You probably know a few Passive Aggressive people, but do you know what a Covert Aggressive is?
Somewhere between a passive aggressive and an outright aggressive person are countless layers of aggressive behavior. You will interact with each at some point in your life, possibly some at the same time. But if you don’t know how to respond to each in the right way you will be forever caught in and endless cycle without ever being able to live your life in the way you want to live it.
You’ve probably met a Covert Aggressive person at work. You may even have a few in your family without even knowing it. You may have thought they were being passive aggressive, only a bit more active in their actions, leaving you to think you were the crazy one or just being paranoid. Well, you’re not crazy and you’re not paranoid. You probably just ran into a Covert Aggressive.
Covert Aggression is a relatively new term coined by Dr. George Simon. Dr Ssimon was the Supervising Psychologist for the Arkansas Department of Corrections. He just published a book titled In Sheeps Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, and it’s a must read if you want to find out more about what a CA is and what to do about them.
While working in the Arkansas prison system he noticed a pattern with some prisoners. He noticed the same pattern in the business world as well. He calls it Covert Aggression. A Covert Aggressive is similar to a passive aggressive in that they do not directly confront the target of their aggression, but they actively work behind the scenes to undermine those they think are undermining their power base. They may not consciously act out in this way, but this is how they instinctively deal with those who threaten them whether real or imagined.
They know how to push the buttons we all inherently have, and if you are the target of their ire they will do so until they find the one that you respond to. Sometimes they will even go so far to create a situation that involves the unwitting help of those around you just to see you suffer.
While a Passive Aggressive person hems and haws or uses delay tactics to interrupt activities they don’t want to be a part of, Covert Aggressive people play mind games to get their way. They reach out to your family and friends, getting them to take actions that undermine your efforts while always having an excuse for what they did leaving you to wonder what just happened or if you’re the paranoid crazy one.
I wrote about Covert Aggressives in my 2010 book The Simple Truth. At that time there was no name for that they were doing so I referred to them as someone who learned to work the loopholes of our social conventions in order to get what they wanted. They know that the majority of people are too polite to call them on their cutting comments and actions as long as they didn’t go too far. In the end they got what they wanted without ever crossing the line of the social norm.
They are the people who make a cutting comment followed by an “I’m just kidding,” or take an action followed by an “I thought I was doing you a favor.” They may enlist an unwitting friend to do a task, convincing that person that it is a good thing only to discover it is anything but. The CA knows most people will never challenge them directly because their aggression is so hard to pin down, leaving their tactics to fall somewhere between passive aggression and out and out aggression.
The CA often gets others to do little things that allow them to stay in their comfort zone out of the conflict while undermining your efforts. Even the unwitting perpetrator may wonder why you reacted the way you did, after all, they were doing you a favor, and aren’t favors what good people do? And there-in lies the beauty beneath the CA’s approach. They know we all want to be good people and that we all want to do good things. They have developed their tactics over time, learning what works and what doesn’t, so all a CA really has to do is convince those around you that what they are doing is a good thing. By the time you catch on and bring attention to the actions of a CA they look around in innocence as if you are the bad one while they remain untouched.
Their manipulations and anglings get them what they want while you look like the bad, unappreciative one, reeling confused and in self-doubt. You know what you experienced yet nobody else seems to understand why you are so upset.
If you are like many of my clients you may think you are dealing with a passive-aggressive person with a difference, their aggression is anything but passive. It’s a subtle difference but it’s an important one, because you can’t resolve an issue if you can’t see the issue for what it is.
In his book Dr Simon defines Passive-Aggression as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and resistance to demands for adequate performance without confronting that person directly.”
True Passive-Aggression can take the form of noncompliance, such as getting “sidetracked” when asked to leave, never quite making it to the door. Covert Aggression, on the other hand, often takes the form of “lying or manipulation of someone through tactics unseen by others.”
The CA knows enough about human nature to make someone feel like they’re a part of the team when they’re really undermining the team for their own gain. Unlike “passive-aggression” a Covert Aggressive takes a very active role in your life without ever crossing the socially acceptable line.
Keep in mind that people use covert aggressive tactics from time to time. That does not always mean they are a Covert Aggressive, but it does mean you need to be aware of them if you are to maintain your life on your terms with as little effort as possible.
In general, an aggressive person sees life as a competition that they can’t stand to lose. When they feel their powerbase threatened they fall back on the tactics that have always worked for them, whether that means passive, covert or all out physical aggression. Some people cycle through them until they find which works best for their situation with you. The bottom line to their response is to get you to play on their field and with their rules. The moment you respond is the moment you step onto their field and begin to lose losing yourself to their ends.
