Basic Methods for Fighting Back

To deal effectively with a workplace bully, you must first understand the fundamentals of engagement. Included in this section are the logical stages of fighting, levels of intensity and your personal style. These are the building blocks of a skilled response to bullying.

Basic methods for fighting

  • Stages of fighting
  • Intensity levels
  • Your style
  • Staying alert

But couldn’t you just start learning key phrases with which to zing the bully?

In dealing with a powerful bully, nothing is ever easy. You can’t use phrases indiscriminately; they must be highly appropriate to specific circumstances. If you don’t grasp the nature of the situation, your attempts to respond will probably fall flat. You could even make things worse. By revealing that you know he is a bully and that you are willing to fight back, you leave yourself wide open.

Fighting bullies is a skill to be learned, not a process to be memorized. You learn this skill like any other vocation: start by mastering the fundamentals. And that begins with an understanding of basic concepts of fighting back.

Stages of fighting a bully

There are four fundamental stages of proactively dealing with a workplace bully.

Stages of fighting:

  • Stage 1: Becoming aware
  • Stage 2: Performing diagnosis
  • Stage 3: Preparing to fight
  • Stage 4: Fighting back

Stage 1: Becoming aware of the bully

You probably have a good idea by now as to whether or not you are dealing with a bully. But if not, how do you become certain you’re aware of any bullies in your company?

Because specific bullying-type action doesn’t necessarily represent bullying, a fundamental starting point would be a comprehensive definition of a workplace bully:

Workplace bully: Someone who is habitually overbearing, harsh or cruel, typically using manipulation, intimidation or harassment to overwhelm, dominate or control others.

With this definition, and your knowledge of a workplace bully’s tactics, you can stay alert for the first sign of bullying. As incidents occur, immediately ask the perpetrator questions to determine if you are truly dealing with a bully (but use some tact so as not to insult a good person who is having a bad day).

Once you’ve confirmed you are dealing with a repeat offender and a true workplace bully, you can move on to Stage Two.

Stage 2: Performing a full diagnosis

It usually takes some time to evaluate a bully, to analyze his nature and get a handle on how he might impact you. Your evaluation will steer your approach to fighting back.

As you study his behaviors, compare them with various bullying techniques described on this website. That will allow you to determine his skill level and the potential for hidden behaviors, such as manipulation, backstabbing and rumor-mongering. Consider his underlying motives, as well as his specific intentions towards you.

A friendly approach

Friendly face-to-face conversation is a useful approach to gathering information. For example, ask him to help you better understand your role in the company and his vision for the future. Act like you accept everything he says at face value; but later, when you have time to contemplate his words and behaviors, try to read between the lines.

After leaving work, make a few notes about his statements and behaviors. Looking back over several weeks or months of entries, you may gain useful insights into his intentions and methods.

Connect with co-workers

It also helps to discuss the behavior of a bully with your co-workers. This should be handled very discreetly, without disclosing your concerns.

Over lunch, away from your workplace, try pointing out one of the bully’s outward attributes, then watch for their reaction; a little eye-rolling or snickering on their part speaks volumes. Ask about your co-workers’ past experiences with the bully, or if they know much about his background. Through this process, you may find the missing pieces of the puzzle.

An ongoing process

Once you’ve fully diagnosed the situation, you are ready to go to Stage 3. However, understanding a workplace bully is an ongoing process, so many elements of Stage 2 will continue for the duration of your battle. That way you will more quickly recognize changes in his bullying behaviors--perhaps as he gains or loses power in the company--and thus you can modify your strategy accordingly.

Stage 3: Preparing to fight back

In a sense, this entire website is about preparing to fight back. First you develop an understanding of workplace bullies, then you learn specific techniques for dealing with them in day-to-day situations.

A good starting point is to study various levels of response (gentle, active or assertive, as described below). Then adopt a style for responding to bullying, following a few basic guidelines (also in this section), such as staying calm, cool and collected; using a simple but powerful communication style; or learning to find humor in the situation.

