Passive behaviour is where you sacrifice your own preferences and needs, so that you can help others to meet their preferences and needs. There will be times in your life when you need to be passive, or, where being passive at that moment will allow you to build a positive relationship in the long run. The problem arises when you are consistently passive. If you want to be happy, you have to be able to pursue your own goals and objectives with confidence.

Passive behaviour will not allow you to do this. In fact, consistently displaying passive behaviour will encourage others to take advantage of you, either consciously or subconsciously. In the short-term, you feel that you are being approved of by the other people, and you may view this as a positive thing. However, in the long-term, you will be required to make bigger sacrifices if you wish to maintain their approval. Eventually, you will be filled with a sense of resentment.

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9 Signs of passive behaviour

​The following list highights some of the most common signs of passive behaviour. The list is not exhaustive but it should serve to provide you with a good knowledge of what passive behaviour looks like.

1. Hesitant approval-seeking speech

a passive approach passive behaviour

The passive individual often seeks the approval of others with their speech. They are incredibly fearful of upsetting others so they attempt to soften the impact of their comments through permission seeking. This often results in rambling statements which do not seem to say a whole lot e.g.

  • ‘Would you mind if I...’
  • ‘I wouldn’t normally say this but.....’
  • ‘I don’t mean to be rude but I was thinking that if it was OK with you....’

When passive behaviour is your chosen communication style, you act like you need other people’s permission before you do the things you really want to do. You desperately hope that they will approve of your thoughts, opinions and, choices. If they don’t approve, you feel bad about yourself.

What you may fail to realise is that this element of your passive behaviour is driven by the fact that you already feel bad about yourself. You are devaluing your own thoughts, opinions and choices by valuing the approval of others above them i.e. if the other person(s) doesn’t agree with you, you are prepared to change your mind, to say or do what they think is right. This is approval seeking and it is one of the most toxic behaviours you could adopt.

You need to realise that you are here to live your life, not the life others want you to live. You shouldn’t set out to upset others and, there will be times when compromise is required. But compromise must come from both sides. If it is always you who compromises, you are not compromising, you are being subservient and, your relationship is not based on equality.

Key point

You must live your life as you see fit. If that upsets other people, then the problem lies with them not you. So, stop asking permission to speak your mind or, do what you believe to be right.

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​If you struggle to deliver a message with confidence, check out 'How to Talk So Others Listen'

2. Broken speech pattern

active evil passive behaviour

As they lack confidence, passive people tend to lack any form of certainty when they are expressing their opinions. You will hear them stop, start, and hesitate. Their speech pattern will lack any rhythm or flow. The hesitations are often accompanied by ‘err’ and ‘um’ or similar noises.

From my experience, this type of broken speech has developed from having a complete lack of self-belief. For too long, you have not valued your own opinions. You have placed others on a pedestal above you and, you probably resorted to approval seeking behaviour. Your speech is broken because you are neither confident in what you are saying nor, your right to say it.

It can be particularly noticeable when the person to whom you are speaking has some form of authority over you; real or perceived. Authority doesn’t mean that they have the right to belittle you and, you don’t have to belittle yourself either by engaging in such passive behaviour.

If you regularly; engage in such broken speech, you might benefit from remembering the following:

  • ​If someone has chosen to be your friend, it is because they like the real you.
  • ​If somebody has chosen to have an intimate relationship with you, it is because they like the real you.
  • ​When somebody has chosen to hire you; they like the real you and what you have to offer.
  • When you are invited to a meeting, it is because you have something to offer and others want to hear it.

​Whatever the situation, anybody who chooses to see more of you, knows the real you and wants to see the real you. When you engage in any form of passive behaviour, you are doubting that the real you is good enough.

Key point

People want to see the real you and, hear what you have to say. There is no need to doubt yourself and hide behind broken speech. If this has been a long-time habit, you will benefit from practicing your message before you deliver it. Be patient but be persistent. We all benefit when others are confident enough to speak freely.

