4 Tips For Handling Toxic Colleagues

What makes a colleague “toxic” in the first place? When I meet someone I don’t trust, it may be that my subconscious is picking up signals that they are toxic. Toxic colleagues may be…

  • Running a hidden agenda.
  • Motivated by their needs without interest or consideration of others’.
  • Argumentative about minor things, not listening or open to other perspectives – caught up in minutia vs. the big picture.
  • Wasting both of your time about people and issues; using gossip or hopeless recycling of issues that are outside of your control, and in ways that suck your energy.

Here are 4 tips successful communicators use to handle these people and why these strategies are so effective:

1. Set a context for your conversation that is “warm” rather than “cold”. This primes the atmosphere so the other person will see you as welcoming. This person is a colleague and a good relationship with him or her is necessary to building your positive reputation. Studies have proven that when people can perceive you as “warm” vs. “cold”, they are more likely to trust you.

Ways to make the environment “warm” are by:

  • shaking hands so they see you as a friend vs. as a foe.
  • inviting them for a cup of tea or coffee for your discussion.
  • sitting next to or across from your colleague without a barrier between you, instead of sitting behind your desk. This says to them unconsciously that you are on “equal footing” rather than coming from a position of authority.

2. Set limits and protect your boundaries. Determine your limits on engaging in gossip and when you detect fruitless discussions are wasting your time and sucking your energy. When I was an executive and people came into my office with time-wasting concerns, I politely let them know right up front that I only had 10 or 15 minutes before a phone conference. I stood up when I reached my limit and walked them to my door.

With gossip, it helps to let them know your boundaries on speaking inappropriately about another person, and encourage them to speak directly with the person with whom they have a concern.

Sometimes, we can feel the situation turning from “warm” to “cold”. We may disagree and hit a brick wall and stop listening. When this happens, the most successful negotiators use a technique called “disengaging”. Tactfully stop and take a break. This allows you time to deal effectively with your emotions and regain composure and perspective.

3. Expose the hidden agenda and bring your needs and goals into the conversation. Here are the simple steps to accomplish this:

•   Paraphrase what you understand the other person is saying before moving to your response. It also helps to add your impression of how she/he feels. When you name the emotion, you tame it.

•   Ask for clarification of the goal or need they are trying to satisfy. This gets to the “hidden” part of his/her agenda, and makes it transparent to both of you.

•   Let him or her know your goals and needs. This puts your concerns and needs on the table so you can effectively negotiate.

•   Ask how you might both work together for a win-win solution or outcome. This makes you partners vs. adversaries.

4. Empathize with someone who is argumentative about minor issues by paraphrasing and asking a question that helps them reflect. 

When someone is argumentative about minor issues, they are often in a state of fear. When afraid, we are hard-wired to narrow our focus to minor issues in order to lessen the fear and gain the illusion of control. If you have a colleague like this, let them know you can see how they are concerned about these things. Then ask, “what is your goal? What are you afraid will happen? What options can you see that might make a positive difference for you and others?”


 Originally published at Women Working
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