We’ve all dealt with toxic people in the workplace. They make you feel bad in any encounter with them. They judge you; devalue you, and manipulate you. Sometimes they hide behind a nice façade at first, but eventually they show their true selves. You’ve probably encountered the bulldozer, who will go right through anything or anyone that gets in the way. How about the “Yeah, BUT..” constant complainer whose only filter is negativity? Then there is the backstabber – nice and agreeable to your face, but will hurt you behind your back. These are the toxic biggies, but there are annoying people with constant minor flaws too: The Know-It-All who is always right, and “A Friend in Need” who always wants something from you. It is hard to escape these people, because they feed off of your painful responses. And, unfortunately, toxic people almost never change. To paraphrase Godfather Michael Corleone, “You try to get out, but they keep pulling you back in.”
It is important to protect yourself from the damage, pain, and interference in your work that these people can cause. Here are some key techniques:
Focus on Outcome: What does the person actually want? Are they looking for praise, just a listening ear, relief of loneliness, support? Go beyond what they’ve said, and imagine that the toxic individual has answered the unspoken question: “What do you want to have happen as a result of this conversation?” Sometimes you can actually ask that question, but it could trigger anger or hostility. Pick your moment. In any case, if you guess (or hear) correctly what the person wants, and give them a small dose, future interactions can be more positive. Remember to exit quickly.
Distance: You are not required to engage every time you encounter a toxic person. Practice the art of minimal response: “I see;” or “I understand.” Omit the follow up discussion. Just don’t engage. Also, physically avoid encountering the person. Take a different path. Sit at the far end of the room in meetings. Avoid eye contact.
Element of surprise: Toxic people use repeatable (and predictable) patterns of behavior. You can break the pattern in your response. When hearing some negative comment that would usually cause you to argue or be defensive, instead, agree with the person. Them: “You never support me.” You: “I could be more supportive.” This is an unexpected response to them, and causes them to think differently about what comes next.
Reinforce Positives: In rare instances where a negative person says something positive, be sure to notice and comment favorably. Reinforced behavior gets repeated, but it will take many times for it to become a habit.
Stick to Facts: The toxic person makes things personal. They break the cardinal rule of criticizing the work or the situation but not criticizing you. You must take the high road. Stick to the facts. Keep things objective (not defensive) in your response.
Change the Subject: Discuss something different – good news (yours or company’s), lighter subjects like weekends, hobbies, etc. Having a positive interaction on some non-threatening topic can sometimes cause the toxic person to enjoy you differently, and may lessen their need to inflict pain.
Don’t be quotable: Whatever you do, don’t give the person any ammunition by which to harm you. While you are trying to be agreeable, avoid trashing others or the company. It could come back to bite you, if the toxic person quotes you to others. At the same time, don’t discuss your “tactics” in dealing with the toxic person with anyone else – it might get back to the source of your trouble.
You may never completely escape a toxic person, but if you implement even a few of these techniques perhaps you can lessen the negative impact they have on your well-being.