Crucial Conversations: How to have them

Introduction: The Problem Won’t Go Away

In the coaching work that I do, it is certainly true to say that almost all leaders and managers who I encounter want to create a positive culture for their staff. They want a good team environment.

However, it is also true that the one thing that seems to get in the road and causes leaders and managers the most stress is when they need to have crucial conversations with their staff where it is important to provide negative or corrective feedback or where there are disagreements or perhaps problems that need to be addressed.

Typically, I find that most leaders simply “hope” that the problem will go away and will privately confide to me that this is certainly what they trust might happen. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Instead, the problem or issue only gets worse and magnifies over time which has the impact of eroding a positive culture, creating poor morale as well as affecting the reputation of the leader concerned and perhaps also reducing productivity and efficiency.

As a way of addressing issues and delivering negative feedback or pointing out someone’s shortcomings or perhaps identifying poor behaviour, managers typically soft-pedal around the issue essentially trying to avoid offending the staff member. Not only do they not want to offend people and their team, but at a dynamic level, there is also the sense that they want everyone to like them and everyone to think that they are a good leader.

Ironically however, failing to provide effective feedback and skirting around issues only means that others (including the so-called offender), see the leader as incompetent or weak and not particularly effective.

Anecdotally, I have also had leaders tell me that as a way of trying to remedy the problem they perhaps thought it would be okay to provide hints to the individual staff member without actually addressing the issue. Otherwise, they may refer the matter to Human Resources to deal with, or they may refer the matter to the Employee Assistance Program.

How Do You Have the Conversation?

So how do you communicate in a straightforward genuine manner without creating defensiveness or hostility from the staff member? How can you discuss with the staff member in such a way that you do not intentionally offend them? Professor Kim Cameron in his 2013 book titled, “Practicing Positive Leadership” provided an important distinction.

One of the most important attributes of supportive communication is the ability to be descriptive rather than evaluative in the delivery of the message.

In other words, evaluative communication makes a judgement, provides an opinion, or places a label on individuals or their behaviour. For example, comments such as, “You did it all wrong” or “It’s your fault” or “You are ineffective” are all evaluative in style. They do not suspend judgement. They are generally critical and fault finding.

Needless to say, individuals who receive such evaluative statements generally feel attacked and tend to retreat and become defensive or occasionally aggressive or hostile. Naturally enough, they push back and defend themselves by proclaiming that they are not wrong or it was not their fault or that they are very capable as individuals.

In contrast, descriptive comments are more objective in kind and allow the leader to be more congruent and authentic in the delivery of the message. Descriptive communication involves three steps:

  1. Describe the event, behaviour, or circumstance objectively,
  2. Describe outcomes and/or feelings and not the other person’s attributes,
  3. Suggest alternative solutions that could resolve the issue.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

Firstly, describe objectively your observation of the event that occurred or the behaviour that you consider needs to be modified. It is important that this description should identify elements of the behaviour that can be confirmed objectively. In other words, you need to be able to see or hear the behaviour. For example, “You have been 15 to 20 minutes late for work each day this week” or “Your report missed the deadline”.

Secondly, describe the reactions of yourself or others to the behaviour and describe the consequences of the behaviour. For example, “When you are late to work, it disappoints me that you are not adhering to the team’s guidelines and it sends a message to the rest of the team that a lack of punctuality is tolerated and it’s probably fair to say, that it’s not fair on the rest of the team either who do arrive on time or are early to work” or “Missing the deadline, means that others in your team are now penalised and need to work back in order to compile the data necessary and that certainly is not good for team morale or for effective teams”.

Thirdly, suggest a more acceptable alternative or solution unless of course, the staff member can come up with a better solution. This kind of discussion focuses on possible solutions and not on the person and as such, avoids accusations. It also helps the other person save face and avoid feeling personally criticised because the behaviour is not attached to their self-esteem. The discussion preserves self-esteem because it focuses on something that is controllable and upon which both the leader and the staff member can possibly agree. Therefore, the emphasis is on finding a solution that is acceptable to both people rather than figuring out who is right and who is wrong and who should change and who should not.

In summary, the three steps of descriptive communication are as follows:

  1. Here it is what I just experienced, saw or heard;
  2. Here is how I feel about it, how others feel about it, and here are the consequences or the impact;
  3. Here is an alternative solution that might be more acceptable.

A really good rule of thumb in this area of crucial conversations is to avoid using the word “you” in providing feedback. “You” only serves to target people who then become defensive and naturally want to push back or defend their cause. Instead, using “I” as much as possible is important. As outlined above, the leader targets the behaviour, the event, the consequences and the standard that has not been met as well as focusing on possible solutions.

However, it also really important to state that once a descriptive communication has been delivered that it is important for the leader to stop and listen intently to what the staff member has to say. If the leader is not able to effectively listen, then the communication exercise for crucial conversations will be greatly diminished. Effective listening is not something that leaders do well. This is one of the reasons why I authored the book, “Listen Up Now” ( for business leaders.

How to Actually Start the Conversation

I’m also acutely aware that most leaders and managers will say to me that they do not know how to start the crucial conversation before launching into the descriptive communication. Again, there is a tendency for leaders to tiptoe around the issue and talk about the latest football results, or the weather, or some other current topic before having the crucial conversation which only serves to undermine the trust in the relationship as well as undermine the leader’s reputation for being genuine and authentic.

Instead, there are a number of ways by which the leader can introduce the crucial conversation including the following:

  • “I’m hesitant about raising this issue because I don’t want it to be blown out of proportion or be misrepresented in any way”
  • “I’d like to talk to you about something – will this time work?”
  • “Can I give you some feedback?”

Once the leader has delivered the descriptive communication, then the way of ending the three-step delivery is to finish with something like:

  • “What I’d like now is [state the solution], but maybe there is something I haven’t thought of or I’ve missed”
  • “Next time, I’d like to see this happen…”
  • “What thoughts do you have now on how this might be resolved?”
  • “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
  • “Instead, can you do…”

Leaders need to become proficient in knowing how to have crucial conversations according to the formula and recipe listed above.

