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Even though I saw that coming, it still hurt

Cheap shots in the workplace can happen in any organization, anytime. Even when you’re alert enough to avoid being blindsided, a hostile colleague or supervisor can always tackle you head on. Unfortunately, attempting to avoid or defend against disrespectful treatment can backfire, as these can escalate perpetrators’ hostilities. If your efforts to cope with oppressive workplace behavior don’t succeed, try disarming.

Disarming is an advanced technique for dealing with people who act unreasonably or disrespectfully. Its goal is to defuse an attack, not by confronting, resisting, or retreating, but through careful re-directing of the aggressor’s energy.

Disarming is counter-intuitive and may feel unnatural at first, because it relies on thanking a person for bad behavior.  This technique also involves validating an aggressor’s feelings, giving that person undeserved credit, and accepting more responsibility for a situation than you might deserve. In other words, to practice successful disarming, you have to check your ego at the door.

I'm not trying to hurt you-- I just want to get our relationship on the right track

Technically speaking, I’m not being defensive OR aggressive– I’m just putting our relationship on the right track

Since these responses are so unexpected (and at times paradoxical), they tend to throw attackers completely off balance, neutralizing their aggressive energy, and effectively disarming them. Once a hostile colleague is disarmed, it is possible to move the conversation in a more positive direction.

To see disarming in action, check out the brief video clip: Disarming: Your key to overcoming rude and hostile behavior, and read on for examples.

Example 1

Tom, Ed, and Dave (the new guy) are loading a truck. They are all working at a similar pace.

Tom yells, “Dave!  Stop daydreaming and move your butt!”

Dave responds, “Hey, no problem. Thanks for the extra motivation. I want to make a good first impression, so I appreciate you helping me stay on task.”

Tom expects Dave to respond either submissively or aggressively, so Dave’s gracious, appreciative reply catches him by surprise. Tom grumbles to himself, but doesn’t know what else to say, so he says no more. Dave’s disarming technique allows him to continue working, free of harassment.

Example 2

During a staff meeting, Bart yells at his boss Irma: “You’re too demanding with us. It’s not fair!”

Irma responds, “What a relief! I often wonder how people feel about my management style, and it’s so refreshing to hear someone finally express their honest feelings about it. Bart, it’s good to know you care enough about this organization to speak up like that. For the sake of the group, let’s stick to our agenda for this meeting. You and I can discuss these matters privately, at a later time.”

Bart is challenging Irma’s authority and testing her response. If she responds apologetically, then she loses authority and he gains power. If she responds angrily, she risks confirming Bart’s portrayal of her as an overly demanding leader. Irma’s technique disarms all threats to her authority, acknowledging Bart for his honesty without letting him make her management style an issue for group discussion. Her validation of Bart’s concern for the organization also prevents a power struggle, keeps the group unified, and puts the meeting on a productive course.

Example 3

Marta, a Director, chastises her subordinate Cheryl in front of her colleagues, shouting, “You are getting on our customers’ nerves! Get it together, or I will re-assign you!”

Cheryl responds, “I appreciate your feedback, and you’re right. People have hinted to me that at times my style can rub them the wrong way. Now that you have brought this to my attention, I have the opportunity to improve my service so our customers are satisfied.”

Marta says, “You do that,” then moves on to other matters.

Notice how disarming once again catches an aggressor off-guard. Marta’s goal is to use power to force Cheryl into submission, or possibly to provoke a defensive responsive (for which she may then discipline her for insubordination). As a manager who is responsible for setting an example and modeling professionalism, she is clearly way out of line. Nevertheless, when Cheryl unexpectedly takes responsibility for her own style, gives Marta credit, and validates the office’s commitment to customer satisfaction, Marta has no basis or energy for any further attacks. Cheryl’s professional response also earns her respect. Finally, after she effectively disarms Marta, Cheryl is able to redefine Marta’s words from “getting on customers’ nerves” to “at times rubbing people the wrong way.” This helps preserve Cheryl’s dignity and positive perception in the office.

To practice disarming, try using one of the following phrases as your initial response to a disrespectful remark:

  • What a relief!
  • You’re right
  • Thank you for bringing that up
  • I appreciate the feedback
  • Thank goodness someone finally said that out loud
  • It’s refreshing to hear someone actually speak his/ her mind
  • People have told me that before
  • I often wondered if someone felt that way

After buying yourself a moment with one of these acknowledgments, you can continue to disarm by finding some piece of truth in the criticism, identifying and validating the aggressor’s frustration with you, and aligning with that person’s goals (the ones you actually share, such as efficiency, teamwork, customer service, etc.).

Where did my wind go?

Where did my wind go?

Still feeling hesitant to try disarming? Some people fear that giving credit to aggressors or thanking them might reinforce their behavior and invite more attacks. In reality, disarming almost always reduces the frequency and intensity of future incivility. Since this technique catches people by surprise, and leaves them feeling off balance and mildly uncomfortable, they don’t feel rewarded, even when they are being thanked.

If you look carefully at the examples, the targeted employees are thanking their tormentors for giving them motivation, expressing feelings openly, displaying passion for the job, and providing constructive feedback and learning opportunities. They are not actually thanking them for their obnoxious style, which is essentially ignored, and ultimately loses its strength.

If you ever experience disrespectful treatment at work, consider how you might apply disarming responses in those situations. If you can anticipate the manner in which a colleague may try to come after you, you can script and rehearse a highly effective response to take the energy out of that attack and shape the situation in your favor—and that person will never expect it or realize what you did.

Sailingby Jason Sackett, LCSW
Professional Staff at CWFL