After you’ve studied the spectrum of techniques available to you, choose an approach that best fits your situation and personality. It may not be comfortable at first, but it should be something you can grow into over time.

Stage 4: Fighting back

Finally, after all your learning and preparation, you are prepared to fight back. Maybe you won’t experience serious attacks from a bully until then, but it is more likely that you were already under attack when you began studying this website.

People rarely find themselves in an ideal situation. That’s the nature of dealing with workplace bullying: uncertain, stressful, challenging and full of setbacks.

But in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether you get there in an orderly process or as a last-ditch effort to make sense out of a nasty, confusing situation. The important thing is that you have decided to take control of your destiny at work.

Last chance to exit

But first, before you get on the wild roller-coaster ride in front of you, take a last look at the exit door off to your side. Should you escape while you still can?

Once you’re strapped down, bailing out is much more difficult. If you’re going to find a new job, it’s better to pursue it quietly, without anyone at work knowing that you’re fed up. Especially not the bully.

Don’t fool yourself about your ability to perservere for weeks or months. It is better to escape the situation early than to fight in a half-hearted manner, only to be forced out later.

But if you are truly committed to this process, apply enough care and thought to make it work for you.

In your conversations and confrontations at work, you will probably be better off not using terms such as bullying, manipulating and intimidating. Don’t even refer to “workplace bullies” unless you are dealing with a receptive, intelligent person who will take time to understand the concept. Instead, describe incidents in simple, common terms and let others arrive at their own conclusions. That way you will avoid the pitfalls of generalizing, stereotyping and labeling.

Intensity levels in responding to a bully

Imagine that you’ve learned a variety of tactics, even specific phrases, for responding to a bully. Suddenly the bully at your workplace walks up and launches into a harsh, unfair criticism of your work. You decide to try to counter the bullying. You only have a few seconds to come up with a response. What should you say?

It’s tough to be effective in the heat of the moment. Every situation is unique and every bullying tactic is different, and you have a great many techniques at your disposal. How do you make sense of it all?

Basic framework

You can start by learning a basic framework for responding. This is represented by the five intensity levels described below. They are progressively more confrontational: gentle, active, assertive, aggressive, vicious.

Because you are usually better off employing a gentle, active or assertive approach, there are really only three levels to master. Using this as a framework will allow you to quickly develop your skills.

Decide in advance

It’s best to decide in advance a level of response most desirable for your unique situation (at least in the early stages of your battle). Don’t let your frustration or anger force you into a more aggressive level of response than is advantageous for you.

If you still feel it could be counterproductive to respond as planned, you can always hold back until you are better prepared. But when it makes sense, you’re ready to take the first step to actively engaging with the bully.

Your first victory

Now imagine yourself looking confidently at the bully, as he tries to ruin your day, waiting until he finishes his attack, and then saying exactly the right thing to neutralize his aggressive behavior:

“Thanks for that valuable feedback. I’m going back to work now.”

Basic levels of response

  1. Gentle: Ignore bullying
  2. Active: Confirm bullying
  3. Assertive: Respond with skill
  4. Aggressive: Use with caution!
  5. Vicious: Not recommended!

Level One: Gentle

Ignore the bullying behavior and be friendly towards the bully

Pretend he didn’t say anything meaningful and calmly ask:

“How’s it going?”

“What’s new?”

Or invite him to lunch or a similar act of friendship, again without showing any signs of reacting to his bullying.

This method works well in dealing with random aggression by a non-threatening bully. It also helps establish you as a poised, positive individual who isn’t rattled by petty criticisms or unprofessional attacks.

Level Two: Active

Confirm that you are being bullied

Remember that an instance of bullying does not necessarily mean you are dealing with a bully. You need to find out for sure.

Consider whether the incident is a simple misunderstanding. Is it possible you’re the one at fault? Or that this person was manipulated by someone else, acting as a result of distorted information or false perceptions created by a clever bully?

