In a nutshell, a colleague holding a more senior position at work ranted at me for almost an hour, over what seemed to be an invented issue, working herself up into an emotional state in the process, and not allowing me a word in edge-wise (quite hard to do, but it was done!). Scary thing? I'd barely had three conversations with this person!
Anyway, this post isn't about the actual unpleasant rant - I've got boundaries in this blog, one of which is not to discuss work in too much detail. Wouldn't want to be dooced.
Instead, it's inspired by something D said when I related the surreal incident to him. He said the colleague in question sounded like she was throwing a toddler tantrum. Which led me to conceptualise the following management theory:
The Toddler Approach to Managing Conflict
Hypothetical scenario: You are sitting peacably at your desk, concentrating hard on drafting a media release. Suddenly, a colleague appears from behind you and asks you whether it was true that you had commented about project XYZ at a meeting where the bosses were present. If it is true, then she is very unhappy that you had even given an opinion about project XYZ, as project XYZ was hers and no one, repeat, no one, was allowed to talk about it, except for her. Your colleague stops to breathe at this point, and you are about to say, "I'm sorry if you are upset about what I said. I was giving an opinion as the bosses had asked me what I thought was needed for project XYZ to get good publicity from the media. I gave them a few suggestions to consider, and that was that." But you are unable to as she quickly resumes her monologue, but this time talking increasingly faster, louder, and you notice, worryingly, that her eyes have welled up in tears and she is turning a slight purply-red. She is also stabbing her index finger awfully close to your nose. People are gathered discreetly outside your office to be entertained. What do you do?
Possible solution: If you are a parent, picture your toddler where your colleague is. Bring yourself back to a particularly intense tantrum, say, the one where your son refused to stop screaming and crying because you took the plastic knife with the serrated edge away from him, and gave him a wooden spoon instead. Place yourself squarely in that moment, where your son's cries grow louder and louder, accompanied by foot stamping, and ends in him throwing not just the spoon, but his whole body on the floor in a shuddering heap. Now, react.
Not all reactions will be the same of course, but a possibly common one would take this shape:
1. You physically distance yourself from your colleague.
2. Your voice and demeanour grow more dispassionate as hers grows more hysterical.
3. You slow down the rhythm of your speech, and speak in as calm a tone as you possibly can muster.
4. You say in a quiet, steady voice that you will only engage with said colleague/toddler when said colleague/toddler has calmed down and stopped crying.
5. In the meantime, you tell said colleague/toddler that you will be in the next room, and that you are there for her/him.
6. You walk away, and wait. If you are lucky, you get to read a few pages of People Magazine.
7. Colleague/toddler calms down. Life continues on.
I'm so going to adopt this approach next time something like this happens to me (hopefully not too often. It's so draining!). Thanks so much to D for sparking this idea, and to Jordy for the regular role-plays!
On that note, I'm off to watch Episode 4 of The Wire Season 1. So amazingly good!