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Grey rocking: Why this method works for a minute (and when it doesn't)

March 22, 2022 - 14 min read

woman-looking-at-co-worker-grey-rocking

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What is the grey rock method?

When to try grey rocking

When to avoid the grey rock method

The risks of grey rocking

How to use the grey rock method

Grey rocking at work

When you think of a grey rock, words like plain and neutral likely come to mind. Grey rocks blend in and don’t draw your attention. But that’s not always a bad thing. 

When dealing with toxic people in both life and the workplace, becoming like a grey rock is exactly what you want to do. Grey rocking is an effective strategy that helps you reduce unwanted focus from negative or challenging individuals. 

How, you ask? By not responding to their toxic behavior when you’re around them. 

Let’s examine the grey rock method in more detail, why it works, and how to use this technique in the workplace. 

The idea behind this technique is that toxic people feed on your reaction. A narcissistic coworker, for example, feeds on conflict, drama, and attention. 

By making yourself and your interactions with them as neutral as possible, they’ll eventually lose interest. Your lack of response will have them looking for someone else to target and project onto. Or, ideally, give up the damaging behavior. 

Grey rocking is a strategy that some mental health professionals recommend to clients who have a toxic person in their life. 

According to Nadene van der Linden, a clinical psychologist at the Massachusetts Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology, the grey rocking technique can be used in response to abusive, controlling, and manipulative behaviors. Van der Linden teaches her clients how to use it appropriately when they deal with negative behaviors

When to try grey rocking 

When someone in your life acts in a way you perceive as toxic, you may choose to distance yourself from them. 

For instance, say you have a friend who constantly has you walking on eggshells. In this instance, walking away from them is something you might want to consider. 

Choosing to only surround yourself with people that boost you up will improve your self-worth and emotional well-being

However, walking away from a toxic person isn’t always possible. Take your workplace, for example. Working with a difficult colleague or manager isn’t ideal, but being around them may sometimes be unavoidable.

co-workers-talking-in-office-grey-rocking

That’s where the grey rocking technique comes into play. 

Grey rocking can be used when interacting with a toxic person is required to meet your work objectives. The end goal is to maintain boundaries and stop the negative behavior. 

Here are a few types of people with whom using grey rocking in the workplace can be effective: 

When to avoid the grey rock method 

Let's face it, being a grey rock probably isn't what you aspire to. If you find yourself grey-rocking more often than not, something needs to change. 

When it comes to toxic workplace behavior, grey rocking isn’t always the best solution. You have a right to expect a safe and productive environment in which to work. 

For example, sexual harassment and discrimination of any kind are grounds for termination. In these cases, being unresponsive and detached might be necessary in the moment if you feel unsafe, but isn’t an appropriate long-term response. Reach out to your manager or your human resources department, and voice your concerns. 

If someone at work displays threatening behavior or breaches company policies, it’s important to take firmer action than the grey rocking method.

Grey rocking should always be a short-term response to irritating or manipulative behaviors. You shouldn’t have to permanently change who you are in order to fit in or feel safe.

On the other hand, some people aren’t necessarily toxic, just annoying. Grey-rocking can subtly shift their attention and energy elsewhere. If it doesn't, consider if more formally disengaging with them will be productive in the longer term.

Sometimes, having a conversation with them and finding common ground is all it takes to make you feel more at ease with someone and even bond with them.

The risks of grey rocking 

The practice of grey rocking isn’t without its risks. Before you try it out for yourself, it’s important to understand the potential drawbacks of using this method and how they can affect you. 

Escalated behavior 

The main goal of grey rocking is to protect yourself and stop a toxic person from antagonizing you. Ideally, your lack of engagement will make them lose interest and move on. 

Unfortunately, grey rocking can sometimes backfire. Instead of losing interest, your lack of engagement can frustrate them. As a result, they may escalate their negative behaviors in order to get a response out of you. 

For example, a manipulative colleague who you’ve grey rocked can resort to coercive behavior to get a reaction from you. This can include physical harassment like invading your personal space to make you feel threatened or humiliating you in front of peers. 

When grey rocking doesn’t work, you need to find a better course of action to resolve the conflict. This can involve seeking help from your supervisor and setting clear boundaries with the person involved.

