Using Emotional Intelligence and Non-Violent Communication to Recover from a Toxic Workplace

radioactiveDo you feel trapped in a job where you are surrounded by people whose work ethic, management style, or poor communication is causing you stress? Have you been either laid off or fired under these circumstances? Over the past thirty years I have worked with hundreds of clients who have been burned by what is commonly called a “bad fit.” Although some of them express relief when their jobs have ended, they often have strong and sometimes crippling emotions: hurt, anger, fear of getting in to another toxic work place.

In her 3/10/2014 blog Your Toxic Workplace, my colleague Gail Nicholson aptly stated, “People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.” Maybe it’s not your boss that is driving you crazy, but rather co-workers who are chronically late or don’t do their share of the team’s work. In a perfect world these examples would be managers’ problems, solved by a manager. However, in the real world, the supervisor may be personal friends with your co-workers or fighting other battles with his/her own manager. You might actually get in trouble for complaining. In this type of toxic work environment, my clients may end up silently seething, applying unenforceable rules based on their own sense of justice, and feel more and more stressed out, with a noticeable bad attitude. So, what else can an employee do?

Whenever you are faced with a bad situation, you have three choices:

  • Try to put up with it.
  • Try to change it.
  • Move on.

Whichever way you choose, first you might start with yourself and your internal dialogue. This is where Emotional Intelligence comes in. “Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict.”

In order to improve our emotional intelligence, this article suggests there are five key abilities to develop:

  • The ability to quickly reduce stress in the moment in a variety of settings
  • The ability to recognize your emotions and keep them from overwhelming you
  • The ability to connect emotionally with others by using nonverbal communication
  • The ability to use humor and play to stay connected in challenging situations
  • The ability to resolve conflicts positively and with confidence

Although we can’t do much to change our IQ, we can always use what intelligence, imagination, and curiosity we have to continue to learn new skills. The good news about EQ is that it is based on learned and practiced skills and behaviors, so any one of us can increase our EQ. If these abilities are cultivated while you are in the midst of coping with a toxic work situation, regardless of how it resolves, you will be much less likely to carry emotional baggage with you in to your next job search or new job.

A key to improving how you handle your own stress and uncomfortable emotions, as well as how you handle conflict with others lies in Non-Violent Communication (NVC). According to the Center for Non-Violent Communication, founded by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., NVC is based on “the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart.” Having empathy for yourself as well as others is equally important. I have noticed that when my clients are struggling, there is often a very harsh, merciless tone to their self-talk. In the aftermath of a toxic workplace conflict, they may be full of self-recriminations as well as negative feelings towards others who behaved unprofessionally. My first clue is hearing “would have, could have, should have.” It is so difficult to move beyond a toxic event or bad ending of a job and muster enough hope and energy to pursue new career options when you can’t stop ruminating over what happened.

A gifted local therapist and certified NVC trainer, LaShelle Lowe-Chardé, offers both therapy and training for individuals, couples, and organizations by “helping people express their deepest values in their relationships and creating clarity and connection with self and others.” Her website and trainings help people recognize, accept, and name universal needs and feelings, both internally and in others. She teaches a new perspective on how to become more clear and compassionate and to bring that to all kinds of difficult situations, whether at work or in an intimate relationship. NVC offers kinder alternatives to aggressive, passive-aggressive, and/or withdrawing behaviors in attempts to resolve conflicts.

Sometimes either men or women may believe that empathy or compassion, which is a key component of emotional intelligence and at the heart of NVC, is essentially a feminine trait or characteristic. In a patriarchal society, some may hold a belief that demonstrating compassion is a sign of weakness, especially in a competitive work place. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, has this to say: “Compassion protects us more than guns, bombs, and money.” If you are feeling trapped in a toxic work situation or the aftermath of one, stuck with ruminations and recriminations, and/or find it hard to move forward, you may want to look for ways to enhance your emotional intelligence or experience NVC training.


Anne Bryant, MA
Anne closed her practice 5/31/15 a d retired.

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