Dealing with Pouters and Sulkers

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Playing the Game

Here’s how the Sulker game usually goes . . .

You have a perfectly pleasant relationship with a coworker, then one day she stops speaking to you. Or there’s a definite chill in the air whenever she’s around.

You ask, “What’s wrong?” She replies: “Nothing.” But by the tone of voice, you can tell that’s a lie. This formerly friendly colleague is really ticked off. So you ask again: “I can tell something’s the matter. What is it?” And again you get “Nothing”.

After a couple of rounds of this, the Sulker may utter the stupidest words ever heard on earth: “Well, if you don’t know what’s wrong, then I’m not going to tell you!” Thereby making it impossible to resolve the problem.

Understanding Passive-Aggressive People

The psychological term for this sulking game is “passive-aggressive behavior”.   Passive-aggressive people are deeply afraid of conflict, so instead of addressing issues directly, they send “messages” to let you know they’re upset. When a Sulker stops speaking to you, you’re supposed to get the message that he’s angry.

Passive-aggressive behavior simultaneously harms the relationship and thwarts any attempt at resolution.  For that reason, it’s the most destructive way to deal with a conflict.  To make any progress towards resolving the issue, you have to get out of the game.

How to End the Game

If you must deal with childish, pouty people at work (or at home, for that matter), here’s the strategy to follow . . .

Don’t keep asking what’s wrong. That will just encourage the Sulker to continue the game.

Instead, say in a neutral, friendly tone that you know something is the matter. For example: “I can tell that you’re upset with me, and I have no idea why. If you ever want to discuss what’s wrong, I’d like to talk about it. When do you have some time to talk?

If she responds by telling you her problem, then you’re out of the game. But if she still insists that nothing is wrong, then say very sincerely, “I’m so glad to hear that. For some reason I thought you were mad at me.” There must be no hint of sarcasm in your tone.

Then – and this is critical! – from that point on, you must act like everything’s okay. Smile, be friendly, and keep talking in a normal manner. Since she has said nothing is wrong, you must act like nothing is wrong.

Because of the basic psychological principal that unrewarded behavior will increase before it disappears, the pouting may get worse before it gets better. So stick to your guns! Keep acting normal, and eventually the Sulker will either give up or tell you what’s really the matter.

If you keep this up, usually the whole thing will blow over after awhile. But if not, you haven’t lost much. Chronic Sulkers are highly immature and frequently pout over silly and trivial slights. Not the kind of person you want to spend a lot of time with.