Honest communication and feedback is one of the hallmarks of not only effective leadership, but of creating a positive culture where people trust each other to be able to give and receive appropriate feedback.

Yes, it takes courage, but the more times a leader becomes practised in these crucial conversations the more effective will be their team, the better the team moral and the more enhanced the leader’s reputation.


[Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach. He is also an author, facilitator, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people and leaders to find their strengths and reach their goals as well as grow their businesses, become more productive and create positive cultures. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at and he can be contacted at [email protected]]



Resilience in Tough Times

Resilience: How do we manage ourselves when our world is upside down?

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has predicated terms like “unprecedented”, “never before experienced”, extraordinary”, “unimaginable”, “unmatched” and “very challenging”, and there is certainly unanimous agreement that it is a changing landscape on a daily basis and it appears to be completely unpredictable with uncertainty about how long this virus will take to play out not only in terms of disruption to individual’s lives, but also how long it might take for businesses to recover.

What is Resilience?

Life doesn’t come with a manual or a booklet termed “Trouble-shooting” to show us how to handles life’s circumstances especially significant events like a death, serious illness, financial hardship or relationship breakdown. These events (big or small) impact people differently. There are a myriad of thoughts and feelings that surround such situations and overall, people seem to adapt reasonably well. That’s called resilience.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress”.

Interestingly, these adverse kinds of events not only allow us the opportunity to bounce back, but to grow and develop. Such events don’t have to define you. Copig with such events and becoming more resilient can only help you through difficult circumstances, but also allow you to grow and improve.

Although it is not possible to control the health situation in our world or the economy for that matter, we can in fact, seek to control our own environment and build resilience in those domains of our life which we can command. How do we go about doing that? How do we build resilience? How do we become more bullet-proof as the world throws various curved balls at us?

In short, it’s like building a muscle. You have to feel the pain and the stress, but the muscle gets stronger as a result. You have to work at it though and it does take time.

Essentially there are four major areas of our life that we need to take charge of as a way of building our resources and our resilience. Let’s look at those four main building blocks for resilience.

1. Energy

Where do we get our energy from? You and I both know that if we don’t have energy for our day, then life is much more difficult than ordinarily it might be. For example, if you have a headache or cold, then typically, you don’t have the energy and enthusiasm for your day as you would when you are feeling healthy and well.

The research shows that we get energy from a number of sources and none of these are of a surprise to any of us. In fact, you simply need to read the press or listen to the media to get advice on any number of these areas. At times, the advice might be confusing, but there is little doubt that these are critical areas to be considered and if you are serious about resilience, you cannot afford to overlook them. In particular, they include the following:

(1) Diet and Healthy Eating
This comes as no surprise and clearly the evidence is strong that what we put in our mouth largely determines our overall health and well-being. The general rule of thumb is low carbohydrates and plenty of protein and keeping away from junk food.

Although alcohol sales have skyrocketed through this pandemic with people forced to stay home, it is important to watch your alcohol intake (and consumption of drugs). Try for an alcohol free day every second day or maybe for a few days in a row.

(2) Fitness
As the old saying goes, “if you don’t use it, you lose it”. This is especially going to be critical during a period of partial or total lockdown where individuals will be restricted to their home setting. The basic formula is 30 minutes each day to be active and walking for instance is highly recommended.

How do you exercise though if you are confined to a limited space? Clearly there are ways that this can be done and needless to say, exercise is critical to helping us remain fit and healthy.

(3) Sleep
Again, this is not news, but the evidence is quite clear that if we want energy for our day, then we need to have adequate sleep and rest. I had an English teacher in secondary school who could exist on four hours of sleep a night, but those people are a rarity and most of us need at least 7 to 8 hours sleep.

As a general rule, there’s some solid evidence that suggests that turning off devices and screens an hour before bedtime is good practice.

How do you ensure therefore, that you get to bed in good time? What disciplines do you put in place to ensure that you get a good night’s rest?

(4) Relaxation
In this fast-paced world, it is critically important to have time out and have time away from work. In this period with the Coronavirus however, it may well be that many of us are being forced to look at how we use our relaxation now that the world has slowed and we are being forced to stay indoors and are not being consumed with the busyness of life with its many distractions.

(5) Mindfulness
Being still and reflecting is important downtime for each of us. Whether that is in the form of meditation, yoga, journaling or prayer or whether it just means that you stop and recall the things in life that you’re grateful for, this is an important activity which allows us to change gears and to endeavour to be present in the moment.

(6) Parent Training
Interestingly, the research shows that if we know how to be an effective parent (more or less), then this is a huge advantage in having energy for living. There is no doubt at all that being a parent can be fatiguing and exhausting in so many ways. Having some firm guidelines on how to be a parent and having some tools at your disposal helps to ease the constant demand of what parenting is all about.

Now that schools are closed and parents are being asked to engage in home schooling as well as the fact that parents are trying to work from home too, this going to bring about all sorts of issues and difficulties. Knowing how to be a good parent in so-called “normal” times is hard enough let alone in pandemic times.

As an aside, I wrote a book on this topic of parenting called “Growing Up Children: How to Get 5-12 Year Olds to Behave and Do As They’re Told” and followed it up with “Teenage Trouble Shooting: How to Stop Your Adolescent Driving You Crazy” (see Books at ).

2. Positive Mindset

As Dr Wayne Dyer once said, “As you think, so shall you be” or as Proverbs 4:23 states, “Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life”.

It is a truism that everything begins with a thought and once you really understand what you think about is what actually expands, you need to start to be careful what you actually think about (…think about that for a moment!…).

In this day and age, when there is a good deal of negativity that surrounds us (not to mention the current COVID crisis), it is important to try to be positive rather than pessimistic; are you a cup half empty or cup half full person?

