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Responding To Toxic Coworkers/People

We’ve compiled a list of ways to respond to toxic people and their common tricks. We also summarize their general characteristics so you can spot them. In most sections we also make a frame suggestion to help you best approach branding them. If you want to know more about frames see this article

Comment below if you have any good responses not listed here.

The Know It All

The Know It All typically seeks social status by appearing to know the answer to everything. Sometimes they really do know, but frequently they just annoy and cause issues. 

The key is to frame them as someone who doesn’t know it all. This seems obvious but takes some patience and evidence gathering. Try keeping track of all the things they pretend to know and then remember when they are wrong. Then when you have three good examples of them being completely wrong bring it up the next time they pretend to know it all. Or just try some of the responses below.

  • Why should we believe anything you have to say on this subject when you were wrong in situation x, y, z?
  • (They say: You don’t know x?) Yes, unlike you I don’t spend all day slacking off and reading things that don’t matter.
  • When did I ask for your opinion?
  • Thanks for the unsolicited advice.
  • Why do you devalue yourself by giving unsolicited advice?
  • (They say: Make sure you remember to do x.)  What makes you think I wouldn’t have done x without your reminder?
  • (When they disagree with an authority.) You are right. Maybe you know better than the doctor.
  • What specifically made you think I didn’t already know something obvious like that?
  • Yes, yes, yes, is that all? (Pretend what they are saying is obvious.)
  • You say that as if you are the first man in history to think that up. But everyone already knows that.
  • What makes you more qualified than x (expert) on this topic?
  • Congratulations on your conclusion.
  • Do me a favor and unsubscribe me from the X knows everything channel.

The Cutting Edge Snob

The cutting edge snob shames people who don’t have the newest, latest, and greatest gadget or clothing piece. Frame them as sensitive and overly reactive. You can also frame them as petty or as someone who has nothing important to do in life. Why would you let a little difference like that bother you when you have more important things to focus on?

  • I’m glad you have such a boring life that you can focus on such insignificant things.
  • I don’t let a little thing like that bother me.
  • That is a minor hang up. I have other things to worry about.
  • I bought a Mac/PC and not a PC/Mac because it bothers people like you.
  • What do I miss out on by not having the newest X? I don’t care about that.

The Angry Disagreeable Person

The Aggressive Person fears criticism and is often narcissistic. Their ego is the cause of the behavior and the solution as well. Aggressive people often throw innocent things like paper at others, physically intimidate, take up too much space, speak with a loud tone, take people’s things from them, yell, point aggressively, and use aggressive tones. The most common is the aggressive tone and body language. Respond in kind. Using an aggressive tone back at them informs them that you will not just roll over. You can also shame them by saying “I see you are your typical friendly self,” or by laughing and then telling them to calm down. If, when you respond in kind they tell you to calm down, say “I’m as calm as you,” or “don’t be so sensitive.” Don’t be hasty when they pressure you to make decisions. More pressure means they do not want you to think. Say “I will not make a decision now.” When they ask what else you need to make a decision just stonewall. You can also say “hmm I wonder why you are trying to get me to decide without thinking about it.” Generally people who are aggressive will actually respect people who stand up to them. Try randomly disagreeing with what they say and then not explaining yourself. “That sandwich sucks.” “Why?” “Because it sucks.” You can try asking them what they like and then disagreeing. This always works since aesthetics like taste are arbitrary. If none of the above work, just try calling them “princess.”

  • Get it all out, don’t hold back!
  • Easy there baby buffalo.
  • Laugh at them.
  • Make a concerned face and ask if they are feeling okay.
Too Many Tasks

The Tasker

The Tasker is the person on your team who gives people things to do despite not being in charge. Frame the tasker as lazy or distracting. Try saying, “don’t be lazy, do it yourself,” “stop trying to pawn off your work,” combined with “you aren’t the boss, I don’t take orders from you.” When they protest by saying the task is important, tell them to “go away and stop distracting me,” or “don’t waste my time.” If the task really needed to be done it should be presented through the right channel. Ignore them. The tasker also occasionally pretends to be the boss by checking up on others. Counter this by checking back up on them. Ask about their feelings and struggles. When you ask about how they are feeling, use a concerning posture and tone.Then minimize them.