Psychological effects 

Grey rocking requires you to emotionally detach while you’re interacting with a toxic person. If they say something to wind you up, for instance, you’ll have to fight your urge to react in any way and not take their bait. 

This causes you to suppress your emotions, which can affect your mental health. Emotional regulation helps us regulate our emotions to stay cool and collected. However, as studies show, when we continually suppress them, it’s dangerous for our emotional and cognitive health

For these reasons, grey rocking is not a sustainable long-term solution to toxic behavior.

How to use the grey rock method 

So how do you blend in and (figuratively) imitate a grey rock? Four strategies include:

  • Stay neutral and disengaged
  • Don’t give them your attention 
  • Keep interactions short and sweet
  • Don’t give away personal information

Let’s break each of these down and learn how to effectively put the grey rock method into practice.

1. Stay neutral and disengaged 

One of the key elements of grey rocking is not showing any emotion when you’re interacting with a toxic person. By not reacting, you’re not giving them the validation they’re looking for. You can do this by: 

  • Speaking in a neutral tone 
  • Avoiding eye contact 
  • Giving unemotional responses (even when provoked) 
  • Minimizing your body language, by having no facial expressions like smiling or frowning 

Let’s say the person you’re grey rocking is trying to coax a reaction from you. In this case, you can use techniques like breathwork to stay grounded and not respond in an emotional way. 

young-woman-taking-notes-in-meeting-grey-rocking

Limiting eye contact is another way to disengage. That’s because eye contact plays an important role in communication

Eye contact helps you share what you’re feeling with another person. While this is usually a good thing that helps you bond with others, it’s not in this instance. The last thing you want to do is reveal your emotional state.

One way to avoid making eye contact is to focus on something else. For example, if a toxic colleague tries to provoke you, focus on a work task and look busy. 

2. Don’t give them your attention 

Toxic people, particularly narcissists, constantly need attention, praise, and validation from others. Not feeding their ego can cause them to lose interest in you. 

If you do have to engage in conversation, talk about bland subjects like the weather, and don’t ask them any questions about themselves.

3. Keep interactions short and sweet

Ideally, you’ll want to limit your interactions with that person as much as possible. Whether you’re at home or in the office, encourage using the company chat instead of speaking face to face.

For example, if you’re telecommuting and they’re part of your virtual work team, you can try to keep conversations with them short. Give brief, one-word answers like “yes,” “no,” or “mhm.” Don’t elaborate more than you need to. 

4. Don’t give away personal information

Avoid giving away any personal information about your life or personal opinions on topics. 

For example, only discuss work-related projects and tasks with them, and avoid engaging with them on a social level. 

Most importantly, you should never reveal to the person you’re grey rocking them. If they find out you’re behaving this way on purpose, this can add fuel to the fire, and they may escalate their behavior. 

Grey rocking at work 

Let’s explore a few examples of how and when to apply grey rocking in the workplace. 

Example 1

A toxic colleague likes to push their others’ buttons (including your own) during your weekly meetings.

colleagues-discussing-project-grey-rocking

You notice that the more upset people get by his remarks, the more he does it. By using grey rocking, you ignore his comments and don’t give him the reaction he’s looking for. You also avoid eye contact and stop addressing him directly during the meeting.

Example 2

A colleague that likes to start office gossip comes up to your desk and tries to coax you into bad-mouthing the new hire

You use grey rocking techniques like keeping your answers short and not giving your opinion. When they ask for your thoughts about your new colleague, you respond, “I don’t really know them,” and excuse yourself to do a work-related task. 

Example 3

Someone at work verbally threatens you after you disagreed with them during a work meeting. 

In this case, you should not use grey rocking, as this person is being verbally abusive and made a direct threat. In this instance, grey rocking can anger them even more and escalate the abuse. 

You should report their behavior to human resources or your supervisor. 

Grey rocking takes practice 

Narcissism and toxic behavior can rear their ugly heads at any time, whether it’s at work or in your personal life.

The grey rocking technique can help you set boundaries and repel toxic people. While acting disengaged may seem easy, grey rocking takes a bit of skill. If you’re a naturally open and friendly person, grey rocking may require some practice on your part. 

Grey rocking is a short-term solution, and shouldn’t be used as a long-term fix. If you’re looking for sustainable ways to improve your workplace environment, here’s how BetterUp can help.

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Published March 22, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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