As published in Huffington Post November 21st 2014.
I pride myself on being a relational and socially conscious woman in the workplace. I had no idea that these qualities made me a prime target for emotional abuse from a business colleague.
Looking back now, I can easily see his artfully used tactics so he could always win: rationalization, lying by omission, diversion, shaming, playing the servant role, and so many more. However, at the time it was hard to put my finger on what was going on. I now know that this is because he belongs to a special category of manipulative people Dr. George Simon labels Covert Aggressors: experts at knowing what to say and do in order to make you abandon any intuitive mistrust.
Unfortunately, in today’s business world where we reward with bonuses what Covert Aggressors can accomplish by using people as pawns. Because they are so good at covering their tracks, colleagues and superiors can easily turn a blind eye to the bloodbath they leave in their wake.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. George Simon, international expert on dealing with Covert Aggressors and author of In Sheep’s Clothing to shed some light on the unique challenges of women dealing with emotional abuse in the workplace.
Why Women Can Be Easily Duped.
It is unfathomable to me that a skilled manipulator would actively seek out a conscientious person, simply because they know how to exploit this vulnerability for their personal gain. As Dr. Simon explains, this is because women tend to have a level of conscientiousness towards social interaction that makes them particularly vulnerable to the Covert Aggressor.
According to Dr. Simon, thinking as someone who is wired to win at all costs, “If I know that the last thing you want to do is offend or appear inconsiderate, I have so many tactics I can use to push that button.”
Even if a woman starts to recognize the manipulation tactics being used against her in the workplace, the Covert Aggressor will often resort to accusing the woman of the malicious intent that they themselves are harboring. Dr. Simon indicated that this “lethal weapon” is particularly effective with even the strongest of women.
Trust Your Intuition and Keep a Level Head When Dealing with an Aggressor.
Dr. Simon points out that most women have good intuitive skills, but we are socialized not to trust our gut instincts. In addition, “Most women don’t want to be seen as being aggressive… so they take a step back and tolerate… they overcompensate so they aren’t perceived as the difficult one.”
He urges women to pay attention when their radar goes off. The earlier you recognize manipulative behavior, the better chance you have of adjusting your response to the situation.
It can be a hard work to keep your cool, but if you respond aggressively to someone who is determined to win, you are giving him the momentum he craves. Dr. Simon confirms that it takes a lot of practice to stay levelheaded, but it is, “powerful when you confront behavior without any perceived malice or hostile intent.”
This violation of our relational nature presents a unique challenge to women, as when we realized are victims of manipulation we experience built-up anger and resentment.
Channeling Your Anger Into Action Towards Self-Preservation.
Women, in particular, have been taught that anger is a bad emotion. However, according to Dr. Simon, anger can be a healthy, mobilizing emotion: “It gives us the energy to right a wrong.”
It is crucial to avoid suppressing our anger, but instead channel this intense energy into taking care of your own interests and resisting the tactics of a manipulator.
Dr. Simon encourages women to give themselves permission to feel angry, “Anger is supposed to propel us into action; embrace it and use it.”
We cannot change the actions of our abusers, so the key to dealing with emotional abuse in the workplace is to use our energy to control our own behavior. By controlling our own behavior, we set new boundaries and seek out an exit strategy if the abuser cannot respect these boundaries.
Finding the Stamina to Redefine the Terms of Engagement.
Although it is a generalization, Dr. Simon acknowledges, women tend to seek external approval more than men. Not only does this quest for external validation make us more susceptible to aggressors, but it also can quickly drain the positive energy that comes from our resolve to set boundaries and makes changes.
In order to preserve the emotional energy it takes to end an abusive dynamic in the workplace, Dr. Simon urges women to, “get in the habit of self-reinforcement, so that, in every step they take [towards setting boundaries], they recognize and give themselves validation.”
We all need reinforcement for new behaviors to stick, and women need to acknowledge themselves for every tiny step along the way to taking back their power.
Although venting to your friends about the situation can feel good at the time, Dr. Simon cautions that this can become enabling, as we get external validation and feel a short relief, so we are not motivated to change anything.
“You need to realize that YOU are your greatest resource to get yourself out of this situation,” encourages Dr. Simon.
If you are caught in the destructive cycle of manipulation and emotional abuse, whether in the workplace or in another relationship, I encourage you to read Dr. Simon’s book, In Sheep’s Clothing. In it, he outlines 18 different manipulation tactics that you need to recognize, as well as over a dozen practical steps to leverage the power in your own behavior. You can also get weekly posts about applied psychology on Dr. Simon’s blog, Dealing with Manipulative People.
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