How Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Toxic People
By Dr. Travis Bradberry
Toxic people defy logic. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other peoples buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary complexity, strife, and worst of all stress.
Studies have long shown that stress can have a lasting, negative impact on the brain. Exposure to even a few days of stress compromises the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampusan important brain area responsible for reasoning and memory. Weeks of stress cause reversible damage to neuronal dendrites (the small arms that brain cells use to communicate with each other), and months of stress can permanently destroy neurons. Stress is a formidable threat to your successwhen stress gets out of control, your brain and your performance suffer.
Most sources of stress at work are easy to identify. If your non-profit is working to land a grant that your organization needs to function, youre bound to feel stress and likely know how to manage it. Its the unexpected sources of stress that take you by surprise and harm you the most.
Recent research from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotionsthe same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic peoplecaused subjects brains to have a massive stress response. Whether its negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just plain craziness, toxic people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs.
The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and weve found that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control. One of their greatest gifts is the ability to neutralize toxic people. Top performers have well-honed coping strategies that they employ to keep toxic people at bay.
While Ive run across numerous effective strategies that successful people employ when dealing with toxic people, what follows are twelve of the best. To deal with toxic people effectively, you need an approach that enables you, across the board, to control what you can and eliminate what you cant. The important thing to remember is that you are in control of far more than you realize.
They Set Limits (Especially with Complainers)
Complainers and negative people are bad news because they wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions. They want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. People often feel pressure to listen to complainers because they dont want to be seen as callous or rude, but theres a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into their negative emotional spiral.
You can avoid this only by setting limits and distancing yourself when necessary. Think of it this way: if the complainer were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? Youd distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers. A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix the problem. They will either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction.
They Dont Die in the Fight
Successful people know how important it is to live to fight another day, especially when your foe is a toxic individual. In conflict, unchecked emotion makes you dig your heels in and fight the kind of battle that can leave you severely damaged. When you read and respond to your emotions, youre able to choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right.
They Rise Above
Toxic people drive you crazy because their behavior is so irrational. Make no mistake about it; their behavior truly goes against reason. So why do you allow yourself to respond to them emotionally and get sucked into the mix?
The more irrational and off-base someone is, the easier it should be for you to remove yourself from their traps. Quit trying to beat them at their own game. Distance yourself from them emotionally and approach your interactions like theyre a science project (or youre their shrink, if you prefer the analogy). You dont need to respond to the emotional chaosonly the facts.
They Stay Aware of Their Emotions
Maintaining an emotional distance requires awareness. You cant stop someone from pushing your buttons if you dont recognize when its happening. Sometimes youll find yourself in situations where youll need to regroup and choose the best way forward. This is fine and you shouldnt be afraid to buy yourself some time to do so.
Think of it this wayif a mentally unstable person approaches you on the street and tells you hes John F. Kennedy, youre unlikely to set him straight. When you find yourself with a coworker who is engaged in similarly derailed thinking, sometimes its best to just smile and nod. If youre going to have to straighten them out, its better to give yourself some time to plan the best way to go about it.
They Establish Boundaries
This is the area where most people tend to sell themselves short. They feel like because they work or live with someone, they have no way to control the chaos. This couldnt be further from the truth. Once youve found your way to Rise Above a person, youll begin to find their behavior more predictable and easier to understand. This will equip you to think rationally about when and where you have to put up with them and when you dont. For example, even if you work with someone closely on a project team, that doesnt mean that you need to have the same level of one-on-one interaction with them that you have with other team members.
You can establish a boundary, but youll have to do so consciously and proactively. If you let things happen naturally, you are bound to find yourself constantly embroiled in difficult conversations. If you set boundaries and decide when and where youll engage a difficult person, you can control much of the chaos. The only trick is to stick to your guns and keep boundaries in place when the person tries to encroach upon them, which they will.
They Wont Let Anyone Limit Their Joy
When your sense of pleasure and satisfaction are derived from the opinions of other people, you are no longer the master of your own happiness. When emotionally intelligent people feel good about something that theyve done, they wont let anyones opinions or snide remarks take that away from them.
While its impossible to turn off your reactions to what others think of you, you dont have to compare yourself to others, and you can always take peoples opinions with a grain of salt. That way, no matter what toxic people are thinking or doing, your self-worth comes from within. Regardless of what people think of you at any particular moment, one thing is certainyoure never as good or bad as they say you are.
They Dont Focus on ProblemsOnly Solutions
Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems youre facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and reduces stress.
When it comes to toxic people, fixating on how crazy and difficult they are gives them power over you. Quit thinking about how troubling your difficult person is, and focus instead on how youre going to go about handling them. This makes you more effective by putting you in control, and it will reduce the amount of stress you experience when interacting with them.
They Dont Forget
Emotionally intelligent people are quick to forgive, but that doesnt mean that they forget. Forgiveness requires letting go of whats happened so that you can move on. It doesnt mean youll give a wrongdoer another chance. Successful people are unwilling to be bogged down unnecessarily by others mistakes, so they let them go quickly and are assertive in protecting themselves from future harm.
They Squash Negative Self-Talk
Sometimes you absorb the negativity of other people. Theres nothing wrong with feeling bad about how someone is treating you, but your self-talk (the thoughts you have about your feelings) can either intensify the negativity or help you move past it. Negative self-talk is unrealistic, unnecessary, and self-defeating. It sends you into a downward emotional spiral that is difficult to pull out of. You should avoid negative self-talk at all costs.
They Limit Their Caffeine Intake
Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the fight-or-flight response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favor of a faster response. This is great when a bear is chasing you, but not so great when youre surprised in the hallway by an angry coworker.
They Get Some Sleep
Ive beaten this one to death over the years and cant say enough about the importance of sleep to increasing your emotional intelligence and managing your stress levels. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, shuffling through the days memories and storing or discarding them (which causes dreams), so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you dont get enoughor the right kindof sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present.
A good nights sleep makes you more positive, creative, and proactive in your approach to toxic people, giving you the perspective you need to deal effectively with them.
They Use Their Support System
Its tempting, yet entirely ineffective, to attempt tackling everything by yourself. To deal with toxic people, you need to recognize the weaknesses in your approach to them. This means tapping into your support system to gain perspective on a challenging person. Everyone has someone at work and/or outside work who is on their team, rooting for them, and ready to help them get the best from a difficult situation. Identify these individuals in your life and make an effort to seek their insight and assistance when you need it. Something as simple as explaining the situation can lead to a new perspective. Most of the time, other people can see a solution that you cant because they are not as emotionally invested in the situation.
Bringing It All Together
Before you get this system to work brilliantly, youre going to have to pass some tests. Most of the time, you will find yourself tested by touchy interactions with problem people. Thankfully, the plasticity of the brain allows it to mold and change as you practice new behaviors, even when you fail. Implementing these healthy, stress-relieving techniques for dealing with difficult people will train your brain to handle stress more effectively and decrease the likelihood of ill effects.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.
Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, the world's leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.