Audio Version (09:48)
Gaslighting is a term that we hear frequently. It seems like it’s bandied around frequently without people understanding what it means.
Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic that aims to make a person doubt their own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. When one work colleague uses gaslighting on another, whether that’s their manager or peer, it can lead to confusion, frustration, and a toxic work environment.
In this article, we will explore what gaslighting is and how to recognise it, and I’ll offer strategies to effectively deal with colleagues who engage in this behaviour.
To watch the extended version of this article, click here.
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is the primary tool that someone will use to redirect attention away from themselves when they know they’re in the wrong or what they’re doing is wrong.
It’s a particularly favourite tool of narcissists, which I’ve talked extensively about in my previous mini-series, Narcissism in the Workplace, which you can watch here.
The primary purpose of gaslighting is DEFLECTION, to deflect attention away from them and onto the other person.
People who use gaslighting are highly manipulative and extremely adept at doing anything possible to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
Gaslighters will flatly deny their victim’s recollection of a situation, even in the face of cold, hard facts. This leaves the other person feeling confused, disoriented, and questioning their own reality.
This is EXACTLY what the abuser (and that’s what this is; it’s a form of abuse) wants: to get you off their case, diverting attention away from them.
Gaslighting Red Flags
The red flags are many and varied. However, here are some of the most common:
1. Denying The Truth:
The gaslighter may outright deny something they said or did, even when there is clear evidence to the contrary.
When they do this, especially for the first time, you’ll likely question yourself and may even give them the benefit of the doubt. That’s because they will probably be so emphatic that they are right and you’re wrong that you will believe them.
As this behaviour starts to happen more frequently (which it will – it always escalates), you will question yourself and your reality more and more.
Over time, you may find that you cannot rely on your recollection of events, doubting yourself and your reality.
2. Blame Shifting:
Gaslighters deflect responsibility for their actions, making it seem like you are at fault, not them.
Whether you call it deflection or misdirection, the result is the same – it diverts attention away from them! Of course, flat-out denial is deflection; however, it can also come in the following forms:
Changing the subject quickly.
Bringing up something completely unrelated that happened in the past that you thought was resolved, e.g. an old argument or some transgression from years ago that they can’t seem to let go of.
Blaming you for what happened.
Blaming you for their behaviour, e.g. ‘You made me do it! If you weren’t such a [fill in the blank], I wouldn’t have to do things like this.’
Getting angry or aggressive or suddenly bursting into tears.
Creating a totally different narrative from what actually happened.
Storming out and staying away for hours or until they think you’ve calmed down.
Switching off their screen (virtual meetings) or not giving you eye contact in meetings.
N.B. They may try several of these tactics in one go if they don’t feel you’re buying what they’re saying, and they sense they may be losing control of the situation.
3. Trivialising Concerns:
They may make light of your concerns or problems, suggesting they are insignificant.
Gaslighters project their own perceived negative qualities or inadequacies onto their victim, accusing them of the very behaviour they are exhibiting.
As they like to present themselves as being better than everyone else, whenever they perceive a weakness in others that subconsciously they know exists in them, they will bully that person.
Bullies typically really dislike themselves and have low self-esteem/low self-worth despite what they’d have you believe.
Bullying a person who has the same (what they perceive as) negative traits as they do makes them feel better.
Bullies build themselves up by putting others down.
Gaslighters often make contradictory statements or change their story to confuse you and keep you off-guard and feeling unsettled.
6. Lying with Ease:
Gaslighters have no issue with lying, which can be incredibly confusing for ‘normal’ people, as we don’t expect people to blatantly lie – which is often how abusers get away with so much!
7. Diminishing Achievements:
They downplay your accomplishments and contributions in an attempt to make you feel inadequate.
Dealing with a Colleague Who is Gaslighting
Navigating the complexity of gaslighting requires a thoughtful and strategic approach.
The steps for dealing with someone gaslighting you are pretty much the same as I discussed in a previous video, 027 – How to deal with a passive-aggressive boss or co-worker so that I won’t go over those again.
But in addition to what I cover in that video, it’s important to note that when you try to address someone about their gaslighting, guess what they will do? Gaslight you!
So here are my additional tools for managing gaslighting:
1. Stay on Topic:
Remember, the gaslighter will do everything they can not to take responsibility and redirect the focus away from them and back onto you, and they are experts at it!
Therefore, it’s critical that you don’t let them derail the conversation.
2. Use Appropriate ‘Comebacks’:
Now you know they are going to turn the tables on you, and you know the types of things they are going to say. Be prepared. Forewarned is Forearmed. When they start with the deflection tactics, recognise it and SHUT IT DOWN.
Here are some great ways to respond in a no-nonsense manner:
We aren’t talking about that right now. Let’s stick to THIS topic.
We remember things differently. You have the right to your opinion but not facts.
I know my truth. I’m not debating with you.
I hear you, but that isn’t my experience.
I will discuss solutions with you but will not debate my feelings.
I hear that you intended to make a joke, but the impact was hurtful.
I know what’s best for me.
I find it hard to hear when you talk to me like that.
I’m stepping away from this conversation.
3. KEEP EVIDENCE (if only for your own mental health!):
Keep a record of all interactions (I discuss this in various videos). Dates, times, conversations, emails, texts, witnesses, how it made you feel.
I always advocate covering yourself fully by following up conversations or meetings in writing, clearly stating:
What was discussed
Following up on conversations in such a way can help avoid miscommunication or misunderstandings. It also gives you a log of the conversation. If you decide to make an official complaint at some point, you will only be able to do so effectively with evidence. Evidence is crucial and something most people don’t think to do.
Dealing with a colleague who engages in gaslighting can be challenging, but addressing the issue promptly is essential to maintaining a healthy work environment.
Recognising the signs of gaslighting, maintaining professionalism, documenting interactions, and seeking support are all critical steps in managing the situation.
By addressing the behaviour directly and involving H.R. if necessary, you can help create a workplace where gaslighting is not tolerated and everyone is treated with respect and fairness.
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