I-Messages in the “Toxic” Zone: Sometimes, They’re the Only Skill That’s Left

Sometimes, even though you weren’t looking for any kind of fruit at all…life hands you lemons. And upon first glance, it may look like there’s no sugar lying around to make lemonade.

And as surely as night turns to day, nearly everybody will, throughout the course of a long career, encounter a boss or a colleague who engages in behaviors that psychologists label “toxic.”

  • Bullying and/or abuse
  • Blame-shifting
  • Micromanaging
  • Withholding critical information
  • And more

The question is, what can we do to change the situation when we aren’t necessarily in a position of authority over the person who’s behaving in a way that prevents us from meeting our needs?

Is there any way to influence the behavior of somebody who is a peer or—heaven forbid—a boss?

Minimizing Exposure to Toxicity

In an excellent and comprehensive resource on handling “toxic people” published by Psychology Today (which is full of actionable advice despite its GLOP-py title), Katherine Schreiber begins with a sound piece of advice for those who are stuck in a workplace environment with somebody whose behavior is draining the energy, productivity, satisfaction, and emotional health from those around him or her.

If you can, work to create some distance between yourself and the source of the toxic behavior.

Limiting exposure to toxic behavior can be achieved first and foremost through limiting actual physical contact and the amount of time you must spend with the person. That’s sound advice, and worth following if you feel you are in reasonable a position to do so. need leadership training

Managing Toxic Behavior through Confrontive and Preventive I-Messages

But sometimes you can’t do that. And when you can’t, you can try I-Messages.

Let’s take a look at how a few might look.

Confrontive I-Messages are useful anytime there is a problem. In terms of the Behavior Window, they are appropriate when the other person’s behavior falls into your area of unacceptance. The format for this type of I-Messages is:

___(Description of behavior)___

___(Tangible effect)___

___(Feelings attached to effect)___

  • Bullying/abuse: “X, when you raise your voice and swear in meetings, I feel very uncomfortable and I just want to leave the room.”
  • Blame-shifting: “Z, for the past three quarters I have heard you tell our team the production delays are outside of our control. I’m worried and frustrated because there may be flaws in our processes that could be the true cause, and if we don’t look for them, we might keep missing our deadlines and lose the contract that funds my position.”

Preventive I-Messages, on the other hand, are assertions of your needs before there is a problem. They are designed to prevent problems in a relationship before they happen. They may be used proactively based on past experiences of behavior as well. In the case of dealing with somebody else’s behavior in the workplace that’s preventing you from meeting your needs, it may be the only arrow in your quiver. It’s at least worth a try.

The format of a preventive I-Messages is:

____(Your need)________ (because) ____(reason for the need or effect on you) _____

  • Withholding critical information: “Boss, I need to make sure I have all the pertinent information necessary to write the report that is due on Friday before I start, because I want to be able to take pride in a report that is comprehensive and error-free.”
  • Micromanaging: “Boss, I’d like to set up a time to talk with you about your expectations for this assignment ahead of time so I’ll feel completely prepared and confident in giving you exactly what you want.”

But What If It Doesn’t Work?

In the immediate seconds after delivering an I-Messages, there is always the possibility the receiver will respond with defensiveness or anger. That risk is increased, obviously, when the power dynamic between you and the person you are sending I-Messages is lateral or upward.

So. You’ve sent your I-Message. The person you sent it to is now staring at you defensively. Or s/he is actively telling you exactly what you can do with your request.

Now what?

You still have options.

  1. If you feel there is a reasonable chance the discussion may still arrive at a satisfactory resolution if you were to continue, you could try Shifting Gears, which is another way of saying, switch from sending I-Messages to listening.
  2. If you sense the discussion is over, the road ahead may be long and full of lemons. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do anything with them. Let the three “P’s” be your guide as you continue coping with your daily exposure to toxic behaviors:

a. Be Persistent. I-Messages aren’t a one-and-done thing. Keep sending them. You may feel like a proverbial “broken record” (people under 40—ask your elders) but after a while, even those who are most resistant to hearing them will eventually come to anticipate them. When you make your needs known (over and over and over again) in a reasonable, dispassionate, business- and results-focused way, it’s going to be difficult for anybody to argue that you’re the problem.

b. Be Professional. No matter how stressful and frustrating toxic behavior in the workplace may be, you control your reactions to it. Document instances that violate company policy and/or discuss them to Human Resources or your boss’s superiors if you are comfortable with that course of action, but resist the temptation to kvetch with colleagues (see: Gossip).

c. Be Prepared with a Plan B. The era of a job-for-life ended roughly four decades ago, and at the moment, the U.S. economy is strong. Workplaces that tolerate toxic behavior in the long-term are known for high turnover. It would be a pity (for them) if you were one of their statistics, but in the long run, there are plenty of pastures full of green grass—and no lemons. Ultimately, if there are no other options left, it may be best to seek one.

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