Illustrator: Ashley Siebels
They yell. They threaten. You thought you left them behind when you graduated from school but turns out adulthood has no shortage of bullies.
Since age 4 you’ve received a lot of different advice on how to deal with them. It was well-intentioned but often contradictory: “fight back” or “just give them what they want and they’ll go away.” Neither really fixes the problem.
So what actually works? What won’t make you a doormat or turn you into a bully yourself? Well, we’ve covered how to deal with narcissists, passive-aggressives and subclinical psychopaths. Let’s tackle bullies. (Preferably before they tackle us.)
Albert Bernstein has been a clinical psychologist for 30 years and is one of the top workplace consultants on dealing with nightmare employees. He’s the author of Emotional Vampires: Dealing With People Who Drain You Dry. And he has a lot to teach us about handling the bullying vampires at work.
Alright, let’s get to it, Van Helsing. . .
1. Get verification
Just because you feel like an innocent victim does not make you an innocent victim. (The bully probably thinks they’re the victim.) Before you do anything, talk to co-workers about what’s going on.
You need to be sure you’re not being oversensitive or there’s not a legit problem you’re unaware of. Do your homework and be sure rather than merely relying on your subjective interpretation.
Did smart, objective co-workers confirm that the jerk is a confirmed jerk? Okay then. Now it’s “know thy enemy” time.
If you have to deal with Bullies, it’s helpful to find out as much as possible about their previous modus operandi. They are seldom creative enough to come up with something new.
What have they done in the past? (Hopefully the answer is not “Beat Gary from accounting with a tire iron.”) Do they make good on threats? If they’re senior management, do they fire people in retaliation or just try to make their victims so miserable they quit? Or are they all talk and forget about their tirades the next day?
Know what to expect and you won’t be surprised. And you’ll have a better idea of how to maneuver.
(To learn how to deal with psychopaths and other toxic people, click here.)
Okay, you “know thy enemy.” Is it time to call HR? Should you report your boss to their boss?
2. Unless it’s extreme, don’t expect a white knight
Obviously, if the bullying is serious enough, you need to report it. If someone touches you, makes physical threats, etc. then there’s no discussion. But often, it’s not that far over the line, and that’s why it’s tricky.
If calling HR solved everything, bullying wouldn’t be a problem. But unless the behavior is egregious, it’s probably not going to fix the issue and may make it worse — because now you have a bully with a vendetta.
The contingency that most people think about with Bullies is getting a big friend to beat them up. It could happen. If you do report the situation to an authority figure, state the facts and avoid any attempt to interpret or exaggerate. Really powerful friends disappear at the slightest hint of overreaction. No matter how reasonable you sound, you may still discover that your only friends are people with no more power than you who would love it if you took care of the Bully for them. Or lawyers. Don’t waste too much time looking for big friends.
And if the bully is your boss, don’t expect an airstrike from senior management to save you. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton points out, most bullies “kiss up and kick down.” They know to get political cover before they begin tormenting.
(To learn how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
You know your enemy and the HR hit squad is not going to take this person out for you. So how do you handle that next tirade?
They start shouting and it’s like a flash-bang grenade went off in your head. Your adrenalin surges, you’re disoriented, and “fight or flight” seem like the only options. Here’s what you need to say. . .
3. Ask for time to think
I wanted to write “stay calm” but that’s like telling a dieter “just don’t eat too much.” True, but very difficult and far from helpful.
To defeat Bullies, you have to do what they don’t. Namely, stay cool and keep your wits about you.
So when they start shouting, ask for a second to think. Reasonable people have no problem with that. If the bully keeps shouting, well, to anyone watching, they’re the crazy person and you’re the one making a rational request.
Unlike the schoolyard, stalling is not going to get you punched in the mouth. So slow the encounter down. They’re trying to provoke you but it’s vital you don’t speak until your head is clear. You don’t want to blindly react because the defaults here are not to your advantage.
Fight or flight are both bad options. If you lash out or grovel, they get what they want. And you’ll have taught them that bullying works.
Bullies will be equally happy if you fight back, run away, or cringe in fear. The way to win is to do something unexpected that will jolt Bullies out of their familiar, primitive pattern and make them think about what’s going on.
Remember: if you’re emotional and have trouble thinking, then this is definitely the time when you need to be thinking.
(To learn how to win with passive-aggressive people, click here.)
You’re not immediately reacting. You’re getting your head straight. What else is vital that you not do?
4. Don’t respond to criticism or offer explanations
This is hard to resist, but you don’t want to do anything that could even be interpreted as fighting back. That’s just going to escalate the situation because they want to fight. So don’t give them anything resembling fuel. (And if it makes you feel better, this will be enormously frustrating for them.)
