Working Effectively with Challenging Colleagues – Part Three – Defeating Personal Attacks

It can occur in any organization, but especially in teams made up of a number of experts. It can happen when you’re one-on-one or in a group.  It can be as small as a subtle “dig” or an outright assault on your capabilities or character.  It is a personal attack. But no matter when it happens, it can bring consequences.  Personal attacks can make you feel badly – or make you look bad in front of your colleagues, your friends or even your boss. 

But just as there are effective techniques to neutralize a physical assault, there is a way to successfully neutralize a verbal attack that can leave you looking and feeling good.  It can dissuade your opponent from doing it again – and help you gain respect.  How can you do it?

A little psychology can go a long way

When under attack, our natural response is to retaliate or retreat.  Neither will get us the result we want.  Instead, understanding and applying some sound psychology can dramatically improve the situation.

In Part Two we quoted eminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson, PhD and his coauthors’ statement, “During the past half-century social psychologists have discovered that one of the most powerful determinants of human behavior stems from our need to preserve a stable, positive self-image.” We showed how that fact demonstrates why we personally must avoid embarrassing others – they need to view themselves as good, intelligent, rational people.  Retaliation only brings further attacks, since one must defend his or her self-image.  But running away from a bully is not a good idea either.  It marks us as an easy target for future aggression.  Bullies want to make themselves look and feel better by making us look and feel worse.

How to stop a harsh critic in his tracks

The key, then, to defeating this behavior is to use your detractor’s need for a positive self-image to make him stop his verbal aggression.  According to Dr. Aronson and coauthor Carol Tavris, PhD in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), “When you do anything that harms someone else – get them in trouble, verbally abuse them or punch them out – a powerful new factor comes into play:  the need to justify what you did.”

So, the one making an oral onslaught (however small or large) has to justify it in order to continue to feel good about himself. If he* cannot justify his behavior, he may experience significant cognitive dissonance (mental discomfort).   And according to Dr. Aronson and his coauthors, “Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.” 

That’s another reason why retaliating doesn’t work. If you respond with a cutting remark or point out his flaws, your adversary will ignore his own unkind words and focus completely on what you said.  Your reply will give him the justification he seeks.  You will have let him off the emotional hook. He may, in fact, come to feel that you deserved his attack and will be more inclined towards another verbal assault in the future.

You can avoid all this by making it difficult or impossible for your opponent to justify what he did.  How can you prevent a critic from justifying his negative words?  A great way to do that was revealed by wise King Solomon, who wrote:

If the one hating you is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.  For coals are what you are raking together upon his head…

Solomon here refers to early smelting techniques.  Ancient metal workers would build a fire and then put iron ore on the hot coals, hoping to melt down the metal within.  That procedure often worked.  But if the iron was deep within the ore, more would be required.  They would rake hot coals on top of the ore.  The tremendous heat from above and below would usually melt the stubborn metal.

In the same way, if you respond to cutting remarks with kindness, you make it very hard for your adversary to justify his unkind words.  He may feel significant dissonance or mental discomfort.  His conscience may begin to bother him.  His only way to get relief is to stop attacking you, soften his stance, or even apologize.  Like an ancient metalworker, you will melt down his opposition.  In addition, you will display great emotional strength.  Bosses, coworkers, clients, friends and bullies alike have to admire strength.

Changing a critic into a supporter

In fact, psychologists have found that people feel a strong need to repay the kindness shown them with thoughtfulness of their own. We learn from youth that favors must be appropriately reimbursed.  When someone goes out of their way to do or say something nice, we often find ourselves compelled to do the same to them.  Kind words and deeds beget more kind words and deeds. 

This is where the human tendency to justify behavior can work in our favor.  Researchers have often found that people validate their benevolent acts by increasing their liking for the recipient of their kindness.  “After all, if an intelligent person like me did something nice for Jim, he must be a pretty good guy.” So, when our colleague appropriately repays our kindness, he will often come to like us more.  Our humane words and actions can create what Drs. Aronson and Tavris call a “cycle of benevolence” that fosters good will and camaraderie with our peers and partners. If we consistently speak graciously with others, regardless of how they speak to us, we will often ultimately receive respect and kindness.  Our work teams can become more enjoyable and productive, which will lead to greater rewards for all.

* While we speak of verbal aggressors as “he,” the principles here work well for anyone with a working conscience, male or female.


One Response to “Working Effectively with Challenging Colleagues – Part Three – Defeating Personal Attacks”

  1. Graig Dreyfus Says:

    I’ve really liked your blog…got some really good stuff.. i’ll try to promote it in brazilian social media network

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