What follows is paraphrased from Dr. George K. Simon’s new book called In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. If you’d like to learn more about covert aggressive people and how to manage them in your life I highly recommend buying a copy.
A covert aggressive person manipulates the world to fit their needs without ever compromising their status. On the light side, they may ask you to decide where to go for dinner. When you pick a place, they will complain that they don’t want to go there. When you suggest another place, they will at best be lukewarm to your suggestion. Recognizing this you may invite them to pick a place at which point they will complain that they’re tired and asked you to decide. It will continue like this leaving you frustrated and unsure of where it’s all going.
A covert aggressive person may not even realize what they are doing. In their mind they are merely responding to the world around them to get what they want. When they feel threatened they respond automatically in the only way they know how – by keeping you off balance and seeking solid ground, which they are only more than happy to provide as long as you ask them nicely.
This example is a tactic many people use without even thinking about it because it makes them feel secure, but regardless of what tactic someone uses the key to stopping them is to not respond and to not follow them into their maze. Instead pull back and ground yourself right where you are. Be honest and call them on their words and actions in a straight-forward manner. Be prepared for them to cajole, plead their innocence, or become angry, this is what they do because these reactions have worked for them in the past.
When they stomped their feet as a child, their parents did whatever it took to calm them. As a teen this same pattern grabbed hold when they wanted a new car or a new freedom. When you see these patterns of manipulation arise, think through your interaction with the person employing them and ask them what’s going on. If they respond in one of the following ways you may be dealing with someone using a Covert Aggressive tactic.
Know The Signs
When someone who is sharp suddenly plays dumb, acts confused or conveniently forgets, it may just be a tactic designed to make you question your judgment. Don’t question your sanity, question theirs.
Diversion and Distraction
When someone refuses to give a straight answer to a straight question or changes the subject chances are they are trying to manipulate you. Attempts to Distract or Divert your attention are just their efforts to redirect your focus from their behavior to promote their agenda. You may confront your manipulator on a very important issue only to find yourself wondering how you got on the topic you’re talking about. Keep bringing them back to your topic and remind yourself to not get side-tracked again.
Lying by Omission
A covert aggressive does not straight-out lie. They omit or distort key facts. They may become vague or leave out key details that make all the difference. You may think you have all the information only to find yourself wondering how you missed the full picture later on.
Charm and Anger
When cornered a Covert Aggressive may respond with flattery or erupt in anger as if surprised by your accusations. It is an involuntary response from them, emotions they switch on and off without good reason. It’s a stall tactic they use to intimidate and put you on the defensive. Don’t feel the need to respond to either. Instead, smile, raise an eyebrow and just keep quiet as you observe what they do next.
Playing the Victim
Covert Aggressive people often make themselves out to be the victim to gain sympathy and compassion. They know that everyone wants to be a good person, they know that when phrases like “good people”, “sympathy” and “compassion” are properly used they can position themselves as the victim and create allies out of otherwise neutral people.
Good People Rationalization & Minimization
We all want to believe people are “good” and “decent”. We all look for a way to excuse someone’s behavior. This is what it is to be human. It is also how a CA manipulates those around them. The CA uses someone’s natural desire to confirm their goodness to act against you.
This rationalization is the excuse an otherwise neutral person is given for engaging in what they know is inappropriate behavior. The sad part is it works, especially when a CA’s explanation makes just enough sense for any reasonably conscientious person to go along with it.
Minimizing an action is insisting that it’s “not that big a deal” or afterwards that “you’re blowing this out of proportion”, in order to maintain their powerbase. Listen for these critical phrases. If you hear them, pause and look at the actions beyond the words to find their true intentions.
Guilting and Shaming
To the manipulator direct or indirect shaming is a way to put you down to make you feel inadequate so they can maintain their dominance. The more you feel bad about yourself, the more likely you are to defer to them.
They don’t feel bad, but they know if they send you on a guilt trip, you’ll most likely back away from your accusations, which will return the status quo that they have always enjoyed.
Manipulators relax and feel better when you play their game by their rules. They may create a joke about you which they spread. Perhaps they imply that you will think it’s funny or tell others that it’s not “that big of a deal”.
People may think they’re in on a personal joke when they are actually supporting your aggressor who knows you will never speak out against them or their go-between but will enjoy the suffering it causes you all the same.
The Covert Aggressor will often cycle from one tactic to the next, waiting to see which one gets a reaction. No matter which they choose the most effective response is to simply not respond. Not responding is not always realistic but minimizing your contact with that person however you can is better than enduring their actions.