It was the Greek philosopher Epictetus, in the first century A.D. who said, “Man is disturbed not by events, but by the view he takes of them”. More recently, it was Dr Stephen Covey who put it in similar terms like, “It isn’t what happens to us that effects our behaviour, it’s the interpretation of what happens to us that effects our behaviour”.

A model for helping us with our thinking and allowing us to keep positive is what I call the ABCD of human behaviour. It goes like this.

In other words, once you know that you have started to feel badly (whether for example that might be feeling anxious or fearful, down or depressed, irritated or angry), you then know that in all likelihood, you have engaged in some faulty or irrational thinking. Rather than letting that thinking get out of hand or you continue to worry unnecessarily, you need to show the discipline of being able to turn your thoughts around so that you feel differently.

This does require a discipline because letting your thoughts run away with you and letting negative thoughts dominate you so that you become pessimistic or a “worry wart” does little to assist you and is not only destructive, but mentally draining. To stop this negative cycle, you have to replace those negative thoughts with more positive ones.

Because thoughts are hard to catch, it’s often best to write down your negatives and look at ways you might be able to turn them around or reverse them somehow. For example, instead of saying “I am stuck in my career”, you could perhaps write, “it is true that I am in a current job that I don’t enjoy, but I can look at ways to move out of this role perhaps by using a mentor or coach or perhaps by gaining some additional skills or qualifications, but no one is holding me in this job against my will, so I can do something about it to start to improve my situation.” Then when you focus on this more positive statement, rather than your initial automatic negative thoughts, you can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and you feel more optimistic and more hopeful.

Of course, this might be easier said than done and if you want more information on how to do this then I can refer you to my book titled, “Stopping Your Self-sabotage: Steps to Increase your Self-confidence” (See )

3. Communication and Relationships

It was one of the founding forefathers of psychology in William James who once wrote, “The greatest need of every human being is the need for appreciation”.

Interestingly enough, research by Prof Martin Seligman and his associates revealed that companies that flourished and did well economically were those where positive communication was obvious. In fact, they devised something called the “Losada Ratio” where it was calculated that the companies that were doing well financially had a ratio of 3 to 1 of positive comments to negative comments particularly in relation to their business meetings and communications.

At a personal level though, a ratio of 3 to 1 within a marriage or permanent relationship is not sufficient to maintain such a relationship and instead, the ratio for a strong and loving marriage or a relationship is 5 to 1.

As Tony Robbins once said, “The quality of our life is determined by the quality of our relationships”.

Now it is true that not everyone is in a marriage or permanent relationship, however, it is critical for you to understand that who you surround yourself with and the kinds of persons they are, has a profound impact on your demeanour and your overall temperament.

It is true that certain people in life are what we might loosely call “energy vampires” and these are not the kinds of people who enhance your life or improve it in any way. Instead, you need to surround yourself with people who are positive and with whom you can be yourself and those with whom you can count on when the going gets tough.

4. Purpose

The final area in terms of how to build resilience is all about knowing and understanding your purpose in life and is what Prof Martin Seligman calls the “meaningful life”. His research shows that the largest contributor to human happiness is belonging to and serving something bigger than ourselves.

Connecting with something external and using our highest strengths to serve something beyond our individual lives gives us meaning and purpose and a sense of well-being.

For some people, this might be volunteering to work with the Red Cross or helping out in a soup kitchen or assisting in a charity for homelessness. For others, it might mean attending church and serving their God and caring for others within their community.

Finding purpose in your life is not an easy journey and it is not one which is generally discovered quickly and instead, takes a good deal of thought and possibly conversation to allow things to crystallise in an individual’s life.

In summary, in a world that is now being turned upside down and where we are moving in unchartered waters, this is the time when we need to ensure that we are resilient as best we can be. The four building blocks above give us hints about how we might manage this.

Indeed, since many of us now need to work from home and some of us on the planet are in the lockdown, then this certainly might be the exact time when we can stop and reflect because our world has stopped around us and forced us to do the same, and we can take stock of our lives and where we are heading and how we can build resilience to get there.

How to be Happy in Life: A Longitudinal Study over 75 Years

Longitudinal studies are rare, especially those that span 75 years. So, what does a longitudinal study across 75 years tell us about how to lead a good life and be successful in life? What secrets did such a study reveal about a satisfying life?

The popular press would have us believe that it is all about becoming rich, living in the best house and driving the best car. It is about affluence and wealth. It’s about luxury holidays and dining in 5 star restaurants and hotels. But is it really?

This study is reported by Dr Robert Waldinger who is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (see his TED Talk). He is currently the fourth Director of this project across almost four score years. The study began in 1938 where two groups of boys were studied from the Boston area.

One group were Sophomores (ie., 10thgrade in secondary school) from Harvard College and the other group were boys from a poor and disadvantaged area in Boston who lived in tenement housing with no hot or cold running water. Two very distinct groups.

Since the beginning of the study, these males have been interviewed every two years along with a range of assessments including medical reports, blood samples, brain scans, interviews with parents, and questionnaires. Once they moved into adulthood, the assessments also included videoing their relationship with their wives, as well as interviews with their children.

The study began with 724 men. Sixty are still alive and in their 90s. The research found that while some developed addictions such as alcoholism or developed mental health issues such as schizophrenia, others climbed the social ladder to the top. One in fact, was a US President.

How did some manage to struggle in life while others seemed to be very successful? What were the crucial factors for a good life?

The results were clear.

Firstly, it was discovered that healthy connections are positive for us as individuals. In contrast, loneliness creates a toxic environment where people are less happy, health declines earlier in mid-life, brain functioning deteriorates earlier and these people also live shorter lives. Within the USA at least, 1 in 5 persons report being lonely. What does that do for the health of a nation?

Secondly, it is not just about having friends or being in a committed relationship, it is about the quality of those close relationships. Living in a connected warm relationship is both positive and is protective. On the other hand, living in the midst of conflict such as a poor marriage, is bad for our health and is actually worse than getting divorced.

Interestingly, at age 50 years, the greatest predictor of health and satisfaction was those who were engaged in a positive relationship. Those most healthy in their 80s, were those most satisfied in their relationship in their 50s.

