Be like Teflon

Teflon“Like Teflon…” That is what I say to my executive coaching clients. You have to be like Teflon when others are throwing darts. Just let it slide right off like eggs on a Teflon pan. It’s not easy to do but this is one of the best responses when colleagues, former friends or even family members are throwing verbal darts. In all my years of coaching, I’ve seen many responses to gossip, interpersonal difficulties and even out-and-out professional and personal attacks. I’ve seen scenarios blow up into something much bigger than it originally started out, and I’ve seen scenarios where it just went away over a few days or weeks. In my experience, the latter is much better. There is less collateral damage, and the number of people injured by the verbal response and defense is minimized.

I know you are probably agreeing with me so far. You may be thinking “Right! That’s exactly what people should do.

It’s easy to say, and it’s easy for me to write, but let’s face it. It is VERY difficult to do. Think back on your most recent experience of someone saying something about you either professionally or personally that wasn’t true or accurate in the way that they were positioning the information. Our first response is almost always to defend ourselves, to set the record straight and to clear up the other person’s incorrect thinking and most of us have in fact, jumped into the verbal tennis match more than once, me included.

The only problem is that it doesn’t work.

It almost never gets the result that we want. Instead of making our point and clearing the air, what typically happens is that we come across as defensive and as operating on the exact same level as our attacker.

On the other hand when we don’t engage, the whole scene usually fades away over the next few days or weeks. I can think of a recent experience in my home when my husband and our teenager were beginning the cycle of a heated back and forth. Since I wasn’t in the engagement, I could see more clearly and started helping my husband by saying “Abort! Abort!” He realized he had been sucked into the battle and immediately just stopped talking. Our teenager, left with no one to battle, stomped off to curl her hair only to reemerge a few minutes later in a good mood as if the whole incident had never happened.

A workplace version of this scenario happened to one of my coaching clients last year. A Vice President in a large, publicly-traded company was the target of internal sabotage by another Vice President who hoped to outlast him, since he couldn’t seem to outperform my client. My client wanted to punch his lights out but had opted for an out-and-out confrontation, preferably with their boss in the room. I came in as he was preparing his points for this crucial conversation.

“Wait!” I said. Let’s think this thing through. “What do you expect to gain from this confrontation?” I asked.

“I expect to straighten this jerk out and hopefully my boss will see what an idiot he is!” He answered.

“I hear you, and I know you want to do that, but I would like to challenge you to take a different approach.”

“Well, ok.” He answered. “What approach is that?”

“I propose that you do absolutely nothing about what he is saying.” I said as I saw his face turn a little pale.

“I know. Hear me out” I said. “Instead of using your energy to prove him wrong, what if you use all of that energy to get more results for the company?” “Which one do you think will yield the greatest harvest in the end?”

“Probably the results.” He answered, clearly disappointed to have to give up his encounter with the enemy.

“Yes, and if I remember right, you are going for SVP, so let’s stay focused.” I encouraged.

He got the message and did not confront his workplace nemesis. Within 7 days, the whole thing had died down and turned into nothing. We can never know for sure, but I feel confident that if he had confronted his peer, it would have turned into a big deal with Human Resources having to get involved and an irritated boss in the middle of it.

You may be experiencing a situation where the verbal attacks are coming straight for you and causing you a lot of pain. I know I’m asking a lot, but just this once, experiment with me. Don’t answer. Be like Teflon and let it slide right off. I have a feeling, you are going to like the results.