Passive aggressive behavior is something that we can all laugh about when we have some distance; however, it causes a lot of problems in communication both in our work and in our personal life.
This video has a great explanation of what passive aggressive behavior does to people and why they might want to act in this way. Anyone who is in a management position and in a leadership role would benefit from spending some time understanding how this behavior works and doesn’t work in a job setting and how his or her own responses might be unconsciously passive aggressive.
Which brings me to the word “sure” and what it might mean as a signal of passive behavior. Anutza Bellisimo, Founder and Managing Director of the Stress and Anger Management Institute (shown in the video above) talks about how the damage of being passive aggressive is that you don’t ever get to fully express your own emotions, thereby not being entirely present to your life. If I am asked a question that requires a yes or no answer, like “Do you want to go to the beach with me” and I answer “sure,” my first inclination is to be curious about what is going on for me internally.
Neither yes nor no.
“Sure”” is often a word that indicates neither yes nor no because it carries with it the hesitation of uncertainty. This, of course, does not mean that everytime we say the word it means that we are resisting something, nor does it mean that we need to strike it from our vocabulary entirely. It is, however, a great way to monitor our own engagement with our life. If someone asks me a question that requires a “yes” or “no” and I respond with “sure,” then I have an opportunity to examine my willingness. The more I can do this with non-judgmental curiosity, the more I learn about myself and how I interact with others. Sometimes I say sure out of habit and can quickly change it to a yes, while other times I find that what I really want to say is no, but I am afraid to disappoint the other person. This realization gives me the opportunity to have an honest and authentic engagement with the world. The more honest and authentic I can be in my work and my life, it naturally follows that my connections will be more authentic with the people I meet.
Try this experiment, pay attention to the times when you say “sure” in your day and try writing down what you are feeling about the question. Do you really want to do what the person is asking? If yes, what would it feel like to say “yes” to it instead of “sure”? Gently follow this train of thought for a few days and see what develops. Not everyone struggles with this, but if you suspect that you might have a passive side to your commmunication, then this is a great way to uncover it and redirect the behavior.
Leadership and Sure:
If you are a leader of an organization and you are struggling with passive peers and employees, this is a great key word to keep in mind. Sometimes we can get so invested in having people follow our vision that we miss the clues that they might not really be on the same page. Passivity can undermine a vision and derail an initiative in an insidious way because it looks like agreement. “Sure” can kill the momentum of the best idea if it is spoken by the person you are counting on to deliver the vision.
While I think it would be an interesting experiment to abolish the word entirely from a workplace, I don’t believe that it is either practical or necessary. More importantly, from a leadership position, this word is a great indicator of some form of ambivalence. Some leaders are so magnetic and powerful that people want to agreee with them even when they don’t fully understand the objectives or the strategy. If you are leading a meeting wherein you are outlining a new and challenging strategy for your company, take the time to check in with the team. Listen for the language of uncertainty and passivity and be curious about what might be behind it. Just like in our personal life, sometimes we are not even sure why we are conflicted (or that we are even experiencing a conflict), and honest inquiry is a great way to gain clarity and improve the focus of the conversation.
At any rate, it is a great way to recognize passivity in the short term so that you can stave off the long term negative effects of passivity within your leadership team. In a best world scenario, we are all being more engaged and present in our communication, not just in work.
It’s easy to try it for a little while. Let me know how it goes for you.