Thirdly, the research found that good, positive relationships not only protect our bodies, but also protect our brains. In other words, having secure and attached relationships where you can count on another person in times of need, when the going got tough, the other was there to support and care meant that our brain functioning in our 80s was significantly healthier. Those individuals who were in poor relationships had earlier memory decline.

So, what’s the message?

In an age where we want a quick fix to a happy and satisfying life and where there is the myth that it’s all about wealth and riches, fame and fortune, nothing is further from the truth.

Instead, a satisfying and healthy life is about positive relationships with family, friends and community.There is no quick fix or silver bullet. Relationships take time, effort and are hard work. Good relationships though are the answer to a good life.

The obvious next question then, is how do we create positive relationships with our spouse, friends or community?

With a spouse, it is about communicating which means listening to each other and making time to do so. It is about fighting fair and being able to have “crucial” conversations. This all means the television goes off or the smartphone is put away. What it also means is finding things to do together and maybe changing it up somewhat and trying out new things together. This might look like trying a new restaurant or place to eat, going to the movies together, enrolling for a course together or exploring a new holiday destination.

With friends, it is the same principle. It is about taking the trouble to care and be supportive. With the community, it is about giving which might suggest volunteering or helping out at the local sports club or at church or being involved with a community activity or charity.

It is all about connection – and doing so in a positive way.

The good news though is that none of this is beyond any of us.

Gaslighting: The art of making you feel like you are losing it

Origins of the Term 

Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 Film

“Gaslighting” is a term that has nothing to do with how we used to light our street corners and our homes. Nothing of the sort. Instead, the term originates from the play by Patrick Hamilton in 1938 called “Gas Light” together with the film adaptations in 1940 and 1944 which demonstrated the systematic psychological manipulation of a victim by her husband. In the story, the husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of the environment and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she pointed out those changes.

The Scenario

As Ruth Ostrow recently reported in an article titled “Sanity Stealers” in “The Australian” on Friday, 26th January, 2018 (page 14), her situation went like this. She said, …”a recent experience really distressed me. It involved someone who was in the wrong. When I caught her out, instead of apologising, she somehow convinced me that I was to blame. She relayed events differently to what I had remembered, to the point I questioned my own sanity – and she accused me of creating a drama because I was feeling so guilty about my own bad behaviour. Hugh? I was so confused and kept going over events in my mind until I became convinced that I had remembered exactly what happened, which included catching her red-handed in an act of betrayal. Why had I ever doubted the facts for one minute?” Ostrow goes on to say that she had fallen for a deflective technique called gaslighting.

What is Gaslighting?

So what is it exactly? It’s the manipulative behaviour or technique of one person to make the other question their own reality and their intuition and then doubt themselves so that they become more dependent on the “gaslighter”.

The ultimate goal is for you to second-guess the following:

  • your choices (“Maybe I was wrong after-all”; “Maybe it was my fault”; Maybe I am to blame”),
  • your perceptions or interpretations (“Maybe I didn’t see it properly or maybe I did miss something”; “Maybe my memory is just not as good as it used to be”), and
  • your sanity (“Maybe I’m just going nuts”; “Maybe I really am just losing it”)

Doubting yourself in this way only serves to make you more dependent on the abuser. It’s a technique used by abusers, narcissists, dictators, con-artists, bullies, and cult leaders who all seek to gain control over you.

Sound familiar? Ever doubted yourself with someone in particular? Of course, we all have doubts at times, but sometimes there is a specific person who always makes us feel like we need to second guess ourselves.

For example, in some abusive relationships, spouses may flatly deny that they have been violent or lie about what happened. In parent-child relationships, especially where there is drug abuse or mental health issues such as personality disorders, then the parent might use gaslighting to keep the child quiet about the abuse or addiction. Where a child is emotionally, sexually or physically abused, the adult might use gaslighting to ensure that the child does not say anything to outsiders. In cases where the parents have had a nasty separation or divorce, one parent can use gaslighting to portray the other parent as “hopeless”, “irresponsible”, “immature” and a “total idiot” to the child, in order to get the child to side with the one parent against the other. In the work situation, you could have a manager who micro-manages for control, who changes their minds and then denies it, who lies about what happened or what occurred or who tries to align people against you.

Typically too, the gaslighting happens gradually in a relationship. It’s kind of like you get lured in and then in a sinister and insidious way, the gaslighting begins. The gaslighter may even initially camouflage the digs, put-downs and innuendos in humour. But they are barbs none the less. At first you may see it all as somewhat harmless or you reason that perhaps they are just having an “off day” or even that you explain it away by saying that “they’re stressed just now” or even “that’s just the way they are”. Occasionally too, you might be tempted to excuse them by saying that you’ll change them or that somehow “they’ll come round”. None of this is true however – they are gaslighters! Ironically too, your attempts to let them off the hook only means that you are gaslighting yourself. Think about that for a moment…

What are the Signs of Gaslighting?

In Psychology Today, Dr Stephanie Sarkis among others, writes that gaslighters generally use the following techniques:

  1. They tell blatant lies.

You know it’s a lie, but they say it so convincingly that it is kind of unsettling. If they can tell lies like this, what can you really believe about them? This keeps you unsteady and throws you off ‘centre’ and starts to tip your world upside down which is their goal.

  1. They constantly criticize you or find fault.

Nothing is ever good enough. They constantly chip away at your self-esteem and get you to really doubt yourself. No matter what you do, you didn’t do it properly or no matter what choice you made it was wrong. All this negativity adds up over time and lays the groundwork for the gaslighter to play with your perception of reality. This also means that the things in which you were once confident, you also start to doubt. “Maybe I never was really good at that after-all.”

  1. They blame you for their behaviour.

Yes, it’s all your fault. Every disagreement or argument in the end boils down to it being your fault. You’re to blame. You’re the one who created this situation. You find yourself constantly apologising in order to keep the peace and trying to gain some sort of harmony. For example, you point out a poor behaviour or their negative emotions and suddenly, you’re the one who is “dramatizing” it all or “over-reacting” or just being “overly sensitive”. You can’t win, and so in the end, you shut down. This is designed to keep you mute, and for you to question your own grip on things.

