Few things seem to have the ability to drain our energy more than dealing with toxic people. In the workplace, we may have to frequently interact with a co-worker, manager, or direct report who seems to constantly be releasing negative or “toxic” energy. I’ve created five simple steps to help us take responsibility, create accountability, and reclaim our power in any unpleasant situation with a “toxic” colleague.
The first step is to stop associating the colleague with toxicity.How we talk, speak, and think about an individual or a situation dictates how we relate and react to it. If I believe someone is “toxic”, even a simple invitation from them to lunch starts to appear suspicious and malicious. Shift the associations and you’ll start to shift your experience of how you view this person.
Second, ask yourself, “What have I decided is true about this person?” Often, we may write someone off the first time they do something we do not agree with. The disagreement could have happened months ago, but since then we have been gathering evidence that they are a jerk. Acknowledge to yourself when and what YOU decided was true about them. They were not born toxic, it was a label that was given to them.
The third step is to try listening to the person from a different angle. In the book, The Art of Facilitation, Dale Hunter suggests listening for the motivation or “hidden commitment” behind an unpleasant interaction. As an example, after an important meeting your boss says, “I can’t believe you said that it front of our client, that was so stupid!”
Possible hidden commitments that may have caused your boss to use “toxic” rhetoric include:
They may be committed to the outcome of the project.
They may be committed to your growth.
They may be committed to doing what they feel is perfect work.
They may be committed to the client.
They may be committed to a promotion to help support their family.
They may be committed to not making a mistake.
The fourth step is to simply remember that this person, consciously or unconsciously, is doing what they think is best. Assuming positive intent can make all the difference in diffusing a toxic situation.
Finally, the last step to overcoming toxicity is to write your colleague’s name on a piece of paper and take 5 minutes to write a list of things you appreciate, admire, and have learned about/from them.
When we shift our relationships to “toxic” co-workers, we gain the power to understand the deeper meaning beyond difficult communication, stay present, and shift the atmosphere of the situation to calmer waters. When we are in alignment, we are able to set the boundaries of what kind of communication is acceptable in the future.
I find that even in the most difficult situations, once we show a colleague that we can see through their fire to what fuels them (their commitments), we are able to gain their respect and gain their partnership.
Now go reclaim your power.
Christopher Littlefield is the founder of AcknowledgmentWorks. He trains leaders around the world in the Art of Acknowledgment and Engagement. His work revolves around the understanding that at the heart of all of our relationships is the experience of feeling valued. Watch Chris as he shares his research at TEDx Beirut.
By Chelsea Elkins, Simple Intentions Program & Marketing Manager
The term ‘vicious cycle’ has always peaked my linguistic interest, both attracting and repelling me. I find more and more that there is a callous reality to the phrase that exists in my day to day world. It reflects a biological concept I learned in high school – a social translation of positive feedback. To pull straight from the textbook (since I got a C in that class), this process is characterized by “the enhancement or amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process that gives rise to it”. In other words, it’s a system or cycle that intensifies by creating a stimulus which triggers an effect that causes more stimulus which triggers a greater effect and so on.
In biology, positive and negative don’t translate to good and bad. Positive feedback just means that a cycle continues to grow by feeding and stimulating itself until it reaches its peak. An example in nature is the process of childbirth: a laboring mother releases the hormone oxytocin which stimulates contractions which causes more oxytocin to be released until the baby is born.
Recently, I can’t help but apply the concept of positive feedback to social systems around me. When cycles, whether internal thought patterns, workplace practices or societal systems, feed on themselves, enhancing and amplifying in the process, it can make a good thing better and a bad thing worse.
Our lives are surrounded by systems and cycles, some that benefit society and others that do not. The latter I’ll label as unhealthy positive feedback and takes the form of damaging systems or detrimental cycles in our world. Some recent acclaimed examples in American media include the still embedded justice systems that promote sex and gender discrimination that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks to in her book, My Own Words, as well as Academy Award nominated documentary 13TH which addresses systemic racism through mass incarceration. On a smaller scale, a workplace example that comes to mind is the system of rewarding employees who work long hours. This reward system often encourages employees to work longer hours and more frequently, which offers more rewards, etc…
How then do we break out of a cycle that’s not serving us personally or that isn’t serving a certain group or society as a whole? This question can feel daunting on the best of days. A sense of helplessness may swell at the thought of how to incite change in an unhealthy system, especially when it has been in place for a long time. Luckily, the first step is relatively simple.
