It’s natural to get defensive, but that only escalates the cycle of aggression.
A couple of years ago I was discussing a study of the habits of great musical composers when an audience member interrupted.
“That’s not true!” he shouted. “You’re totally ignorant — you don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Early in my career, I had let nasty people walk all over me. When a client berated me for my predecessor’s error on an ad, I gave in and offered him a full refund. When a boss threatened to fire me for defending a colleague who was treated poorly, I said nothing. But this time, I was prepared: I had trained as a conflict mediator, worked as a negotiator and become an organizational psychologist.
At some point in your work life, you’ve probably had to interact with a jerk. They’re the people who demean and disrespect you. They might steal credit for your successes, blame you for their failures, invade your privacy or break their promises, or bad-mouth you, scream at you and belittle you. As the organizational psychologist Bob Sutton puts it, they treat you like dirt, and either they don’t know it or they don’t care.
The natural response is to get defensive, but that only escalates the cycle of aggression. Take a classic study in which researchers recorded negotiators with different levels of skill. Average bargainers ended up in three times as many defend-attack spirals as expert negotiators. The experts escaped the heat of the moment and cooled the other person down, too. They calmly commented on their reactions to the other person’s behavior and tested their understanding of what the person was trying to convey.
I had been studying and teaching this evidence for years. Now it was time to practice it. I called a break, walked up to my heckler and said, “You’re welcome to disagree with the data, but I don’t think that’s a respectful way to express your opinion. It’s not how I was trained to have an intellectual debate. Were you?”
I was hoping to start a conversation about the conversation — to redirect the discussion away from the topic and toward some reflection on the tone of the discussion. To my surprise, it worked.
“Well, no …” he stammered, “I just think you’re wrong.” Later, I sent him the data and he sent me an apology.
My heckler was what Dr. Sutton calls a temporary jerk. We’re all capable of those behaviors, and we feel bad about them afterward. Onestudy showed that on days when leaders acted abusively, they ended up feeling less competent and less respected at work — and had more trouble relaxing at home.
But sometimes you’re stuck dealing with a certified jerk, someone who consistently demeans and disrespects others. A few years ago, I had a colleague who had a reputation for yelling at people during meetings. After witnessing it firsthand, I collected my thoughts and called to say I found it unprofessional. My colleague got defensive: “It was necessary to get my point across!”
Research on the psychology of certified jerks reveals that they have a habit of rationalizing aggression. They’ve convinced themselves that they have to act that way to get the results they want. I didn’t know how to respond until recently, when I interviewed Sheila Heen, a conflict mediation expert, for an episode of my WorkLife podcast on office jerks. She suggested finding a way to gently challenge the belief that aggression is necessary: “Really? It was my impression that you were smarter than that, and more creative than that — so I bet you could come up with some other ways to be just as clear without having to actually rip somebody else apart.”
Gaslighting is an emotionally abusive tactic that makes the victim question their own sanity and perception of reality. In this important talk, Ariel Leve shares some of the life-saving strategies she adopted as a child to survive her mother’s gaslighting.
The gaslighter makes you feel like the ground underneath you is always shifting.
- Remain Defiant
- Recognize that there will be no accountability
- Let go of the wish for it to be different
- Develop healthy detachment
- Write it down
Love [people] even in [their] sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov 
God refuses to be known in the way we usually know other objects; God can only be known by loving God. Yet much of religion has tried to know God by words, theories, doctrines, and dogmas. Belief systems have their place; they provide a necessary and structured beginning point, just as the dualistic mind is good as far as it goes. But then we need the nondual or mystical mind to love and fully experience limited ordinary things and to peek through the cloud to glimpse infinite and seemingly invisible things. This is the contemplative mind that can “know spiritual things in a spiritual way,” as Paul says (1 Corinthians 2:13).
What does it mean when Jesus tells us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind (not just our dualistic mind), and strength (Luke 10:27)? What does it mean, as the first commandment instructs us, to love God more than anything else? To love God is to love what God loves. To love God means to love everything . . . no exceptions.
Of course, that can only be done with divine love flowing through us. In this way, we can love things and people in themselves, for themselves—not for what they do for us. That’s when we begin to love our family, friends, and neighbors apart from what they can do for us or how they make us look. We love them as living images of God in themselves, despite their finiteness.
Now that takes work: constant detachment from ourselves—our conditioning, preferences, and knee-jerk reactions. We can only allow divine love to flow by way of contemplative consciousness, where we stop eliminating and choosing. This is the transformed mind (see Romans 12:2) that allows us to see God in everything and empowers our behavior to almost naturally change.
Religion, from the root religio, means to reconnect, to bind back together. I would describe mystical moments as those attention-grabbing experiences that overcome the gap between you and other people, events, or objects, and even God, where the illusion of separation disappears. The work of spirituality is to look with a different pair of nondual eyes, beyond what Thomas Merton calls “the shadow and the disguise”  of things until we can see them in their connectedness and wholeness. In a very real sense, the word “God” is just a synonym for everything. So if you do not want to get involved with everything, stay away from God.