Weapons for Specific Situations
Before we continue loading up your arsenal, take a step back and consider your growing knowledge of bullying. A great deal of power is now in your hands. How will you use that power?
Reflections on new-found power
I’ve seen good people become bullies, backstabbers and manipulators because they adopted the behaviors of successful executives in the company. Bullying seemed to be a faster route to success, but they paid a terrible price for their impatience (terminations, bankruptcies, ruined partnerships, ruined friendships, even ruined marriages).
Anyone with a poorly developed conscience may decide to adopt the way of the bully, perhaps believing that financial success can buy personal fulfillment. But even the most self-absorbed, self-serving person, once he has experienced the agony of being bullied, should understand that how you achieve success is all-important. Not only to the well-being of others, but to one’s own personal fulfillment. The karmic law always prevails; you reap what you sow.
So really there is no choice, not for anyone with enough intelligence to realize that bullying others is harmful to your mental and emotional health, destroying your ability to achieve sustained happiness.
Weapons by type of attack
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s cover a few more weapons you can use against a bully.
- Aggressive body language
When you don't cooperate with a bully, his most primitive weapon is to threaten you. To combat threats, you must demonstrate that you don’t yield to verbal aggression.
If the bully’s threat is subtle, bring it into the open (using techniques covered in prior sections). You can then neutralize the threat by either acting amused or nonchalant. Both techniques carry a strong message: you will never submit to that type of bullying.
The easiest response to a threat is to act as if the bully is kidding. A more serious response is to make a firm statement spoken in a nonchalant manner, such as:
“Why don’t you think it over? Maybe you’ll change your mind.”
“I hope you don’t do that, but I’ve made my decision.”
“Sorry, but I make it a point never to respond to threats.”
“You do what you have to do, and I’ll do what I have to do.”
Or just casually ignore the threat and offer the bully a gracious compliment to diffuse the situation. Your calm manner is the greatest weapon you have against his threats.
This website does not address situations where someone crosses the line into sexual harassment, or potential or actual physical aggression. If you suspect you will be a target of these behaviors, you should address that as a priority.
Some types of harassment represent the worst of bullying behaviors. Most obvious is a workplace bully who frequently yells at you in anger.
The simplest response to an out-of-control screamer is to turn and walk away. Alternatively, you can interrupt and say:
“Let’s talk about this, when we can talk.”
“Let me know when you’re ready to calmly discuss this.”
“I can see that you’re angry, so let’s continue this later.”
“Let’s get together when you’ve calmed down.”
If he begins yelling again, just walk away.
If he settles down a little, you can take a more assertive approach. You can say calmly:
“I don’t appreciate you talking to me like that. What’s bothering you?”
Other phrases can be useful in beginning a relatively normal conversation (although it may take several attempts before he fully calms down). You can say:
“I see you’re angry, but I don’t understand why. Start from the beginning.”
“You’re obviously very angry. Why?”
“Isn’t there a more professional way to handle this?”
A more aggressive approach is to calmly interrupt him, and then act slightly amused as you make a humorous comment, such as:
“You’re really good at getting my attention.”
“I admire the way you’re able to express yourself so freely.” (Use with caution!)
“You’re good at showing your anger. Do you practice that at home?” (Not recommended!)
These examples may be counterproductive in dealing with bullies, though they can be effective with good people who uncharacteristically lose control.
You can even try direct criticism, although this approach usually doesn’t accomplish anything. A bully who screams at you has either lost control or is highly manipulative; either way, he won’t be receptive to criticism. Nevertheless, with a sympathetic audience, you could interrupt the bully and ask: “Do you believe that confident, secure people need to yell?” (If he says “Yes, sometimes,” ask him “Why?” It could lead to interesting insights into his character.)
Other forms of harassment
Similar techniques are useful with less blatant (and less noisy) forms of harassment. For example, if his persistent criticisms become a torment, confront him with questions that help you uncover his underlying motivation. Make it clear that you are seeking a more professional relationship, and ask for his cooperation. Ask him what he would like from you, then look for common ground.