I believe, truly, that the first and I’d argue most important step towards changing a cycle is to simply be aware. Really, just that. When we cultivate awareness around what unhealthy cycles or systems are around us, we start to shine a light on them, however dim that light might feel at first. This may be as simple as keeping up with current events, reading the written works of someone who inspires you, or asking your hard-working co-worker how she’s feeling with the never ending long hours. Collect data on the impact of the system in question – who does it negatively impact? Who does it positively impact? Do the benefits outweigh the cons? There’s no action to take – simply become aware of what cycles are around you and if they benefit or harm you, and if they benefit or harm others.
Once a basic awareness foundation is laid, the next step is to expand it. Go beyond the effect of the cycle and determine what your part is in the system or cycle in question. Acknowledge, without judgement, the ways in which you might feed the cycle. Did you give a shout out to your co-worker who’s been working 12 hour days at your last meeting? Explore all corners openly and honestly – and recognize that the cycle may very well be needed right now. Perhaps this is the busiest time of the year and long work days are currently needed. Just maintain awareness. If 6 months go by and the norm is still a 60-hour work week for your team, it’s time to reassess if this is a system that is still serving you and is still serving the whole.
To stress a point, creating awareness does not mean to blame (others or self). The purpose here is to become acutely (maybe uncomfortably) aware of what the cycle is, who the cycle impacts, and how we personally fit in the cycle. With that knowledge in place, we can make an informed decision on how to proceed to the next step. This step is still simple but at last requires some action: simply, to make a choice. It’s time to choose to either continue moving with the cycle or to make a new choice, even if small, that may help disrupt it. Perhaps in the next team meeting, you still give your co-worker a shout out for her hard work – and then start a discussion around team capacity and how to create sustainable success going forward. The smallest of choices may inspire others to do the same, creating its own positive feedback system – one whose results are more desirable.
Positive feedback in nature is extremely important and many of our social systems are incredibly needed. But it is up to us to determine when an internal thought cycle is damaging. When a workplace system is no longer sustainable. When an ingrained societal cycle is, well, vicious. And when it is not. It is up to us to first cultivate our awareness and shine a light on an unhealthy system. Something as small as that may start its own domino effect – and eventually break the cycle.
Some years ago, I was in a coaching session, taking the role of the coachee, when my coach stopped me and said: “Let me interrupt you for a second. I want you to look at the speed of your speech. What does that say to you? What would happen if the rhythm was much slower?”
I was left speechless… and then I realized that, in my hurry, I was not allowing space for things to happen – both in the present coaching conversation and across my life.
I began to become aware that whenever I ran errands, the speed of my pace was incredibly fast. It was as if I thought someone was trying to catch me, and I had to prevent that from happening. I started taking an inventory of the speed in all areas of my life: work (not leaving even a minute to pause, because, I would say to myself, that is what they pay me for. To work!); gym (jumping, non-stop, from one exercise to the next); personal time (fragmented and inconsistent).
It was as if I was watching a movie of my life, with the same ending time and time again – one where I was racing to complete the “shoulds” in my life. I was so afraid of what could happen to me if I allowed space and put my guard down, that I suddenly was aware that I had become my own prisoner. That realization came as quite a shock, but, however uncomfortable, it was also a relief to understand. I knew the power was in me and the choice was mine to change my movie, to change my life.
I knew I needed a shift, so, little by little, I started to gain awareness on the choices I was making and how I was living my life, allowing space for things to flow, letting go of the need to control. It wasn’t easy at first, because old habits and conditioned behaviors always find a backdoor to let their way in, but, with enhanced awareness, you can catch them… and tell them they are not welcome anymore.
