You’re kind, caring and conscientious, and you try to surround yourself with positive, drama-free people. But it’s not always possible to cut every toxic person out of your life—that’s when the “gray rock method” comes in handy. It’s an easy and effective way to do damage control when you’re dealing with tough personalities, whether it’s a narcissistic co-worker, a sociopathic stepmother or an energy vampire roommate. Here’s the lowdown.
What’s the gray rock method? We first discovered this handy trick on psychologist Nadene van der Linden’s blog, Unshakeable Calm. Basically, it’s a tool to prevent toxic people from escalating the situation, riling you up and stressing you out—three things they absolutely love to do. By acting as boring, uninteresting and unengaged as possible, the gray rock method discourages the toxic person, and they’ll often seek out a more exciting target for their manipulative behavior. “The best chance we’ve got of a healthy outcome with a toxic person is changing our response to them,” van der Linden says.
How do I do it? Before you meet with the toxic person, get in the zone—you don’t have to be Meryl Streep, but you do have to use your acting chops. During every interaction with the toxic person, speak in a neutral voice, talk about boring subjects, don’t make eye contact and give short, generic answers. Don’t tell them about your promotion at work, your mother-in-law’s upcoming surgery or your kid’s new bike. Channel the most boring person you’ve ever met, and don’t engage emotionally, even as the toxic person tries to get a rise out of you. Some proponents of the “gray rock method” even suggest wearing gray or neutral clothing, with no makeup or jewelry, to really drive home the “blah” feeling you’re hoping the toxic person will pick up on. Here’s how a conversation might go down.
Toxic Friend: Work has been completely crazy recently—do you remember that annoying guy Joel I told you about, who sits next to me? I reported him to HR and got him fired. I told them he was hitting on me, which wasn’t technically true, but he was so irritating, he deserved it.
You: Oh, OK. Sounds like work will be better for you now.
Toxic Friend: How’s work been? Is your boss still mad at you? Do you think you might get fired?
You: No, everything is pretty boring at work. Nothing much really going on.
Toxic Friend: And what about your parents? Are they still driving you nuts?
You: No, everything’s been OK with them. Things have been pretty normal.
Toxic Friend: Well, you’re going to die when you hear this story.
Toxic Friend: You’ll never guess who I ran into last night.
You: No, I guess I wouldn’t.
Toxic Friend: Victoria!
You: I don’t think I know Victoria.
How does it work? Toxic people crave excitement and drama—if you’re fueling the fire, they’ll begin to rely on you as a way to keep things interesting. When you practice the “gray rock method,” they’ll have nothing to spin into drama, and in most cases, you’ll be surprised how quickly they lose interest in you. Although it’s extremely effective, some people, including van der Linden, find this technique tough at first. “Gray rock takes practice and preparation,” she says. “I have used it effectively but it does not come naturally for me, because of my warm, empathic and somewhat chatty persona.” Another caveat? Whatever you do, don’t tell the person that you’re “gray rocking” them, and don’t make it obvious that you’re acting differently. (It can backfire and cause them to double down on their behavior, yikes.) Subtlety is key here, people—but once you get the hang of it, it’s an extremely effective way to protect your time and energy. Now go for it: be a boring rock.