How Successful People Handle Toxic People

How Successful People Handle Toxic People

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Toxic people defy logic. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary drama, strife, and worst of all stress, which has proven to be harmful for your health.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people and discovered that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain in control. One of their greatest gifts is the ability to neutralize toxic people. They employ well-honed coping strategies that enable them to control what they can, and eliminate the rest. Here are 12 ways that successful people deal with toxic people:

1) They Set Limits (Especially with Complainers)

Complainers and negative people are bad news because they wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions. They want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. People often feel pressure to listen to complainers because they don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a difference between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into their negative emotional spiral.

You can avoid this only by setting limits and distancing yourself when necessary. Think of it this way: if the complainer were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers. A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix the problem. They will either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction.

2) They Don’t Die in the Fight

Successful people know how important it is to live to fight another day, especially when your foe is a toxic individual. In conflict, unchecked emotion makes you dig your heels in and fight the kind of battle that can leave you severely damaged. When you read and respond to your emotions, you’re able to choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right.

3) They Rise Above

Toxic people drive you crazy because their behavior is so irrational. The more irrational and off-base someone is, the easier it should be for you to remove yourself from their traps. Quit trying to beat them in an argument. Distance yourself from them emotionally and approach your interactions like they’re a science project (or you’re their therapist, if you prefer the analogy). Rather than responding to the emotional chaos—focus only on the facts.

Think of it this way—if a mentally unstable person approaches you on the street and tells you he’s John F. Kennedy, you’re unlikely to set him straight. When you find yourself with a coworker who is engaged in similarly derailed thinking, sometimes it’s best to just smile and nod.

Photo by Sun Star4) They Stay Aware of Their Emotions

Maintaining an emotional distance requires awareness. You can’t stop someone from pushing your buttons if you don’t recognize when it’s happening. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll need to regroup and choose the best way forward. This is fine and you shouldn’t be afraid to buy yourself some time by saying, “Let me get back to you on that.” Sometimes it’s best to give yourself some time to plan the best move.

5) They Establish Boundaries

This is the area where most people tend to sell themselves short. They feel like because they work or live with someone, they have to engage. Once you’ve found your way to Rise Above a person, you’ll begin to find their behavior more predictable and easier to understand. This will equip you to think rationally about when and where you have to put up with them and when you don’t. For example, even if you work with someone closely on a project team, that doesn’t mean that you need to have the same level of one-on-one interaction with them that you have with other team members.

You can establish a boundary, but you’ll have to do so consciously and proactively. If you let things happen naturally, you are bound to find yourself constantly embroiled in difficult conversations. The trick is to stick to your boundaries when the person tries to encroach upon them, which they will.

Photo by Sun Star6) They Won’t Let Anyone Limit Their Joy

When your sense of pleasure and satisfaction are derived from the opinions of other people, you are no longer the master of your own happiness. When emotionally intelligent people feel good about something that they’ve done, they won’t let anyone’s opinions or negative remarks take that away from them.

While it’s impossible to turn off your reactions to what others think of you, you can always take people’s opinions with a grain of salt. That way, no matter what toxic people say, your self-worth comes from within. One thing is certain—you’re never as good or bad as they say you are.

7) They Don’t Focus on the Problem—Only Solutions

Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems you’re facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and reduces stress. Quit thinking about how troubling your difficult person is, and focus instead on how you’re going to go about handling them. This puts you in control, and reduces the amount of stress you experience when interacting with them.

contemplation in Lazio IT-Giampaolo Macorig-Flickr-CC8) They Don’t Forget

Emotionally intelligent people are quick to forgive, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always give a wrongdoer another chance. Forgiveness requires letting go of what’s happened so that you can move on. Successful people are unwilling to be bogged down unnecessarily by others’ mistakes, so they let them go quickly and are assertive in protecting themselves from future harm.

9) They Squash Negative Self-Talk

Sometimes you absorb the negativity of other people. There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about how someone is treating you, but focusing on it is self-defeating. It sends you into a downward emotional spiral that is difficult to pull out of.

10) They Limit Their Caffeine Intake

Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favor of a faster response. This is great when a bear is chasing you, but not so great when you’re surprised in the hallway by an angry coworker.

bamboosheets.jpg11) They Get Some Sleep

I can’t say enough about the importance of a good night’s sleep in making you more positive, creative, and proactive in your approach to toxic people. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, shuffling through the day’s memories and storing or discarding them, so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory will suffer when you don’t get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress levels on its own, even without a stressor present.

12) They Use Their Support System

Don’t attempt to tackle everything by yourself. Get help dealing with a challenging person by tapping into your support system to gain new perspective. Everyone has someone at work or in their life who is on their team, rooting for them, and ready to help them make the best of a difficult situation. Identify these individuals in your life and make an effort to seek their insight and assistance when you need it. Something as simple as explaining the situation can lead to a new perspective. Most of the time, other people can see a solution that you can’t because they are not as emotionally invested in the situation.

Thankfully, the plasticity of the brain allows it to mold and change as you practice new behaviors, even when you fail. Implementing these 12 techniques for dealing with difficult people will train your brain to handle stress more effectively and decrease the likelihood of ill effects.

Emotional-Intelligence-2point0-book-coverDo you have your own strategies for dealing with toxic people? Do share them in the comments section below…

Dr. Travis Bradberry, Ph.D. is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence testsemotional intelligence training, and emotional intelligence certification,  serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages. Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.

