Best Responses to a Bully
Once you understand workplace bullies and the basic methods for dealing with them, a vast array of techniques become available for your use. Among these, a handful are particularly effective and should form the heart of your arsenal.
We will start with a failsafe response, including a novice, panic-avoiding response to an angry, yelling beast of a bully; and end with an advanced method of subduing a bully without even fighting him. In between, we will focus on basic methods of interrupting, questioning and paraphrasing a bully.
Imagine a bully screaming at you, eyes bulging, veins jutting out. Panic fills your mind. What can you say? What can you do?
It’s time to pull out your most basic, most foolproof weapon: the failsafe response.
In dealing with a bully, you never want to be caught flat-footed. You need to adopt a simple response that you can always fall back on, one that will allow you to always respond with firmness and dignity. Then you can escape, unharmed, from even the most intense situation.
Once you develop more skill in handling a bully’s tantrums, you won’t need a failsafe response. But it’s still comforting to know that you possess the ability to instantly stop the attack.
Basic failsafe response
The most reliable response is also the most simple: interrupt him and walk away. After you have both calmed down, you can return to face the bully.
It is best to choose a single phrase, one that fits your likely situation. You can make it very simple and abrupt, such as:
“Will you excuse me? I’m going to get a drink of water.”
“Excuse me, but I need to go to the restroom.”
“Pardon me; I need to make a phone call.”
You can also include a suggestion that you meet the bully at some other time.
“I’m headed out to lunch, but we can talk later.”
“I have to go now, but let’s get together later.”
“I want to hear you out, but first I need to finish something.”
“Excuse me; I need to go. Let’s finish this later.”
If he calms down, you can suggest a specific meeting or lunch to fully discuss his comments. For example:
“I want to get this resolved. Can we meet later to talk about it?”
If he says yes, you can ask:
“How about four this afternoon?”
But if he yells again, excuse yourself and abruptly leave.
Another approach is to just smile and act amused, then excuse yourself and walk away. This will convey to a bully that you have no interest in hearing anything more from him on that particular topic. For example, grin and say calmly:
“Maybe you’re right. Will you excuse me?”
Then turn and walk away, without waiting to see his reaction. If he screams obscenities or threatens you as you leave the room, just keep walking and say:
“Sorry, I need to leave,” without looking back.
Aggressive failsafe response
Are you ready for a more assertive approach? If so, you can prepare a failsafe response that allows you to calm down the bully and take control of the conversation.
The essence of this approach is to interview an agitated bully until you’ve reached his underlying motivation. As you do this, be careful not to display any anxiety. No matter how loud or obnoxious the attack, respond calmly, in a sincere and direct manner.
In the aggressive failsafe response, you repeatedly ask “Why?” Use some variation in wording, and occasionally use full phrases to sound more conversational. However, the essence of each question should always be the same:
Focus your questions specifically on discovering his underlying thoughts and intentions. For example, if he yells that you failed him, you can ask:
“Excuse me, but why do you think I failed you?”
To pull this off, you must listen intently to his responses, and then phrase your next question accordingly. For example, if he responds:
“You haven’t been listening to me,”
you can ask:
“And how did you come to the conclusion I wasn’t listening to you?”
(Which is a more conversational version of:
“Why do you think I wasn’t listening to you?”)
He may bait you with misstatements, innuendo or thinly veiled threats. Don’t be tempted to defend yourself. If he asks you a question, just briefly acknowledge it and move forward (“I’m not sure I can answer that, but tell me why you think...”).
Mix up your questions with a simple statement that demonstrates your confusion and curiosity. This will encourage him to expound on his thinking. You can say:
“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”
“Please help me understand what you’re trying to say.”
To avoid coming across too harshly, use variety in your phrasing of the question “why.” He is more likely to relax and open up when he doesn’t feel like you are grilling him. Examples:
“And why is that?”
“Why do you believe that?”
“What’s underlying that?”
“What’s your reasoning on that?”
“What makes you think that?”
Don’t be surprised if the bully calms down in response to your repeated questions. You’ve given him a chance to vent, you’ve demonstrated an eagerness to listen, you’ve shown him that you aren’t intimidated. You have thus taken away his main reasons for continuing to rant and rave.
Become an expert in failsafe responses
Failsafe responses are needed at the most intense moments of dealing with a bully. That won’t be a good time to rack your brain, trying to remember something you read a few weeks ago.