  1. They deny they ever said or did something, even if you have proof.

At some level, you know that they did something or that you heard something, but they out and out deny it. Their denials are such that as a reasonable person yourself, you start to doubt your reality. Maybe there was another interpretation to what you saw or heard. The more that this occurs, the more you question your reality and you start to accept theirs.

  1. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.

They know for example, that your work is important to you or your children are very important to you and they know of course, that your identify is fundamental to who you are. For work, they might state that you only have the job because the company feels sorry for you or they couldn’t find anyone else to do the job. In regards to your children, you say that you should never have had them. They tell you that you are a worthy person, but it’s just that you have this long list of negative traits and poor behaviours. They undermine who you are as a person.

  1. Their actions do not match their words.

These gaslighters do not have integrity as people, so you’ll see that their words and their actions are not congruent. Ultimately, don’t believe the words. Words are cheap. Actions speak louder than words.

  1. They throw in positive praise to confuse you.

While gaslighters are intent on bringing you down and undermining you, on occasion they will say something positive about what you did. Again, because you are a reasonable person, you cut them some slack saying, “Maybe they aren’t so bad after all”. But they are. This see-saw effect of negativity mixed with the occasional positivity only serves to keep you off-kilter again and unbalanced.

  1. They know that confusion weakens people

When things are unstable and you can’t count on consistency, you start to question everything. It’s like walking around on egg-shells. This is exactly the goal of the gaslighter. The more unsteady that you become, the more that you rely on them to feel “stable”.

  1. They project onto others.

Whatever they are accusing you of doing such as abusing alcohol or cheating on the relationship is a ploy to deflect attention away from them. They project onto so you find yourself so busy defending yourself that you get distracted from the gaslighter’s behaviour. The truth be known that whatever they are projecting onto you is probably a very good indication that they are dong exactly that ie., drinking way too much or having an affair.

  1. They try to align people against you.

As you’re aware of by now, gaslighters are master manipulators of their environment and they will find people who will stand by them no matter what and they use these people against you. Remember that they are constant liars so they will say things like, “This person knows that you’re hopeless too” or “This person knows that you’re not correct”. Now, it may well be that these people didn’t say anything of the kind, but nevertheless, this throws you and you’re not sure who to believe. If you don’t know who to trust anymore, then this can lead you straight back to the gaslighter.

  1. They tell you that everyone else is a liar.

By asserting that everyone else is a liar including family, friends, workmates or even the media, it threatens your reality. What’s the truth really? Because you are reasonable and genuine, you’ve never known anyone with the audacity to say such things, so maybe they are right. Maybe they do have a sense of the real “truth” after-all? So maybe you need to turn to them for the “correct” information – which of course, is not correct at all.

  1. They tell you and others that you’re crazy.

Finally, Dr Sarkis writes that this is a master technique because if the gaslighter can discredit you to the point of your sanity, then no-one is going to believe you in relation to the gaslighter’s poor, inconsistent, and inappropriate behaviour.

What are the Personal Signs that you’ve been Gaslighted?

According to psychoanalyst and author Dr Robert Stern who wrote “The Gaslight Effect“, there are some tell-tale signs for the individual caught up with a gaslighter:

  1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself.
  2. You start to question if you are too sensitive.
  3. You often feel confused and have a hard time making simple decisions.
  4. You find yourself constantly apologising.
  5. You can’t understand why you’re so unhappy.
  6. You often make excuses for your partner’s behaviour.
  7. You feel like you can’t do anything right.
  8. You often feel like you aren’t good enough for others.
  9. You have the sense that you used to be a more confident, relaxed and happy person.
  10. You withhold information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain things.

What to do?

Of course, it goes without saying that if you’re in such a relationship, then you are in danger emotionally and psychologically and you need to realise that such a relationship could impact you for some extended time (months or a few years) even if you manage to get out of it because of the significant effects on your mental health.

Step 1 is to make a stand for yourself and realise that you are your own best friend and that you owe it to yourself (if not to your children and family if you have any) that your partner is dysfunctional and unhealthy and that this is a toxic relationship. Call it for what it is. Never wait for them to “come to their senses” – it just won’t happen. They will stay in denial and they will never ever admit that they are gaslighting. So, give up on any awareness or confessions on their part.

Step 2 is to get out as quickly as you can and as safely as you can. It might mean that you don’t give any hint of leaving, but you just go. You cannot save them or get them to therapy (remember that there’s nothing wrong with them!), but you can save yourself. You’re worth saving! Get some trusted friends and family to support you and help you to leave.

Step 3 is to get therapeutic help and support. You may well need it after the battering you’ve taken over months or years of this toxic relationship. Therapy helps you to see things in perspective once again and it helps to have an independent opinion that you did the right thing by leaving.

Step 4 is critical in that you never look back. Don’t even think about second chances for your partner. Instead, focus on recovering and re-discovering yourself and going forward in positive ways. There is a big world out there waiting for you and you owe it to yourself to realise your real potential.


[Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach along with being an accredited family business advisor. He is also an author, facilitator, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people and leaders to find their strengths and reach their goals as well as grow their businesses, become more productive and create positive cultures. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at and he can be contacted at [email protected]]

The Narcissist in the Workplace

We have already discussed what a narcissist is in a previous article (“The Narcissist: What is it exactly?”) suffice to say that the world famous Mayo Clinic based in Rochester, Minnesota defines the narcissistic personality disorder as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others”.