If somebody has chosen to be your friend or partner, it is becasue they like the real you. You don't need to pretend be someone that you are not.

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 3. Belittling their own views

I have the choice passive behaviour

​The fear of upsetting others often results in them belittling their own views before they have even expressed them. Rather than wait for someone else to comment on their views, they try to soften the blow by striking first, e.g.:

  • 'I’m no expert but...’
  • ‘I have been known to be wrong but ...’

There are two main reasons for the passive behaviour of belittling your own views.

The first reason may be, as discussed earlier, that you are genuinely lacking self-belief. You are worried about any negative reception which your views may receive so, you preface them with a little qualifier.

The qualifier is like saying ‘Don’t get your hopes up but I will tell you what I think’. Then if the other person rejects your opinion, you get upset. But why would they give your opinion a fair hearing when you told them that it was unlikely to be of any value?

Another reason for adopting this form of passive behaviour is that you are desperate for approval and the compliments that it can bring. Whereas some people may not consciously realise that they are belittling their own views, you might be deliberately choosing to play them down. You set expectations low so that the actual opinion looks better by comparison.

The hope is that you will win the approval of others and maybe gain a compliment or two. The reality is that it doesn’t take people long to recognise somebody who is fishing for compliments.

​Key point

Whatever the reason, you are entitled to your opinion. Sometimes others will agree, sometimes they won’t. But when you belittle your opinion, they may not even pay any attention; running the risk of missing out on some good advice. Respect yourself as much as you respect others by delivering your opinion in a confident and respectful manner.

If you genuinely doubt that somebody wants to hear your opinion, you can ask first e.g. ‘Would you like to her my thoughts?’ If they say No, that’s fine.

 4. Putting the preferences of others first

in this very real world passive behaviour

The approval seeking nature of passive behaviour leads the individual to place a higher value on the preferences and needs of others than they place on their own. They eagerly demonstrate that they are willing to sweep their own preferences aside, e.g.:

  • '​​I would like to ... but if you would rather do something else ...’
  • ‘I don’t want to be awkward but ...’

I have repeatedly mentioned, above, the role that a lack of self-belief has in adopting passive behaviour and, approval seeking behaviour. If this is the case, you need to work on your self-esteem and, confidence. By working on your self-esteem and confidence, you will start to allow yourself to be yourself. You will be more likely to trust in your thoughts, opinions and actions. 

As you increase your self-belief, you reduce your unhealthy dependence on others and, you move towards a state of healthy interdependence. This enables you to realise that you offer as much value to others as they offer to you.

An often-overlooked reason for passive behaviour is that you have never taken the time to get to know yourself e.g. your purpose, your values and your goals. When you are clear on your purpose and, values and you set effective goals; you are crystal clear about what you want from life.

You are then more likely to make the right decisions based on what is right for you. If you don’t take the time to do these things, you are more open to the influence of others. In fact, you are forced to place greater value on what they want because you have no idea what you want.

Key point

The tendency to adopt passive behaviour can be greatly reduced by taking the time to get to know who you are and what you want. Then, you can be more confident in yourself and, trust in yourself.

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 5. Overpowering self-criticism

maverick is a word passive behaviour

We are all fallible but passive people often struggle to accept that. While they may make few demands of others, they make very high, often unrealistic demands of themselves. When they fail to meet these, they often resort to extremely harsh self-criticism. If something goes wrong, they tend not to see the role played by others. Instead, they place the full blame on themselves, e.g.:

  • ‘I can’t believe that I messed that up’
  • ‘I should have been able to get that right’

If you adopt passive behaviour, you generally have a lower opinion of yourself, your abilities and the value you offer others. Because you are starting from a lower point, you feel more pressure (from yourself) to perform to a higher standard so that you can make up for your failings. 

In doing so, you are putting yourself in an impossible position and setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s akin to being in the Olympic 100 metres final and choosing to start 10 metres behind everybody else.

