We all know the best way to deal with truly toxic people is to cut them out of your life. That sounds simple, but in business, sometimes it's just not possible. If the party on the other side of a make-or-break transaction is a drama queen, your new contact at a big client has a flair for manipulation, or a key supplier tends toward histrionics, simply walking away can be impossible.
What do you do then? Mental health startup BetterUp has a therapist-recommended suggestion with a memorable, descriptive name: gray rocking.
Visualize yourself as a gray rock.
The name here pretty much sums up the method. Imagine a gray rock. It's completely boring and non-responsive, right? That's what you want your behavior to look like when dealing with toxic people, writes psychologist Erin Eatough in the BetterUp blog post.
"Gray rocking is a technique used to divert a toxic person's behavior by acting as unresponsive as possible when you're interacting with them," she explains. This might involve showing little to no emotion, avoiding as much eye contact as possible, providing only neutral, factual answers to questions, and avoiding talking about your personal life.
If a colleague approaches you to gossip about another co-worker, the BetterUp post suggests you respond with a simple "I don't really know them," and excuse yourself to do another task, for example.
The idea behind the approach is that toxic people feed off drama. For whatever reason, they enjoy attention and chaos, even if it's negative and destructive. By denying them the emotional charge they seek, you train them to see you as not worth bothering with. Hopefully, they'll give up and move on to someone else (or ideally get some help to heal whatever is driving their own problematic behavior, but that's not your responsibility).
Eatough isn't the only psychologist recommending the method. "Any kind of attention, even negative, is good for a narcissist and they will take that over no attention at all," explains therapist Holly Richmond in a USA Today article focusing on how the technique plays out in personal relationships. "The gray rock method works because it's the most minimal amount you can possibly offer and they'll get bored or lose interest in manipulating you."
The very real limits of the gray rock method
If therapists suggest this method can be effective for dealing with garden-variety office drama or a manipulative co-worker, they also stress that the approach has its limits. First, while it often works in the medium and longer-term, being ignored can tick off toxic colleagues in the short term, causing them to temporarily escalate their attention-seeking antics. Wait them out and they should go away, but that patience does come at a psychic cost to you.
Even more important, all the experts in these articles stress that no one should feel they have to contort themselves or their behavior to deal with other people's abuse, discrimination, or any kind of physical threat or intimidation. If you're the victim of any of these behaviors, it's time to find a way to exit the relationship despite the costs and hassles.
But for those of us unfortunate to be forced by circumstances to deal with everyday toxic people, consider giving the gray rock method a try. By denying manipulators a response, you will hopefully find you have to deal with much less of their nonsense going forward.