I was facilitating a course recently when one of the participants pulled me aside and said, “My wife is the director of training for [a company that shall not be named], and she told me to take notes on the things you do to facilitate this course so she can critique it later.”
I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of, “I certainly hope you will share any feedback with me as well; each of us has room for improvement.” He continued to heckle and push me throughout the course, and I worked to stay ahead of the game by bringing him into the conversation before he could attempt further control.
This person, who had no connection to me or the organization I work for, could have rattled me. He didn’t, because I chose not to let him. I walked away thinking the whole exchange was strange and was reminded that some people enjoy rattling others. There are people like him everywhere; usually, they are unaware that their actions and comments have this impact on others.
It’s odd that in this day and age, when we discuss mental health so openly, we miss discussion of the impact of long-term stress when dealing with toxic people.
Long-term stress impacts performance. Unless we equip employees to effectively handle stressful situations with toxic people, the impact can spread through an organization like a virus. It might be a character disorder, gaslighting, bullying or another symptom, and it can show up in a boss, a co-worker or a frenemy.
We teach learners about emotional intelligence and how to remain calm and in control. We wax philosophical about controlling what you can and letting go of what you can’t. This advice is good, but without tips on how to deal with toxic people, it’s hard to put it into practice.
In a 2016 survey by McKinsey and Company, 62% of respondents said they were treated rudely at work that year – an increase of 13 percentage points from 1998. How can we arm the L&D community to deal with toxic people and, in turn, pass this knowledge along to their learners? Here are some tips.
1. Your Reaction Matters
Know your boundaries, and set them up front. Be assertive about what you can and cannot do. If the toxic person at your office focuses on negativity and plays the victim, they are looking for allies. Don’t take the bait. If you are the type of person who feels like you have to help, try asking, “What part did you play in that outcome?”
This question will create one of two responses. The person will ether change the subject or distance themselves from you. Over time, you will not be their go-to.
2. No Explanation Needed
If someone is disparaging you or making you feel “less than,” depending on the context, you could try saying something like, “Thank you for sharing that.”
It is hard to have an argument with someone who is not pushing back. If you feel that you must try to explain yourself, recognize that it is going to be exhausting. You are fighting a battle where you will not be heard.
3. Buy Time
If you do not think that you can respond with total control of your emotions and/or the situation, reschedule the meeting. These situations work better if you can plan for your reaction in advance. You do not have to join every battle you are invited to. It is OK to ask yourself privately if there is anything accurate or useful to you in what the toxic person is saying.
4. Manage Your Truth
Comments, statements and opinions are often the truth of the person giving them. Know your truth, know your strengths and weaknesses, and be honest with yourself. Your truth and someone else’s truth may not be the same. Focus on your actions, not theirs, and never allow yourself to start with negative self-talk. If you need a reminder, write a mantra, and place it where you will see it whenever you’re talking to the toxic person.
5. Judgment Doesn’t Help
Operate from a place of curiosity and respect. Know who you are, and operate from that place every time you encounter a toxic person. Do not assume their intent is negative; instead, ask questions to understand the root of the issue. While you do that, see the first tip again.
6. Phone a Friend
Choose your friends wisely, and ask them to hold you accountable for setting boundaries and following through.
7. Don’t Be a Victim
Set boundaries, and be clear about them and about your decisions. Clarify your goals, your timelines and your needs. It is never OK to be someone’s victim.