You’ve seen these people. You’ve been around them. You may have even encountered them directly. They stand inside elevators, staring at you as you race toward the doors closing in your face. They don’t talk; they dictate. They don’t conversate; they interrogate. Dread is their wardrobe. Agitation, their favorite color. Goodwill flees when they enter a room. Although talking to them for 30 seconds is like taking a 10-mile hike on a rocky road in wet stilettos, you can neutralize toxic people. You just have to identify which type of pestilent personality you’re dealing with—and then follow these steps to inoculate yourself from their effects.
Type I: The Toxically Infused
People like this likely spent much of their formative years in environments (households, schools, neighborhoods) where social interactions were often abrasive and contentious. The volume knob for conversations turned from loud to yelling. Patience had a brief life expectancy, and courtesy was virtually extinct. For the Toxically Infused, corrosive communication has become habitual and ingrained. Convulsive exchanges are their normal engagement. They simply don’t interpret their conduct as being flagrant and unseemly.
Behaviors: talking loudly in public spaces, imposing on and interrupting conversations, unmannerly speech, inappropriate comments, gratuitous profanity.
The Inoculation: Firm guidance. To defuse the infused, you’ll need to think like an uncompromising mentor. The Toxically Infused have not been taught or exposed to the ways of civil etiquette. They have no concept of an “inside speaking voice” and are bluntly unskilled in tact and diplomacy. If you demonstrate you are well intentioned rather than demeaning, they will often act upon the opportunity for self-improvement.
Inform with insight. Metaphors and analogies are great for giving someone a reference model for conduct. For example, if someone nearby is talking loudly and refuses a request to tone it down because they don’t think it’s a big deal, try this comparison: “I get that, but let me ask you something: Does it bother you when someone blows cigarette smoke in your face? Talking loudly around others can have a similar effect on them.”
Type II: The Toxically Complicit
People like this know acceptable standards of conduct. They realize mocking and bullying are bad behaviors but participate in them, cashing in their principles for advancement. The Toxically Complicit view themselves as doing what’s needed to survive (and sometimes thrive), and they rarely reflect on or are censured for their insensitivity.
Behaviors: gossiping, status-seeking opportunism, double-dealing hypocrisy, shunning and excluding individuals, condoning by silent consent.
The Inoculation: Demonstrate character. The Toxically Complicit have a moral compass; they just stick it in their pockets and follow the crowd. Be the North Star. Redirect them. Challenge them on being enablers and practitioners of mistreatment, and make their doing so a deal breaker for your respect, rapport and reciprocation.
Give them a moment, and then make your position clear: “You can be someone who steps on people or someone who stands up for them. I’ll walk away from you on one, but with you on the other.”
Type III: The Toxically Insurgent
People like this need to be equipped with warning signs blinking from their foreheads. Sirens should sound when they are within range. They are belligerent by choice, staunchly believing the Machiavellian adage “It is better to be feared than to be loved.” Disparaging others is like breathing to them—they need to do it to feel alive. No one feels good around them. Everyone wants to avoid them. The Toxically Insurgent keep the threat of a blindside attack at DEFCON level. And like a lead-encased room designed to be impervious to nuclear radiation, their “logic” is equally impenetrable to kindness and sensibility.
Behaviors: soapboxing, condescension, being judgmental, abusive and inappropriate comments, undermining and embarrassing others, hijacking credit for other people’s ideas and work, spitefully withholding information to sabotage.
The Inoculation: Sin aire, no existe—without air, it doesn’t exist. The Toxically Insurgent act with a scorched-earth policy, so learn to snuff out or douse.
Fire cannot burn without oxygen, so don’t give them any. Your reactions and rebuttals are the air this type needs to sustain their flames. Completely refuse to respond to or accommodate them in any way, including isolating them from others whenever possible, unless and until they can conduct themselves with civil consideration. This is like putting a jar over a candle. Poof. Second, be direct, be decisive and then dismiss. Frankly state, with flame-retardant austerity, your objections to their conduct, and document every exchange. Clearly list what your next steps (consult HR protocol) will be to critically curtail their interaction with you.
Do not let toxic people infect your demeanor, morale or self-esteem. With a little know-how, you can boost your psychic immunity against them.
Alicia Bassuk is a leadership coach and performance consultant with UbicaStrategy.com and can be followed on Twitter @aliciabassuk.