She’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to… Ask Erin is a weekly advice column, in which Erin answers your burning questions about anything at all.
I was recently helping with a presentation at a work conference. In the middle of the presentation, I was berated by this woman who works with me but isn't in my department. She did this in front of everyone for a very low-stakes mistake that wasn't even really a mistake — it was more like a statement that could have gone two ways. I thought it should be one way and this woman who was yelling at me thought it should be the other way.
I tried to explain what I was thinking and acknowledge that I understood what she was saying, but she would not let up. It was uncomfortable and embarrassing.
To be clear, this wasn't anything that would affect our business or anything like that. In fact, my manager and department manager were both there and didn't seem to have a problem with what I had said and told me not to worry about it.
I suspect at least some of the people in the room knew this woman was being unreasonable. All this to say, it wasn't really anything to lose sleep over.
However, I was surprised by how much this bothered me. I cried. I felt sick the rest of the day. I just kept replaying the exchange in my head and thinking about all the people and how awkward and weird it was. It really had me shook. I know I can be sensitive, but I had a really extra hard time dealing with this.
My question is: how do I get over these things when they happen, move on, and quit feeling bad? How do I have thicker skin, so I don't get so upset by things like this?
I know you have to deal with bullies, even as an adult, and I don't want to go spiraling every time someone is mean to me.
Recently, I was having a conversation with my 13-year-old son about a difficulty he was having dealing with a kid who is always pushing his buttons. And I told him something that we all need to be reminded of:
There will always be someone who is challenging for us to be around. You don’t have to like everyone, but it will make life a lot easier for you if you learn how to deal with them and let it go.
This woman, your colleague, acted like an asshole. And her behavior — the stuff she was projecting on you — that’s on her. It’s her baggage, not yours.
It’s understandable that when someone yells at you, it feels personal. But, it’s not. That she pointed out a mistake or made a criticism is totally valid. But screaming at you is not okay (nor is it about you).
Now, knowing that doesn’t solve anything. But, there is something you can do.
First, I would set aside a time to speak to her in person and say some variation of this: “What happened during the presentation — you screaming at me — is not okay. I am open to criticism about my work and to discuss any issues. But, you are not allowed to speak to me that way.”
She may very well explode at this, too. You remaining calm and steadfast with the boundary you set is likely to drive someone like her into more anger. But, so what? She only holds the power you are willing to give her.
Now, second, should she hear what you are saying and accept the boundary you set, then great. But, should she not, you need to set up a meeting with your boss (or bosses) and explain the same thing. Very calmly, let them know that while you are open to critique and or discussion of how things can be done better next time, it is completely unacceptable to be yelled at in that manner.
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I am not someone who tolerates being treated this way in my social life or my work life. I don’t care if the person is my equal or superior at work. Communication in the workplace doesn’t require, nor should it include, screaming.
As a last resort, if speaking with the woman and going to your superior(s) doesn’t solve the problem, I would take this up with HR and/or again firmly let them know that this is creating a hostile work environment.
Now, to answer your actual question… How you move on from this stuff is by taking action and setting a boundary. So often we are timid to do so, especially as women. I can tell you from personal experience, that nine times out of ten, when I set a boundary with someone like your coworker, it works.
Often, people like her are not told that their behavior is unacceptable. Everyone is too busy sucking it up and not wanting to cause more drama.
Setting a boundary, and re-setting it as necessary, gives you power and diffuses the drama.
You stop playing the game, and at some point, she will feel really silly yelling at someone who is calm and collected and has established boundaries.
So, it’s not so much a matter of growing a thicker skin. I believe that once you reclaim your power through setting your boundaries clearly and firmly, this sort of stuff won’t continue to upset you.
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