When Your Co-Worker Loses It

One study indicates one out of six U.S. workers has experienced bullying or aggressive behavior in the workplace. This behavior can take many forms: angry outbursts, tantrums, curses or — in the worst extreme — threats or physical assault.

How do you de-escalate someone in the middle of a workplace emotional meltdown? Last week’s column defined this condition as the “amygdala hijack” — a result of the reptilian part of the brain (your inner lizard) taking over in a fight-or-flight response.

There are a number of things you can do when confronted with a boss or co-worker who is emotionally out of control (and the person you have come to know and respect is nowhere to be found). Handled poorly, these situations can be disastrous. In contrast, if handled well, workplace relationships often improve.

There are many tools, techniques and skill sets to help organizations deal with the stress and emotional difficulty in today’s workplace. Here are a few suggestions to consider when you find yourself face to face with someone else’s lizard.


Establish and maintain boundaries. Get clear about your boundaries; understand when enough is enough. Be prepared to state “this is not acceptable” clearly and unemotionally. Assert your right to be treated with respect (regardless of your position). Seek out human resources or legal counsel if there is a continuing problem or you have been threatened. Physical or emotional threats or abuse should never be tolerated.

Employ active listening. Another way to defuse an emotionally charged interaction is to repeat or paraphrase what you heard the other party say. This demonstrates that you are listening and taking in their concerns. Example: “I heard you say you are upset about what happened during the meeting,” or, “Clearly, you are very annoyed by my lateness.” Active listening does not mean you agree with them; it’s simply demonstrating you heard their point of view.

Be self-aware. Be acutely aware of your own emotions during difficult or emotionally charged situations. Emotional clarity and understanding of your primary “reactive” tendencies (and modifying them as required) can help you make a different behavioral choice that will directly affect the final outcome of the interaction.

Acknowledge the out-of-control person’s feelings. Show genuine concern. If they believe they have been heard and acknowledged, they likely will de-escalate. You can often defuse their reactivity by empathizing with them.

Remain calm. Talk them down by softening your own tone.

Take a time-out. Reasonable discussions are not possible when you are emotionally distressed. The amygdala is your brain’s alarm system. When it hits the panic button, cortisol hormones surge through the body and often last for hours. Advocate a break to let things calm down: “Let’s talk about this later. We’re too emotional to talk about this right now.” When your lizard is running the show, your higher brain isn’t functioning. Lizards typically do not make profound or intellectually sound decisions.


Engage the opposing lizard at the lizard level. Make the choice not to get reactive. Be aware of your own potential for your emotional lizard to get triggered. Two battling lizards aren’t pretty; it usually results in at least one of them losing its tail!

Threaten. Avoid the tendency to retaliate or strike back when emotionally charged. Avoid making judgments or name calling, no matter how tempting.

Use defensive or hostile body language (eye rolling, raised eyebrows, etc). This indicates disrespect and will only inflame and/or escalate a bad situation.

Take it personally. An out-of-control lizard isn’t about you. Feedback is information, not definition. How they are reacting says a lot more about them than it does about you. Don’t tie your self-worth into someone else’s lack of control and emotional intelligence.

Title, position and authority are not entitlement to aggressive, hostile or threatening behavior. Companies can’t afford to tolerate this kind of behavior. Inappropriate behaviors need to be documented and reported to human resources. You have rights. Do not allow them to be violated. If they are violated and things don’t change, leave the position and/or seek legal recourse.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com