Sandpaper Skills: Super Fine Grit and the Grey Rock Technique
Sandpaper Skills: Super Fine Grit and the Grey Rock Technique

Sandpaper Skills: Super Fine Grit and the Grey Rock Technique

08/29/2022 by Meghan Maloney
Discover a powerful technique for staying cool during difficult conversations, in the last post of this communication skills series.

Previously in our Sandpaper Skills blog series, we touched on ways to keep your time and energy guarded, and what to do if you become stuck in a circular conversation with a particularly persistent individual. Read that first post, Sandpaper Skills: Smooth Out Your Rough Professional Relationships with Grit, and the second post, Sandpaper Skills: Escape the JADE Trap with Medium Grit, if you haven't already. 

This post is about the last step in managing relationships that feel out of control but are nevertheless necessary. It might be an office mate, a manager, or a key stakeholder in a business partnership that you can’t get out of interacting with regularly. 

In severe cases, like the example below, the first move should be to approach your manager (or HR, if the conflict happens to be internal) for assistance. However, some work environments can be unsupportive, or you might get caught off-guard when a conflict of this nature arises unexpectedly.

Here’s an example of a situation that calls for this last-ditch technique:

I have frequent check-in meetings with a key decision maker for a project I’m leading. The meetings are supposed to cover upcoming project work, risks, and timelines – but every time we meet, he’s angry and yelling at me. He rants about how much money he’s paying, how deadlines keep getting pushed back (even though his frequent non-attendance or rescheduling of important calls is the cause), and his tone of voice is incredibly nasty and condescending.

He gets more and more worked up, and I get increasingly flustered, and it feels as though he’s intentionally provoking me to an emotional reaction. I can’t get a word in to offer solutions or workarounds; the call is just him yelling at me for 30 minutes. I leave these calls upset and feel shaky and off balance for hours afterward. Not only that, but nothing gets accomplished in these meetings and we both know it – but he’s insistent on having them anyway, and I wonder if getting the chance to yell at me is the whole point for him. I can’t avoid these calls because they are a part of our contract with his company, and my manager is telling me to just “shake it off” because this is a particularly lucrative contract for our organization. I’m starting to feel sick as the time slot approaches on my calendar, and I don’t know how to get this to stop.

Thankfully, extreme situations like this tend to be rare, and most of the time you’ll have backup from your manager to step in and mediate, or even fire the client.  That said, I’ve personally advised on a situation exactly like this very early in my career, and my advice was to use the Grey Rock technique.

Grey Rock is a method for defusing situations where the other party is, for whatever reason, trying to get an emotional reaction from you. Everyone reacts differently to aggression: some will freeze up and shut down, some will cry, and some will yell back and further escalate an already explosive interaction. Even though these reactions are completely normal, none of them will help. 

Think of provocative people like this as a heap of smoldering embers, and your interactions with them as a choice of what to throw on top. If you offer fuel, the embers will ignite and burn through it until more fuel comes along. You’re stuck in the situation and have to give them something, so what you give can’t be flammable. Enter the Grey Rock.

The secret to the Grey Rock is making yourself as flat, boring, forgettable, and uninteresting as possible. Become still, cold, and smooth. Do not show any reaction or emotion: keep your face blank and your tone flat. At first, the angry person will try harder to provoke you, but don’t give up. Provocative questions like “are you just stupid?” can be ignored if possible, or kept to single-word responses like “No.”  Rudeness disguised as advice, such as “you really need to shape up or you’ll never succeed” can be answered with “Your feedback here is noted.”  Wait for them to bring up a factual situation, and respond to them with further facts only: present yourself as having no particular opinion on anything. Cover the fire with big, boring, flat stones. Suddenly, the red-hot cinders have nothing to burn. They cool down and slowly go out. 

While this is a strong response, you can see with the above example how extreme some professional situations can become. Grey Rock is a frequently referenced tool when searching online for ways to deal with difficult people in your life — both professional and personal.

This final item concludes my series on buffing up your sandpaper skills. What have you learned about managing difficult relationships from this blog series? Have you ever come across a situation as extreme as the example in this post? Do you have any other tools that you find useful in these situations?  I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to connect with me on Twitter @MeghanMaloneySF or LinkedIn.