It is incredible all the things we can perceive when we slow down the pace. We notice other people´s expressions, recognize the feelings they are experiencing; witness a full range of colors previously unnoticed; become aware of the clouds reflecting on the glass buildings; hear the unspoken words; even hear the sound of our own breathing.
Now that I have slowed down, I am conscious of the camera recording my movie. I’ve finally slowed down enough to create the space to fully see myself and my actions. And I know that my movie is continuing to change as I become more aware, more connected with every slow, deliberate step I take.
There are certain work or career beliefs that we’ve convinced ourselves are true.
– Work-life balance will always be a struggle.
– You get ahead or you get noticed by replying to each and every email.
– The loudest or most-often-heard vaoice in the meeting is best-suited for a leadership role.
These beliefs are just not true. But office politics, water cooler chat, and even pop culture have shown us otherwise, which is why it’s sometimes hard to get out of these belief cycles.
There is no better time than NOW to debunk these so-called truths and embrace a new work belief:
We have more control than we realize.
For some this is a bold, new truth that calls us to muster up a lot of confidence, courage, initiative or moxie. (All of which we are completely capable of.) We will all eventually get to that place, I promise. In the meantime, there is an easy, strategic place to start with launching this new belief. We can start by becoming more aware of what we pay attention to and how we pay attention.
Our brain’s wiring lends itself towards being distracted. Just think about how many times a day you find yourself checking your email, your favorite social media feed or just staring off into space. If we want to strengthen our voluntary attention–the attention we have direct control over—we must improve our focus and ability to proactively complete our work.
The first step in this process involves cultivating awareness. Learning to do this begins with a simple but surprisingly powerful exercise—the attention awareness exercise. Select a span of four hours, either during the workweek or on a weekend, as your tracking period for this exercise. Then choose an attention tracking tool that works for you: pen and paper, the notes feature on a smart phone, or a dictation device. Every time your attention wanders, you lose focus, or you are interrupted either by others or yourself, make a note on your attention tracking tool.
You may want to devise different symbols to refer to your own personal “distractors.” For example, I have had clients use hash marks to denote the number of times their attention wandered and create abbreviations for the people, things, ideas and emotions involved – for example, P = person, F = feeling, C = child, E = email, W = web surfing, and S = social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so on).
And, yes, the exercise itself is also diverting your attention. However, there is a method to the process. The attention awareness exercise enables us to see, literally in black and white, how often our attention wanders and the triggers that cause this to happen. We must notice that our attention has wandered in order to do something about it. I would suggest to repeat the attention exercise multiple times during a workweek and at different times of the day – we want to have enough data to thoroughly analyze our attention awareness trends.
Now that we have our attention data, we can start the path towards change. Review the data and notice any trends or themes:
Was it more difficult to focus right before lunch time or dinner time?
Was it difficult to focus after a long meeting or a difficult conversation with a family member?
Was it easier to focus after a walk or a workout at the gym?
Were there specific time periods during the four hours that it was easier to focus?
Were there specific projects or types of tasks that you could focus on for longer periods of time?
Keep notes on the trends and themes that emerge.
The second step to strengthening our voluntary attention involves optimizing the physiological conditions necessary for ideal attention management. It is ideal to create an environment that supports unique attention management needs and minimizes the impact of the hardwiring of your brain. When we are tired, hungry, or stressed, we are fighting an uphill battle with our attention. Guess who is always going to win – your brain! If you are up late the night before finishing a project, you may not have the ability to focus on a complex task at eight the next morning. If you’ve just had a very difficult conversation with a colleague or spent an hour consoling an upset friend, be aware and plan accordingly; your voluntary attention muscle is already fatigued due to this interaction.
Plan your self-management activities with all of these factors in mind. Keep packets of nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit in your office drawer, pocket book, briefcase, and/or glove compartment of your car to stay properly fueled for maximum focus. Create a playlist of soothing and energizing music to help you relax or recharge after stressful interactions and conversations. Keep comfortable shoes in your desk drawer or in your car or work bag so you can go for a quick walk up and down the halls of your office building or outside your office building. Physical movement is one of the most effective ways to mentally reset and discharge negative energy. And you do not have to walk long to benefit – ten minutes is all it takes.
