Sometimes we hold on to a toxic situation because we get something from it. For example, we get to feel superior, or we get our grievances validated. If you find a payoff in your toxic situation, you must be willing to give that up before you can move forward in an authentic way.

Loyalty also connects us to toxic people. We don't want to abandon or hurt them, so we stay. We continue to give them our strength, but they don't get stronger—we get weaker. The relationship is very one-sided—one person gives and another takes. This is also called codependency. It isn't healthy for either person.

It is absolutely essential to guard your focus with toxic people. Otherwise you will go around in circles until you are dizzy and sick to your stomach. Your communications with them must be objectives-based. That means you don't engage at their level. You keep your eye on a worthy objective, like a bulldog with a bone.

Perhaps one of the greatest mistakes we make (and one of the ways we take our eyes off the objective) with toxic people is trying to understand them and figure out why they do what they do. Like amateur psychologists, we attempt to diagnose the dysfunction. Here's a public service announcement for you: "It's not your problem!" Even in trying to understand them we get sucked into their weird dysfunction. That is the plan! Even when they aren't in the room, they are the center of attention, and this pleases them very much.

I was amazed as I watched a team of people in a large organization working through a tough technical problem. For the most part, this was a dedicated group of people who were onboard and focused on finding a solution together—except for one.

This team member turned every topic into a debate and took the opposite position on every point. At first I was embarrassed for her; then I realized she was having a marvelous time! This is how she gets her attention. She was performing on a stage of her own making. Every eye in the room was on her. (Most of them were rolling, but still they were on her.) Everyone was trying to help her understand, working to get her agreement, and addressing her issues. Incidentally, this wasn't because they cared about her feelings or found real merit in her objections; they just wanted to move on!

After the meeting she proudly told me, "I like to play the devil's advocate. It keeps the group on their toes." With that she turned and marched off to dismantle another project. In her wake, she left a group of frustrated people who had just allowed an hour of time to be wasted. They spent the next ten minutes discussing her, so the clock didn't actually stop when she left the room. (I think she would have been pleased about that as well.)

Bev dreads the holidays because it means interacting with what she refers to as "the most dysfunctional family on the planet." At these gatherings, toxic behavior abounds. There is plenty of criticism, comparison, and condescension to go around. As Bev puts it, "Before I hang up my coat, I am feeling defensive. These events are real self-esteem busters. My family can knock the confidence out of anyone, but it's usually me. I am always reminded of my perfect sister who has married the perfect man and created three perfect children."

Both of these scenarios are frustrating and realistic examples of toxic behavior. What may be missing in these situations are ground rules. The players haven't established rules to protect the relationships or the results. Unacceptable behaviors aren't confronted, so frustration grows along with the dysfunction.

Have Your Scripts Ready

The first time toxic behavior takes me off guard and I don't know how to respond, that's probably fair. If it spins me around a second time, I own that. This is when a good script comes in handy, and you'll want to prepare in advance, because toxic people will be back. Here are three scripts most of us can use at some point in our lives to confront toxic behavior: