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How to Deal With a Verbally Abusive Coworker

by Freddie Silver, studioD

In a perfect world, all work colleagues would get along, but in reality many workplaces are tainted by unpleasant people who don't interact appropriately. It's inevitable that you'll encounter a difficult coworker at some point in your career. These people can lack basic interpersonal skills and might lash out at others. Whether the verbal abuse is aimed directly at you or at someone else in your office, you'll want to find ways to effectively deal with the toxic environment that you're forced to endure daily.

Recognize the abusive behavior for what it is. Verbal abuse includes shouting and swearing as well as intimidating gestures and hostile body language. Insults, ridicule and criticism -- whether to your face or secretly to colleagues and supervisors -- are intended to undermine your confidence and work performance.

Choose an appropriate time to sit down with the abuser and state how you feel. Rehearse your main points so you'll be prepared and able to project confidence. Stay calm, speak firmly and be very polite during your conversation -- this models the respectful behavior you'd like to see. Be very clear about what the abusive behavior was and explain explicitly what you expect in the future. Look directly in your coworker's eyes while you speak. You might say, "You shouted at me yesterday. I don't expect to be treated this way in my workplace. Please do not speak to me that way again." Make "I" statements to empathize with the abuser's emotions if the situation warrants it. For example, you might consider saying, "I can see that you are very angry and I'm sorry you're so upset. But can we please discuss this rationally?" Bullies tend to seek out victims who appear weak, so showing you have the courage to speak up will help. Remain firm and let him know you're prepared to take further action if necessary. You might say, "I'd prefer to resolve this issue by ourselves, but if we cannot, I will regretfully report this."

Don't apologize for your behavior while your abuser is ranting, even if you did make a mistake. Don't address the specifics of the situation when you are addressed in an abusive manner. Respond instead with a prepared phrase such as, "I can't speak to you while you're hurling insults at me. When you calm down I'll be glad to discuss this issue."

Don't start second guessing yourself and take the blame for the abuse. Abusers are frequently skilled at making their victims feel as though they deserved the abuse. Remember that abuse is never justified. Even if you made a mistake, it's not justification for abuse.

Understand why the abuser is behaving this way. Abuse is about controlling others, so it's possible the abuser is lashing out at work because of his lack of control in his personal life. This is no reason to excuse or ignore the abuse, but it might help you feel some sympathy and control your anger when you confront him.

Never ignore verbal abuse, that only gives tacit approval to the behavior. If your coworker also abuses others in your office, consider banding together and working out a consistent approach toward the abuser.

Remain in control. Don't respond in anger and don't resort to verbal abuse of your own, no matter how tempted you might be. Avoid using sarcasm or other put-downs. Instead, respond by repeating your phrases such as: "The way you are speaking right now is not appropriate. I cannot talk to you right now." Walk away if the tirade continues.

If the abuse continues, document each occurrence. Write down the date, time and what was said as well as how you responded. Consider recording your abuser's tirades and, if appropriate, playing back the recording to the abuser. This might be the eye-opener he needs to realize how out of line he's been.

Report the abuse to your supervisor if the situation doesn't improve. Go to your human resources department if your immediate supervisor doesn't take effective action. If your place of employment is unionized, contact your local union representative. Most collective agreements have regulations that cover how coworkers should behave with each other.

Items you will need
  •  Notebook or computer to document incidents
  •  Recorder


  • Although it's never too late to confront an abuser, you're likely to get the best results if you respond immediately to the first instance of abuse.

About the Author

Freddie Silver started writing newsletters for the Toronto District School Board in 1997. Her areas of expertise include staff management and professional development. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, focusing on emotions and professional relationships.

Photo Credits

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