Alternatively, the incident may represent social incompetence, or even someone under extreme duress. The best response may be one of empathy instead of automatically treating someone as an aggressive bully.

But you won’t know for sure until you confirm what is happening. Ask questions to understand his thinking, or just act confused. The most powerful technique is to begin questions with the word “Why.” Or you might say:

“I don’t understand what your point is.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“What’s your point?”

A simple path to victory

Not only does this simple approach allow you to confirm the bullying, but they are forthright methods to confront bullying behavior. If the bully is testing your character, he learns from your assertive response that you aren’t an easy target. Or if he is merely an opportunistic bully, he learns to be more careful around you in the future.

The bully may even admire your assertive approach, possibly causing him to deal with you more respectfully than your submissive co-workers.

Level Three: Assertive

Use your expertise to assertively respond

Most fighting with an active workplace bully will occur at this level. First, evaluate the situation to determine an appropriate technique for responding. Next, decide on a specific tactic or phrase. Then respond in a calm, assertive manner.

A good trick for enhancing your effectiveness is to choose the time and place for your confrontation with the bully. When you are attacked, calmly ask to meet with him later to discuss the matter. That will give you time to think through your response.

Your effectiveness will improve with time, as your knowledge of bullying expands, and as you become familiar with a variety of situations. Don’t expect to master this process immediately. It took the bully many years to learn how to intimidate or manipulate others; it will take some time before you become proficient at fighting back.

Don’t worry when you make mistakes and things don’t go as planned, especially if you are in a toxic workplace. At times, nothing will seem to stem the tide of bullying. Accept it. That is the nature of the situation.

Level Four: Aggressive (Use with caution!)

Take an aggressive approach

In some cases, you may want to use a more aggressive response to a workplace bully. These techniques should be used with caution, however, due to the high potential for backfiring.

Nevertheless, it can be comforting to know you have some very powerful tools at your disposal. Subsequent sections include a number of aggressive techniques.

Using one example for now, let’s say you are discussing something with a bully at a meeting, with others present. Suddenly the bully loses his temper, and rants at you for a minute. When he stops, you calmly say:

“Don’t hold back, tell us how you really feel.”

“I sense you may be harboring some anger towards me.”

Undesirable results

If you embarrass a bully or threaten his standing in the company, you risk causing him to step up his attacks. An aggressive response to bullying may also make you appear vindictive, or permanently ruin your relationship with the bully. It is usually better to take a more tactful approach, especially when you are playing with someone else’s reputation (even if you think he deserves to be taken down a notch).

Separating leaders from egotists

This type of humor can effectively diffuse a tense moment with a decent, well-meaning leader who has lost his temper. He should see the humor of the situation, realize there is no benefit in continuing his tantrum, and calm down.

But imagine trying this tactic on your usually good-natured boss, and--surprise--it turns out that he is actually an egotistical, pompous, prima donna. Your humorous comment could be both your first and last attempt to diffuse his bullying.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: embarrass an arrogant, powerful, image-conscious bully in front of others and you will be fired within a month.

WARNING: Embarrassing a workplace bully in front of others may lead to an undesirable outcome. Use with extreme caution!

Level Five: Vicious (Not recommended!)

Take a vicious approach

If you use one of these methods, you may be as bad as--or even worse than--the bully. Not recommended, but still useful to understand the methodology. It may even bring catharsis, like a good vengeance movie.

The primary goal is to embarrass the bully, most likely causing permanent damage to his reputation in the company. The bigger his ego, the further he will fall. Severe retribution is his most likely response (and hence the stupidity of anyone actually using a vicious approach to dealing with bullying).

Here’s one method: Mock a bully in a manner that is harshly satirical (and potentially extremely funny, if the bully’s ego is large enough). However, this won’t work if done awkwardly, or in front of an audience sympathetic or loyal to the bully.

It goes like this: at a meeting, wait until the bully attacks you, and ask for a chance to respond. Then pretend you agree with the bully’s comment, but follow his logic to its extreme but obviously absurd conclusion.

