Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,

Hey, Coach, you’ve seen the Dilbert character, Topper?  Well, we’ve got a living example in our office and he’s driving us all nuts. Anytime anyone tells a story or describes a personal experience he has to go one better.

He’s good at what he does and pleasant enough to be around much of the time, but, and it’s a big but, ‘there’s nothing he hasn’t done, nowhere he hasn’t been, and no one he doesn’t know’ and it’s getting right up our collective nose. How do you tell a braggart like this that his topper responses are inappropriate and wearing and that we’ve all had enough?


This is an interesting predicament because it’s as difficult to handle as it is common in experience; most often it’s tolerated or ignored. Just like other ‘social embarrassments’ - body odor, bad breath and careless grammar – few of us want to confront it directly.

It’s very likely that the perpetrator is insensitive and largely unaware of the impact his behavior is having on others. Assuming that there’s some element of truth to the claims being made, he may even see them as supportive and even helpful in bonding relationships. It might not occur to him that others view his unwanted contributions as bragging simply because that’s not the spirit in which they’re being offered.

On occasions, individuals may engage in such behaviors to gain acceptance within the group or even to cover deeper-seated feelings of inadequacy, but this isn’t always the case. A very few persons are pathological liars and unreasonably self-promoting but this is even more rare. We need to be sure we know the precise reason for the behavior and to avoid generalizations.

You should begin with an examination of your own motives. Why is this a problem for you and what exactly are your intentions in intervening?

Are you really trying to be helpful or are you trying to initiate a guilt trip? Are you attempting to cut him down to size or are you resolving an irritating behavior? Are you acting as coach or critic? What is it that you want as the outcome of your initiative – for him, for you, for the group? Only if your motives are pure and constructive can you hope to be successful.

Once you’ve clarified these difficult issues you face an even more daunting challenge – how can you ensure that your intervention will be accepted as well meaning and genuinely constructive? How will you hold his attention and interest once the subject matter has been disclosed? How will you execute the fine excision of the behavior without destroying the relationship? How can you ensure that he will feel safe around you, now and in the future?

We are starting to see why these issues are usually left unresolved. It will demand a great deal of honesty and diplomacy on your part and still the prospects of failure, perhaps disaster, remain high. We have arrived at the ‘effort invested / benefit received’ paradox.

Usually, an intervention such as this will work best if it’s handled from within an existing trust-based relationship. Is there someone who currently has a close relationship with Topper? If so, can you persuade this person to act as an intermediary? Safety depends entirely on love, respect, trust and confidence which take a while to accrue.

Let’s recognize that anyone attempting an intervention with prejudice and frustration in full view is unlikely to reach first base. Context (the setting), motive (the perspective) and mood (the perception) are all critically important factors in steering the precarious course to the fresh self-insights that are required for effective behavioral change.

If it’s up to you to make the attempt, you could try using an exquisitely clear motive statement right up front. "I’d like to share a few observations with you and it’s not my intent to come across as critical. This is something which could help to improve / enhance relationships within our team and I’m offering them for your consideration” Say what you are not trying to do as well as what you are.

Then describe what actually happened in two or three recent occurrences. Keep your language neutral – that of the objective observer, focusing not only on what Topper did but also on how others responded. Ask for his consent to continue the conversation periodically so that he feels he has some control.

He may rationalize his inputs or be dismissive, however, you’ve already made your point; minimize any further damage potential by making a discrete retreat. If he becomes emotional, allow him space to vent, offering to pick up the discussion in the future should he so choose. Do not press your point home in either case.

If he is receptive, once all the cards are on the table (for the selected incidences), offer your support in identifying a new paradigm for handling related situations. "Would it be helpful to you if I were to send you a signal the next time I sense it is happening?”  "Could I bring future incidents to your attention, in private of course?” If he declines your help, be gracious and withdraw with a reaffirmation of your original motive.

Success can be assisted by using a slow, deliberate conversational style, listening carefully, by attempting to understand the merit of his points and by smiling whenever appropriate. If he feels relatively safe throughout the exchange, there’s a good chance that your message will be received and even acted upon.

I hope this helps.