When You Are Attacked, Why Do You Attack Back?

Six Questions for Uncovering the Source of Your Negative Emotional Reactions

I was recently teaching a class on emotional intelligence when a participant proclaimed, “If you could just help me understand why I attack others when they attack me, this class would be worthwhile.” The challenge in learning to improve our emotional intelligence is twofold: First, your negative emotional reactions are only the tip of the iceberg—they are symptomatic of something that is going on in your subconscious. Second, surfacing and understanding your thinking and the past experience you may unknowingly use to support your perspective is not easy because it requires in-depth self-examination.

To become more emotionally intelligent, you must recognize your negative emotional reactions and then take deliberate steps to uncover what is hidden behind your feelings. Negative or “hot” emotional reaction usually represents the violation of a personal value—something that is important to you. It is your perception of loss that leads you to become defensive as you interact with others.

To surface causes that may be hidden from your view, formulate a few “question-answer” sentence stems. Start with what seems to be the most obvious question. After you answer that, use that answer to formulate the next question to explore your thinking more deeply.

For example, let’s say that you start with the question, “Why do I attack when I think someone is attacking me?” You might answer this question with “I attack because I am afraid of looking bad.” Then take that answer to formulate a sentence stem like this: “I am afraid of looking bad because….” Finishing this sentence as many times as you can, and you will begin to surface the thinking behind your emotion.

When doing this exercise, really push yourself to complete the sentence. I like to do this exercise by writing my answers on paper. This allows me to review what I have written later and look for any common themes. This approach also allows me to challenge the accuracy of the thinking that may be fueling my emotional reactions.

Here are a number of questions you might consider answering if you wish to explore the source of your negative emotional reactions:

1. Why do I attack back? It is human nature that when we are attacked, we instinctively feel like we need to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, attacking back does not help us to understand why the person is attacking us in the first place. Once you have sounded the thinking that is behind your own reactive behavior, you may realize that your thinking in a given situation is incomplete or inaccurate—which in turn allows you to explore the other person’s thinking and feelings by asking questions.

2. What am I trying to protect? This is a great question because it is a natural response to feel that when someone attacks you, they are trying to take something from you. A similar question might also be, “What am I afraid of losing?” Whatever question you choose to explore can help you identify your personal perception of loss. Then you can ask yourself if the loss you perceive is real or only imagined.

3. When do I not feel safe? This question allows you to identify a particular situation, perhaps with a particular person. Once you answer the question, you will need to further explore your answer by finishing the sentence stem of “I do not feel safe when.… because….” The aim here is to surface the reason behind the feeling of a lack of safety.

4. How did I get into this cycle? Sometimes our feelings are a result of interpretations we make in recurring situations. For example, if every time I sing in public, my friends laugh at me and tell me I am a lousy singer, I might formulate a negative perception of my singing ability, and a whole host of negative feelings about being ridiculed by my friends. If you can identify what events led to the negative thinking and the feelings associated with the event, you may be able to select a more positive interpretation and accompanying feeling. Please note: if you can identify one piece of data that runs contrary to what you believe about yourself or the situation, then you must be open to the possibility that your perception is inaccurate!

5. What wounds do people attack? Maybe people are not actually attacking specific wounds, but answering the question allows you to identify wounds that you may have and not be aware of. Our “wounds” are really nothing more than a perceived deficiency in ourselves. For example, if I always perceive that the things people do and say indicate that they do not respect me, then I must recognize that respect is something I value. And I just might be inaccurately seeing the actions of others as a measure of disrespect when no disrespect was intended.

Once you surface your wound, you are free to challenge your perception and the accuracy of your thinking. If you do not know whether a person is being disrespectful, then you must suspend your thinking or hold a conversation to check out the assumptions you are holding onto.

6. What negative beliefs do I hold about myself? Answering this question and then creating a sentence stem to surface what you believe is not likeable about yourself will help you to identify how others may push your “hot” buttons.

For example, let’s say that I don’t like that I am not always dependable. When I finish the sentence stem, “I am not dependable because …, I identify a number wonderful excuses—some true and some not—for why I am not dependable. When others confront my lack of dependability, I may react defensively because even though I am attempting to be more dependable their feedback reinforces that I am not what I would hope to be.

