You know how damaging it can be to have a toxic person in your workplace, or in your life. Unfortunately, most of them don’t come with warning labels the way toxic chemicals do. Many of them seem very likeable at first. After all, most toxic people are good manipulators, so getting you to like them is part of their toolkit.
Is there a way to tell early on–ideally the first time you meet–that someone will turn out to be a toxic person? While there’s no foolproof method to tell right away if a new friend or colleague will be a drag on your energy, mood, or productivity, there are some early warning signs many toxic people display. If you encounter any of these when meeting someone for the first time–and especially if you encounter several of them–proceed with caution:
- They badmouth someone else.
I once went for an interview at a company where the CEO told me about the deficiencies he saw in his second-in-command. That seemed like a big red flag to me, and I was right–I tried working there on a part-time basis for a couple of months but quickly left when the CEO proved much too toxic to work with. If someone you meet criticises or complains about a third party who isn’t present, that may be a sign that you’re dealing with a toxic person–and when you’re not around they’ll say bad stuff about you. (The exception is when the comment makes sense in context, for instance if someone criticises the Democratic candidate when you’re at a Republican fundraiser.)
- They complain.
Most toxic people are championship-level complainers. Listening to them gripe can be bad for your mood, your productivity, and maybe even your health. Plus, if you’re like many people, you’re in danger of getting sucked in, trying to fix whatever they’re unhappy about. That’s almost always a losing proposition. So if someone starts off your acquaintance with a lot of complaining, think hard about whether you want that person and their many dissatisfaction in your life.
- They ask for special treatment.
You know who I mean. The person who expects you to accept their submission even though it’s a day or two past the deadline. The person who absolutely must get into your event for free even though everyone else is paying admission. If someone asks you for a special favour when you’ve only just met, just imagine what they’ll ask for once they get to know you better.
- They boast.
If you’re meeting someone for a (formal or informal) job interview, it’s natural for them to talk about their accomplishments. In other situations, someone who bends your ear for five minutes about how successful their last project was or how high their revenue is trying too hard to influence your thinking. Be wary.
- They put you on the defensive.
Sometimes this happens so subtly that you can’t even say for sure how it was done. But you suddenly feel the need to explain to this person you’ve barely met why you made the choices you did, or why your organisation isn’t so bad after all. Someone who makes you feel like you have to constantly defend yourself, your company, or your beliefs is going to be exhausting to spend time with.
- They make you work to please them.
This happens to me all the time, and I bet it happens to you, too. Someone tells you they just can’t find the app they need for what they want to do. Or they’ve put together a proposal, but it just isn’t quite right. Or all their hopes ride on their child getting into that one special school. Before you know it, you’re trying to write an app for them, or seeking out inside tips to improve their proposal, or calling all your friends to see if anyone you know happens to know someone on the admissions committee for the school they want.
Stop right there. Anyone who has you tying yourself in knots to help them when you’ve only just met will only manipulate you into greater and greater efforts as time goes on. And you already know they’re extremely difficult to please.
- They don’t show interest in your concerns.
You’ve just had a 10-minute conversation with a new acquaintance and you already know where they grew up, that they got divorced six months ago, and that they just landed a promotion. Meantime, they don’t even know where you work or what you do for a living.
Someone who expects you to be interested in every aspect of their life but has zero curiosity about yours is highly likely to be a toxic person. Be on your guard.
- They don’t make you feel good.
Do a gut check. How do you feel after talking with this person? How would you feel at the prospect of, say, spending an hour with them over lunch or coffee? If spending time with someone makes you tense or unhappy, there’s a decent chance that this is a toxic person. So if you feel negative, it’s worth trying to figure out why. Maybe this is someone from a different culture, or you feel intimidated by their intelligence or success, in which case you should probably try to overcome your resistance. But it could also be that this is a toxic person, and you should follow your instincts when they tell you to walk away
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