Office Culture

3 Strategies for Dealing With Toxic People

3 Strategies for Dealing With Toxic People
Image credit: Illustration © Michael Austin
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the April 2014 issue of . Subscribe »

"Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing," Ralph Waldo Emerson once mused. It's a solid observation about handling interactions with difficult people. Mark Goulston, a Los Angeles-based business psychiatrist and consultant and author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, says it's simple to deal with the bullies, the blamers, the rage-aholics, the whiners and the complainers. Here's how.

Don't expect them to not be difficult. Once you've identified a difficult person, adjust your expectations so you're not blindsided by their actions, and create some emotional distance.

Say to yourself, Here we go again. When these types of people aren't getting what they want, they push you into anger or exasperation, making it difficult for you to think clearly. Reframe the situation--remember, this is their issue, not yours. "Most difficult people provoke us because they're often hiding something--a lack of competence, a lack of ability or something they were supposed to do and didn't do," Goulston says, "and by provoking us, either from anger or whining and complaining, what they often try to do is distract us from exposing whatever that thing is that they're hiding."

Let them finish talking. Interrupting may escalate things. If you remain calm and centered, difficult people will catch themselves and start to back off, Goulston says. When it's time to respond, pick whichever of the following methods seems like it will be most effective.

  • Say, "Could you repeat that back to me in a calmer tone? I kind of missed what you were saying."
  • Pause. Look puzzled, tilt your head and say, "Huh?"
  • If they use a lot of hyperbolic language, ask them, "Do you really believe what you just said?"
  • If they're venting, employ the "FAU" technique:

To pull out some of their animosity, say, "You seem [frustrated, angry, upset] ... what's that about?"

Remove the truly difficult people--in life and in business. As an entrepreneur, don't be so focused on the bottom line that you let a bully run amok amongst your staff. Says Goulston: "The more you can recognize and remove difficult people from your company, the more positive the culture [will be], and the more people will want to come to work."

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