How to Guard Against Toxic Thoughts and People for Better Mental Health.

I remember when I had to run a leadership training program for a group of young leaders some years ago. In general, you need to understand that the average Singapore audience is deathly quiet. It is the sound of a hundred pins dropping when you say something. Part of it is the culture of respect since our early days in school, part of it is possibly that we have no intent to participate, rather to sit back and see what’s interesting before we dive in to the learning.

It is in that precise moment where I would “do my thing”. You know, humor, a little flattery and some framing of the expectations that entice the audience to open up a little and give it a go. In my APEX Executive Leadership Development Training, I help my coachees who are senior leaders to develop gravitas, manage the situation and rally people with a series of certain exercises because I know it can be a make or break situation. If the audience is willing to listen to you, you have a good start!

One of the things I tend to encourage is a collaborative learning effort – that you can learn something from almost anyone. However, something happened on that one specific day. I was either too anxious, had bad sleep or something, and I remember being set off by one of the participants. After reminding the participants of the idea of learning from one another, one of the participants, a short-haired, fair-skinned young but well-dressed lady, pointing to her table buddy and exclaimed:

“Stuart, what in the world can I expect to learn from her?”

This retort was carried with the narrowing of her eyes and distortion of her tone that embedded it with massive sarcasm. It went so far out of the space of my mental model of the world, that I was stunned visibly for about a minute. I remember voices in my head that spun out of control for those few minutes.

“What kind of human being are you?”

“Are you so uppity that you refuse to learn from others?”

“How can you be so cruel to a colleague?”

During one of the exercises, this leader was in a negotiation exercise that I devised. As usual, the exercise went very well for the others, but in the team where this one young leader was, the atmosphere was extremely tense. In fact, the team got into an argument during this negotiation, and ended the role play early. Apparently, they got too personal when she started making unreasonable demands in the negotiation (with low EQ, I may add). After some persuasion, the team was willing to let it go, but she ended up being completely disengaged during the rest of the training.

Of course, this kind of toxicity is not normal, and one of the first few times I engaged with an audience like this. In fact, it was also this group of participants that I had to tell them to put their laptops away at the start of the training because they were hooked on answering emails during the workshop!

Whether you are a leader, speaker, coach or consultant, you will face the audience one day. You will also need to understand how to cope with reactions from the audience, even if it is a team member who appears to be toxic.

Tip #1: Identify a positive intention.

One central belief in NLP is that everyone has a positive intention regardless of their behavior. We have to adopt this in leadership as well. You need to see in toxic people what others are unable to see, so you can get the results that no one can get. After all, just because a person makes a negative comment, it wouldn’t mean that he is a negative person. He simply behaved in a negative manner.

A quick approach to diffuse the situation is to ask yourself “what kind of background and history would a person like this have experienced?”

In my example above, I realized that this person was not just abrasive in my training room, she was abrasive at work too, and had a certain reputation for explosive behavior. Apparently, she was a special certain kind of scholar. Her manner was not at all humble. As I imagined how she arrived at this place, I realized that character education was probably not in the top of her education priority list. Rather, she was probably obsessed with achievement-making. She was also rather young to have been hired by the organization into a leadership level (a fresh graduate), and probably had no clue, nor would she have been taught, about the human dynamics of good leadership.

Tip #2: Presume that they have a need that is not yet fulfilled.

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we need to be mindful of which level the person is speaking from. The more pronounced the need, the higher the volume is likely to be. Her angst during the negotiation experience was probably related to her achievement-oriented nature, and by being in a challenging experience, she probably felt inadequate. So rather than demonstrating vulnerability, she displayed the easier emotion to express, which was anger and frustration instead.

If we approach from the needs perspective, it would be apparent that one will have to coach her over a period of time to anticipate the gaps in her achievement methods. It would be easy to convince someone like her (as I later found out when I spoke with her) that she has to “achieve” better EQ in order to motivate her.

Tip #3: Ask powerful questions to listen first.

The key to essential leadership is the ability to ask powerful questions. In NLP, the basis is known as the Meta Model, which I shall write about in another post. It is the basis of gathering information around the mental space of the person you are interacting with. It is a more precise communication model which is not driven by any other intention other than to listen to and locate the rules of your mental space.

So, if someone says “I can’t work with her“, it denotes a limit in the mental space. The question “what might happen if you did work with her” will uncover the rules of this person’s mental space, and help me to understand them better.

Tip #4: Anticipate and simulate your responses ahead of time.

The truth is that it will be impossible to create a change of your own response on the spot. This is the reason why I was stunned back then! I knew I had to expand my range of responses rather than add oil to the burning embers. So, I go into my mental simulation machine, and start creating a series of different responses to similar behavior. In a sense, I am role-playing with myself. But I can also use this opportunity to think about why I want to respond this way, and how the new approach benefits me and my endeavors. There are a variety of techniques that can help me here such as the New Behavior Generator and the Circle of Excellence, which are part of the strategy toolbox of NLP.

Tip #5: Maintain a balance of Perceptual Positions

Often, emotions are not meant to be deflected or ignored. It’s like trying to ignore a crying child. In NLP, we talk heavily of different perceptual positions that enable us to develop a greater sense of empathy for others, indirectly developing our emotional intelligence. If you merely looked out of your own individual perceptions, you might tend to hold on to the biases you currently hold, which might be detrimental to your ability to appreciate and understand the other person.


It’s never easy to deal with difficult situations involving people who are toxic. It may even feel like you are condoning their negative or unacceptable behavior. There is nothing further from the truth. By enabling space for the toxic individual to express what they truly need to express, you are not encouraging them to be more toxic, but rather enabling them to release the poison that has toxified them from the start in a controlled environment. When you treat them as they have never been treated, the way they wish they were treated, you demonstrate you are human in order to model that behavior for them to do the same.

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See also  Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Empowering Leaders for Change

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