Fighting Words (#124)

A few weeks back, I wrote a Friday Forward titled, “Moment or Movement” that, at its core, was about personal conviction. I get a lot of thoughtful feedback each week about FF posts, but this particular topic resulted in a few caustic responses from people attempting to use my message as a reflection on my viewpoint on guns, something I never even discussed.

One note specifically was filled with conspiracy theories and anger. My gut strongly told me to just ignore it, but my ego wanted to engage in a civil conversation, both to clarify my message and understand their perspective and interpretation.

Alas, this attempt was futile and draining. To no surprise, the person was just looking to pick a fight and I was his target of the day.

A few weeks later, a candidate applying for a senior role at our company abruptly withdrew. When they were asked why, they replied that some aspect of my LinkedIn profile had convinced them that I was a “junior marketer” and a “narcissist who knew nothing about leadership.” They also told the interviewer that they should run from me and our company.

So much for not burning bridges.

I was pretty taken aback by the candidate’s comments, so I decided to reach out and ask for feedback, thinking there must be something I had missed. Instead of a thoughtful, respectful discussion, I received more insults and character accusations (even a diatribe on Tony Robbins) – all from someone who had never met me.

Clearly, something deeper was at play with this person’s own insecurities.

But as they say, things happen in threes, and I still had one more strike to go.

Last week, in front of a prominent news building in New York City, I came across a gentleman holding a sign that read “Israel 300 Nuclear Bombs, Iran 0.” While the wording was not hateful, he clearly had an agenda and was looking to engage those around him. I saw several passersby take the bait which resulted in yelling and swearing from both sides and the man holding the sign shouting “holocaust” as they walked away.

I had twenty minutes before my next meeting so, guided once again by both my curiosity and inclination for understanding, I decided to walk over and ask him his viewpoint. He started out with some factual rationale and then quickly descended into a conspiracy, hate-filled, anti-Semitic tirade.

All I could do was disengage and walk away.

Observing him from a distance, I noticed that when no one engaged him, he stood there innocuously and grew bored. He even got tired of holding the sign and would take a break. But, when people engaged, he seemed to feed off the energy and would begin his hateful speech and insults again.

While there are certainly injustices in the world that we need to stand up to, we often engage with toxic people or energy vampires when there is little, if anything, to gain. Instead of making things better, it riles us up, causes unnecessary stress and can make us feel worse about ourselves, which is the desired effect.

Each of these situations left me feeling terrible; the after-effects even hung over me for hours, spilling into my interactions with others. I ignored my gut and, instead, allowed myself to be drawn into irrational negativity.

Engaging with toxic people is not a game that can be won. The only way to prevail is to avoid the bait. I hope you can learn from my repeated mistakes and save your energy for people and causes that really matter.


Quote of The Week

“Toxic people attach themselves like cinder blocks tied to your ankles, and then invite you for a swim in their poisoned waters.”

John Mark Green

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  1. Conor Neill May 18, 2018 at 2:51 am

    As they say “Don’t fight with pigs. You will get dirty and only the pig will enjoy it”. So hard to resist the bait sometimes. I could picture the image of the bored guy with the sign waiting for his next fight… when you live from fear, anger has a great intensity to it… it makes you feel alive.

  2. Cassandra Scarbeck May 18, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Thank you Bob for reminding me of this. I recently soooo wanted to engage with someone to understand why they are so toxic and I kept telling myself, no good could come from this. If I had engaged it would have been not only to my detriment but to the detriment of others. I am sharing with others as I have seen time and time again on Facebook people engage in conversations that quickly spiral out of control and consume people with a back and forth dialogue that ultimately goes no where. Unless someone really wants to be open to a different viewpoint, and is humble enough to believe that their viewpoint may not be the ONLY the valid way of seeing things, it’s wasted breath and energy that can drain you for hours or longer.

    Appreciate you sharing your story, Bob!

  3. Ivan May 18, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks for this FF! The level of cynicism in culture today is frighteningly high. Stay positive Robert!

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  6. R June 1, 2018 at 9:48 am

    My situation until recently was similar and also involved a family angle, but not mine. The people who own the business I worked for are married to one another. Anything said to one of them is instantly shared. There’s no HR or other neutral third party to mediate or even listen when employees are treated in the ways you described.

    Perhaps most maddening was the inconsistency – their treatment of people is a roller coaster that continuously and randomly ping-pongs between kind and hateful. It reminded me of an experiment where two monkeys receive electric shocks, one on a schedule and one at unpredictable intervals. You can guess which one becomes highly stressed.

    Complicating things is that the work – the clients and nature of it – are such that it’s very tough to leave. I miss the job but like the parade of other committed professionals before me who ended up as I did (yes, should have been a red flag), missing the work and clients is almost equaled by the relief of being away from such a toxic environment. These people are the poster children for the saying that people leave bosses, not jobs.

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