When TV hostess and media mogul Martha Stewart was asked how she manages to accomplish so much during a day, she responded by saying, “I used to get tired before I started working out on a daily basis. Even a half hour makes a huge difference to the body’s energy level over the course of a day. Eating healthy, fresh foods is essential. With nutritious diet and exercise, I can get a lot done in a day.”
By optimizing the physiological conditions required to manage attention, boosting our sense of focus is completely attainable.
The third and final step requires that we retrain our brains using a “brain reboot”. Refocusing is hard because we have trained our brains to work on a variety of things simultaneously. How common is it to check email during a conference call? Or to feed a child breakfast, unloaded the dishwasher, and pack lunches all at the same time? Multi-tasking habits does not improve productivity; instead, it undermines our ability to focus.
In order to refocus, visualize a reset button in your brain and say, “I need to hit reboot and get back on track.” According to Dr. Srini Pillay, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, this takes the spotlight off the distraction and puts it on redirection—the refocusing of the task. By frequently rebooting the brain, it is being rewired for optimal functioning.
Another approach to brain rebooting is the use of breathing to restore focus. Try taking a deep inhalation breath, pushing out your navel, and then powerfully expelling the air by slightly bringing in your stomach. Repeat this breath five to seven times and observe how the tension and mental chatter in your mind dissipates. Another breath that also short circuits the mental chatter is to place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and blow out as if you were blowing out candles on a birthday cake. As you blow out, count to seven. You can now regain your focus.
Someone once told me, – whatever it is you think or believe, it’s true; meaning that if I believe I will always struggle with work-life balance, it’s true; or if I believe someone else deserves a promotion more than me, that’s true, too.
The same goes for the control we think we have or don’t have – if we believe we don’t have control over our choices in a situation, we won’t. But that’s simply not true. We have more control than we realize.
So, start with practice – begin with cultivating awareness to pay better attention. Once the belief exists that we can control how or what we pay attention to, we can start to take bigger steps towards exercising more control and debunking work truths that simply aren’t true.
A friend once asked me what would happen if I stopped changing things. I was at the tail end of several major life transitions—divorce, cross-country move, job change (all at once)—and, as she said, kept “flipping stones” when I felt discomfort. Whether that was buying a new item of clothing, finding someone new to date, seeking a new project or client, I was always in motion. And it was resulting in a lot of mistakes due to snap decision-making.
That’s what happens when we don’t give ourselves time to be still. To be thoughtful. To get real about our values, our intentions, our “why.” We’re driving in fog, but instead of slowing down—or even better, pulling over to let it clear—we turn on our brights, step on the gas, and drive off a cliff.
Because just like when we’re behind the wheel, if we can’t see clearly, can’t think clearly, it’s best to stop. This is a REALLY hard lesson if you’re a control freak like me and want to MAKE SHIT HAPPEN. But when we force it, we get in our own way. We take wrong turns and get lost. And while sometimes detours are pleasantly surprising, that’s not often the case when they’re taken in haste.
So let’s not be in a hurry to go nowhere fast. Let’s acknowledge that lack of clarity is a sign to stop. To gather our thoughts and let things play out. To sit still until we can see the path ahead of us, then take it one slow, intentional step at a time.
But I’m also no stranger to the emotion. In a world rife with inequity, bias, and realities that can make the most patient of us want to scream, anger is not uncommon. When I’m in the throes of it, I can focus on nothing else (including effective solutions to the issue) and find that my productivity and longevity suffer.
I’ve been pondering the benefits of anger lately. How it can be a wakeup call. How it can create needed boundaries. Anger can be the spark – to start a revolution, to fight injustice, to say “enough”. But it cannot be the whole flame or we will burn out. While anger can trigger productivity, anger itself is inherently not a productive emotion. And for sustainable change to occur, I’d argue that anger must evolve – into whatever is needed: passionate organizing, a relentless activism, a resolute boundary – because anger alone is not enough.
