Today, I share with you insights about managing toxic people, a vexing class of individuals whom we all encounter from time to time. The toxic types can infiltrate and poison our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and volunteer service posts. They are even, I’m sorry to say, to be found in our religious institutions and our families. They are high-maintenance, manipulative and hurtful.
Those of us who are well-meaning and psychologically healthy are in need of polite and effective tactics that will keep the toxic at bay and prevent their calamities from spreading and tainting our experiences and opportunities, if not our lives. The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance.
For help, I turn to a list of tactics developed by Travis Bradberry, PhD., clinical psychologist and expert on the subject of emotional intelligence. Bradberry is the co- founder and CEO of Talentsmart, a consulting firm that provides training and coaching in emotional intelligence, a vital “soft skill” that impacts many aspects of relationship -building in our business and personal lives. Bradberry is also co-author (with Jean Greaves) of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (2009).
TalentSmart has conducted research reportedly with more than a million people and found that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control. The ability to neutralize toxic people is a foundational competency for those who plan to become successful. Top performers have well-honed coping strategies that they employ to keep toxic people at bay.
There is a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear to someone who is feeling disappointed or disrespected and feels the need to vent, as s/he seeks a way to cope. It is quite another thing to be caught in the grip of a chronic malcontent for whom constant complaining seems to be the goal and to even entertain the thought of finding solutions to the problem are quickly dismissed.
Bradberry recommends that we ask the complainer how s/he intends to address the problem. Be on guard for the malcontent to attempt to pull you into doing the repair work for them. You may be met with a tirade (or a whine) about how “I thought I could depend on you to help me.” Gently point out that you are not the one who is upset. Sir/Madame Malcontent will be exposed as having no interest in solving any problems and that is your opportunity to politely distance yourself from this individual and refuse to remain a sounding board for ongoing complaints.
Toxic people love to push buttons and generate conflict that inflates sometimes insignificant misunderstanding into a whirling tornado. They are often irrational and thrive on arguments and power struggles; they have no filter and no off button. Whether their impulse is deliberate or unwitting matters little.
Instead, do what you can to remain calm. Ignore any taunting and refuse to get drawn into debates and show downs, for you are too sane to prevail in such a fight. Create distance and don’t engage. If an individual persists in goading you into arguments, (including the arguments of third parties that do not involve you) it may be necessary to threaten and even pursue legal action, such as a restraining order, if you feel that the behavior has crossed the line into harassment (you cannot do this in the workplace, however). You must stop cold behavior that you find unacceptably stressful or threatening.
Choose your battles
Understand that some battles are not worth the fight, even if you feel that you can win. Do you want to die on this hill? Some battles are not worth the time and energy. Living well is the best revenge.
Aware of emotions
Bradberry points out that maintaining emotional distance from the toxic types requires emotional awareness. Instead of allowing yourself to be manipulated emotionally and dragged into some irrational state of mind, calmly remind yourself that the toxic person is deliberately pressing your buttons (or perhaps inadvertently—who cares?) because s/he feels compelled to bully you into joining him/her in a rant, a whine, a shouting match, or some other counterproductive behavior. Don’t go there. Walk away, if possible, or change the subject.
The toxic are champion boundary busters. One of my mother’s sisters was very good to me but when it came to respecting boundaries, she could see no reason to do so (especially not those of a young person). Whenever she saw me with food, she begged for a taste. I would offer to make her a small plate and she would refuse, saying that she didn’t want that much, but only wanted “a taste of mine.” She knew well that I didn’t like that behavior and I suppose I need to accept that disrespecting me was her goal. She’s been gone for many decades, but the memory of her hurtful behavior will never leave me. It poisons my memories of her.
I was a young adult when she died. If she had lived longer, I would have become better at protecting my boundaries, despite the family pressure to give into her, an elder who had done me a big favor and always gave me nice gifts at birthdays and Christmas. I think I would have called her on it in a more forthright manner and if it meant that I saw a lot less of her, I would have done so and let her know the reason for my absence.
Now if your boss is the toxic person, it would stand to reason that the best thing would be to give him/her exactly what they ask for, on time and within budget. But the problem is that toxic people love finding fault. They “move the goal posts” so that you can never succeed. I suggest that whatever the boss wants from you, confirm it in email—all expectations, the budget and the deadline.
Forgive, don’t forget
There is lots of talk about forgiveness and I suppose some of it is useful. Bradberry recommends it and I’ve come to the place in my life that I will concur, with limits. Forgive but do not forget. Let the incident go, but do not give the wrongdoer another chance to violate you. Or, hurt me once shame on you, hurt me twice, shame on me.
Thanks for reading,
Photograph: Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960)