Or just keep asking him to explain himself until he gets tired of bothering you.
A workplace bully may ridicule and belittle you, then dismiss it as harmless teasing. If you let him get away with it, he feels free to ridicule you again.
A variety of techniques can be used to combat ridicule, including direct confrontation. if you convey your displeasure with his style of “teasing,” he is less likely to repeat the offense.
Or, as a more direct response to ridicule, you can belittle his sense of humor. You might say:
“You have a strange sense of humor.”
“That’s a rather pathetic attempt at humor.”
“Next time, could you raise your hand or something so we know when you’re kidding?”
“Don’t quit your day job.”
Aggressive body language
Aggressive body language can be used by a bully as a subtle method to intimidate, belittle or undermine others. Your objective should be to force him to speak aloud what his mannerisms are implying.
Confront the behavior
Let’s say you are talking to a group when the bully sighs, fidgets or rolls his eyes. Stop mid-sentence, look at the bully, and ask:
“Is there something on your mind?”
“You’re making it very clear that you want to say something. What is it?”
“Is everything okay? You seem upset.”
“Are you all right?”
When you do this in a meeting, you focus others on the bully’s inappropriate behavior, helping neutralize the impact.
You may also open the door to uncovering deep-rooted issues. Rather than get angry at his annoying mannerisms, take the opportunity to question him until you get to the bottom of his thinking. Clarity benefits everyone (except an obfuscating bully).
Destroy his blockade
On the other hand, let’s say he’s trying to prevent opposing viewpoints from being considered. His aggressive body language is a tactic to distract, minimize and undermine. If you bring to light his behavior, others should be able to ignore further aggression. They might even recognize his inability to conduct himself in a professional manner.
An underhanded bully may spread rumors about you. Unless he is a recreational gossiper, these are intended to undermine your reputation and diminish your power. Or he may initiate a rumor, perhaps using innuendo.
For example, let’s say your name is Heather, and a bully notices that both you and a co-worker named Josh were out of the office at the same time. To begin a rumor, he could say behind your back:
“I’m not going to speculate on what’s going on, but did you notice that Heather and Josh were both gone last Thursday and Friday?”
He may add other observations, or perhaps tell some minor lies, to lead others to a false and malicious conclusion.
“And Heather wasn’t wearing her wedding ring last week.”
Confront him tactfully
If you think someone has slandered you, confront him as soon as possible. Be simple and straightforward. Tell him what you heard, then ask him to confirm it.
Be tactful in case you were misinformed. You can pretend it was a simple misunderstanding and strive for clarification. You can say:
“I’m sure some wires got crossed, but did you tell someone that Josh and I were together last Thursday and Friday?”
Make your point and let it drop
He will probably deny slandering you. Don’t pursue it further: you’ve already made it clear to him that you can uncover his rumor-mongering, and that you’ll always confront him directly. With this knowledge, he is less likely to repeat the behavior.
Don’t be seduced
If a bully comes to you with gossip about someone else, show him that you aren’t going to play that game. Here are some responses to a bully who tries to pull you into his world of rumor-mongering:
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“That really doesn’t concern me.”
“I’m not interested in that, and if I were, I would go talk to ____” (the subject of the rumor)
“I’m not going to deal in rumors.”
Those who are seduced by a bully into his world of hearsay, innuendo and gossip are setting themselves up to be future targets. Also, if you get on the bad side of the bully, he may suggest to upper management that you seem to keep up with all the latest gossip, and that you are a bad influence on the rest of the team (when in fact you were merely a willing listener to the bully’s spreading of unfounded rumors).
Armed and ready
We’ve now covered the full array of techniques for dealing with a workplace bully. You are fully armed and ready to handle any type of bullying situation.
In the next section we will customize your new arsenal.