Narcissists always stand out

Behind the grandiose exhibitionist presentation of self-enhancement is either the spoilt child who is the centre of their own universe or the individual who is masking a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

The Workplace Scenario

Peter Fowler is a 42 year old operations manager. He had been promoted over several other managers after only four and a half years with the company. A number of his peers had the feeling that Peter’s promotion to operations manager came about more through office politics and “sucking up” to the CEO than it did from significant professional achievements. Although there were certainly a few people who were resentful, many were also impressed by his looks, his disposition, his charm and his accomplishments. Peter’s wife was known to be extremely attractive, well-positioned in society and the mother of their two beautiful children. Rumour had it that his expensive cars, showy house and exclusive golf club membership were paid for more by his wife’s family than by his own income or investments.

Increasingly, there were complaints from Peter’s subordinates. His team did not appear to be a cohesive well functioning unit. Members of his team thought that Peter was relatively unconcerned about their well-being and professional development. They also thought that their projects were mostly designed to advance Peter’s position and make him look good and there was also the notion that he was sacrificing production quality and efficiency for his own short-term benefit. Peter sometimes used his team meetings as a forum to air his grandiose ideas or even for blatant discussions of his personal power, brilliance and future success. Despites his dazzling success however, he was hypersensitive to criticism. There was unanimous agreement that he was intolerant of even the most constructive advice. Irrespective, Peter still had quite a following. He certainly sought out those in positions of power. Although he seemed to tolerate direct reports who might be useful to him, he had little apparent concern for others beneath him. Those who might feel appreciated for a period would eventually end up feeling used and abused.

What are the Common Flaws of Narcissistic Managers?

As Stuart Yudofsky outlined in his 2005 book titled, “Fatal Flaws: Navigating Destructive Relationships with People with Disorders of Personality and Character”, there are 20 common characteristics associated with narcissistic managers. They are as follows:

  1. They value loyalty in their subordinates or direct reports more than competence or productivity.
  2. They overestimate their own knowledge about nearly every area of the business or organisation.
  3. They do not appreciate the important contributions of others.
  4. They take personal credit for the accomplishment of others.
  5. They are competitive with and threatened by peers and competent managers.
  6. They micromanage competent subordinates in areas in which they themselves have little expertise.
  7. They insist on making all decisions – even minor ones – themselves often with insufficient information about and understanding of the relevant issues.
  8. They overstate their own and the organisation’s successes – to the point of bragging.
  9. They never admit to making mistakes.
  10. They blame others for their own mistakes and failures.
  11. They distrust, intimidate, or fire subordinates who make independent decisions or raise concerns about their questionable decisions or business practices.
  12. They surround themselves with “insiders” who constantly praise and never disagree with them.
  13. They do not mentor their subordinates or advance their careers.
  14. They pursue highly visible (ie., flashy) short-term successes at the expense of supporting solid, long-range strategic plans.
  15. They misappropriate the organisation’s resources for their personal benefit and self-aggrandisement.
  16. They devalue and underestimate the achievements of competitors in similar businesses or enterprises.
  17. The miss out on important opportunities by not recognising their own lack of knowledge in some areas.
  18. They display great deference toward and respect for their superiors to their faces yet criticise, devalue, and undermine them behind their backs.
  19. They respond to constructive criticism of their work with anger, defensiveness, and thoughts or acts of retribution.
  20. They prioritise their own ambitions for advancement over the needs of the organisation.

Know anyone who fits this description or behaves in these kinds of ways?

How do you to Cope with a Narcissist Boss?

Andrew DuBrin in his 2012 book titled, “Narcissism in the Workplace: Research, Opinion and Practice” provides a number of helpful hints about how to manage narcissists in the workplace. For example, note the following:

  • Assess the relationship realistically and understand the kind of person with whom you are dealing and that it is not you necessarily who is at fault; recognise that you may never really be validated in the workplace and that you will not receive any credit for good work done.
  • Maintain your professionalism and do not stoop to manipulative or sinister ways to try to get even.
  • Confront any problems gently and tactfully.
  • Focus on solutions and not the problem; narcissists like to focus on problems and dissect such repeatedly; simply state the problem and quickly move towards solutions.
  • Present several solutions; narcissists like to be in control so it is important to provide options; options make them feel like you respect their opinion and are asking them to control the process.
  • Document your accomplishments in that the narcissist will want to take all the credit for work well done so you need to ensure that you keep your own record.
  • Be willing to accept criticism because you’re going to get plenty of it especially if you don’t show total loyalty or gratitude or give constant praise; you need to be resilient and quietly stand your ground.
  • Maintain a strong network; this helps you to keep “normalcy” in your life and helps you to have a good support base especially if the narcissist boss starts to get aggressive or too arrogant.
  • Be prepared to walk away and resign; remember that the narcissistic boss will never change and you really don’t need such a person like that in your life.

How do you Deal with Narcissistic Employees?

In the same book, Stuart Yudofsky outlines what to watch out for in dealing with employees who have a narcissistic personality disorder.

  1. Do your homework in the selection and recruitment process.

What is critical here is to do your due diligence. Phoning referees is really not going to give you the perspective that you’re looking for. I know of various occasions when the referee has either deliberately withheld crucial information or purposely portrayed a positive viewpoint when the reality was anything but. Instead, check out Linked-in and Facebook and try to discern who might know the employee and where else you can gain an opinion on the person.

  1. Use the interview process wisely.

During the interview, it is important to be aware of the characteristic behavioural and relationship patterns of people who might have a narcissistic personality disorder. For example, watch for comments from the interviewee along the lines of:

“I was indispensible to my previous boss”

“I handled everything in my previous employer’s personal life”

“The company was a complete mess before I came, but I fixed most of the problems”

“I left my last job because my efforts and contributions were not appreciated”

In fact, Dr Sander van der Linden from Cambridge University argues in a “Psychology Today” article that the one simple question to ask the narcissist at interview is, “Are you a narcissist?” To most of us that sounds like a “dumb question”. However, it is asserted that although this does sound counter-intuitive, and normally, it wouldn’t work to ask people directly about their personality traits, the narcissist is different.

True narcissists says van der Linden do not appear to view their narcissism as a bad thing and in fact, are likely to be proud of it. A number of studies have shown that narcissists often admit that they behave in explicitly narcissistic ways and they happily describe themselves as arrogant and even strive to be more narcissistic! Narcissists also appear to be aware that other people view them less positively that they view themselves, yet they simply don’t care.

