How to deal with intimidating people – Like a Pro

Estimated reading time: 6 mins

You’re quiet and don’t speak up to avoid being attacked. You probably avoid these people and dread contact. These people make you feel stifled and over-awed. What can you do?

Who is this person that intimidates you?

This person could be your boss – someone with genuine positional power over you. Or this person could be a colleague – someone who uses clever words and exerts personal power or expert power that you believe you can’t compete with. This person might even be a subordinate – somebody who works for you (believe me, this happens more than you might think.)

You probably sense a lack of ‘parity’– that you don’t have the right to engage with this person at the same level. Anything you do is scrutinized, challenged or faces disagreement. You might feel useless when you work with this person.

How can we get over these situations to stop the intimidation?

Assess why you’re intimidated

To tackle this problem, you need to understand why it is a problem in the first place. Take a look at the relationship you have with this person and how you interact. Think about your default response, as much as theirs. Consider what prejudices you bring to the table as much as what this person might bring. Here is a list of considerations:

Is it because of this person’s reputation?

You may feel intimidated if the person’s reputation precedes them. You might have heard they are an ogre, or aggressive. Is this the reality, or just the opinion of somebody else who has projected their own feeling of intimidation onto you? There maybe truth in the opinions of others, but perhaps, with an open-mind, you might come to a different conclusion?

Is it because of this person’s body language?

You may be feeling intimidated because this person stands tall above you and their positioning and proximity could be overbearing. This person might be tall in stature, eliciting a ‘fight or flight’ response in you.

Is it because of this person’s turn of phrase?

Does this person use blunt language? Is this person articulate who uses words you don’t understand? Does this person use coarse language or aggressive words?

Is it because this person is unpredictable?

Perhaps this person is a mystery to you – one moment they seem on side, and the next against you? Do they behave in a way that leaves you puzzled and not knowing what to do next?

Is it because of this person’s own feeling of vulnerability?

Some vulnerable people behave aggressively – it’s their fight or flight response. You probably don’t see them behaving meekly, rather, you see their fight response, shrouded as intimidation or aggression.

Is it because you don’t have a strong sense of the value you add to this person?

Are you struggling to understand how your working relationship is mutually-beneficial? You may be sensing that this person doesn’t need you as much as you need them, which puts this person in a perceived position of strength. This feeling might arise because of your interpretation of the situation, or vice-versa.

Is it because this person treats you with a lack of respect?

Disrespectful behavior can come in many forms. For example, this person might talk over you, or they undermine your decisions. They might not be overtly aggressive, but their behavior causes you to feel small and unimportant.

These things work the other way around, too. This person may be sensing weakness in you and see you as intimidated, and this could be as much of a problem for them as it is for you. If so, one of you must step forward to making this happen. Why not make that step yourself?

It’s important to draw the distinction between somebody intimidating you, and you feeling intimidated.

Some people deliberately set out to intimidate others. These are the bullies and cads who use aggression and coercion to get their own way, or do it just for ‘fun’. Then there are people who don’t deliberately intimidate you and it’s you, for whatever reason, that feels intimidated. Of course, one can lead to the other – cause and effect. But it’s not necessarily so. It’s really important to understand the difference in order to deal with it.

If you’re genuinely feeling intimidated, could you just say so?

One tactic is to come right out with it – tell this person you feel intimidated and why. It is possible that this person has not deliberately set out to intimidate you, and does not sense that this is happening. A possible outcome is that this person will moderate their behavior to be less intimidating, and not just to you. A chance to reflect may give them the information they need to make a change.

Grasp the reasons for parity

As mentioned above, you will probably feel that you’re not at the same level of this person. I don’t mean the level of seniority in the organization (although that does come into it.) I mean, you don’t feel that you have an equal part to play in your joint success. So try this.

List the benefits you bring to this person, and how your work makes this person successful. Or if it helps, list the consequences, if you weren’t around, that this person will experience. Grasp why the relationship with this person is important to you both. You are not required to revere this person just because they are higher up the organization than you – that is your choice to do that (and it is a perfectly valid thing to do.) Position does not give a person the right to intimidate, nor, position is not a reason to feel intimidated.

Invest in the relationship

Give your relationship time, and invest in it. It is tempting to dis-engage and work with this person at arms length (flight response) – but this won’t solve the problem and could even make it worse for you. By working more with this person, you will learn about their default behaviors, and they will about you. In my experience, intimidating people become less intimidating the more we understand them and build a strong relationship with them. Intimidation is a default behavior – they put up a front. It isn’t personal, and aimed at you specifically. Sensing weakness, they press their ‘superiority’ to get the upper hand, because they haven’t yet seen the value you bring to them. Or, you haven’t shown your teeth.

Don’t accept intimidation

If you’re sure that the intimidation is genuine and not just how you perceive the relationship, then you mustn’t accept it any longer. You don’t deserve this, nor is it acceptable. Before you go to HR with a grievance, tackle it head on by telling this person that you’re feeling intimidated, and give them a chance to moderate their behavior. If it continues, then you have a genuine case for approaching HR to mediate a solution.

Are you feeling intimidated by a colleague? How are you coping with it? Tell us your story by leaving a comment below.

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