7 Ways You Can Handle Toxic People

By Jessica Stillman | Small Business

An author explains how the highly emotionally intelligent handle the worst office crazies and complainers.

The sad reality is that toxic people are common. So common, in fact, that my colleague Lolly Daskal was recently able to come up with 10 types or subspecies of this noxious breed. Equally troubling is the effect those individuals--who like to push others' buttons, stymie projects, and inject pessimism into every situation--can have on their better-adjusted co-workers.

"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 emotions--the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic people--caused subjects' brains to have a massive stress response," Emotional Intelligence 2.0 author Travis Bradberry recently wrote in his LinkedIn Influencer column.

That level of stress, science has shown, can actually cause negative physical changes in your brain. You've probably experienced firsthand what that feels like subjectively--in short, it's terrible! So how can you stop these toxic people from messing with your mind, as well as hurting your productivity?

In his hugely useful post, Bradberry offers a dozen techniques to take the sting out of your office crazy person or resident grump. Here are seven of the best.


1. Set limits

Combine your niceness with someone else's love of endless complaint and you have a recipe for a whole lot of wasted time and unnecessary stress. Don't feel bound to indulge the constant kvetcher at your company, advises Bradberry.

"People often feel pressure to listen to complainers because they don't want to be seen as callous or rude, but there's a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into their negative emotional spiral," he writes. "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?" How do you do this in practice? Just ask them how they intend to fix whatever it is they're complaining about. That should either put the conversation on a more positive track or quiet them down.


2. Choose your battles

"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," says Bradberry. "Choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right."


3. Keep tabs on your own emotions

The danger of toxic people is that their negativity can be catching--even if you're usually not the type to get sucked into endless crankiness and gloom. So keep a sharp eye out for how your annoying officemate affects your emotions. "You can't stop someone from pushing your buttons if you don't recognize when it's happening," he advises.

By keeping tabs on when someone is riling you up, you can better choose calm times to deal with that person. "Think of it this way--if a mentally unstable person approaches you on the street and tells you he's John F. Kennedy, you're unlikely to set him straight. When you find yourself with a co-worker who is engaged in similarly derailed thinking, sometimes it's best to just smile and nod. If you're going to have to straighten them out, it's better to give yourself some time to plan the best way to go about it," Bradberry offers as an illustration.


4. Defend your joy

Making your happiness contingent on the happiness of people who love to be miserable is a losing game. "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 they've done, they won't let anyone's opinions or snide remarks take that away from them," Bradberry insists.

So train yourself to take others' commentary with a grain of salt and let your own feelings about your accomplishments take the lead.


5. Focus on solutions

You can't make your toxic colleagues any less crazy, so don't waste your time ruminating on their many, many faults. That will just drag you down to their level. Instead try to focus on positive and practical measures you can take to deal with 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," explains Bradberry.


6. Watch physical stressors

You already have enough on your plate managing the toxic people in your life. Don't make it more difficult on yourself by trying to do it when you're exhausted or strung out on 18 cups of coffee.

"Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don't get enough--or the right kind--of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present," Bradberry reminds readers. "A good night's 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."


7. Enlist help

Sometimes you're just too close to a toxic situation to assess it thoughtfully and come up with optimum solutions. In these situations, an outside perspective can be a lifesaver. Don't attempt to be a hero and handle the toxic people in your work life 100 percent on your own.

"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," Bradberry urges those overwhelmed by crazy colleagues.

Are there any other tips or tricks you'd add to this list?

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