  1. Do not accept personal favours or special treatment from any employee.

With a narcissist you have been trapped if you do because you will be forced to pay back such favours in manifold ways where it could cost you your professional reputation and your career.

  1. Maintain clear boundaries and separations between your vocational and your personal relationships.
  • As a leader or manager, it is important irrespective of the employee, to ensure that boundaries are clear and that there is no blurring of relationships, where personal relationships with employees can play right into the hands of the narcissist and confuse appropriate lines of responsibility.
  1. Never make a business or personal decision related to any employee that cannot stand the bright light of public scrutiny.

If what you are doing has to remain a secret, this not only compromises you as a person, but plays right into the hands of the narcissist who will endeavour to exploit this for their own ends. Beware!

  1. Restrict access to confidential or commercially sensitive information.

Only those trusted employees who are well known to you and who have built trust over a period of time ought to be privileged to access to such data. In the hands of the narcissist such information like Human Resource files or financial data relating to salaries or company profit for instance, could have devastating consequences for both the individuals concerned and the company itself.

  1. Ensure that you conduct and document regular staff appraisals on all employees.

This is a critical monitoring process. In this regard, it is important to not only provide positive comments to the employee about their performance, but to recognise that everyone has areas on which they need to work and improve. Be aware of any employees who cannot accept any criticism (no matter how slight) and who over-reacts to fair and constructive comments. Not only is this a flag to a possible narcissist, but also highlights the employee who is not prepared to accept feedback and who in turn will not grow and develop. These people tend to become entrenched in their ways and often grow bitter and resentful, become unproductive and certainly impact morale and culture in a negative way.

  1. Be aware of any employees who seem to require inordinate amounts of praise and who demand special entitlements.

This is typically a sign of a narcissist who although may well be contributing to the organisation, are clearly motivated by self-serving ambitions and would certainly not be a team player. Ultimately, they will affect team morale and productivity.

  1. Be aware of any employee who openly competes with their peers as well as devalues others including previous employers.

Real narcissists have great difficulty (if nigh impossible for them) working as a member of a team as well as working towards team goals (instead of their own personal goals and ambitions).

  1. Be aware of employees who overstate or who overvalue their contributions to the organisation.

Not only do these employees call attention to themselves and their efforts, but they typically cut corners to get where they want to go, and make short-term decisions in their own interests rather than longer-term decisions which benefit the company.

  1. Be aware of employees who are not satisfied or appreciative of fair and reasonable and even generous compensation.

Typically, these employees see themselves as above everyone else and have a sense of entitlement that somehow makes them special. Their perceived lack of “adequate” salary or compensation means that these employees become angry and resentful and will probably undermine their manager or leader in sinister and manipulative ways.

There is little doubt that narcissists in the workplace cause a great deal of anguish anxiety as well as depression and have a way of sabotaging individuals self-esteem and confidence. Thankfully, we don’t come across them every day, but we do need to have on our radar alert to pick up such individuals if they come into our space. In short, in my experience, nothing is going to change the narcissist, so your best strategy is to cope in the ways that are listed above and look for a quick exit.



[Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach. He is also an author, facilitator, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people to find their strengths and reach their goals. He works with businesses to facilitate communication and create positive cultures. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at and and he can be contacted at [email protected]]


Narcissist. What is it Exactly?


Generally these days, you don’t have to go far to hear people refer to someone as a narcissist. It could be socially at a party or gathering, it could be in the staff room at the workplace or it could be around the family table. The term is now relatively common place in our language. But, what is a narcissist? How did they get that way? How are narcissists as parents?

Although we loosely use the term to describe someone who seems to be ego-centric and the centre of their own world, true pathological narcissism has always been rare and remains so. According to Rebecca Webber in her article in “Psychology Today” (Sept-Oct 2016), it affects around 1% of the population and apparently this figure hasn’t changed since clinicians started to measure it in the late 1970s.

Similarly, Dr Ross Smith in this workshop titled “Views on Narcissism” presented on 25th November 2016 (SA Branch of the APS College of Clinical Psychologists), indicated that the prevalence was between 1-2% in the general population (0.7% for males and 1.2% for females).

So what is it exactly?

Essentially, the real narcissist (ie., the Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is typified by the following seven characteristics:

  1. Grandiose sense of importance (it is all about self-enhancement; over-estimate their abilities and accomplishments, boastful and pretentious; assume others attribute same vale to their accomplishments and are surprised if not praised; underestimate the accomplishments and contributions of others; preoccupied by fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty)
  • “I’m better than others”; “They look up to me”; “They wish they could be me”; “I love myself and I know you do too – in fact, everyone does – I can’t imagine anyone that doesn’t”
  1. Belief in their superiority (believe they are special and unique; believe that they can only be understood by and associate with special or high status people; their needs are special and they warrant the best person (eg., doctor) to attend to them and will then devalue those who disappoint them)
  • “I’m extraordinary, powerful, perfect”; “Most people are insignificant and not worth my time”; “I have no need to apologise. You however, must understand, accept and tolerate me no matter what I do or say”; “I have few equals in this world, and so far, I have yet to meet one. I am the best (manager, business man, student, lover…)”; “I only associate with the best people, and frankly, most of your friends don’t measure up”
  1. Require excessive admiration (need constant attention and admiration of self, possessions etc; preoccupied with how well they are doing and how well they are regarded; expect to be given what they want or need, no matter what it might mean for others; form friendships on the basis of how likely it is to advance their career, desires, self-esteem)
  • “I expect you to be loyal to me at all times, no matter what I do. However, don’t expect me to be loyal to you in any way”; “I expect gratitude at all times, for even the smallest things that I do. As for you, I expect you to do as I demand”
  1. Sense of entitlement (unreasonable expectations to receive special treatment; believe they shouldn’t wait in line, their priorities are more important and they get frustrated when others don’t assist in their “very important work”; may lead to conscious or unwitting exploitation of others)
  • “Since I’m special, I deserve special rules”; “If someone challenges me, I must come out on top”; “Don’t let anyone get ahead of you”; “I realise that there are rules and obligations, but those apply mostly to you because I don’t have the time nor the inclination to abide by them. Besides, rules are for the average person, and I am far above average”
  1. Lack empathy (difficulty recognising the feelings and experiences of others; discuss their feelings at length, but neglect to ask about others; often impatient of others who talk about problems or concerns; can show flashes of compassion, but ultimately their needs come first so the empathy is often shallow and short-lived)
  • “I am not manipulative. I just like to have things done my way, no matter how much it inconveniences others or how it makes them feel. I actually don’t care how others feel – feelings are for the weak.”
  1. Envious of others (begrudge others’ successes and possessions; devalues the contributions of others, particularly those who receive acknowledgment or praise)
  • “I will criticise you and I expect you to accept it, but if you criticise me, especially in public, I will come at you with rage. One more thing, I will never forget or forgive, and I will pay you back one way or another because — I am a ‘wound collector’ “
  1. Arrogant and haughty (snobbish, disdainful, patronising; will complain about others as being “rude” or “stupid”)
  • “I may seem arrogant and haughty, and that’s OK with me – I just don’t want to be seen as being like you”

