When one of my coworkers comments on my projects, she prefaces her comments with “I don’t want to be mean, but….” and then gives her opinion. She also hesitates when she’s speaking, pausing between each statement she makes. Somehow this gives more weight to what she says and leaves everyone present with the sense she’s holding back more serious criticism.

This casts a dark cloud over my work and makes it appear as if I can’t take criticism.

I want her to cut this out. I rarely agree with her opinions, but I’m not someone who is afraid of or minds criticism.

What’s her game and how can I end it?


Her game

She may not want to be mean. Or, she may be mean-spirited, but doesn’t want to be perceived as mean. She may be passive-aggressive and senses that she gives her negative views more power by her hesitant, prefaced delivery. Many orators and preachers increase the power of individual statements by pausing before they continue with their next statement.

Ending her game

End her game by calling it.

The next time she says, “I don’t want to be mean, but…,” interject “PLEASE give it to me straight” during one of her pauses.

Don’t interrupt or talk over her, but add…since she has already paused, “Be as direct as you want to be. I can take it. It’s unfair to you, and to me, for you to hold back valid criticism.”

After she finishes giving her opinion, ask, “Is there anything else you’re holding back from saying? I’d like to hear it.” She’ll either say “no” or “yes”.

Because you’re taking away her power by countering the subtext of her message, she may look miffed or affronted, as if you’ve shut her down.

That’s okay, because if she won’t answer or says “yes” but still won’t voice her concerns, and you’ve kept your tone diplomatic, the rest of the team can draw their own conclusion.

© 2023 Lynne Curry

If you’d like more strategies for handling passive aggressive snipers, you’ll find them in Navigating Conflict,  

If you’d like strategies for  handling covert aggressors who creep into your mind, you’ll find them in Beating the Workplace Bully, (111 reviews, averaging 4.5 stars).

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3 thoughts on “Ending a passive-aggressive sniper’s game

  1. The irony…
    “I don’t want to be mean, but…” means that they ARE GOING TO BE MEAN, and they don’t give a hoot whether it feels good for you or not.
    “I don’t want to offend you, but…” means they ARE GOING TO BE OFFENSIVE, and they don’t give a hoot whether it feels good for you or not.
    “I don’t want to hurt you, but…” means they ARE GOING TO BE HURTFUL, and they don’t give a hoot whether it feels good for you or not.

    As soon as they preface their comment with a “don’t want to” disclaimer…they have opened the door to do it without feeling bad, themselves, for doing it. It’s their form of telling you they have their permission to do it.

    1. Dan, I totally agree with you! As soon as someone says I don’t mean to, yes that’s exactly what they’re going to do next–in this case, to be mean. Another “tell” for me is when someone keeps saying”honestly” or “frankly” they may be being anything but. Instead they may be lying and they may be being obfuscatory.

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