the same page feeling successful.
  • Summarize the different perspectives that were shared by everyone.
  • Be clear on what follow-up actions need to be.
  • Thank people for taking the time to meet. Gratitude is essential.
  • Most importantly, leave the drama and heated discussion behind. Commit to moving forward.
How have you pivoted from passive-aggressive communication? How has that move helped you become a better leader and communicator? Related: Are Meetings Getting in the Way of Leading?