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Toxic Alliances: Relationships that Hinder Your Growth

  • Dondi Scumaci Author of Ready, Set... Grow!
  • 2010 29 Nov
Toxic Alliances: Relationships that Hinder Your Growth

In terms of pure definition, an alliance is an agreement, partnership, or connection. Stand those words next to toxic, and you have a dangerous alliance, a poisonous connection, or a deadly agreement. That understanding alone should be motivation enough to pull toxic influences from your life!

What this really means is that sometimes we must pull people from our lives. I do not say that flippantly. It can be difficult and painful to end a relationship. What is even worse is allowing a relationship—even a long-term one—to derail you, incapacitate you, or steal your credibility and your joy.

While we may not purposefully align or partner with toxic people, we do that when we passively accept or participate in their behavior. When we don't remove ourselves from the situation or confront the behavior, we endorse it by default. (This can be one of those "it's not what you say or do; it's what you don't say or do" scenarios.)

When you get right down to it, there are basically two groups of people in the world. In the first group are people who encourage and believe in you. They add something to you. When you leave their presence you feel better. You are more confident, more prepared, and equipped. These people export hope!

The second group I call vampire people, because they suck the life out of everything and everyone they touch! You can almost hear the giant vacuum fire up when they walk into a room. These people are absolutely miserable, they love company, and they are constantly recruiting members. (By the way, membership is not free. It will cost you more than you can imagine.)

In the workplace, toxic alliances are co-workers who constantly draw others into negative conversations. They are the ones who want to argue incessantly and debate trivial points. (They swat at gnats while elephants stomp all over them.) These people draw energy (and attention) from gossip, criticism, arguing, and whining. They terrorize meetings, projects, and teams. They aren't just connected to the rumor mill—they manage it!

You know the type; they are famous for throwing rocks to get everyone stirred up, innocently hiding their hands and standing back to watch the show. (At this point, faces and names may be flashing before your eyes!)

In our personal and professional lives, toxic people are colleagues, friends, and family members who criticize, attack, and divide. They are often masters of the dig. They don't really come right out and say things; they insinuate them and leave you wondering, "What did that mean?" They use sarcasm like a precision tool to push your buttons and enjoy holding up your weaknesses for the world to see. They twist the truth with amazing skill until it is unrecognizable. Quite often, toxic behavior crosses the line of integrity and becomes unethical behavior.

We don't pick our family, right? That is probably true for co-workers and colleagues as well. We don't always get to choose whom we work with or for. We do control how we interact with the people in our personal and professional lives. We control our boundaries and our scripts. We control access to our hot buttons!

Ask yourself these questions to see if you have a toxic relationship poisoning the soil of your heart:

  • Is there anyone planting negative, critical beliefs into your life right now? When you are with this person, how do you feel?
  • Is there a relationship in your life that is pulling you backward, blocking your growth, and undermining your progress? What is that costing you?
  • Is there a relationship marked by broken trust, unresolved conflict, and destructive communication? How much of your strength are you giving to this?
  • Is there someone in your life who compromises your boundaries or ethics? What impact is that having?
  • Are there behaviors you are passively endorsing to avoid conflict? What do you risk with your silence?

Questions like these allow you to step back and assess the situation. At the same time, you will want to consider your role. How are you enabling or perpetuating the toxic pattern? And if you really want to do some soul searching, ask yourself this tough question: What is the payoff? What do you gain from this toxic relationship? (Or what will you give up if the situation improves?) You may be surprised by your answers here.

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:

Do you have anyone in your life who has perfected what I call the drive-by jab? This person doesn't really tell you what's on her mind; she carefully wraps the dig in sarcasm or an ever-so-innocent comment. The next time she drives by with one of her innuendos, look her directly in the eye, smile warmly, and say, "I think I hear some feedback in there somewhere. Is there something you're trying to tell me?" (She will immediately fold and declare her innocence. Of course she didn't mean anything by it! She was just joking. But I guarantee that she'll think twice before driving by again.)