So how then do we turn our anger into something useful? I believe the answer is equanimity.
I recently spent a precious Saturday attending a dharma talk titled “Fierce Equanimity” through The Lotus Institute with Dr. Larry Ward and Dr. Peggy Rowe. The talk discussed how to relentlessly, fiercely display equanimity (or a calmness and evenness of mind and emotion) regardless of life’s circumstances.
This concept states that one can address and overcome challenge and injustice with equanimity in lieu of anger. Instead of rage, determination and perseverance may better serve us. Rather than shouting, a calm but resounding “no” can be just as effective. In exchange for riots, nonviolent protests can mobilize a community. Our middle fingers can be playful instead of aggressive (kidding). This way of being suggests we can combat hate with a fierce and stubborn gratitude.
Still with me?
I heard a powerful idea at The Lotus Institute regarding the non-personalization of experience. In other words, anger is not ours to possess. It’s not a toy, cell phone, or piece of clothing that we can claim as belonging to us. It is an unfettered, volatile (and hopefully transient) response that everyone from all walks of life has experienced. This means that since we can’t actually own anger, it doesn’t own us either.
One of the many benefits of equanimity is that it encompasses inclusivity. It transcends “otherness”. It’s an encouragement to try to understand the “humanness” that is always present behind an act of hateful rhetoric. Inclusivity is one of the most effective ways to deflate an anger bubble – because it does away with the us vs. them notion. Equanimity means objectively asking yourself, “What in my life needs to be nourished? And what needs to be de-nourished?” It’s critically looking at societal systems and asking “What here needs to be legitimized? What needs to be de-legitimized?” And based on your answers, acting accordingly.
I want to go on the record and say that letting go of anger and embracing equanimity does not mean succumbing to passivity. Quite the opposite – equanimity often means being part of a slow-moving force, but one that is startling in its power and lasting in its effect. In Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says, “I can’t turn back. I have reached the point of no return.” Dr. King is in my mind a model for equanimity. Though he had a lifelong dedication to nonviolence (an important component of equanimity), not one could call him a passive force. Rather, he heeded the call to remain collected and compassionate in the long fight for social change – to powerful results. If anger is the blinding flare, then equanimity is the slow burn that drives us day in and day out.
Passivity in the face of injustice is the opposite end of the spectrum. It is often the companion to apathy and ignorance, and enables the normalization of inequity. Passivity often stems from exclusivity, us vs. them. The funny thing is exclusivity (and therefore passivity) is illogical when accompanied with the awareness that most people desire the same things. We are all on a quest to find happiness, to find fulfillment, to find peace. But, as Dr. Ward asked that Saturday, find peace to do what? Find happiness to do what in the world?
I believe deep down we all know the answers (which are different for each of us). With equanimity, perhaps we can start to ask the right questions.
This is about the myths and misconceptions surrounding the many interconnected roles, relationships, and responsibilities we face each day, often referred to as this thing called “work-life balance.”
When it comes to this thing called work-life balance…
The First Truth
You can define work-life balance however you want.
There are a lot of ways to talk about this concept, but only one way that feels right for you.
And please, use your own WORDS to define the details of what it means to you.
Most people share a similar desire, which is to create easy joy and meaningful engagement between the interconnected roles, relationships, and responsibilities that make up life.
That said, there are as many ways as there are people on the planet to describe what living a balanced life would feel like. When it comes to balance, everybody has their own idea of what is comfortable, tolerable, and acceptable.
There is no right or wrong way to define balance. It is what it is for you and for you alone.
The Second Truth
You will be in and out of balance your entire life.
This is just the way the world works.
Things like new jobs, new relationships, new homes, new roles, new hobbies, births, deaths, and health (yours and others’) will all impact your needs for balance.
Your needs for balance will forever be evolving.
Your secret power is in recognizing and accepting that what you need now, in this moment, is very different than what you will need 12 months from now or one, five, seven, or 10 years from now.
Once you have accepted that your needs will change, it becomes about knowing and understanding your needs, making choices that support your needs, and communicating your needs with the important people in your life.