A better approach is to choose one or two basic phrases now and practice them over the coming weeks and months. As a result, when a bully starts yelling, usually in front of your co-workers when you least expect it, you won’t freeze in panic. Instead, you will calmly say:
“Excuse me; I need to go. Let’s finish this later.”
And then you’ll give your co-workers a knowing smile and walk away, unbullied.
Primary responses to bullying
Failsafe responses are invaluable for intense moments, but normally you will apply specific techniques as dictated by the situation. Six primary responses are among the most effective.
- Resolving the issue
- Humorous responses
- Avoiding mistakes
1. Learn to interrupt a bully
Responding to a bully often requires you to interrupt him. Much of his power stems from overwhelming people during conversations, preventing them from exposing his underhanded tactics or correcting his misstatements. To have any hope of countering an attack, you must first get him to stop talking.
Bullies count on politeness in others
Are you worried about coming across as rude? A bully prefers politeness in others, considering it a sign of weakness, naivete or vulnerability. But a bully isn’t polite when he intimidates and undermines you, so why do you feel compelled to be polite when you’re defending yourself?
You can use polite phrasing, of course, such as “Excuse me,” but you will need a more assertive approach to interrupt his diatribes. Don’t feel any need to hold back out of consideration for his feelings. If he points out your rudeness (his mischaracterization of assertiveness), ignore his sniping and focus on the real issue.
Interrupting a bully
To effectively interrupt a bully, say his name. Look him right in the eyes. Speak clearly in a strong, steady voice. Repeat his name, without glancing away, until he stops talking.
But what if he continues talking? Or even yelling?
Then continue repeating his name, with the exact same tone of voice, over and over again. In the very rare case he persists in talking (or yelling), say his name louder and louder. At some point--perhaps just to get you to shut up--he will be forced to stop speaking. He may look at you and angrily say: “WHAT?”
There are a few other things you can say to interrupt him, such as:
“Wait a second!”
“Hey, wait a minute!”
“Take a breath!”
Even with these phrases, you achieve greater impact by using his name, such as:
“Hold on, ___. Take a breath!”
Take control with questions
As soon as the bully stops talking, ask him a question. That will give you control of the conversation (at least for the moment). Make your question brief. If he interrupts you before you finish, stop what you were saying and exclaim firmly:
“Excuse me, but I’m not finished.”
Repeat that phrase until he stops talking. For greater impact, include his name.
When interrupting a bully in front of others, there is always a higher risk of a harsh reaction. If this occurs, concentrate on maintaining a calm appearance (no matter how you feel inside). This will stand in stark contrast to his agitated, negative, verbally destructive nature.
In fact, your confrontation could expose the imbalanced nature of an out-of-control bully. In that case, the bully may trigger his own termination. Upper management rarely commits to such verbally violent people.
2. Asking questions
The shortest, most direct path to understanding a bully is to ask him questions. Even when he doesn’t answer them honestly, you can still glean an idea of his true thinking and underlying intentions.
Your goal is to continue asking questions until he clearly explains himself. As a practical matter, it may several sessions to make this happen. Or it may never happen. Nevertheless, you make progress when you ask questions and listen carefully to his responses.
Convert bullying to conversations
Asking questions allows you to gain control over the interaction with the bully. This can convert an incident of bullying into a more normal conversation and even permanently transform your relationship with the bully.
For this reason alone, asking questions is a highly useful technique for responding to a bully, even when he doesn’t say anything meaningful.
This technique can be effective in a variety of situations, including private confrontations, attacks in front of co-workers, or at meetings.
Sample attack and response
Let’s say a bully unleashes a verbal assault on your job performance. If it’s in the form of a tirade, you may need to use a failsafe response. But otherwise, you can wait for his assault to come to an end so you can respond.
First, allow some silence to settle around the bully’s words. This simple act shows you were paying attention, and that you’re calm enough to thoughtfully respond (which is much better than displaying panic as you rush to defend yourself).
Then ask a simple, direct question, such as asking him to clarify his attack:
“Can you explain what you meant by ___?”
Or if he used generalizations, you could ask him for the details:
“What specifically did I do that makes you think I was ___?”
When he responds to your initial question, listen carefully for a key word or phrase that represents the essence of his complaint. Then use that word or phrase to ask another question. For example, if his rambling answer mentions that you “undermine” him in front of clients, your next question could be:
“When did you start thinking I was undermining you in front of our clients?”
