Improving Workplace Relationships: Four Responses to Dealing with Drama

There are many ways that drama can affect workplace relationships. One way that I often discuss in my workshops is how to stop taking the bait. You know what I mean. It’s those times when you put your foot in your mouth, or you get drawn into an argument or communication exchange that you later regret, yet it happens again and again.

It’s like you are a big carp swimming in a river and you see this juicy worm and you bite the hook. The other person is the fisherman who reels you in.

Even when you learn to identify the bait and you swim right past that juicy worm, just a few miles downstream you see a juicy piece of cheesecake and before you know it, you are being reeled in again.

It’s funny how those who love to pull our triggers know just what bait to use. If you get wise to the worm, they figure cheesecake will work.

In your personal life it could be your mother and her famous “Well hello stranger” every time you call. You feel angry because instead of appreciating your call, you get the guilt trip for not calling more often. It’s the subtle innuendo of calling you “stranger” that trips your trigger. You spend your time either apologizing or explaining all the while regretting that you called in the first place.

In your professional life it can be the employee who keeps showing up in your office with yet another complaint, or another major life catastrophe that keeps her from performing to her ability. You feel sorry for her so you spend way too much time address her issues and then you give her more leniency than you should only to have your kindness backfire when she calls in from work the next day, or she continues to step in the hole without ever considering your advice. This drama almost always leads to a breakdown in workplace relationships.

If you want to stop being reeled in, here are the steps for improving workplace relationships:
1. Awareness
2. Offer No Reaction
3. Listen and acknowledge
4. Ask an empowering question

Awareness is always the first step. You must first recognize the trigger. If you find yourself already drawn in, then take some time after the communication exchange to examine just exactly what happened to get you to respond the way you did. If you can recognize the pattern, you can be prepared for the next time.

Offer No Reaction
There are only a couple of good responses to drama. The first option is to offer no reaction. It takes two to play games unless you are playing solitaire. When you respond with sarcasm, argument, or any other form of manipulation such as a deep sigh or eye-roll, you just bit the bait and you will soon notice your workplace relationships begin to unravel. Withdraw from the temptation to get the last word or to prove the other person wrong. Simply take a breath and offer no response. See what happens. You just avoided the worm. Beware of the cheesecake.

Listen and Acknowledge
If you are offered another “test” it will be a little more tempting and may show up as cheesecake. Now you can use the Listen-Acknowledge method. Try using one of these responses the next time you are drawn into someone’s drama:
1. Wow. That must feel terrible.
2. It sounds like you are frustrated with me. (Breathe)
3. Sounds like you need some space.

Ask an Empowering Question
After you have tried the first two responses and the other person continues to complain, blame, or offer drama, you have one more ally and that is to ask an empowering question. Here are a few samples:
1. What do you want to happen?
2. What are your choices?
3. How do you want me to support you in this?

After that you have to set a boundary about how much drama you are willing to be around or engage in. Everyone wants to be heard that is for sure, but as a leader you must have the compassion to listen but the wisdom to not get drawn into the drama story.

When you refuse to be drawn into the drama, your employees will notice and emulate your behavior. This will lead to improved workplace relationships.

Marlene Chism is a professional speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011). Marlene has a master’s degree in HR Development from Webster University. To get a copy of “Stop Workplace Drama,” go to

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2 Responses to Improving Workplace Relationships: Four Responses to Dealing with Drama

  1. light bulbs March 21, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    I have to agree this is an enlightening article.

  2. AnnK April 3, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    Although good advice, I would have to disagree with empowering question #3. By asking how do you want me to support you in this, you are again leaving yourself open as bait. The individual may ask for more support than you are willing or able to provide.

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