Returning to the original situation, I gave the class participant the simple sentence, “I attack when attacked because….” to finish. He came to class the next day having completed the sentence over 50 times. When I asked him what he learned, he laughed and said that he was able to not only identify the source of his own defensiveness, but also surface some very illogical and irrational conclusions that his subconscious was using to fuel his emotional reactions.

Becoming more emotionally intelligent is a worthwhile endeavor for anyone who works with or manages others. Being able to understand the source of your feelings and to challenge the accuracy of those feelings will help you to navigate your interpersonal interactions more effectively while increasing your emotional intelligence.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.”

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.

10 Tips When Onboarding to a New Leadership Position

10 Tips When Onboarding to a New Leadership Position

I was recently visiting with a potential client, and at the close of our conversation, I asked her if there was something I could do to help her. She indicated that there were so many new leaders entering their organization that she wished she had a list of principles or concepts that she could give to them that would help them assimilate and become effective as quickly as possible.

Because changing leadership often brings challenges, I would suggest 10 best practices to strengthen your leadership capacity and improve the quality and speed of your results.

1. Clarify the Expectations of Your Manager.Knowing what your manager expects and how those expectations contribute to the desired results will help you align your expectations and your team’s. This will insure that everyone clearly understands how their assigned tasks contribute to the organization’s goals. Because leaders are often afraid to tell their subordinates that they are not meeting their expectations, pushing for clarity keeps you from having to read your manager’s mind and forces the manager to be clear about what they want.

2. Don’t Come in “Hot.”If you have been hired to take on a leadership role, you were likely hired because of your experience, knowledge, and skills.  You may assume that the people you have been hired to lead aren’t capable, aren’t motivated, or aren’t good performers. This perception has likely been reinforced if the hiring manager has told you negative things about the team and the work that you are inheriting. Such a mindset may lead you to treat people in a patronizing and demeaning way. Taking the approach that you have to fix everything because no one else can is a recipe for disaster.

3. Establish Rapport.If you are new to the company or this group, it’s important to remember that likely no one knows you. Take the time to tell your story–be sure and relate your past experience, what contributed to your success, what you believe about working with people, and your purpose and vision for working with this team. Be sure and take time to learn about others, their expertise, their successes and struggles, and how they see the current challenges in achieving the desired outcomes.

4. Hold a Culture Conversation. This activity could be easily listed as a rapport-building activity because it establishes value for the individuals and their contributions. Ask questions about what people are supposed to do, what they actually do, and how they do what they do. You might also ask them to share their perspective by asking, “What is currently working? What is not working? What is your greatest pain or frustration?” And, “What could be done to improve the current challenges?” This conversation will provide you with important information while gaining the trust of your team and showing you value their expertise.

5. Don’t Hook Your Wagon to a Single Leader. Often when a new person is hired they isolate themselves by aligning their views solely with their manager. This usually results in the new leader adopting the same current attitudes and conclusions that their leader holds, likely leading to a limited view of the work at hand and your team. By identifying and networking with a number of different, effective leaders, you will gain a wider perspective and build valuable relationships and support for what you are trying to accomplish and achieve.   

6. Clarify Your Intention. If your intention is to make yourself look good or prove that you are the star, then you will likely shine the spotlight on yourself to the exclusion of others. Highlight what you are trying to achieve and deliberately spotlight the members of your team for their successes. In doing so, they will make you the star. People want to do great work.  As their leader you can help them unleash their ability to do their best work.

7. Communicate Clearly and Often. Ask a lot of questions and really listen to what people are telling you. People will often withhold what they truly think until they are assured that you sincerely want to hear their answers. If they respond in a way that is negative or emotional, ask more questions. Hidden behind the negativity and emotions is what is important to the individual. You must listen past complaints and negativity to what is in the hearts and minds of the people.

8. Build Your Credibility. Be candid, honest, and transparent. If you don’t know something, acknowledge it and then find the answer. Recognize mistakes and focus on learning and improving, setting the example for everyone to do the same. Keep your commitments, support others in their challenges, provide clear and accurate feedback, coach and mentor when needed, and acknowledge and celebrate people’s efforts and successes. 

