You won’t get the best of someone when they are backed into a corner

Just a few weeks ago the warming temperatures began rapid melting and the loud noises from the shifting ice scared Grace. You can see the tail between her legs, legs braced and body down, ready to flee. Whether the threat is real or perceived, we aren

When Grace thinks I’m upset with her, her tail goes between her back legs. She cowers lower to the ground. Her ears retreat and she has this guilty, shameful look.

I imagine my own signals of distress are not that obvious. Others might see my face begin to blush but they can’t see my heart about to jump outside of my body because of how hard and loud it is beating.

It’s important that we recognize those signals, for ourselves, but also for others.

This week I had occasion to witness several interactions where one person in the room was feeling threatened by another person. It wasn’t a fist fight or anything dramatic, in fact, fairly subtle signs surfaced, but it was there. I could tell that the person was feeling less than supported by the conversation. It’s not a great feeling for whoever is on the receiving end.

The individual dishing out the language is feeling better for having voiced their opinion and I’m all in favor of making sure you share all feedback — whether good, bad, or indifferent.

Yet the manner in which it is done is so critical for the outcomes. You shouldn’t sugar coat feedback, nor should you say something positive if it’s not accurate. But you need to be respectful, keeping in mind that the other person has their own perspective, which has validity and should be acknowledged and explored.

When a person feels backed into a corner, it’s hard to come out gracefully. One way is to cower, like Grace tends to do, and just give in. But no one wins because the real issues have not been addressed.

Long-lasting solutions will only happen when the parties begin to think about the problem creatively, and with curiosity, as opposed to throwing out self-motivated fixes. Do whatever you can to have all the parties participate in the resolution.

When you’re barking loud enough to put someone in a corner, think about ways to back off to allow room for the discussion.

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8 comments

  1. Great post Robin. This is such an interesting topic for me as I’ve both observed this behavior and also been the recipient, and I’ve never seen it work for anyone. First, it’s not effective in addressing the current problem – as you said, the person will usually just shut down (or, they’ll go to the opposite end of the spectrum and lash out). However, the real damage is in the long-term effects – by behaving this way, you create an environment where trust is not possible – and now the recipient of your bad behavior does not trust you, and you will likely never regain that trust. Without trust, you simply can’t have a productive relationship. Sadly, the “barkers” who behave this way often end up surrounded by people they have alienated, and they don’t even know it – they think everything is fine while others tip-toe around them and keep their guard up. If you are a manager or leader who behaves this way, you’ll get lower performance, resentment, and apathy in return.

  2. What an excellent point you raise (as always). The true risk is in the long-term relationship and the erosion of trust; I absolutely agree with you. When we can handle conflict respectfully, it builds trust, rather than the opposite. Great point, thanks so much for sharing your perspective, which I really love to hear.

  3. Tammy Lenski says:

    Robin, I’m so glad you wrote about this. Just recently I said to someone we both know, “Don’t back [name] into a corner. Leave room for [him/her] to change course gracefully. If you don’t, things will get much more difficult.”

    In my conflict resolution and negotiation work I see so many workplace situations stuck because not only do people miss the opportunity to leave exit room for another, but they also sometimes actually relish having backed another person into the corner. Usually, it’s only a temporary triumph and only escalates matters.

    Your advice is spot on!

    • Thanks, Tammy. Sometimes I think people don’t realize they are backing people into a corner, they are just so focused on getting what THEY want instead of thinking of what BOTH parties want and need. You are a master at helping people understand that distinction!

  4. LeeAnn says:

    Robin – I have lived this post. I wish I could share it with my first boss (a lawyer in Philadelphia). His way of trying to teach me was to scream at me. I never took in a word of what he said as I was having an internal dialogue with myself, along the lines of “do NOT cry … do NOT cry….” It amazes me that people think that aggression or anger is an effective way of managing or leading. Great picture of Grace – although she makes me nervous being that close to the edge. : )

    • I had a former boss like that, too! It was an awful experience and I always dreaded our interactions because I never knew when he was going to unload. You can’t be your best when you’re walking on eggshells. Grace was close to the edge, but she’s very familiar with that stretch of the river and she doesn’t like water too much, so I felt like she wouldn’t venture any closer. When that ice was shifting, she was definitely cautious! I did NOT want to go in after her, that’s for sure! 🙂

  5. spiderpaw says:

    Nice post Robin. I am extremely grateful that I have Sia, who is so sensitive to our needs that she has us down as far as what we are trying to relay to her and vice versa. She has her moments though, if she even hears the word “BRUSH” in a casual conversation, she is gone. And good luck getting her to come back.

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