  • Don’t be lazy, do it yourself.
  • Stop trying to pawn off work.
  • You aren’t the boss. I don’t take orders from you.
  • Go away and stop distracting me. Stop wasting my time.

The Insulter

The Insulter/Shamer loves to inform others how much they suck. They are often fragile, narcissistic, or deeply insecure, and typically crumble if insulted back. Oddly enough they often respect people who fight them back. Frame them as dishing things out that they can’t handle. A really useful technique can be simply asking “What is your point?” This often disrupts them and robs them of their momentum in the same way ask playing dumb and asking the person to explain the insult. You can also just insult them back.

  • Settle down now jr.
  • Well don’t stop there, you can do better than that.
  • I’d insult you back but it looks like nature already did.
Ready to minimize

The Nit Picker/Critic/Detail Nazi

The Detail Nazi can be a well intentioned individual who is a bit of an eager beaver. They use their legitimate skill for noticing details to disrupt other’s momentum. Generally you can ignore their behavior by changing the conversation. Frame them as being inefficient, wasting time, always being a problem, or confused. Details are important, but often not relevant to the conversation. For example, in an overview meeting you wouldn’t dive into the details of an implementation. Don’t try to nit pick them back unless you notice easy targets. In general try the responses below when they nit pick.

  • We won’t be getting into the weeds at this time.
  • In summation, you want life to be perfect sunshine and roses with no compromise?
  • Oh here we go again, [person’s name] has another problem.
  • I realize this is a lot but don’t get confused, we are just doing an overview at this time.
  • How is that comment relevant to the thesis of our discussion?
  • Why is that necessary to discuss right now?
  • Please don’t waste half the room’s time. That needs to be discussed later.
  • How is what you said different? You took twice as long to say the same thing.
  • Why was it necessary to mention [irrelevant at that moment detail]?
  • When did I ask for your input?
  • You work in sales and are the invitation police? Do you get paid overtime for both jobs?
  • [Why do you do that?] “Why do you run your mouth?
  • It always seemed naive to expect a company to be perfect.
  • Why are you doing x? Why do you care? go control something else.
  • Nice criticism of Y, but can you criticize X?

The Corporate Aligner & Butt Kisser

The Butt Kisser is very common at most workplaces. The only way to deal with this species of coworker is to frame them as a kiss up with the other employees, or beat them at their own game. When a Butt kisser tries to play holier than thou, be even holier. When they say “that’s not how we handle [situation] around here.” Say “actually we stand for [something like honesty or another value], and so I chose [your behavior].” Basically your job is to reinterpret your behavior as actually fulfilling the company value they accuse you of violating, or reinterpret your behavior as actually fulfilling an even higher company value. Be careful when attacking them back since an attack on their assertion can become an attack on the company.

People Who Talk Over You

The Disruptor breaks into your conversational momentum by either bringing up different topics or talking before you finish. The simple way to deal with this is to keep on talking and raise your voice. You can also just hold up your hand and say, “I’ll let you speak in a moment.” You can also ask the person if they really want your opinion. If they say no then don’t “throw your pearls before swine,” and if they do tell them they need to let you finish. Remind them they are not entitled to your response on their time table. They can either have your whole response or nothing at all. Don’t compromise.

  • This guy talks like a revolving door.
  • Diarrhea of words and constipation of good ideas.

The One Who Laughs At Everything

This individual is best handled by asking them what is making them laugh. Comedy loses its magic when explained. You can also just laugh back at them and insult them back. “I’d be laughing too if I was a moron.” Try insulting their laugh through mimicry or by calling them a hyena. “When you laugh, do it at the same tone as everyone else. We didn’t get you from a hyena farm.”

  • Were you raised by a pack of hyenas?
  • I’d be laughing too if I was a moron.

Needy Coworker

The Needy Coworker is always asking for help. They might be trying to get others to do their work for them or they might just not get it. Frame this person as lazy, dumb, impatient, or a drag on the team. You can use the delay technique here. Tell the person you are working on something important and you will help as soon as you can. Take forever and then forget to help. You can also agree to help and then just waste their time, though this tends to decrement your performance.