9. Check People’s Alignment.Alignment is determined by asking the following three questions: 1) How aligned are you with the expectations and goals for your work?        2) How aligned are you with what we do here? And, 3) How aligned are you with how we do the work? You might follow each of these questions with this question: “On a scale of 1 to 10 how aligned are you with…?” If the individual’s assessment comes in lower than a “6”, then you might ask, “Why?” and, “What would it take to bring you up to a 10?” Taking the time to understand why a person’s perception of expectations, execution, and process may be less than desirable will tell you a lot about why your team gets the results that they do. Remember that we are perfectly positioned to get the results that we do. The challenge is to figure how our positioning yields our results.

10. Expect to be Interpreted Negatively. When a new leader arrives on the scene, it isn’t uncommon for people to interpret what they do or say negatively.  Change is often difficult for people. When they don’t have all the facts, it is natural for them to take things personally and assume the worst. Recognize that tendency and deliberately think through and plan your actions and messaging. To help prevent negative conclusions, communicate clearly and often and share positive perspectives of anything that you undertake.

Beginning a new job as a leader with a new team and new challenges may seem overwhelming at first. Taking the time to apply these tips will increase your understanding of the current challenges, engage your people, and increase the quality and effectiveness of your leadership.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.”

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.

11 Pitfalls to Avoid in Difficult Conversations

Recently, I was asked to observe a Home Owners Association board meeting and to provide feedback about what the board members could do to have more effective meetings. From the outset, it was obvious that the entire group of individuals had never received any type of business communication training. More than anything, I was shocked at the way that they treated each other. The lack of respect and common courtesy that they displayed had a huge impact on how some engaged or chose not to engage. The atmosphere that they created by their behavior did not invite collaboration, contribution, or cooperation.

As the meeting began to unfold, what was obvious was that the lack of good communication skills negatively impacted the participants’ ability to rationally consider the topic that was to be discussed. Because I was asked not to intervene, only observe, I had the opportunity to take some notes and create a plan to help them. Based on those observations, here are some ideas you can implement when faced with holding difficult conversations in your organization.

1. Don’t be waylaid by process; focus on the content. Some people are so disrespectful in their delivery of a message or unaware of how their actions negatively impact others that it is easy to get distracted by their bad behavior. Focus on the content of their message and try to understand what is important to them. You can do this by asking considerate and thoughtful questions which demonstrates respect for what they have to say. It will also help you to understand their perspective, and not be derailed by their antics.

2. Don’t take others’ behavior personally; see past their behavior.That’s easier said than done, right? When people start yelling, judging, or blaming others, you know that something important to them is not being considered. Their behavior not only says more about them than it does about you, but it also signals a violated value. Whether that violation is real or not isn’t important. It is real to them, or they wouldn’t be acting as they are. Try to understand what is important to them and then address it. Don’t make their behavior about you, because it is all about them.

3. Don’t let your emotions rule your behavior. Sometimes before we are even aware of what is happening, we begin to feel agitated, irritated, or upset. When this happens, recognize that your protective-reactive mechanism in your brain is beginning to take over. It is important to be aware when this is happening to take rational control in the moment. Take a deep breath, relax, and finish the sentence, “I am beginning to become angry because….” Answering this question will help you return to rationality by forcing you to think about the reasons behind your feelings. Once you have surfaced your thinking, then you are in a place to challenge its accuracy.

4. Don’t make assumptions; seek data. Hopefully the assumptions or judgments we make are derived from data or evidence. To help maintain an objective perspective, ask yourself, “What are they assuming?” Once you can understand the assumptions being made, you can ask for the information or data that supports their perspective. Don’t be surprised if the person you are questioning doesn’t have any facts that support their position. It’s also important to perform this same exercise on yourself. When our thinking is devoid of support, then it becomes necessary to question why we think and feel the way we do.

5. Don’t shy away from disagreement; embrace it. Many people avoid conflict of any kind for fear of the outcome. Disagreement should be viewed as the opportunity to explore another perspective. When disagreements occur, lean into those conversations and try to understand by asking questions, exploring different experiences, and surfacing what is important to everyone. You can refocus a conversation where disagreements occur by asking people what you have in common and what your shared purpose is. This helps to lift others above their own perspective to consider a broader view.

6. Don’t push your view to the exclusion of others. If you push your view too forcefully, you will only create more opposition. Push creates pushback. If you are not making any progress with what you are sharing, identify where the resistance is coming from and take the time to explore another’s view. Then ask if they might consider your outlook. If you shift your focus to understanding the naysayers, you will find that they will be much more willing to consider your perspective.