What about the co-worker who brings you the latest gossip about another colleague? You are not comfortable with this information, but you don't know what to say. Try this: "I would feel horrible if someone said that about me." (Expect a stunned silence here. And if your co-worker has any sense, it will be a stunned and embarrassed silence! She probably won't be bringing you her news bulletins in the future.)

Then there are people who infect everyone with their negativity. The next time they are whining and complaining, ask a solution-oriented question like: "What can you do to make this better?" or "What pieces of this problem do you control?" (Again there will be silence, because you are asking for solutions, and they don't have any of those handy.)

In each of these scenarios, you are essentially teaching people how to treat you. You are setting boundaries and laying ground rules. Firmly and gracefully you are sending a message: "Knock it off! Don't go there with me." The key is preparation. If you are dealing with a toxic person, write your script in advance.

This is a little like shock therapy for toxic people, so you'll have to be patient in the process. You may have to repeat the lesson more than once, so stand your ground. Eventually they will get it. They will either snap out of the toxic pattern or move along to someone who doesn't have a good script. (You win either way.)

There may come a time in your life when you must decide to completely disengage from a toxic person—to end a relationship. It's helpful to remember you aren't moving them. You are moving you. You are making a healthy choice for your life.

Sometimes nothing needs to be said in situations like this. You go your way, and that takes care of it. If only it were always that easy! In the case of long-term relationships or even family members, it probably won't be as simple as just moving on.

Remember Bev with the perfect sister? The family gatherings became so unhealthy for her that she could no longer accept the behavior by participating. For two years she successfully avoided family events with a thousand lame excuses. This may have excused her from the table, but it did nothing to solve the problem. Eventually she did muster up the courage to tell her mother the truth. "It was agonizing, but when I finally said it . . . when I actually told her how I felt, it was such a relief! A huge weight lifted, and I felt stronger," Bev recalls. "I used a script, and it gave me confidence to confront the behaviors that were alienating me from my family."

Bev used a format that first described what was happening and what she felt. She then asked for a change in behavior. She asked to be treated differently in the future. Her script ended by stating a desire to participate in family gatherings if the interaction became healthier. When you put those pieces together, it sounded like this:

When we are together as a family, I am constantly being compared to my sister and falling short of the mark. This hurts, and it is damaging my relationship with her and with you. I need the comparisons and the competition to stop. I love this family, and I want to participate in our gatherings. I can only do that if we can learn how to respect and encourage each other. If that's not possible, I must decline future invitations.

Notice the "I" messages in this script. Bev took complete responsibility for what she felt and what she was asking for. She did not assign blame by saying, "You compare me, you hurt me, or you need to stop treating me this way." She also asked for what she wanted; she asked for a change in behavior. That is the key that will unlock a new pattern of interaction.

It was a little awkward at first. Bev admits, "We had some well-established patterns of communication. We had to break out of those." Over time this situation has greatly improved, and Bev looks forward to seeing her family, especially her mother. It's ironic that for years Bev had avoided having this conversation. Ultimately the avoidance was destroying the most important relationships in her life.

Bev has this to say about the energy she added to the dysfunction: "For days before family events I imagined how horrible it was going to be, and for days after I seethed with anger about how horrible it was. I would leave my parent's home huffing and puffing and promising never to return. Not dealing with it was making me toxic!"

With all of this in mind, sometimes the toxic behavior is not our problem. When asked how to handle a toxic person, my first questions are always: "What is the impact on you or your results? How does this behavior get in your way?"

If the answer is, "It doesn't," then my advice is walk away. We certainly don't need to go looking for toxic people, and we don't get to appoint ourselves the behavior police! We lose credibility and waste a great deal of energy when we involve ourselves in situations that do not concern us.

Excerpted from Ready, Set... Grow! (Excel Books, 2009). Copyright 2009 by Dondi Scumaci. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Dondi Scumaci is an international speaker, author, and expert in leadership development, communication, talent management, and mentoring. She is known for high energy on the platform and for the dramatic results her presentations inspire. She is the author of Designed for Success and lives in San Antonio with her husband, Scumaci, and son, Tabor.