The Passive Aggressive

The key with the Passive Aggressive is to draw their behavior out. Frame them as confusing if they refuse to respond to your attempts to establish something concrete. You can draw them out by asking “what are you saying,” or “so those are nice premises, what is your conclusion?” My favorite technique is to ask “is there anyone here who meets your description,” followed by “because that would be really passive aggressive if there was and you didn’t just directly talk to them.” You can also try asking “are you referring to me when you say [their statement],” or “you know what irritates me is people who can’t just directly confront others?” Usually they back down or refuse to answer the question, but be ready for the small amount of times when they turn into the insulter.

The Nosy Person & The Control Freak

The Control Freak is always telling everyone what to do. They get angry and aggressive when others don’t do things their way. The best way to handle the control freak is to find a situation they like to control. Ask them how they want you to behave. Do the total opposite. This will usually drive them crazy. Done enough times and they will stop telling you what to do. You can also say “go control someone else,” or “I never asked for your input.” The trouble comes when they tell you to do something you already want to do.

  • Go control someone else.
  • I never asked for your input.
  • Why are you insulting (name)? You wouldn’t get involved in their life without them asking if you thought they were a capable person.
  • I’m not sure you deserve/have earned that yet. (When they try to force you to do something.)

Handle the Nosey coworker by perfecting your dodging skills. I’ve written an article about dodging here. What you want to do is pretend they have asked you a question you want to answer, instead of the question they actually asked. Just ramble on and on about the topic you want to talk about. When they say you didn’t answer my question tell them you did. You answered their question by making it clear that it wasn’t their business. Additionally you can try flipping the momentum of the conversation back on them. “Why do you ask?” Then say “A better question would be [some topic you want to talk about],” and answer that question. Another foolproof technique is to just tell them that topic is boring and then introduce another topic. You can also just say “I won’t be talking about that because I won’t be talking about that,” or “I have a policy of not talking about [topic].” “You know what, anytime conversations start a sentence with that I immediately tune out.” Generally framing the person as being creepy or the topic being boring can work wonders. If they ever respond to your dodging by saying “what are you hiding,” use the conversational switch technique. “It isn’t about hiding, it’s about not having a good reason to share. Why are you so focused on [the topic]?” If you find yourself in this situation you should throw the audience a bigger, more jucy story. “Thats boring, how about [situation x], that’s what we should really be talking about.” “You are so boring I fell asleep halfway through your name.” You can also just flat out say “why should I share that with you, what do I get in return?” Most information is valuable and you shouldn’t give it away for free to certain people.

Minimizers

The Minimizer is a bitter creature whose ego is in conflict with the reality of their lacking accomplishments. To deal with this they minimize others instead of just working to accomplish goals. Frame them as a whiner. Frame them as an entitled person. Frame them as out of touch with reality and what is important. Frame them as someone who criticizes but can’t accomplish anything. Keep in mind that accomplishments you consider significant aren’t always considered significant by the minimizer. You should attack by pointing out what they consider insignificant, not what you think is insignificant. Try one of the general responses listed below.

  • Surprising, you found something else to whine about.
  • Always something to say, nothing to contribute.
  • Whine whine whine, that’s all you do.
  • Do you have a better plan? (Then minimize their plan.)
  • If you think (accomplishment) is average what impressive things have you done lately?
  • Don’t you have a problem with (thing they are minimizing)? (Pointing out their projection.)
  • Don’t be a child, you aren’t entitled to a perfect solution in a limited time.

Try reducing their opportunities to minimize. One simple way to handle a minimizer is to not tell them anything worthwhile. If you never share your grand plans for the next five years, they never can minimize the plans. Another way to reduce the target on your back is to cut out all whining and explaining. When you complain or explain that opens up a huge target for the minimizer to tell you that you should get over yourself. They can also nit pick your argument when you explain yourself. You can also use these techniques back on the minimizer. Ahead of time, think of all the sub optimal things they do. They might walk out to their car multiple times a day. Criticize that. If that doesn’t work, ask them about something that they aren’t happy with. A situation, thing, or person works. Ask them to explain themselves. When they whine or explain, minimize them back using the techniques listed below.