7. Don’t be impatient–take the time you need. Difficult issues or topics take time to explore and understand. Some people just want to make a quick decision so they can move on to the next agenda item, whether that is the best course of action or not. Take time to consider if the decision you are trying to make is the right one given the desired outcomes. The more input that you get from others, the better the learning and solution will be. Productive dialogue or REAL talk takes time because it requires everyone’s contribution. Being patient will pay huge dividends down the road.

8. Don’t let bystanders go unheard–draw people out. Some people do not like to be the focus or center of attention, so they will sit quietly and say nothing during important discussions. These people may have information that you need. They may also understand an issue and see the big picture better than anyone in the room. Notice who is not participating and invite them to share their thinking and perspective. These people are not to be left out of the conversation.

9. Don’t let appreciation go unexpressed. No matter how difficult some people may be to deal with, it’s imperative to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Thank people for sharing their views even if they do it disrespectfully. The sharing of ideas is what you want to reinforce, not the method of delivery. Look for opportunities to express appreciation to everyone and don’t shy away from thanking people with whom you disagree or who may annoy you. Perhaps that appreciation will help validate them to the extent that they may reconsider how they treat others. People tend to reflect the behaviors that others project.

10. Don’t avoid making ground rules that will influence behavior. The team meeting that I observed could have avoided a number of issues if they had taken the time to determine what ground rules would guide their behavior and discussion. Take time to develop agreed-upon procedures for discussing tough issues and making decisions. If you do this before the conversation goes awry, you will be poised to manage the conversation’s effectiveness within the outlined parameters.

11. Don’t avoid giving necessary feedback. Sometimes we find it easier to just say nothing when certain people behave badly. You need to assess the cost their behavior may be having on others and the team’s effectiveness. If you determine that their behavior is worth discussing, then you need to prepare and hold a private conversation that will make them more aware of how they are negatively impacting others and the results that they wish to create.

Taking time to recognize what is not working and deliberately making changes will help individuals and groups to increase their effectiveness. Rather than falling into some of the pitfalls of poor communication, incorporating the tips above will not only help you achieve your objectives, but will help make your conversations work.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.”

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.

Workplace Bullying: What to Do if You or Someone Else is Being Bullied

Workplace Bullying: What to Do if You or Someone Else is Being Bullied

I recently spoke at a multi-day educational conference on different aspects of emotional intelligence. At the end of each presentation, people came up asking for some advice or coaching in situations where people are bullied. Some people asked, “What can I do if I am being bullied?” Others asked, “What can I do if I see others being bullied?” It appeared as if these people were overwhelmed and suffocating in the emotions that accompanied their experience. Listening to people’s experiences prompted a fair amount of introspection and a desire to address the issue of bullying whenever it occurs. 


Over the years I have noticed that we tend to compare ourselves and our performance to others. These comparisons, whether accurate or not, lead individuals to compete with the object of their comparison. This so-called competition may be an attempt on our part to simply outperform others or to prove to ourselves that we are not as bad as we have decided we are. If we can’t seem to compete on some level, we may next complain about others or their performance. What usually follows the complaining phase is some sort of criticism of the other person which eventually devolves into the condemnation of that person. I call this very destructive process the “Five C’s.” As a result of this process, the person who feels inferior might turn to bullying in order to gain a sense of control. 

Those who become the targets of such behavior often end up feeling embarrassed and immobilized. They may experience feelings of helplessness, grief, pain, and depression. They start to believe that they don’t fit in, that they aren’t accepted or acceptable, nor are they deemed to be good enough by others’ standards. Such thoughts and feelings taken to the extreme may even result in people becoming suicidal. At the very least, their capacity to perform is severely diminished. 

Here are some suggestions for those who are bullied and for those who may observe others being bullied.


Recognize What’s Happening

Bullying is generally defined as an intentional act that causes harm to others and may involve verbal harassment, verbal or non-verbal threats, physical assault, stalking, or other methods of coercion such as manipulation, blackmail, or extortion. It is aggressive behavior that intends to hurt, threaten, or frighten another person. An imbalance of power between the aggressor and the victim is often involved. Understanding that you are being targeted is the first step in making a change. If you see a repeated pattern of inappropriate and hurtful behavior, it is important to recognize it for what it is. 

Take Courage

It takes courage to stop this type of behavior. Although fear is a powerful emotion, it is important to identify what needs to change and make a plan to create a different outcome.  

