7 Smart Ways To Deal With Toxic People

large (6)Maya Angelou is often quoted for saying that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Unfortunately, there are people out there in the world who either never read and internalized Maya’s wisdom, or don’t have the self-awareness to understand how their words and actions are hurting someone else.

These people, my friends, are toxic: they’ll drag you and everyone around them down with criticism, a bad attitude, negativity and snarky comments, lashing out at every opportunity. You’ll recognize them from their backwards compliments, rude comments and incessant need to validate their anger, disappointment, or annoyance. Admittedly, toxic people are not hard to spot – but how do you deal with them?

#1 Excuse yourself from the interaction

Let’s be real, your fight-or-flight instinct will probably kick in when unconstructive criticism is thrown your way, but reacting to it is the opposite thing you want to do. Instead, walk away by making a reasonable excuse such as: “Sorry to cut you off, but I have a call in 5 minutes and need to gather my notes!” Scurry off, put Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off on repeat, and let it go.

#2 End the conversation

Again, when negativity is directed at you, don’t feed the fire by giving the toxic colleague the satisfaction of a reaction. Instead, give them a simple, direct, and non-committal response – my favorite is “thank you for your input.”

#3 Change the subject

Imagine this interaction: you and your negative colleague are in the elevator. He starts complaining about your client, attacking their intelligence and character. He pauses, waiting for you to chime in and validate his perspectives. In these situations, I like to fall back on current events (thank you, CNN). Instead of agreeing with him you change the subject by saying: “What do you think about the billionaire who offered to buy an island to help Syrian refugees? What resources are needed for that plan to be successful?”

#4 Make a neutral friend

There is always someone in the office who is consistently professional, kind, genuine and wonderful to be around. Find her, befriend her, and introduce her to your toxic co-worker in hopes that the positive influence will outweigh the bad. If not, you can at the very least upgrade your lunchtime company.

#5 Talk to human resources or an ethics hotline

Occasionally, a toxic colleague is more than just a negative influence – real lines can be crossed, and most likely you’ll feel it when it happens. If you or someone around you is experiencing discrimination, harassment or in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation, don’t hesitate to call your company’s ethics hotline or reach out to a local HR representative. You can request to speak anonymously and seek guidance on how to handle the situation if you’re not entirely sure about what (or who) you’re dealing with.

#6 Make a time-stamped record, just in case

My dad is a litigator, and he gives great advice on handling toxic people and uncomfortable situations. Once, I was asked to misrepresent information by a very senior leader. I was scared to tell him no because of his powerful position, but knew that I couldn’t do what he was asking. My dad advised me to write an email to myself, from my work Outlook email address, with a description of the situation, why I felt uncomfortable, what I decided to do, and how it could potentially put me at risk. This way, he said, you have a time-stamped record of what happened from your perspective if you ever need it. File it away and you can pull it out if you ever need it in the future. (For the record, I never needed it – but it did give me a boost of indignation about doing the right thing!)

#7 Lead by example

Sometimes, toxic people forget that there is another way to operate. Use your positivity to influence others to want to be more like you. There is nothing more irritating (and motivating) to a negative person than seeing someone succeed because of (not in spite of) her integrity, positive attitude, ability to accept differences and work with many different people.

Have you worked with a toxic colleague? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments below! Don’t forget to check out our article with the best camel picks of the season.

By Colleen Bordeaux

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24 Comments
  1. Great points! It is really tough to deal with a toxic personality in the workplace, particularly if the individual is your direct manager or subordinate. I like the point you made about acknowledging the negativity, albeit in a positive way. So I will say something like – I hear that you’re upset about XYZ and have noted that down; now, let’s continue. Ultimately I think it depends on the specific personality – but rising above the fray is always a good strategy.

  2. This was actually very helpful. I normally do not comment on random blog stuff like this, but I couldn’t not show my appreciation for how well this piece was written. Thank you!

  3. Toxic family is far worse than toxic neighbors, co-workers, etc. My practiced response was always. “I hear what you are saying.” 498

  4. From one “Claire” to another: I had a toxic “friend” for twenty years. We were together so much that people often confused our nanes accidentally. I finally realized that ny own personality seemed to be changing from the stress of being her friend. The straw that broke the canel’s back involved her going to dinner, along with her husband with my husband and his paramour. When I asked for an explanation,, hoping there would be a good one, the lies put me over the edge. Yes, I was separated at the time, but had hopes of reconciliation. This action combined with her constant “control” and rudeness to others in front of me put me over the edge. I called it quits. Since then others have asked me in wonder, “what did you ever see in her anyway?” So many people confessed that they never understood how I could be friends with her. Since then, my life has been so “free,” that I have often asked myself that same question. Moral of the story is just do not let toxic people enter your life; nip it in the bud as soon as possible, whether you might appear cowardly or not. Truthfully, though, I believe personal dignity will prevail in such situations…and walking away says more than your voice ever could. Claire H.

  5. Sometimes point 1-3 (flight) is needed…avoiding confrontation to secure your job…it’s not so easy to find other positions so why rock the boat any more if you know no one else cares (or is in fear of their job as well) to help you.

  6. Many years ago I worked with a women who was constantly gossiping and bitching about others. One day, when she was bitching about a work colleague, I just said to her “”I would like you to know that she never ever says anything nasty about you”. she got the point.

  7. Just in time! I was needing this support to make clear my thoughts. I knew something wrong was happening but not sure how to deal with.

    I’m going to spread the word. Thank you very much!

  8. I am currently working with a very toxic individual with a negative attitude and brow-beating tactic. Good suggestions especially excusing ones self. A graceful way to put out a clear message.

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