  • That is nice but what is really important is [insert your topic].
  • Decent plan coming from someone with your experience. But you should really do [y].   
  • You should feel grateful for [the situation they are in that is rough].
  • Hmm, bad idea or Yikes! [Then just switch the topic.]
  • What is the big deal? That’s it?
  • Well life isn’t fair.
  • [Just laugh, roll your eyes, hand wave them away, or turn away from them.]
  • Just let it go and man up.
  • [Ask for an estimate.] Say one more or one less unit from their estimate.
  • You are too sensitive. You are overreacting. You are crazy. Stop being so emotional.
  • At least it isn’t [worse situation], that’d be so much worse than your situation.
  • If you had only done [a slightly better way of solving the problem].
  • I bet [person who was a jerk to you] was just trying to do [something benign].
  • What you really should have done is [slightly better solution].” If only you had done [y].
  • Oh you think you have it bad, remember when [x] happened to [some mutual friend].
  • That’s a nice small pile of money you’ve saved.
  • [Accomplishment] is a pretty standard result for someone who practiced for that long.
  • Yes, there are a few bad apples running around in there.
  • That is a little bit of a headache.

The But I Thought We Were Friends Person

This type leverages your friendship to get you to do things you don’t want to do. They guilt trip and threaten to end or reduce the friendship without compliance. The best way is to point out that their friendship is conditional and call their bluff.

  • Oh so your friendship is conditional on me doing X? I guess I’m not interested anymore.
Riot Police

The Moral Police

The Moral Police are always looking for a new victim. Deep down inside they want to run naked through the streets but their insecurity and desire to conform stop them from letting loose. They often shame others for behavior. The best way to deal with the Moral Police is to point out their issues. If they are always focused on you being late, point out times when they haven’t been on time. 

You can shame them back by saying “I’m shocked that you think that.” “I’m disappointed you think that.” If they use the shock or disappointment techniques just say “oh you must be easily disappointed.” If that doesn’t work, frame them as up tight. Point out that they are prematurely drawing conclusions. How do they know a person’s motives? Get them to explain and then argue that they don’t have enough evidence to draw their conclusion. “Ok and what else supports your claim,” and then “oh that isn’t enough to convince me.” You can aso just disagree and then change the conversion. Another technique is to accept their criticism and diffuse their argument by saying “yes, I’m bad but I’m okay with it.” If they try to make you explain why you behaved in a certain way you can also just say “because I wanted to.”

  • I’m shocked/disappointed that you think that.
  • Oh you must be easily bothered/distrubed/disappointed.
  • (Play the bad guy) Yes, I’m a terrible human who kills puppies for breakfast.
  • (When they try to make you justify or explain your behavior.) I did it because I wanted to. Or I did it to bother people like you.

Everyone Does It

This person thrives on social norms. They hide behind them like a cloak and use them to justify not standing up when something is wrong. Simply provide them with a graphic counter example to their comment.

  • Everyone raped boys in ancient Greece. That doesn’t make it okay.

The Gossiper

The Gossiping Coworker is best handled by using their gossiping momentum against them. Do this by feeding them bad information under the guise of ‘I think.’ The best bad information is information that will soon be proven to be the opposite. The more public the better. You can also use the distract technique if they are gossiping about you. Tell them a story that is more compelling than your plight. A more benign approach is to remind the gossiper that gossiping reduces the amount of important information they are given in the long run.

  • Telling me X’s private things makes me wonder if you are doing the same with me. Do you think that makes me more or less likely to share important things with you?
  • Here comes the parrot.

Stonewaller Or Question Dodger

The Stonewaller refuses to answer questions or entertain topics they don’t like. You might notice the Stonewaller is basically the technique mentioned above for handling the Nosey coworker. If someone stonewalls you make sure you aren’t the Nosey coworker! Otherwise the best way to handle it is to frame the person as obstructing progress. “Stop being a speedbump!” Ask them, or the audience, what they have to hide by not answering the question. Speculation can be a powerful tool and if the person doesn’t reframe, as we teach above, people can cook up even worse explanations for their behavior than what is actually true. “What do you have to hide?” “I wonder why you are so afraid of this topic.”

  • I can’t help but wonder what you are trying to hide by not answering my question.
  • I wonder why you are so afraid of this topic.

Eye Roller

The eye roller is usually too passive to disagree with you but they make facial expressions that show they think you are wrong or overreacting.

  • Keep rolling your eyes, maybe you’ll find a brain back there.

The Guy Who Plays Dumb

Sometimes people play dumb to draw out your argument or to make you over explain yourself to them. Simply respond with the following line.