However, there is also the suggestion that there are two forms of narcissism ie., two sub-types. There is the “grandiose” form as indicated above and there is also the “vulnerable” form. The former is about grandiosity, social charm, failure to respond to the needs of others, invulnerability, entitlement, aggression and dominance. We have covered this above. The later though is still about the grandiosity, but this actually masks a hypersensitivity to criticism, self-doubt, deep feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, inferiority and a sense of worthlessness. With this sub-type, the grandiosity is simply a facade that covers feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.

It is also a truism that almost all of us at some time or another demonstrate some aspects of being narcissistic. For example, there is the person who might indulge in the occasional selfie and talk about their accomplishments. At times, we might be a tad vain. This is normal behaviour. The narcissist however, demonstrates the above characteristics on a continual and permanent basis.

How did the narcissist get that way?

What produces a narcissist? Essentially, it is all about the first 12 months of childhood and perhaps the first few years. As the Jesuits quite rightly say, “Give me a child until they are seven and I’ll show you the person.”

For the grandiose type, typically they were spoilt as a child where they were the centre of the universe. These parents do not set boundaries, they give the child everything they want, give constant praise, do not allow the child to take responsibility for their actions or behaviour and tend to blame others for any deficiencies in the child’s behaviour, talents or abilities; it’s everyone else’s fault. This is the perfect child; he or she can do no wrong.

For the vulnerable type, these parents were generally cold, lacked warmth, and were highly critical and fault-finding. The narcissistic child therefore develops a perfectly lovable “grandiose self” to counteract feelings of inadequacy and embarks on a lifelong search for praise and adulation from which they were initially deprived.

How do narcissists perform as parents themselves?

If their own parenting was so abysmal, how do they manage when they are actually parents? Joanna McClanahan in a recent article titled, “Narcissistic Parents are Literally Incapable of Loving Their Children” argues just that. Because narcissists do not have the ability to emphasise with others, they do not have the capacity to love either and this includes their children. The narcissist parent sees the child simply as a possession who can be used to further their own self-interests.

Since the narcissist views the world as black or white where things are either seen as perfect/special/ideal or instead, seen as worthless/rubbish/harmful, and there is no grey or in-between, then, they treat their children according to these two extremes. This makes the child either the narcissist’s primary source of comfort or their punching bag.

Naturally enough, since every child wants their parent’s love, support and encouragement, they will desperately try to please the parent in order to try to get onto the “love” side of the spectrum rather than the more spiteful, darker side. This means therefore that they will give in to their narcissistic parent and let the parent control their lives to “keep the peace”.

Interestingly though, as the children grow older, and become more independent, the narcissistic parent will try to retain control by deliberately sabotaging their child’s sense of being and sense of self-worth. Not surprisingly, the parent resorts to somewhat malicious games by creating unhealthy competitions, using guilt and blame, giving ultimatums, and putting the child down by calling them names, telling them they are worthless, hopeless, an idiot, stupid and that they’ll never amount to anything.

It comes as no surprise that the children who grow up in this type of destructive environment develop feelings of guilt and low self-esteem which is carried on into adult life. Hence, these children are less likely to develop a realistic self-image as they mature. As children of narcissists become adult, they have to learn that there is a difference between real love and narcissistic “love” and they need to understand that what they have experienced is not “normal”, but is actually intense emotional abuse and constant manipulation.

As McClanahan argues, it’s an uphill battle for children to accept that their narcissistic parents actions and behaviour wasn’t their fault or their responsibility just as it isn’t for any form of child abuse.

She says that if the relationship with the narcissistic parent is to continue, then the adult children of narcissists “need to establish clear, firm boundaries – and stick to them.” However, she comments too that many adult children find that the most healthy option is to sever the relationship altogether because “narcissists can’t turn themselves off.”


[Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach. He is also an author, facilitator, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people to find their strengths and reach their goals. He works with businesses to facilitate communication and create positive cultures. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at and he can be contacted at [email protected]]


Letting Go of Worry

I’ve often had people come into my office and describe themselves as a “worry wart.” On questioning, they also admit that both or one of their parents were the same. As they say, the apple never falls far from the tree!

However, there are no born worriers. People might think they are, but they’re not. As I’ve said to many people, I’ve never seen a baby born a worrier. Worry is something you learn.

However, worry is unreasonable for a couple of reasons. […]


It’s a “sin” most everyone has been guilty of at one time or another. Studying for examinations, project deadlines, losing weight; you name it, we have all put off doing something at some time.

We put doing something off because we don’t want to do it, or maybe we have a lot of things on our plate at the moment. Maybe we’re not interested. Maybe we’re just lazy, too. There are plenty of reasons why people procrastinate, […]