We all know that the best way to deal with really toxic people is to cut them out of your life. That sounds simple, but in business sometimes it just isn’t possible. If the party on the other side of a make-or-break transaction is a drama queen, your new contact at a major client has a flair for manipulation, or a major supplier leans toward histrionics, simply walking away can be impossible.
What are you doing then? Mental health startup BetterUp has a therapist-recommended suggestion with a memorable, descriptive name: Try “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 unresponsive, right? This is what you want your behavior to look like when you’re dealing with toxic people, writes psychologist Erin Eatough in the BetterUp blog post†
“Grey rocking is a technique used to distract a toxic person’s behavior by reacting as insensitively as possible when you are in contact with them,” she explains. This may include showing little to no emotion, avoiding eye contact as much as possible, providing only neutral, factual answers to questions, and not talking about your personal life.
If a co-worker approaches you to gossip about another co-worker, the BetterUp message 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 on drama. For whatever reason, they enjoy attention and chaos, even if it is negative and destructive. By denying them the emotional charge they’re looking for, you train them to see that you’re not worth worrying about. Hopefully they’ll give up and go to someone else (or ideally get some help to heal what’s causing their own problematic behavior, but that’s not your responsibility).
Eatough isn’t the only psychologist to recommend the method. “Any kind of attention, even negative ones, is good for a narcissist and they won’t take that attention at all,” explains therapist Holly Richmond in a USA today article focused on how technology plays out in personal relationships. “The gray stone method works because it’s the most minimal amount you can offer and they’ll get bored or lose interest in manipulating you.”
The very real limits of the gray stone method
When therapists suggest that this method can be effective for dealing with office dramas from different types of gardens or a manipulative colleague, they also emphasize that the approach has its limitations. First, while it often works in the medium and long term, ignoring it can tick off toxic colleagues in the short term, temporarily escalating their attention-seeking antics. Wait for them and they should go away, but that patience comes at a psychic price.
More importantly, all the experts in these articles emphasize that no one should feel that he or she has to twist themselves or their behavior in order to face abuse, discrimination or any form of physical threat or intimidation against others. If you’re the victim of any of these behaviors, it’s time to find a way to end the relationship, despite the cost and hassle.
But for those of us who are unfortunate to be forced by circumstances to deal with everyday toxic people, consider giving the gray stone method a try. By denying manipulators a response, you will hopefully find that you have to deal with a lot less of their nonsense in the future.