Opinion Column

Dealing with toxic people

By Larry Schruder, The Delfi Group

Our last Delfi column introduced the concept of emotional intelligence – the ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behaviour and relationships.

We also shared the power of emotional intelligence or EQ on our ability to lead happier and more productive lives. Ninety per cent 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 difficult people. Top performers have well-honed coping strategies that they employ to keep difficult people at bay.

Really difficult people are toxic to be around. They are usually totally unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them. They create unnecessary drama, complexity and stress for those they come in contact with. High EQ people have approaches that enable them to control what they can – and to eliminate or ignore what they cannot. So today we look at some of the more effective ways that ‘emotionally intelligent’ people successfully deal with difficult or toxic people that cross their paths.

They set limits on time spent with complainers and negative people. Whiners and complainers appear to enjoy wallowing in self-pity. They are more focused on recruiting others to join their pain party than on finding solutions to their problems. High EQ people understand the fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and being sucked into a swamp of negativity. EQ people set personal limits and enforce them. After a small amount of listening, they try to change to focus (“How are you going to start fixing your problems?”) or they move on. As a non-smoker, would one sit there all afternoon inhaling second-hand smoke, or would one distance oneself to a healthier environment? Set similar limits on exposures to toxic people.

Where necessary they establish boundaries. If high EQ individuals have the misfortune of living or working regularly with a toxic person, they do not cave in and accept that all related pain is inevitable. They establish personal boundaries that enable them to decide when and where they must interact with this person, and identify the best and most acceptable ways of avoiding such interactions. A sense of power comes with the opportunities to make decisions – and there are decisions that can be made that will reduce exposure.

They do not die in the fight. There are three ways to deal with stress – change the stressor, change one’s reaction to the stressor, or remove oneself from the stressor. Engaging in open conflict with a toxic person as one tries to make them change appear to be a natural reaction. But high EQ individuals know that jumping into these battles unprepared can result in significant damage to themselves. Instead, they pay attention to their emotions and the circumstances, and choose their battles wisely, standing their ground only when the time is right. It is important to live to fight another day – when the risks and potential outcomes are more favourable. Being more aware of their emotions, they can decide what behaviours make the most sense in the moment.

They do not forget. Emotionally intelligent people understand the difference between forgiving and forgetting. Forgiving means letting go of what has happened so one can move on and “burn” the resulting emotions or feelings. Forgetting means that one simply gives the wrongdoer another chance to inflict pain again. High EQ people are quick to forgive, but are smart enough to learn from the past and protect themselves from future harm.

They avoid negative self-talk by focusing on solutions rather than problems. When caught in a toxic situation, rather than feeling bad about how they are being treated and beating themselves up with how it happened, and how powerless they feel (negative self-talk), they focus on their ability to extricate themselves from this situation and make the necessary action choices to do so. By focusing on the positives of who they are and what they are capable of, high EQ people are better able to mobilize the required energies to move beyond the situation.

They ask for help. High EQ people recognize the risks and foolishness of trying to go it alone. They engage others to get a better perspective on their approaches and how they could be improved. High EQ people identify a support network around them where they can go for help or advice – and they use their support network when facing challenges dealing with toxic people.

They get their sleep. Sleep and the resulting recharging of the human brain are critical to managing stress levels and maintaining a proper perspective when interacting with difficult people and situations. A good night’s sleep leaves one more positive, creative, proactive and with more self-control – all critical aids to dealing effectively with toxic people.

Emotional intelligence can be enhanced through self-awareness, practice and adopting new strategies for interacting with others. Learn to ask the Dr. Phil question – “How is this working for me?” – and if appropriate, try some of the suggestions above. Life is too short to spend too much time with toxic people.

Larry Schruder is president and co-owner of The Delfi Group, Pembroke and can be reached at larry.schruder@thedelfigroup.com.