For example, when a bully dominates a meeting by interrupting, contradicting, attacking and giving monologues, wait until the next time you make a comment and he snaps at you. Let’s assume he says: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

In response, you say:

“You know, you may be right, I probably don’t know what I’m talking about, at least in comparison to you. I don’t even know why I try to think when I’m in a meeting with you. Your knowledge and intelligence are clearly superior to mere mortals like us, and if you want our opinions, I’m sure you’ll give them to us. And thanks for gracing us with your god-like presence.”

At this point, you may witness the full glory of his temper. You can just sit back and smile, showing the others that you perceive the bully as a ridiculous, arrogant person who doesn’t bother you in the least. Enjoy the feeling of having humiliated a powerful bully, and then go prepare your resignation letter.

SECOND WARNING: If you humiliate a workplace bully, there may be some very unpleasant results. This approach is not recommended!

Your style in fighting back

Using the right phrase at the right time is not enough to respond to bullying. You must also display a personal style that makes your words powerful.

Within that style, several key elements must be present. Your goal should be to remain poised under fire, showing everyone in your company that you are emotionally well-balanced and free from self-serving aggression. (This would be in sharp contrast to an arrogant, volatile bully, which can work to your advantage.)

Even if you don’t feel calm, act like you are. Otherwise you will be exposing your weaknesses to the bully. In time, the style you choose will become more real to you, more comfortable to display.

Eventually, your calm, sincere, positive demeanor will greatly reduce the impact of bullying on your life. And when you counter a bully’s attack, you will exude natural confidence and power.

Your style:

  1. Calm, cool and collected
  2. Honest, sincere and positive
  3. Simple, powerful communication
  4. Humor
  5. Lighten up

1. Be calm, cool and collected

When you are emotional, act as if you are detached. Speak slowly and clearly. Maintain a relaxed facial expression and body language. Smile occasionally, when appropriate, to show the bully that nothing bothers you. Act calm and self-possessed.

2. Always be honest, sincere and positive

Be honest about your intentions and desires. Always respond in a positive way, no matter how negative the attack. Your positive mannerisms and words will stand in sharp contrast to the negativity of a bully. By displaying a positive attitude, you will end up on top regardless of how events turn out.

3. Use a simple, powerful communication style

The simplest approach is usually the most effective. For example, when you respond to an attack by asking questions of the bully, use concise, direct phrasing. Or if you confront the bully, get right to the point, keeping your sentences short.

A single pithy comment communicates far more than a rambling explanation. For example, when a bully unfairly criticizes something you did and asks for an explanation, you could either become defensive and struggle to debate him--which plays right into his hands--or just nonchalantly say:

“Because that’s the best way to do it.”

4. Use humor when spontaneous and appropriate

Try a little humor to lighten things up. It will communicate volumes about your refusal to be bullied.

When you are being attacked, don’t get upset. Instead, act amused and find the subtle humor in it. You may want to display a faint smile--but don’t overdo it, or else people will think you’re a little off. Better still, let your eyes show that you are smiling inside. Then you’ll be like a polished comedian who never laughs at his own jokes.

This is a skill that requires a positive, relaxed attitude, as well as a good sense of humor. You can’t force it. Either something tickles your funny bone or it doesn’t. Be careful, though. Avoid jokes and puns, which are useless at best, and will probably diminish your ability to fight bullying. You don’t want people to stop taking you seriously. If they think your sense of humor is forced, you won’t be effective when it really counts.

Be sure not to use humor when inappropriate; otherwise, it will most likely backfire. And be cautious about the frequent use of humor, or you may get the reputation of being from the “land of the easily amused.” It’s usually best to watch for that key moment when a good laugh can diffuse the tension or overcome a bullying attack.

When dealing with a bully, effective humor usually consists of concise statements, often conveying very subtle amusement at his absurdities. For example, when a bully makes an overly harsh judgment about your character, you may find humor merely by repeating his key phrase as a question. Add a little exaggeration if possible, and have an amused look on your face. A faint grin is often effective.

