Many of you should be able to relate to this -you walk into the office having sorted out the children at home and survived the commute only for a colleague to comment, ‘You’re looking so tired today!’

Alternatively, you attend a family gathering and an Aunt says, ‘Well, you never spend time on your appearance unlike …….’ or ‘You have always struggled at school so it’s not surprising that you are complaining about your manager’.

Unfortunately, some people (including colleagues and friends) may be trying to deliberately provoke you and watch you get angry. Usually, we are blinded by emotion and tend to react impulsively. The people around us know how to push our buttons and enjoy seeing us lose control and make a fool of ourselves.

Another interesting question is ‘Why do they do this?’. Very often it is due to their own deep-seated fears or inferiorities. Other times, it is just because they want attention or to be noticed. With family members, comparisons between siblings and cousins are inevitable and competition can lead to people being very unkind and actually taking pleasure at other people’s misfortune.

The German word for this is ‘Schadenfreude’ which is composed from thewords ‘shaden’ which means ‘harm or damage’ and ‘Freude’ which stands for ‘joy’. This is why people enjoy gossiping so much as this makes them feel better by exaggerating other people’ troubles.

Some individuals may not have a full-blown personality disorder but rather exhibit behaviour that takes a toll on their colleagues and family members. My personal experience of this was from a colleague who used to specialise in making subtle comments that were demeaning or saying cutting things disguised as a ‘joke’. When I used to react, he would put on a wounded air and say he was just making a joke at my expense. It took many years before I realised that he was self conscious about his receding hairline and the city he grew up in.

The most important thing to accept is you cannot change these people. They can only change themselves. Instead, I am going to share some simple techniques you can learn to defuse the situation without ‘taking the hook’ and reacting emotionally.

The first step is to pause and be aware that this individual wants to bait you and provoke you into a response. Do not be like a gullible fish and fall for the bait. Just give yourself time to think through your response and choose your appropriate defence.

The second step is to remain impassive and indifferent. This will be frustrating to the provocateur and discourage repetition once they do not achieve the desired outcome

The third step is to use one of the 4 defences recommended by management consultants like Rodrigo Vargas.  

Defence 1: Ask a neutral question to the instigator. This will change the subject and help everyone realise the instigator’s attempt at provocation.

Defence 2: Make a completely disconnected comment such as quoting a statistic or a news article. This will defuse the tension and distract attention from the onlookers hoping for some drama to brighten their dull day.

Defence 3: Talk to a third party on an unrelated matter -ask about their family, what their plans are for the weekend or a project they are working on.

Defence 4: Just ignore the provocation. Pretend you did not hear it at all. This is both effective and simple. Very often, people who provoke others are desperate for attention and when you ignore them and they do not get their ‘fix’ , they automatically back down.

By learning how to respond to provocation, you can protect your heart and wellbeing and enjoy better mental health.