Photo (top) by Ed Yourdon, CC license


  1. Whilst I agree with some of the suggestions in this article, I find some of it largely ignorant. First off the article comes across as trying to define that a “successful” person is somehow a driven goal that we must all subscribe to. What exactly determines a successful person? A CEO? someone who graduates college and lives out their “successful” career? A homeless man who manages to live to 80 being homeless most of his adult life? The notion of success in our modern day is largely ignorant. We are constantly being told all around us that “we must strive to be successful” and then we are shown 1001 ways of what “success” is, when in fact that is not at all what success is. Some of mans greatest achievements and acts of kindness are the ones that millions of us do selflessly on a daily basis and go un-noticed and are not advertised in the latest “Best Selling Book”. The Western World has an obsession with success and the illusion of it. The article also ignorantly references smokers as if they are somehow damaging people because they smoke and as if I for some reason wouldn’t want to “inhale the secondhand smoke” all day from someone who has reached out to me to speak with me about their problems. If someone approached me and was smoking and wanted to share some problems with me, I couldn’t care less if they were smoking. It’s not as if my 1 hour of time I provide them in being a listening ear is going to kill me because I happen to inhale a few wife of their smoke. Most smokers will not deliberately blow smoke in your face, and most smokers smoke is less toxic than the ignorance of some so called “successful and professional and Ph.D” people I have met. This article also tries to portray “intelligence” as some sort of higher value, again scaling humans on levels. The second we “Scale” humans on levels, we step right into the illusionary realm of complete ignorance. If someone approached me and wanted to talk with me or began discussing their problems, the best thing I can do, no matter how negative they feel or are being, is LISTEN to them, and not “Focus on solutions” because sometimes it’s clear that a solution cannot be easily found, after all there’s a reason why they may have to go up to a complete stranger to try and seek some solace because maybe everyone around them in their personal life has been largely ignorant to them when they have tried to share their problems and the burdens thereof. The best thing I can do is say to them “Wow yes that totally sucks” or “I’m really sorry that you have had to go through that, I wish there was something I could say or do to make you feel better” and then if something may happen to pop into my mind, which after LISTENING to them and placing myself in their shoes, comes up as a possible solution or temporary relief, I would then suggest it like “Have you tried this or that? or do you know of such and such?” the Key to helping someone is by Acknowledging them, their emotions and their feelings. This article above deals with largely ignoring them, and now we must somehow subscribe to the advertised “Ph.D Book about emotional intelligence” because its um “a New York Times Best Seller”, just because something is a best seller or just because something is “successful” does not in any way mean that it is good, or that it provides the solution for everyone. In my experience so far in this life some of the supposed most “Successful” and most “Educated” and “Ph.D” holders are some of the most stupid and ignorant people I have ever met. Many of them are so expert at one particular fragment of study and yet they know absolutely nothing about being aware and their sense of awareness is about the size of the room displaying their shiny “Ph.D Certificates and Awards” it’s pure and utter EGO. Knowledge may be power, but power over what exactly? It is having the practical experience and awareness on how to harness the knowledge we have acquired that determines our Wisdom and WISDOM is only acquired through practical experience and humble awareness in realizing that we are no more powerful than a homeless man, Ghandi or the CEO of any company. Wisdom on how to use and apply knowledge and the way we choose to reflect that in our life determines how humble we become. If I became a number 1 selling artist and made millions, I am in no way more powerful or successful in my own personal value than the old lady who lives up my street who has been single and smokes and works as checker at the grocery store for the last 50 years. I know nothing of her personal story, nothing of the people she may have touched in her existence and by making the very wise and humble choice to see myself as no higher, no better, no wiser than her allows me to ground myself and humble myself upon this earth. This article also falsely states (again so ignorantly) that everyone has a support system, someone who is “rooting” for them at work or whatever, that is bull, not everyone has a support system, not everyone has someone who is rooting for them, some people have had to go through incredibly painful things by themselves and have had to rely on the solace of nature to survive them, because of such ignorance. Throughout our lives we will experience much, we will go through negative patches, we will go through storms of emotions, we will have amazing adventures, we will love and have our hearts broken, we will climb mountains and fall of buildings, we will ponder and explore and maintain balance and chaos, that is part of LIFE. To imply that someone is toxic in and of itself can be largely ignorant as well, that person is not “toxic” they may be BEING toxic, it does not men that they are themselves toxic. They are so much more than that moment or their behavior or thoughts. Recognizing this will help them become less “toxic”. There are certainly cases of where yes you have to walk away and just leave, because someone can be so negative and so lost that even trying to help them will make you fall yourself, but in reality, the majority of people who may reach out to you have chose you for a specific reason because they feel safe or comforted by you or you may appear or come across as a good listener, that is when we have to say to ourselves what does this person have to teach me, instead of us thinking “I’m ignoring and getting away from this negative toxic human”… the threshold that we determine is in us, it’s up to us to determine if we can or cannot be a listening ear. Humans in the Western World can be very ignorant and selfish and they feed themselves on such junk in the media and at seminars and at this and that, when humans need to stop and feel for themselves and the second I see such and such a “New York Times Best Seller Self Help Book” by “Mr Ph.D highly SUCCESSFUL Man” is the second I see a RED FLAG, it’s regurgitated over and over and over and over and over and that is how ignorance works. Fear breeds ignorance. AWARENESS breeds HUMBLENESS, HUMBLENESS breeds KINDNESS, KINDNESS breeds LOVE and LOVE heals everything.