Bernstein puts it simply: “Make them work hard to start a fight with you.” Now most people hear this and say, “But I just want to explain the situation so…” Wrong. Bad. Go no further.
As a clinical psychologist, Bernstein knows your explanations are almost always veiled attacks — even if you don’t realize it. But don’t worry, the bully will. And they’ll come right back over the top with their perspective and now you’re in a fight.
The typical explanation boils down to “If you know all the facts, you will see that I am right and you are wrong” or “It wasn’t my fault; you should be mad at somebody else.” Never mind that your explanations seem true and reasonable to you.
Don’t get into a debate about the past. This is not a court of law. Facts will not be verified. Focus your brain on what you want in the future, not your interpretation of what has already happened.
(To learn the morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, so you’re not falling into any of the common traps. But they’re still yelling. Here’s how to make them stop…
5. Say, “please speak more slowly. I’d like to understand.”
Again, a totally reasonable and polite request. You’re the rational problem solver. And no accusations are being made.
Bullies expect you to yell back; don’t oblige them. If either of you is yelling, nothing reasonable will be said. Another unexpected way to get a Bully to stop yelling is by saying, “Please speak more slowly. I’d like to understand.” Often people will comply with this request without thinking about it. Reducing the speed will also reduce the volume. Have you ever tried to yell slowly?
If they keep yelling and you keep calm, who looks like the one in control? Who looks like the crazy person? Which of these people is leadership material? Exactly.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
You’re calm and in control. They have to stop yelling or risk looking like an insane person. You’ve done nothing to insult them or fan the flames. Now how do we move this from “fight” to “negotiate”?
Here’s the killshot. . .
6. Ask, “what would you like me to do?”
You’re not blindly reacting out of emotion. You’re thinking. But now you have to make them start thinking.
When you ask vampires what they want you to do, they’ll have to stop and think. This may be enough to move them into the more rational part of their brains, which can only help you. If vampires are trying to conceal their real motivation, they’ll have to ask you for something more acceptable than what they really want.
Now you can have a rational discussion, as long as you don’t backslide into accusations. Again, future focus. Don’t get caught up debating history.
Focus on what you want to happen rather than on what’s wrong with what has already happened.
(To learn how hostage negotiators deal with the most difficult people and come out on top, click here.)
Is most cases, that will stop the conflict. But some people will say that their bully will just keep going. They won’t care about appearances. They’ll keep yelling no matter what…
Fair enough. Time to go nuclear…
7. Let contingencies do the work
You tried being calm and in control but they’re still riding the express train to crazy town. Some would say you’re now justified in fighting back. After all “no one deserves to be yelled at.”
But that self-righteous attitude won’t get you what you want in the long haul because the only person who can enforce that rule is you. So, just as with passive-aggressives, the nuclear option is to impose costs.
They want to fight. They want a resolution immediately. Don’t give it to them. That reinforces bad behavior. Say, “I’m not going to be yelled at. We can discuss this in an hour.” Then leave the room.
If you have to work or live with a Bully, the most effective contingency is stating that you will not be yelled at (or called names, or whatever) and will immediately leave for a specified length of time. Then do it, without further explanation. It’s always a good idea to go to a public place where you’re less likely to be followed.
(To learn how to develop mindfulness, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up — and find out what to do if you work someplace where you’re surrounded by bullies…
Here’s how to overcome bullies at work:
- Get verification: Before dealing with a crazy person make sure you’re not a crazy person. And “Know thy enemy.”
- Unless it’s extreme, don’t expect a White Knight: All you’ll probably end up with is a vengeful bully.
- Don’t respond to criticism or offer explanations: They’ll see them as attacks and then you’re fighting, even if you’re “right.”
- Ask for time to think: Get your head straight so you don’t say or do something you’ll regret.
- Say, “Please speak more slowly. I’d like to understand.”: IT’S. HARD. TO. YELL. SLOWLY.
- Ask, “What would you like me to do?”: Make’em think. And if they want something unreasonable, now they’ll need to say it.
- Let contingencies do the work: Do not negotiate with terrorists. Let them know you are happy to discuss this in an hour when they are not yelling.
Does your workplace have a serious bully infestation? Then you need to leave. There’s no other way.
Because the real danger isn’t that you’ll be the schoolyard punching bag — it’s that you’ll become a jerk, too. When I spoke to Stanford professor Bob Sutton he told me the #1 piece of advice he gives all his students:
When you take a job take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with — because the odds are you’re going to become like them, they are not going to become like you. You can’t change them. If it doesn’t fit who you are, it’s not going to work.
And Bob is right. Research shows that all behavior — including jerkitude — is contagious.
So if you can’t beat’em… run away before you end up joining them.
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