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.
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