How can I handle someone who is REALLY toxic?

We all deal with people who we consider difficult. These are the types of individuals who we are seemingly always on a different page from. Whether it be communication issues or even just differences in perspectives, dealing with them can be a challenge. However, there are also people who are not difficult- they are just toxic. How do we handle those individuals? I get this question quite a lot, particularly when I’m doing a longer version of our Dealing with Difficult People training in the corporate world.

  1. First and foremost, I revert back to the “It’s your heart attack.” In the most extreme cases where people are completely toxic and unmanageable, it may be the best strategy to remove yourself from the situation. If someone is experiencing prolonged anxiety, stress, or a lack of psychological safety, the impacts of this outweigh the potential security of employment or staying in that environment. I know, it’s easier said than done sometimes, but in certain cases, this is the only viable option.
  2. I say “the most extreme cases” because humans often have assumptions and biases that prevent them from seeing the possibility of changing the situation with someone they dislike. A key detriment to us being able to move beyond these challenges is our propensity to label. We often revert to the labeling of someone as a sociopath, psychopath, narcissist, etc. without an actual clinical understanding of these disorders. Yes, people with these certifiable conditions are unlikely to succumb to the strategies presented, however, they are a lot fewer and farther between than contemporary thought or media would have us comprehend. Selfishness, jealousy, etc. are all natural emotional states and in some cases were necessary for evolutionary survival. These traits do not necessarily imply the “dark triad” or psychopathy. Even labels like a jerk, asshole, etc. oversimplify the situation in many cases. If we can separate the behavior from the person, we can often identify at least 1 or two redeeming qualities of difficult people… Key word: usually. Once a behavior is separated from the person, we can examine and identify the reason the behavior exists. It changes things. For example, most people on face reject bullying and would not see themselves sympathizing with a bully. However, if they learn the person who is exhibiting bullying behavior has been mistreated and abused at home, it may change the perspective. While the behavior of bullying is still reprehensible, it explains why the behavior exists and opens space for compassion to the person exhibiting the bad behavior. If we label, we negate this possibility; the person “IS” a bully and there is no space for the person to not be this way, but when we separate and can explain where the behaviors come from, it can open the door to empathy (even with people who exhibit terrible behaviors).
  3. I will readily admit; some people just suck. I do my best to limit my exposure to those people and focus on controlling my reactions and own stress when I am forced to face them. In the event that it is a boss or anyone who is in a position of power, it is important to recognize the moments where we must actively create barriers, bright lines, and set expectations. If they are violated, this requires a reaction. The reaction may be to revert to #1 in this response. It may also be to actively and directly correct the behavior. The most important thing to remember here is to PLAN the response. Reacting without a plan or strategy is a surefire way to allow the limbic system to drive our behavior. Preparation and planning on how to address these breaches of our behavioral standards are essential. It allows us to plan the right tactic for the right situation, with the right amount of controlled emotion. A majority of the archetypes that I mention in the “Dealing with Difficult People” training are based on behaviors that I saw (and continue to see) over and over again in the different industries I have worked with or studied in (e.g. politics, education, corporate, nonprofit, etc.). Each separate type had a different strategy. The tools provided work for specific jobs. The real talent is being able to apply the right tactic in the right situation with the right person. How can you determine this? Sometimes it is trial and error. Why keep trying? Because if you have to remain in the situation you find yourself in, acting to attempt to reduce the personal impact of stressors stemming from difficult people and behaviors is an act of mercy for yourself, and ultimately you are worth it.

Hopefully some of the above tactics can allow you to determine if the person you may be dealing with is a toxic person or simply just difficult. Taking a moment to separate yourself from the immediate emotional reaction caused by their behavior and attempting to analyze what could be causing it may allow you to determine which type of personality you may be encountering. Doing so can allow you to determine the best course of action to deal with the situation – whether that be removing yourself from the situation completely or trying to influence it in a more positive direction.

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