Do You Have a Passive or Aggressive Interpersonal Style?

“The secret of many a man’s success in the world resides in his insight into the moods of men and his tact in dealing with them.” – J.G. Holland

Our patterns of relating to others have an incredible impact on all of our relationships.  We generally learn our adult styles of relating to others through many repeated interactions with others as children.  Through our earliest relationships within our families, we begin to learn what to expect of others and how to most effectively deal with others.  It can feel like there are benefits to being either passive or aggressive at different times.  However, both interpersonal styles are on opposite ends of a much larger continuum within which it is in our best interest to find balance between these two opposing poles.  It is through finding a place to rest towards the middle of this continuum that we may better arrive at interpersonal effectiveness.

Passive Interpersonal Style

There are often immediate “rewards” to passive behavior in the sense that passivity often manifests itself through going along with what the other person wants, needs, or expects.  The long-term cost to passive behavior is the building of resentment and frustration within yourself for essentially abandoning your own needs.  This can lead to the relationship becoming so tense or painful for you that you may blow up in anger at the other person, fall into a deep depression, or simply run away to avoid problems.  Sometimes the other person is unaware that you may building up resentment, since a passive interpersonal style often translates into “people pleasing.”

Aggressive Interpersonal Style

An aggressive interpersonal style often stems from one of two things: (1) a powerful sense of how things should be, and/or (2) a need to control interpersonal events.  When we have a strong sense of how we believe others “should” behave, our attention automatically gravitates towards judgment of the “goodness” or “badness” of the other person’s actions.  When we are so caught up in judgment, we often feel a strong need to “punish” behavior that violates our own sense of right and wrong.  When we feel the need to control interpersonal events, we are strongly attached to the need for things to go a “certain way.”  The consequence of this need is often anger or hostility when things don’t go as planned/desired.  When the need to control events becomes overpowering, it often results in pushing others away (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).

Interpersonal Style Exercise

Try reading through the following statements, adapted from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook, as you reflect back on a recent interaction in an important relationship.  Notice what statements are most indicative of your typical behavior/style of interacting.

  1. I tend to go along with things, even when I don’t really want to.
  2. I often push people to do what I think is right, even if it causes a problem.
  3. I usually try to be pleasant and easygoing, no matter what people are saying or doing.
  4. I tend to give people a piece of my mind when I think they need to hear it.
  5. I try hard to be sensitive to the needs/feelings of others, even if my own needs/feelings get cast aside in the process.
  6. I know what I want and insist on it, even if it will cause a problem.
  7. When there’s a conflict, I usually give in and let things go to avoid making things worse.
  8. When people don’t do the right thing, I don’t let them get away with it.
  9. I’d rather pull away from a relationship than say something that might be upsetting or hard to hear.
  10. You can’t just allow people to continue being selfish or stupid; you have to keep pushing until they see what they’re doing wrong.
  11. I’d rather leave people alone and let them be.
  12. If people ignore my needs or push things that don’t work for me, I will get more and more upset until they pay attention/listen.

If you tended to mark odd numbers, your predominant interpersonal style is passive; if you marked more even numbers, you may be more likely to use an aggressive style of relating to others.

Passive behavior and aggressive behavior are both poisonous to healthy and harmonious relationships.  Both patterns of relating to others result in pain for everyone involved.  Implementing assertiveness skills into your relationships is helpful in beginning to test out new behaviors and find a middle way between passivity and aggressiveness.  Try noticing the next opportunity in your interactions with another person to try out a balanced and assertive way of communication.  How did it feel to let go of your natural tendency to relate in either passive or aggressive ways?

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McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Wild One by zenera / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mary Ross on June 16, 2011 at 11:33 am

    I would love to see more about how to accept being, in my case, a passive type (unless people don’t do the right thing!) and not let resentment build up. The “assertiveness skills” from May 1st (that are linked in this article) are helpful. This is a key problem for me.

    Thank you!

    • Laura on June 16, 2011 at 5:30 pm

      Mary – It sounds like you are saying that you would like to “accept being … a passive type … and not let resentment build up.” Does this mean that you want to learn how to “accept” that have a passive interpersonal style, that would like to focus on not letting resentment build up, or both? There are many long-term (and short-term) costs to a passive style of relating to others. The first step (which you have already reached) is realizing that you have a tendency to relate to others with a passive style. Now that you have this awareness, do you want to begin learning more assertive ways of interacting with others so that you do not have to suffer the consequences of resentment and pain that often come along with passivity in relationships? Our styles of relating do not have to be part of “who we are” – they are subject to change if we are willing to devote the time and energy to practicing new skills with others. I will be sure to write more about the balance between passivity and aggression (i.e., healthy assertiveness) in future posts.

      Thank you for your comment!

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