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Work is hard enough whether it’s work you like or work that you have to do to get that paycheck at the end of the month. So, the last thing you want is to feel attacked at your workplace.
When your work is being evaluated and criticized legitimately, while it can feel burdensome, we find that we can roll with the punches.
Getting personal attacks that knock us on the other hand can set off a whole array of different emotions and reactions within us.
When a superior, a co-worker or even a client – make direct or indirect comments that puts us down, jabs at our personality, our appearance, our walk, our talk and our personal life and choices, it’s another ballgame.
It doesn’t even matter if what they say is true or not. The point is that it has no bearing on your work, it’s deliberately malicious and leaves you feeling queasy in the gut. You feel embarrassed, shamed, exposed, angry and hurt.
You want to counter-attack and defend yourself but you can’t because it’s not in your nature to be combative. Or maybe the attacker is your boss or client and any retaliatory moves on your part will jeopardize your position at work.
So, what do you do? Do you just suck it up and smile benignly or fume silently and hope that this too shall pass? What can you say or do that will get them to back off while maintaining your composure and self-respect?
Ask yourself, is it about me or about them?
Oftentimes, it’s really about the other person. Why else would anyone hit below the belt in the work context? Could you have said or done something, even inadvertently, that could have triggered them off?
We are all a hodgepodge of experiences and emotions. Because of this, even a chance remark by someone could trigger off prior or ongoing unresolved experiences and their accompanying emotions. In psychological terms, it’s called displacement, projection or any of the other defence mechanisms. To avoid confronting issues in our own lives, we project or attribute them to others. We displace our unacceptable feelings onto another safer target. For example, instead of lashing out at your demanding and unreasonable boss, you take it out on your subordinate.
It could also be that the personal attacker is feeling insecure and threatened by how good you are at your job, or how attractive you are, or how popular. It could be about their emotional needs and communication skills or lack of it and does not reflect you.
What if there is some truth to the personal attack?
Say for instance, the attacker calls you an undisciplined fat slob and extends that to your work, remarking that someone who can’t discipline her own food intake can’t possibly handle a high-value project with success.
What is true here is that you are overweight. The other remarks about you being undisciplined and unable to handle a high-value project successfully is not.
The attacker’s reasons for attacking you can be traced to any number of reasons: jealousy for not being assigned to the project, repressed anger about her own overweight child, angst in dealing with her own weight control, or being cheated on by her husband.
The point is, the attack does not define you. It’s about the attacker, not you.
Do I confront the attacker? Or not?
If you have sussed out why the attack was launched and it has more to do with the other person than you, it should leave you feeling calmer and in charge and this is important. Your self-regard is intact – not assailed.
In your own words, say something along the lines of, “I’m not quite sure where this is coming from, so help me understand why you’re saying this.”
Always come from a point of tentative curiosity; as a detective, not a defender. The attacker is then put on the spot to rationalize the attack – whether it’s an outright accusation, a sarcastic remark or an unkind rumour. When you do this, your credibility as a level-headed and reasonable person comes through for all to see.
Sometimes though, the personal attacks may be too trivial for you to pay heed to. Say, a senior manager rebuffs you by wanting to discuss only with your boss instead of you, an executive officer, because you’re not at his level even though you’re well able to do so. Or a co-worker tells the others that you’re stingy because you only spend less than $5 for lunch. If you’re offended in such instances, instead of confronting them, you may want to ask yourself why you feel that way. Some introspection and maybe a discussion with a close and honest friend could shed some light and help you in your personal development.
It all boils down to the whys of a situation and the person. Understanding this helps you reframe the situation and enables you to stay calm enough to deal with the attacks so that stepping into your workplace doesn’t put knots in your stomach and negatively affect your work performance and relationships.