  • I think what I meant to say just now was that I wish your mother gave birth to a can opener because then you’d be more useful.

The Entitled Primadonna

They think they are entitled to all sorts of things they aren’t entitled to. This can be anything from thinking they deserve everyone liking or being friends to them, to thinking they are entitled to personal information about you, to believing they deserve to be involved in your business. Families often act like this when people start becoming adults and the people haven’t set good boundaries with their families yet.

  • Set boundaries with them and then have a consequence if they cross those boundaries. If they pretend to not know they crossed a boundary tell them it doesn’t matter if you know you crossed the boundary or not, you crossed it. They will either change or you should separate yourself from them until they can be respectful.
  • Simply tell them to stop acting so entitled.
  • Call them prince or princess. “Oh surprisingly, prince/princes (name) thinks they deserve to be involved.”

The One Upper

The one upper takes competitiveness to a whole other level. They compete with pretty much anything they can make a comparison with. This person is likely high on social dominance desire. They are also likely to be deeply insecure as well. The only way to deal with people like this is to ignore them or fight back. Start by ignoring them. Then deploy this frame “does it feel as pathetic as it looks when you beg for attention like that?” Finally you can start insulting them and doing what is called an ego down. An ego down is where you drop their egos by pointing out failures and imperfections.

  • Does it feel pathetic when you beg for attention like that?

The Sensitive Person

Sensitive people often overreact or they catastrophize comments. They are afraid of not being taken seriously, being seen as weak, or in general just being seen as lesser. These people are best dealt with by distancing yourself. But often times you can’t do that. Here are tricks you can use to respond to them.

  • Simply brand them as sensitive.
  • Ask them why they make it so easy for people to get into their heads. This avoids the whole discussion of whether people are insulting them or not and goes right for what you really want. If you pitch this the right way, they won’t be so quick to respond to insults.
  • Focus them on someone else. Get their neurotic brains focused on another person so they stop being sensitive with you.

The Mirrorer

The Mirrorer copies your ideas and thoughts. Sometimes it is in an effort to compliment you or because they think you are impressive. Other times it is because they don’t have much of a personality themselves. They can also do this because they are trying to cover up manipulative behavior. The best way to handle this behavior is to first recognize it and then use their momentum against them. Since they are going to copy you, start acting in the way you want them to act. This can mean telling them your criterion for believing people so they start arguing that way. Tell them what makes you like people so they start doing those things.

Miscellaneous

Miscellaneous. There are a few species of annoying that occur frequently enough but don’t justify a whole section. First is the Anecdotal Story Teller. This individual has a story for everything but rarely uses logic or facts. Frame them as wasting everyone’s time or a blowhard. The most simple way to counter their behavior is to simply share an anecdote that tells the opposite story. “Funny, I had a friend tell me the exact opposite story.” You can also point out that even the best stories don’t always reveal the truth. People loved Greek God stories for many years but it turns out science has better explanations for thunder and lightning.

  • One technique you can use in many situations is to critique what the person is doing. Simply tell them a more effective or efficient way of doing what they are doing. For example if someone is telling you that you are wearing your jacket wrong, simply start critiquing their persuasive approach.
  • When someone says that wasn’t funny, respond with “when did I say I was trying to make you laugh, everything isn’t focused on you, (name).”
  • When someone says they are stubbornly right, respond by saying “well a broken clock is right twice a day.”
  • Don’t be so dramatic. Respond with, don’t be so sensitive.
  • When someone says are you done yet? Respond with, “no but I’ll slow down so your brain can catch up.”
  • When someone condescendingly says good job, just good job them back with a parental facial expression and tone.
  • When people try to get you to prove yourself to them, simply ignore them or tell them to prove themselves to you.
  • When someone tries to force you to do things using logic, simply pretend their argument isn’t strong enough or good enough to push you over the edge. That way you don’t have to argue with them but you don’t have to act either. When they say what will convince you, simply say “not sure, but not that.”
  • The possibly true person points out that anything is possible when you are trying to argue that something is wrong. Simply show them that possibly true things are irrelevant. What is important is what is probably true. You can also say “It is also possible that there is a magic teapot orbiting the earth that chooses who will be a billionaire but that doesn’t make it likely.”
  • When someone pretends to be shocked or appalled by what you said, simply say “you shock easily.” “I never knew you were so sensitive.”

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