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Managing a Toxic Work Environment

Strategies for defusing workplace verbal aggression while maintaining dignity and workplace harmony

Topic: Business
Dr Zina O’Leary

Shutting people down, patronizing put-downs, public derision, and shaming…At some point, you’ve probably experienced verbal aggression in the workplace. And when it happens to you, you’re left to decide whether to sit there and take it, withdraw, become defensive, or attack back. But none of those strategies are optimal for maintaining dignity and workplace harmony.

The correct response? Immediately take yourself out of the spotlight.

Join expert Zina O’Leary to learn how to avoid “baiting” your attacker and direct arguments back to the topic at hand, removing yourself from the center of any attack or altercation. These techniques will help you quickly shut down bullying while maintaining peace, respect, integrity, and self-dignity.

What you'll learn-and how you can apply it

By the end of this live online course, you’ll understand:

  • How workplace bullying manifests in speech
  • The structure of verbal attacks and effective responses

And you’ll be able to:

  • Deflect unwanted attention from yourself and others
  • Avoid being the target of verbal aggression

This training course is for you because...

  • You’re feeling the toll of workplace bullying.
  • You work with one or more toxic people.
  • You want to become skilled in managing challenging communication.


Recommended preparation:

Recommended follow-up:

About your instructor

  • Zina O’Leary is an adjunct senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and an Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) senior fellow. Her area of research expertise is evidence-based decision making and professional skill development. Previously, Zina was the workplace integrated learning coordinator at the University of Sydney Business School. She’s taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a number of universities in Australia, including Sydney University and Melbourne University, and has given talks and run workshops for government clients, including Australia’s Prime Minister and Cabinet and New Zealand Ministers Council, and academic institutions, such as Malaysia School of Medicine and Victoria University of Wellington. She’s the author of seven books, including the recently published Presentations that Motivate. Zina earned her PhD in methodology and social psychology as a US National Science Foundation Fellow and holds an MSc in social psychology and methodology from the University of Wisconsin and a BA in sociology and psychology from Rutgers University.


The timeframes are only estimates and may vary according to how the class is progressing

Introduction (5 minutes)

  • Lecture: Verbal aggression—a sad workplace reality

Responses to verbal aggression (30 minutes)

  • Group discussion: How do you deal with verbal aggression?; our internal response to attack and its cost
  • Lecture: Deer in the headlights syndrome
  • Q&A

Understanding the nature of a verbal attack (25 minutes)

  • Lecture: The two parts of a verbal attack
  • Hands-on exercise: Identify the “subject” and “object” of a verbal attack
  • Q&A

Break (5 mins)

Responding to verbal attacks (35 minutes)

  • Lecture: Learning to address the “object” ONLY; strategies for helping others who are under attack
  • Hands-on exercise: Use effective responses to verbal aggression
  • Q&A

Challenges of putting this into practice (15 minutes)

  • Lecture: Risks and benefits

Wrap-up and Q&A (5 minutes)