Of course, when you set yourself up for failure like this, you are guaranteed to achieve it. And, when you do, you become your own worst critic. Thinking that everyone else must have noticed and, being disappointed in your performance; you berate yourself both for the performance and the embarrassment you have ‘supposedly’ caused yourself.

In most cases, others won’t have noticed your poor performance and, they certainly won’t have been troubled by it, but this doesn’t stop you destroying your confidence and self-esteem with destructive self-criticism.

This is another case of where you need to work on your confidence and self-esteem.

Key point

The added pressure you experience is only coming from you. It is your low self-belief which causes you to place unrealistic expectations on yourself and, if left unchecked; it quickly becomes a vicious cycle.

6. Self-deprecating

my life is good passive behaviour

While many people use self-deprecation as a form of humour, passive people tend to be quite serious when they resort to it. They put themselves down at the first opportunity, over the smallest things, often to the bewilderment of anyone within earshot, e.g.:

  • ‘Could I be anymore pathetic?’
  • ‘I am so stupid’

I grew up in rural Ireland and one thing which I remember vividly is people saying that someone loved themselves. It was not intended as a compliment. It was seen as being arrogant and thinking that you were better than you were.

If you stood out in anyway, there was always somebody waiting to cut you back down to size. I am not a fan of arrogance but loving yourself is not arrogant – it is essential for a happy and healthy life. After all, if you can’t love yourself, why would anyone else?

It is no coincidence that here in rural Ireland, we also have a strong tendency for self-deprecation. It forms a big part of our humour and, it creeps into many other areas of life. Most people use self-deprecation in a flippant manner i.e. they don’t really believe what they are saying.

Unfortunately, those who use passive behaviour have generally taken it a step too far. They use self-deprecation in inappropriate places and they take their own comments to heart.

I am sure that self-deprecating behaviour started with positive intentions whereby you were trying to send the message that you didn’t think you were any better than the other person. However, with passive behaviour, it has become a way of beating yourself into believing that you are beneath others which certainly isn’t true. Self-deprecation was never meant to be a serious endeavour.

Key point

You may spend some time self-deprecating, so it is even more important to spend some time truly caring for yourself; and reaffirming your belief in your own value. Read Why you must put yourself first for some great tips.

There will be enough people who want to put you down in your life. There is no need for you to join in with them.

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7. Soft spoken with declining volume

once we realize passive behaviour

​Passive people are usually very soft-spoken. They tend to lack confidence both in themselves and what they have to say. Therefore, keeping their voice down helps them to avoid drawing attention to themselves. As they approach the end of what they have to say, their volume lowers and tapers off.

Earlier, I spoke of how both hesitant and broken speech communicated that you don’t really believe in what you are saying. When you communicate to others that you don’t believe in what you have to say, they are likely to choose not to believe in what you have to say either. The same happens when you speak softly and reduce your volume at the end. It is like giving an opinion and at the end saying ‘Actually, never mind; I am talking rubbish.’

Passive behaviour prevents you from speaking clearly and confidently. When you don’t speak clearly and confidently, you are disrespecting yourself. You are effectively saying that what you have to say is not important. 

By right, we should respect everybody, even if they don’t respect themselves. But, when people don’t respect themselves, we tend to find it difficult to respect them either. There is a lot of information to process in everyday life so, shortcuts are needed. And, if somebody is telling you that they are not worthy of respect, it can seem like an appropriate shortcut to take.

One of the greatest pieces of advice I have ever received is that you teach people how to treat you. If you would like to be respected, teach them that you are worthy of respect by demonstrating that you respect yourself. Do this by speaking confidently and clearly, highlighting the fact that you value your opinion.

Key point

The way you deliver your message tells the other person whether they should listen, or not. Ditch the passive behaviour and deliver your message with confidence.