You will be in and out of balance your entire life.
Acknowledging and accepting accountability for your needs, wants, and desires is your secret power.
The Third Truth
Work-life balance has nothing to do with work.
Not the type of work you do…
We all have responsibilities that can be considered work. Whether you get paid for what you do or not. More than that, balance has nothing to do with your gender, family structure, parental status, religion, education, income, or geographic location.
Work-life balance is not about any of these things specifically — it’s mostly about the type of conversations we have or the conversations we avoid having about these things, as well as our feelings about the impact of these things on our lives.
Most of the issues we attribute to being “out of balance” at work or at home can be traced back to (and resolved through) a conversation — to be specific, an authentic conversation. (You know, the kind where you say what you REALLY mean.)
What gets us in trouble and keeps us busy and disengaged are the conversations we are NOT having with our boss, our business partners, our customers, our friends, our significant others, our children, and — especially — ourselves.
It’s possible that 99% of the time, these conversations we are not having are about the triggers that are causing the imbalance in our life.
These triggers, most times, boil down to your values and the boundaries (or lack of boundaries) that support and honor your values in all the relationships you are in:
the relationship you have with work,
relationships you have with others (in and out of work),
and the relationship you have with yourself.
Why are so many people not having these types of conversations?
The answer is simple. In most cases, it boils down to fear: Fear of rejection. Fear of being perceived as “less than.”
Fear of failing. Fear of asking for help. Fear of being different. Fear of actually being perceived as both balanced and successful.
Sometimes these conversations that we avoid are about saying no (and our fear of saying no).
Saying no to someone at work or someone you love might let them down, and no one wants to let anyone down, especially on purpose.
Let’s be honest: It’s easier to say no to your own needs than to disappoint someone else. (Even if it means disappointing yourself.)
When you say yes to people, requests, and projects, that are in conflict with your values, or when you engage with people who do not support — or even worse, who disrespect — your values, you are actually saying “no” to yourself and creating imbalance in your life.
work-life balance has nothing to do with work. It’s about authentically owning and clearly communicating your yes’s and no’s to the people WHO share your life.
(which includes yourself)
The Fourth Truth
Creating balance is free. (Great news — because everyone loves free!)
When it comes to creating work-life balance, you don’t have to…
These are all options you can choose — but you don’t have to do any of them. The only thing you have to do is choose balance as a lifestyle.
Okay, so you make the choice — you want balance.
Start small. Pay attention more.
Many people don’t spend much time where they are. They are either still thinking about where they have been or thinking about where they will be — which robs them of being where they are when they are there. The richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor have equal access to the currency of presence.
There is no cost whatsoever to being present.
It’s free to pay attention to your environment and see and feel as much (or as little) of the experience that you want. It’s free to pay attention to the people and the relationships in your life — to slow down, to really hear what is being said, and to notice what is not being said. It’s free to pay attention to you. Your body, your feelings, your wants, your desires, and especially, your thoughts.
We have all experienced this thing called presenteeism.
This is when you show up physically, but not mentally. The impact is that you are unable to be in the moment and contribute your best, because you are distracted about whatever might happen in the future or are reliving what has happened in the past.
(It’s okay — we’ve all done it, and will do it again, because sometimes that’s just what happens.)
Odds are you already have a pretty great life. Paying more attention might make it feel even better. Connecting to what you already have is free. It’s the disconnection that can cost you dearly.
The Fifth Truth
The choice is yours to create balance each day.
It’s your choice to define what balance means to you.
It’s your choice to accept that there will be times of greater imbalance.
It’s your choice to own and authentically express your yes’s and no’s.
Some days you might make choices that support your definition of balance, and other days you might make choices that sabotage the type of balance you are seeking.
The magic is that every single day, the choice is yours to make again, and again, and again.
The Five Truths About Work-Life Balance are SIMPLE:
You can define work-life balance however you want.
You will be in and out of balance your entire life.
Balance has nothing to do with work.
Creating Balance is free.
The choice is yours to create balance each day.
What you choose to do with these truths is up to you. The choice is yours.