Recognize the Choice

Wherever you find yourself, no matter how bad the situation, it is important to remember that you always have a choice about how you are perceiving the situation and how you will choose to respond to it. Choosing to play “the victim” and doing nothing will not improve the situation. You alone can decide how you will respond and move forward in the context of that choice. 

Seek Feedback

Although it may be difficult, talking with the person who seems to have an issue with you may help clear up any misunderstandings or problems that may be driving their behavior. You can also seek to improve your understanding of the current situation from others you know and trust. Gaining additional specific information will help you understand a different perspective and allow you to make any necessary changes. 

Ask for Advice

Gather as much information as possible about what is happening.  Identify people you know and trust who can properly advise you in the situation. It may be someone in Human Resources or it may be a person in a leadership position that can provide needed objectivity with your experience and recommend a course of action.

Brainstorm Solutions

Generating a number of different options for handling a negative situation, either by yourself or with respected others, will help to broaden your view of the situation and increase your objectivity. This may also serve to provide some hope that things can be improved.  

Search for the Basis of Your Feelings

If you are the focal point of bullying, the feelings that result from such treatment can be horrendous. Try to set your emotions aside and surface the thinking behind your feelings. For example, if your thinking was something like, “I will never be able to make a difference here,” then you need to ask yourself if such thinking is absolutely true. You will find that your thinking is flawed and inaccurate at best. When you can acknowledge that, then you can suspend the feelings that seem to color every moment. Remember that changing your thinking is an excellent way to change your feelings. 

Forgive Them and Do Your Best to Move On

This is one of the hardest things to do, particularly if you have been unfairly or unjustly treated. However, the lack of forgiveness is emotionally and physically oppressive. It would serve you better to lighten your load and release the heavy negativity that encompasses holding a grudge, negative feelings, or judgments of others.  



Look for Truth

If you have been on the receiving end of gossip, rumors, and negative judgments of others, you need to set all of that aside and look to find the truth in the situation. This forces you to look for data and fact, rather than accept the negative judgments and opinions of others. In doing so, you may find a lack of evidence to support the conclusions that others are offering as fact. This may necessitate establishing rapport with the accused and speaking with them instead of avoiding them and assuming the worst. 

Seek Understanding

This requires that you ask questions and listen to what others have to say. It also implies that you move past the assumptions from which others are operating and look to establish your own conclusions rather than taking everything at face value. 

Show Up for the Accused

You may be privy to the negative judgments, rumors, accusations, and gossip that are being spread by others about someone. When this happens, you can squelch the negativity by asking the offending party to show evidence to support what they are saying. Don’t be surprised if the person becomes defensive and can’t provide the evidence you are asking for. Let them know that you are simply trying to understand the basis for their accusations.

Separate Fact From Fiction

Fact is verifiable information while individual interpretation is the meaning that people assign the facts. For example, if an individual didn’t say anything in a meeting, that would be a fact. But if someone else said that the person didn’t say anything in the meeting because they were uncomfortable with the topic that would likely be their interpretation, not fact, unless they were privy to information you were not. Such an interpretation is impossible to establish as accurate unless one seeks to validate the meaning behind the behavior.   

Offer Support and Encouragement

When people are being bullied, they generally feel like they are completely alone. Others tend to avoid the person who is being targeted out of fear that they will be targeted also. Taking the time to support others in their challenges helps keep the person from feeling ostracized and lets them know they aren’t facing the situation alone. 

Be Kind

Being kind and understanding may provide you the opportunity to save another human being. We often judge ourselves by the way that people treat us. That is one reason that bullying can be so devastating. Taking the time to give those who are being maligned the benefit of the doubt, taking the time to get a clear perspective of the situation, and offering assistance where needed will help those being targeted feel valued and supported.

During my conference when I heard some of the stories that people had to share about bullying, I was shocked. As professional adults I would like to believe that we would be above such behavior, but sadly, that’s not always true. If you are a bully, stop it. Your behavior will not improve the situation. If you are being bullied, know that there will be better tomorrows and those tomorrows can be improved by the choices you make today. If you see others being bullied, reach out to them and be kind and understanding; offer support and help where appropriate. In a time when there is so much negativity and incivility toward others, I would hope that we all might make the choice to rise above the negativity and make a positive difference in the lives of others.