How to Win When You're Under Attack At Work

By Art Petty May 22, 2018

As you climb the career ladder, you will inevitably encounter situations where a colleague disagrees with your ideas or approaches. For high-stakes topics involving strategy and investments, you’re in competition with others for attention and resources, and not everyone wants you to win. When faced with a direct or passive-aggressive attack on your ideas and character, your response speaks volumes about your maturity and leadership to everyone involved. Learn to navigate these confrontations with diplomacy, grace and a good bit of psychology and you will go far.

You’re Fighting Nature More Than You’re Fighting Your Adversary

For all sorts of good reasons, humans are wired to quickly recognize dangerous situations and respond accordingly. Our brains shift precious resources away from the slower, smaller processing centers and trigger a flood of chemicals that prepare us for fight or flight. Drunk with adrenaline, we’re apt to either lash out or look for the first exit by shrinking and withdrawing.

When faced with a confrontation during a meeting, it’s essential to interrupt the brain’s natural process and effectively retain your wits. Dr. Mark Goulston, writing in Just Listen, suggests we run through a simple mantra that allows us to derail the amygdala hijack and maintain our presence of mind. I’ve adapted his fabulous ideas to use with my clients in these spontaneous, challenging conversations.

"“When we are stressed, our brain downshifts.” - Peter Senge"

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Keep Your Wits With a Real-Time Reboot

My mental reboot process goes something like this: Once it happens, acknowledge internally, “It’s here.” An appropriate “Oh _ _ _ _” is fine as well. (I use “heck”—not sure what you were thinking!)

After responding to the shock, vocalize (internally) your acceptance: Okay, I’m in it now.

From acceptance, assume ownership: This is mine. I’ve got it.

From ownership, offer an idea or—to gain processing time—ask clarifying questions. Here’s what I’m hearing … Is this right?

The deliberate move from recognition to acceptance to ownership to action is often enough to regain or retain control of your logic center and stop the flood of chemicals that might find you flying or fighting. Tagging on a question gives you more time to discover motive and think through options.

Some of my clients find it helpful to look away from the source of the verbal assault and focus on breathing while they reboot. It’s also helpful to learn to simultaneously relax your body, and let your arms fall to your sides instead of folding them or waving them menacingly.

Your goal is to gain a few precious seconds and work your reboot process. Time is a funny thing in these settings. Everyone else is processing, and no one will think less of you for taking time to compose your thoughts.

Responding to a Confrontation

The following scenario is based on a real-life situation shared by a coaching client and several other people who were present.

Amy had just finished her presentation to top management on a new business investment idea for her division. Judging by the body language and heads nodding in the room, it had gone according to her plan. Everyone except her counterpart in another division, Rob, seemed to be interested in the idea.

Everyone else was engaged, but Rob appeared to sit on his hands. He would not make eye contact with Amy, and his body language was closed and defensive.

The backstory: Rob and Amy had joined the firm at the same time and ended up on similar tracks until Amy’s recent promotion to director level. Rob’s response at the time was less than gracious. In his words, he had been “overlooked.”

The questions the meeting participants asked were great, and it appeared as if Amy’s pre-event message mapping work was paying off. But just as Amy thought the session would come to a successful close, Rob interjected: Amy, I have a question. What makes you think the results from this idea will be any better than that disastrous program you and your team presided over last year?

Amy was not expecting this type of a verbal attack, and for a split second, panic set in. She recognized the “challenge” from Rob and immediately went into her reboot. While Amy’s instinct was to tense up and verbally rip Rob’s head off for his aggressive tactic, she knew that her response would determine the fate of her proposal.

Amy’s internal reboot:

  • “Oh crap!”
  • “Okay, I’m here.”
  • “Breathe! Again!”
  • “I’ve got this.”
  • “I’ll use judo on this.”

She also focused on relaxing her posture. Instead of glowering at Rob, she relaxed her facial muscles, made certain her arms were comfortably at her side, momentarily looked at the ceiling and then back at her audience, but not directly at Rob.

“Rob, thanks for raising this issue. As everyone recalls, we spent a good deal of time with this group looking at the challenges and risks we encountered with that project. It was humbling. However, the changes we made … with some great input from your team, Rob, have helped us navigate even more difficult challenges since that time. The team is experienced, successful and eminently capable and prepared to succeed with this initiative.”

The CEO jumped in with: Rob, Amy’s right. We learned our lessons, and it’s time to put that project in our past. I can vouch for how well Amy’s team has performed since that initiative.

The meeting adjourned after management gave Amy the go-ahead.

7 Lessons for Managing Confrontations

Here are seven key takeaways from Amy’s example:

  1. Amy recognized the emerging signs of a confrontation. She noted the body language and engagement of everyone in the room. And while assumptions can be wrong, she was at least mentally prepared to expect a reaction from Rob.
  2. She ran through her reboot process in short order while those in the room were still processing Rob’s aggressive questioning.
  3. She turned breathing and body posture into allies to stave off the adrenaline surge.
  4. Amy successfully fought off her urge to launch a forceful verbal counter-strike.
  5. She neutralized Rob’s verbal attack by using his energy against him. “Thanks, Rob …” This simple, but powerful maneuver also allowed everyone in the room to relax a bit, garnering emotional support from the crowd. The group mirrored her own relaxed, comfortable state and maintained their logical thinking abilities.
  6. Instead of excusing the problem, she honestly acknowledged it and highlighted the lessons learned.
  7. Finally, instead of taking a final shot at Rob, she praised his (team’s) help during the problem project he referenced.

Game over. Amy wins.

The Bottom Line for Now

Amy’s handling of the situation was masterful. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how many times I didn’t handle situations as effectively as my coaching client, Amy. Nonetheless, I have learned, and so can you. When faced with a spontaneous, challenging conversation, your first order of business is to control your emotions, fight off your instincts and then navigate forward, striving to use the attacker’s energy to your advantage.

Categories: Leadership
Art Petty

Art Petty

Art Petty is a multi-decade software executive and leadership and management speaker, executive coach and author. After guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership as a senior strategy and marketing executive, Art is now a management team adviser and works with emerging leaders as an executive coach. He is also a keynote and workshop presenter and serves as a graduate management educator at DePaul University IL. Art is the author of four books: Practical Lessons in Leadership, Leadership Caffeine: Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development, Leadership Caffeine for the Project Manager and A Bold Cup of Leadership Caffeine. Contact Art at art.petty@artpetty.com.

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