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How to Handle a Bully

5 steps Marsha used to take back control

Marsha cried bitterly when she spoke of her work life.

"She messes with my mind. She makes me feel small. And worst of all, she shouts at me in front of my co-workers. It's so undermining and I feel like it's ruining my whole life - not just when I'm at work!"

Marsha's line manager was a tyrant who seemed to take malicious delight in humiliating some (but not all) of her staff.

"It's like she leaves people alone if they just don't take it from her, but my confidence has been so badly shaken I just freeze when she yells at me. She's even done it in front of customers!"

I asked Marsha if she had complained to anyone. It turned out that there was an anti-bullying policy at her work - but you were supposed to report that kind of behaviour to your line manager, which wasn't much use when she was the bully!

"When my manager shouts at me or is sarcastic I just go to pieces. I want a way of staying calm, maybe a strategy to use with her so she doesn't pick on me so much", Marsha explained.

Of course, bullying doesn't stop when we leave school. We find bullies everywhere in life. People seeking to meet their own needs desire power, status, and excitement, by seeking to block your needs.

So how did I help Marsha, and how can you handle a bully at work?

I am going to set out a basic protocol for dealing with a bully that can be adapted depending on the circumstances. I'm not going to pretend it's always going to work. Some bullies, of course, are not going to be open to reason. But it's still worth attempting to confront bullies' behaviour directly, as it can be surprisingly effective if handled properly.

This kind of confrontation may not be appropriate in every context, but at the very least it can help people start to think about setting some clear boundaries - what they will and won't put up with.

But first, an important caveat.

Don't always tell bullies how you feel

It's a cruel fact of life that trying to appeal to someone's 'better nature' may be a losing strategy if they don't really have one (or if the one they do have is spectacularly underdeveloped).

Well-meaning but naive people may advise us to tell the bully how their behaviour makes us feel. Then, supposedly, the bully will be mortified because they had no idea! And so they will go about mending their wicked ways.

This might work for some control freaks who honestly had no idea they were upsetting you. But if you're dealing with a true bully, telling them how they press your emotional buttons may simply give them more to 'play with'.

If you ever need to confront a bully, or wish to help someone else do so, it helps if you avoid bringing emotion into it any more than you have to.

Although bullies are often curiously insightful about what makes people 'tick', and know just how to press their most sensitive buttons, they are at the same time often utterly lacking in the empathy necessary to respond appropriately to how people feel.

Tell a bully how you feel and you may simply be told that you are 'wrong' or 'stupid' to feel that way. Conversely, the bully might pretend to care and tell you things will be different, but then carry on as before - or worse, because now they've seen your weakness (as they see it).

Deal in facts, not feelings

I suggest that when confronting bullies it's useful to talk in terms of what you 'think' rather than what you 'feel'.

Use non-emotive language and stick closely to the facts. Deal with one incident at a time, rather than trying to address every occasion they have wronged you (maybe stretching back years!) all at once.Think carefully about what you are going to say, and rehearse it in your mind or with a friend in advance. (More of this in a moment.)

So what are you going to say? Well, here are some ideas. Marsha found the following strategy incredibly useful.

Five steps to confront a bully at work

  1. Tell them you want to talk to them privately about the incident and that one other person will be present. (Ensure that the 'other person' is a neutral individual who will be a reliable witness.)
  2. At the meeting, tell them why you think their behaviour is not appropriate. Don't make accusations or bring emotion into it. Thoughts and facts carry more authority.
  3. Tell them what you want them to do instead in future.
  4. Tell them why this will be better for both of you.
  5. Seek agreement with them that things will change.

So for, example, if the person who is bullying you shouts at you in front of other staff members, the process might go as follows:

Ask for a meeting "I want to speak to you about you shouting at me in front of other staff members. XXX will also be present." (You may need to keep asking for this.)
What's wrong "When you shout at me in front of our co-workers and clients, it makes you appear unprofessional to other staff and clients."
What you want "I think it's would be much better in future if we agree that you speak to me in the office in private if you have anything to say to me. Of course I will not expect to be shouted at there either, and your issues with me need to specific."
How both will benefit "This will make us both appear more professional and keep our working relationship intact."
Seek agreement "So can we agree to do it this way in future?" (And if not, get them to tell you exactly why not, so you can negotiate further.)

While you are talking to them, maintain eye contact. Don't smile too much or look away too often, as this can indicate submissiveness.

If they at first agree but then renege on the agreement, remind them of this meeting and that there was a witness. Ask them what's changed since the meeting and why they haven't stuck to their agreement. It may be necessary to repeat the process.

If you repeatedly do this, most bullies will lose interest, as you will become too difficult a prey for them. Even bullies like an easy life.

It's all very well to suggest calm problem solving, showing the bully that they can't press your emotional buttons. But how do you remain calm?

Many victims of bullying may say, "This is all very well, but when I am in the situation with this person, I just panic and can't think properly."

It's a good point.

So often emotional arousal will make us unable to think or speak clearly, to say what we want, or even to avoid crying or yelling uncontrollably - all of which weaken your position.

Prepare your feelings as well as your words

So often we prepare what we are going to do or say, but we don't prepare how we are going to feel.

Those who have picked up the skill of preparing their feelings ahead of time tend to thrive. They use mental rehearsal to program feelings of calm and confidence into themselves before they do something important.

Leaving the way you feel when you have something important to do or say to chance is... well... chancey.

Sure, we might feel alright when we confront that garrulous boss or stand up to speak publicly for the first time. But we might not. So we need to first decide how we want to feel in an upcoming situation, then mentally rehearse that situation while feeling that way - in Marsha's case, calm and confident.

After role playing the five-step protocol, I taught Marsha self-hypnosis (using the Handling Workplace Bullying audio) and she practised being clear and strong with her boss while feeling resourceful and calm. In this way her unconscious mind made it much easier for her to feel strong and calm when the time came to talk to her boss.

Remember, bullies are looking for an emotional reaction from those they target, not calm problem-solving responses.

In her mind, Marsha role played being calm but firm with her boss. She also really thought about what she was going to say to be assertive but not emotional.

So what was the upshot for Marsha?

The bully will notice the difference in you

The next time I saw Marsha she even looked different. She was smiling, for one thing!

She told me that the bully had seemed "surprisingly meek" and "taken aback" when Marsha had told her they needed to talk.

"But it was the way I felt,Mark. I felt so calm and definite. At one point she even looked a little scared of me, although I was calm and kept to the facts."

Then she said something I'll never forget.

"They used to call me 'Marshmallow Marsha' at school, and that's the way I'd always thought about myself. But now I know I can be a stick of rock too!"

I've created two hypnosis downloads to help you deal with bullies: Dealing with the Angry Bully and Handling Workplace Bullying.

Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Job Skills