Perhaps he says in a critical tone of voice: “Why do you disappear all the time? I couldn’t find you this morning.” With a slightly amused expression, you answer: “This morning? Did you check the restroom?”

If he solemnly says yes, he checked the restroom, you may have a more serious problem on your hands.

5. Lighten up

Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. Only people who have the courage to try are in a position to fail. By making mistakes, you will eventually do it right; by trying, you will eventually improve your situation. In the long run, you can only fail if you do nothing.

Staying alert to a workplace bully

Depending on your line of work and the types of companies you tend to work for, dealing with bullies may occur over a period of weeks, months or even years. To be effective, you must develop an ongoing alertness to the subtle methods of workplace bullying.

How to stay alert:

  1. Be skeptical, not naive
  2. Anticipate his next move
  3. Don’t let your guard down

1. Be skeptical, not naive

When a potential bully turns on the charm, don’t be fooled. Personal charisma often hides a ruthless manipulator. You can’t afford to be naive.

Never take anything a bully says or does at face value. Look for the hidden reality, including his underlying motives. Don’t be fooled by superficial charm that conceals ruthless ambition.

Never give a bully the benefit of the doubt. Acknowledge the reality of his character and intentions, which includes his tendency to befriend people before he undermines them. Be alert for subtle attacks in his words and mannerisms. But, as always, tactfully confirm it is truly bullying before responding. Be savvy, not paranoid.

Until you become an expert at identifying workplace bullies, resolve to never fully trust an aggressive co-worker until you know his true intentions.

2. Anticipate his next move

A skilled bully is a master of deceit. His moves are usually difficult to detect, and even more difficult to anticipate.

But there is hope. Once you understand his underlying intentions, you can watch for patterns in his behavior. Perhaps this will provide you with clues as to his favored methods for bullying you. Then at least you won’t be completely surprised by his next deception or attack.

Start by understanding his thinking. What are his main motivations? What does he want to achieve in the company? What is his attitude towards you? What does he want from you? How could he use you to achieve his goals? Do you have any obvious vulnerabilities that he could exploit? How has he bullied you in the past? Which types of bullying were most effective in getting you to change your behavior?

Next, use your understanding to anticipate his next move. Who does he already have under his control? Who will he try to manipulate next? Will it be you? How will he try to manipulate you?

Or let’s say you are about to meet with him on a particular topic. What is he likely to want in this particular situation? What tactics will he most likely use? What tactics has he used in similar situations in the past?

3. Don’t let your guard down

You never know when a workplace bully may strike. Any time you are dealing with a bully, you are exposing yourself to an attack.

No matter how convenient it seems, don’t blindly submit to a bully’s aggression. It may seem like the path of least resistance, but when you yield to his attacks, you encourage repeat bullying. Don’t reward him for attacking you.

Don’t be sidetracked by a bully’s words. Remember that intentions and actions matter more. Never accept his explanations and rationalizations. However, it may be productive to pretend to accept him at face value, though underneath your friendly manner you should possess an appropriate level of skepticism.

When you are tempted to let your guard down, consider his driving ambition. Why is he going out of his way to make you feel comfortable and secure? Could it be that he is trying to charm you before he manipulates you?

Always be ready with your defense; he may target you when you least expect it. Often a bully’s most manipulative action or most devastating criticism comes right after you sense a growing camaraderie. When he sees your guard has been lowered, he takes advantage.

Powerful techniques

How powerful are the techniques we just covered? Well, if I had only one section to learn about workplace bullying, this would be my choice.

For example, Levels One through Three of responding (gentle, active, assertive) will help you get through most types of bullying. Other techniques in this section will make you less susceptible to bullying, such as staying calm, being positive and finding the humor in the situation.

The next section is a close second in usefulness. It will provide you with primary types of responses for even the most skilled and aggressive bullies.

Once you’ve mastered basic concepts and primary responses, the specific tactics provided in the remainder of this website should fall into place.