Ways to Handle People Who Try to Frighten You Off When They’re Under Pressure

Have you ever worked with someone who had so much trouble being confronted or found in the wrong that they would create a deflective smokescreen of issues to avoid accountability? And if so, did you find their smokescreen so confusing and overwhelming that you would give up and walk away from the conversation? 

Luckily, we don’t come across people like this too often because it’s hard for them to hold responsible positions for long—or to maintain positive relationships in general.

But last week I heard about two cases of this kind of behavior. It’s hard to know what to call this style of counterattack and deflection. Sometimes there’s gaslighting involved, sometimes not, but the goal is always the same: to dodge the risk of engaging on the real issue.

Everything, Including the Kitchen Sink

When someone hits you with a torrent of criticism during an argument, telling you all the things you didn’t do and all the ways you were wrong (some of which may actually be accurate), it’s often because they can’t face their own problems, weaknesses, or fears. They might toss around descriptions of their theoretically good intentions and detail all the ways they believe you’ve let them down—and because our work lives are often complicated, you may feel guilty of some of the things they say you did that supposedly upset or frustrated them. But don’t feel guilty: this barrage of accusations and protestations is only ginned up as a distraction. 

Even if you try to answer the deflector’s questions and concerns or defend against their challenges, you’ll never see the end of their being upset or reach the end of the list of problems they’ll use to flog you. That’s because they’ve learned to fight against ever having to acknowledge their own weaknesses. This person goes on the attack when they feel cornered and are panicking, so you may end up feeling deflated and somehow in the wrong, despite your certainty, coming into the conversation, that your concern was valid or your position was reasonable. 

This firehose approach is meant to drown you. It’s not about coming to the appropriate resolution of a problem. It is meant to make you back off, and to train you never to behave in difficult ways again. In a personal relationship, you might decide to leave. But if you have to keep working with this person, here are some things to try:

Stay calm and alert. This takes preparation. You need to keep calm so you can think clearly and stay alert so you can identify which issues matter most to this person and what they’re trying to protect. You also have to be able to screen out all the extraneous content and listen for anything on-topic that you can respond to.

Identify the issue that you need to be discussing and separate it from the others. You can say something like, “Look, I see that you’re very upset right now. I want to make sure you understand that we’re here to address issue X. We can talk about the other things another time. Do you need a brief break to compose yourself, or are you ready to address issue X?”

Announce that if the ineffective behavior continues, you will need to disengage. If you have to explain what the ineffective behavior is, you can describe it as listing more issues than can be addressed at this time or raising topics that are not relevant to the matter at hand: “If you’re not able to focus on issue X right now, then this is not a productive conversation.”

It may seem quite harsh to use this broken-record approach, but the point is to show that you are not overwhelmed by their spewing and that you can maintain focus on the point of the difficult conversation you’re trying to have. If this person cannot keep to the point or refuses to reconvene at a calmer time, then you may be facing a question about whether they even have the capability to self-manage and perform appropriately. But it’s hard to make that assessment while you’re disrupted by the stressfulness of their diversionary efforts.

If they can’t calm themselves enough to continue the conversation you’re supposed to be having, walk away. Tell them: “We’re not accomplishing anything right now. Let’s plan to meet again tomorrow and talk specifically about issue X.” Then get up and leave the room or end the Zoom call. If they’re in your office, stand up and walk to the door to usher them out—and if that doesn’t work, leave your office yourself. But do not stay in a conversation that’s going around in circles.

What to Do in the Aftermath of the Argument(s)

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s happening and whether what you’re seeing is actually a behavioral pattern, but if this situation occurs a few times, it’s important to prepare yourself for the next interaction with this deflective person. If they report to you, resign yourself to being more directive and less tolerant in the short term than you normally would be. And if it’s your colleague, you should probably alert your boss or HR because it may be hard for you to get the relationship resolved on your own. But if you report to this person, after several go-rounds like this, it’s time to start considering the career opportunities you might find elsewhere.

Onward and upward—

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