Gaslighting and Your Executive Presence

You know the feeling. You’re in what you think is an honest discussion with someone and suddenly they blindside you with a comment that totally undermines your perspective. At first you are stunned like a deer in the headlights. You think, ‘How could she say that? It isn’t at all true.’ Then you get angry at the betrayal and at this point you have lost your executive presence. You shut down or start defending yourself, never getting anywhere on the real issue.

You know you are being gaslighted when you hear comments such as:

  • I didn’t do that.
  • You’re overreacting.
  • You’re imagining that.
  • You’re too sensitive.
  • I never said that.
  • Why are you __________? (Something that isn’t true.)
  • Stop being a victim.
  • You’ve got the problem not me.
  • You need to let it go.

Gaslighting happens at work and in life. It’s a Machiavellian tactic whereby someone minimizes you by denying that your perception of a situation is true. It’s meant to undercut you - stifle you - wear you down - shut you up. It’s very effective because it isn’t fair – it denies the truth. Those skilled in it jettison responsibility for their own behavior by falsely calling out your personal character flaws that cause your perceived misperception. Generally, targets of this don’t see the manipulation coming or recognize it when it is happening. Yet afterward they feel disregarded, invalidated, ineffective, judged and frustrated.

Gaslighting attacks you personally instead of addressing the situation collaboratively. You get wrongly characterized and are shocked at the injustice. Without noticing what’s going on you become so worked up over trying to defend the assault on your integrity that the real issue fades into the background – exactly how they want it. Your ego has been bruised. You are now off your point and onto defending yourself. If you defend a problem, you are the problem. Don’t get stuck in this trap.

If someone gaslights, you do three things:

  1. Take a deep breath and count to 5 to calm yourself and your ego before you lose your presence. Do NOT defend yourself.
  2. Call out their behavior for what it is.
  3. Draw a boundary around what you will and will not allow. 

Here is an example of what this looks like in practice:

(After a deep breath.) “Are you saying that my perception of this isn’t true?” 

They’ll likely respond, “Yes.” 

“I’m happy to listen to your perspective but let’s be very clear - you don’t live in my skin and can’t possibly speak to my perspective.” 

“But your perspective is wrong.”

 “No. That would be your OPINION or ASSUMPTION. Not the facts. Let’s examine the facts and find some middle ground.”

Gaslighting is a scare tactic that schemers use to invalidate you. When you hear, “I didn’t do that” or “That never happened” when you know the contrary someone is trying to light you on fire to infuriate you as a distraction.

Don’t react right away because your frustration will show. Take a deep breath. Remember opinions are not facts. Stick to the facts and what you sense. Nobody can argue how you feel. If you feel bullied say so. “I’m feeling intimidated right now,” throws them off their game because they can’t argue that. It’s a very powerful tool against gaslighting. 

You’ve got this.

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Your coach,  

Mary Lee 

P.S. Feel free to forward this email to someone who could benefit from it. We are all walking down the same road in life looking for a hand to hold. Sometimes we must be the hand that reaches out.  

Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE is an executive coach and 19-year corporate CEO who helps leaders have more effective careers, happier lives and better relationships. Request a free consultation call.

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