Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Beyond Porcupines

I came home from a meeting last night with this observation: prickly people get under your skin, but toxic people poison the social environment.

Fortunately there aren't a lot of toxic people in the world. You know'em when you meet'em because:

1. The underlying message they send is You don't matter. What matters is what I want and you have no right to get in my way.

2.  Cues and verbal intervention directed at stopping the behavior are ignored.
3. Although you may have profound respect for other people in the room, you leave feeling you never want to go back there again.
4. Everyone involved ends up feeling unclean and soiled (not to mention insulted and angry).

How does one deal with a toxic person (TP)? I think there are a couple of approaches. The first order of the day is to operate at a safe enough distance that you are not sucked into acting the same way. I find I have to consciously tell myself I do not want to be this person. I have to remind myself that I don't want to live in the darkness that person casts; I want to live in the light. I can't fight on their turf. And I have to find the distinction between venting and gossip, letting my feelings loose only with those who can help me heal, and keeping my mouth shut when the only possible outcome will be to re-ignite my indignation or to inflame others.

The simultaneous, almost-goes-without-saying thing to do is to make sure the TP doesn't know how you feel about him or her, so you avoid becoming a target. I lucked out last night because the TP was so absorbed in her tantrum that she didn't notice the gaping look of horror on my face.

Within the parameters of keeping yourself safe, you can develop a plan of action. Last night's situation had a relatively straightforward next step, because this TP has a boss. I sat down to write the boss an email, and it took me well over an hour to write four short paragraphs. To be effective, I knew the letter had to be about the problem, not about my feelings about the problem. I'm slow: it takes me a long time to figure out exactly what I want to say, and then dozens and dozens of drafts to extract the emotion. As a final check I passed the letter by Andrew before sending. He found a few more things that he thought it would be better to leave out.

The letter's done and sent, and now there's one more thing to do. When someone depletes the world of good, one thing I can do is try to add a bit more back in.  That's my project for the day.

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