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8. Avoiding eye contact

our obligation passive behaviour

Avoiding eye contact is one of the most common signs of passive behaviour. Due to a lack of confidence, shame, guilt or a host of other negative emotions; the passive person is unable to look into the eyes of the other person. They try to look away, often at the ground, in order to avoid eye contact.

I honestly think that a small part of this problem arises from an excessive focus on body language and, each little gesture; in recent times. Of course, body language is important, but it is easy to give people so many things to focus on that they get confused, even paranoid, about what they should and should not be doing.

If you want to improve your body language, focus on one thing to improve at any one time. Get that right before adding something else. Eye contact is important so, if you struggle with that, it is a good place to start.

A bigger part of the problem is self-esteem. Being able to look others in the eye is a sign of your own self-belief and, your belief in your own value. If you don’t think that you are equal to another person, you will shy away from eye contact.

If you are someone who shies away from eye contact, you need to do some work on your self-esteem because your external behaviour is usually a reflection of your internal belief.

At the same time, you can practice making eye contact with people. Make it an intention for each day to look people in the eye and smile as you say hello. As you get better at making eye contact, you can start to work on maintaining eye contact.

Coupling this with self-esteem work will mean that you are tackling the problem from both sides, internal and external, and will allow you make quicker progress.

Key point

Eye contact is a natural behaviour but when you have lost self-esteem, it is a behaviour you can become fearful of. It just takes a little practice, intention and some self-esteem work to get to grips with this problem.


​If you are struggling with self-esteem, check out Unlock Your Self Esteem.

9. Discomfort

peace is not the absence passive behaviour

Whether with their facial expressions or their body language, passive people send clear signals of their discomfort. Even when they are trying to act confident, their appearance of discomfort will be a giveaway.

It is easy; to get worked up and anxious when you experience discomfort but there is no real need to do so. This can cause you to close down and try to make yourself smaller, in the hope that nobody will notice you – typical passive behaviour. But when you act like this, you don’t get to the cause of the problem so, you can’t fix it.

When you are feeling uncomfortable, you are just realising that there is something which you could do with changing. In some cases, e.g. public speaking, the best way to ease your discomfort is to do the thing which you are uncomfortable with.

It may seem obvious, but the best public speakers are generally those who have a lot of experience with public speaking. And the only way to get that public speaking experience is to speak in public – the very opposite to what passive behaviour leads to.

In other cases, e.g. a new job, you may feel discomfort as you don’t feel you have the knowledge or skills to do the job to the highest standard. Rather than shy away from the problem, as passive behaviour would lead to; you can create a learning and development plan for yourself which will help you bridge the gap between the knowledge and skills you need and; the knowledge and skills you possess.

Discomfort is simply a sign that a situation needs to be remedied. Discomfort should lead to positive action; not passive behaviour.

Key point

The only way to find the remedy is to examine the situation/problem; not to avoid it. View discomfort as the opportunity to learn something valuable about yourself. It is a learning and development opportunity; not something to be feared.

​How To Talk So Others Will Listen

​When you can commuicate with confidence, you no longer feel the need to be passive. You become more assertive and start to speak up for yourself.

Learn powerful communication strategies with 'How To Talk So Others Will Listen'

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Passive behaviour is driven by your need for the approval of others. Rather than risk upsetting them, you put their preferences and needs before yours. This is not healthy behaviour. It is important to have respect for others, but you will never accomplish your goals and dreams unless you learn to give them the respect they merit. Passive behaviour is ineffective because there is only so much self-sacrifice you can take. Eventually you will snap, either with yourself, or with the people whom you have been trying to please. Neither of these outcomes is desirable as they can create long lasting damage to both your health and your relationships. The list above is certainly not exhaustive but it will provide you with a good idea of the behaviours which you need to be looking out for. If you find yourself displaying any of these behaviours, do not be harsh on yourself. Simply, identify the changes you need to make and make them. It will take a little time but you will become a more assertive person.

Image credit: Chance Agrella


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