What To Do
Now that you have a better idea of what you are up against, here’s what can you do about a CA once they have targeted you as a threat to their dominance.
Know Your Vulnerabilities
When you know your vulnerabilities, you can recognize when they try to push your buttons and stuff your need to respond back into its box. If you need to feel good about yourself, as we all do, if you are easily guilted or shamed into doing something you may not want to do then you need to be aware of that and be ready when someone wants to use that against you. A CA rarely knows what is personal and specific to you. They know that everyone has some kind of guilt and a need to belong, they know everyone wants to be a good person, so they can be general at first as they probe around for you to react to one of their tactics until they sense your weakness before they pounce. It’s how they recruit go-betweens who are unaware of the damage they are doing. It’s just what they do. So be prepared and ready to ignore their probing and prying while smiling and being kind in return.
Prepare yourself by knowing what you want from your interaction with them and be prepared for consequences. If CA feels like they’re losing they’ll do almost anything to regain their sense of dominance. You need ask yourself what are you willing to give up and what you are not willing to? Tun through a few basic scenarios without killing yourself over them. Simply try to anticipate their first tier responses to your actions without getting lost in your own head games and know what to expect.
First thing you need is some boundaries. What will you no longer tolerate? And what will you do if they violate those boundaries? Go no further until you have concrete answers to those two questions.
Don’t Play Nice
Thinking if you playing nice they will do the same is a misconception. It will not. As Dr. Simon puts it “treating a Bengal tiger like a kitty cat is a good way to get mauled.” Simply put, be polite and don’t respond to their actions. You will want to get even but put that thought of your mind. You never will. You will only get their inner aggressive nature to feed ever more deeply on your emotions.
A CA, like anyone, wants to be loved. Somewhere inside them is a child that feels very alone and needing a hug. You don’t have to give them a physical hug, but don’t shy away from giving them an emotional one.
Now is a good time to use your support network. Reach out to those around you so that you have someone to help give you a reality check and some emotional support when your CA senses you’re no longer playing their head games. If you don’t have one now is the time to create one with honesty and authenticity. Don’t play games, just tell your trusted friends what’s going on.
Understand they will never change. This is who they are and who they will always be. They know you will want to change them and they will use that in their favor. Focus on changing the only thing you have power over – your behavior toward them.
Don’t be afraid of stepping away from them completely. You will may feel screwed. You may want to make them pay or just to say they’re sorry. I doubt either will happen because they do not feel as if they have done anything wrong. They simply felt threatened and responded as they always have in the past. Just understand you cannot make them do anything, least of all apologize. What you can do is to control how your respond to them. Instead now may be the time to update your portfolio of responses:
Accept no excuses
If you are willing to accept an excuse, then they’ll just start throwing excuses at you until one sticks. Don’t respond to verbal rationalizations, instead judge them by their actions, not their intentions.
Make direct requests, only accept direct responses.
Be as matter-of-fact as you can about what you want them to do. Do not give them the wiggle room that they love.
Be specific about what it is you expect or want from the person across from you. Use phrases like: “I want you to xxx ” or “I don’t want you to xxx anymore.” If xxx is specific it will give your manipulator little room to distort or “misunderstand” what you want or expect from them.
A yes-or-no question should be answered with a yes or a no response. If they won’t give it, then they’re already leading you into their next maze. Don’t follow them.
Focus on win-win
Covert Aggressive people will often step up if you have something they want. If they have something to lose, they will make sure you do as well. This is why you will want to propose as many win-win solutions as possible.
Don’t let your ego get in the way of your life. At times it is okay to step back and concede a minor point that may be what your aggressor sees as a major victory. You might be surprised at how important something you don’t care about may be to the person across from you.
Don’t dive too deep
It’s not your job to cure a Covert Aggressive person. Keep everything light and breezy, stay up in the clouds without threatening them. See if you can work around their roadblocks so that you can eventually avoid interacting with them all together.
Phrases to Learn:
What you are attempting to do with each of these phrases is not to confront the person who has become fixated with you as someone to defeat, but to define the borders of their maze so that you can exit it as quickly as possible and get on with your life.
Always smile as you use the following phrases when confronting someone who ha it out for you:
- Address the big picture: “I’m a little confused, but where do you see this going?” or “What do you hope to gain from this?”
- Accept no excuses: “I’m less concerned with why you did what you did than that you did it in the first place.”
- Make direct requests, accept only direct responses with a smile: “That’s alright, I’m fine with a simple yes or no.”
- Focus on win-win: “It’s okay, why don’t we just jump to what you want out of this so we can both get on the same page.” If they can’t get on the same page then what they want is not something you can deliver or want to. Either way, welcome to their maze.