Several options will be available for each of your responses. The choice you make isn’t as important as asking your question in a form that repeats some of his key words or phrases. In this way you will blend with his thinking and maintain control of the exchange. And as long as you keep pursuing the source of his original attack, you will make progress.
At some point, you may get to the bottom of his attack. Then you can respond with a clear statement, such as: “Now I see why you were concerned. I’ll be more careful in the future.”
Or he may run out of patience and insist on ending the conversation or changing the subject. At that point, you can either drop it or suggest another time to work things out.
But as long as he is answering your questions--even when he is evasive--you can continue interviewing him until he responds clearly. Even better, use paraphrasing in combination with your questions.
3. Use paraphrasing
Paraphrasing is a powerful technique for exposing a workplace bully’s attack or uncovering his true intentions. It involves putting the essence of his thinking into your own words, as concisely as possible. Then ask him to confirm your paraphrase.
Let’s say you just endured a lengthy, convoluted attack on your recent communication with a client. You’re not sure why he is complaining, but it seems to have something to do with undermining him. You could say:
“So you believe that when I talk to clients, I might be undermining you. Is that what you’re saying?”
Don’t get distracted
This may lead to a new, different attack (usually buried in his long-winded response to your question). In some cases, you may want to respond to the new attack by once again paraphrasing and asking him to confirm his meaning. Usually, however, you’re better off continuing to pursue the thinking behind his original attack, leaving his additional attacks for later. Otherwise, he may successfully sidestep providing any meaningful explanations (a favorite tactic of a clever bully).
The bully may also try to distract you with a variety of irrelevant misstatements. These will be tempting targets for correction, but don’t take the bait. When confronted, bullies enjoy leading the conversation around in circles, especially at meetings.
Methods of paraphrasing
You may want to preface your paraphrasing by saying:
“Let me be sure I heard you right.”
“Let me make sure I understand you.”
“I’d like to understand your point.”
Then start your paraphrase by saying:
“Are you saying ___?”
“So you think ___?”
“So you believe that ___?”
“So you feel that I’m ___?”
“Why do you think ____?”
“How would ____ lead to ____?”
After you paraphrase him, you can ask:
“Is that how you feel?”
“Is that what you mean?”
“Is that your point?”
“Do I understand you correctly?”
“Is that what you were trying to say?”
If he responds in the negative, ask him more questions until he clarifies his thinking.
Don’t be surprised if he accuses you of intentionally misrepresenting his meaning (“You’re putting words in my mouth”). You can always explain: “I don’t mean to put words in your mouth; I’m just trying to understand what you’re saying.”
4. Act to resolve the issue
Once you discover the meaning behind a bully’s attack, look for a way to resolve the issue. Your respectful, cooperative manner can help you achieve a quick victory over the bully without harming your working relationship. You might even earn his respect, causing him to avoid bullying you in the future.
In many cases, you can resolve the issue quickly: “I’ll fix that right away.” Or: “I see your point. I won’t let it happen again.”
Steps to resolving an issue
But when things are a little more complicated, take it step-by-step. Start by asking for his cooperation:
“Can we talk about this?”
“Can we try to figure out a way to resolve this?”
Next, ask him to suggest a possible solution. Listen carefully to his response. You may need to ask additional questions, or use paraphrasing, to clarify his meaning and flesh out the detail (especially if he uses generalizations, a favorite tactic of bullies). Once again, you are seeking to discover the essence of his thinking amid the flurry of his words.
Once you’re on the same wavelength as the bully, make a decision on how to resolve the issue. Then state your intention to the bully. If appropriate, obtain his agreement on specific actions that you will both take, such as:
“Do you want to call the client, and I’ll go tell the staff?”
Finally, if possible, end the conversation and leave, which will ensure that you finish on a high note of cooperation, rather than allowing him to launch another attack so you finish on a low note of bullying.
5. Humorous responses
Humor can be an effective weapon against bullying. The extent to which you use humor should be determined by your personal style and the overall situation.
In some cases, humor will diffuse the seriousness of his attack. You are showing him that you aren’t bothered by his bullying. Humor may even allow you to enjoy your dealings with a bully.
Never forget that no matter how lightly you treat the situation, a skilled bully is usually playing for keeps.
To use this approach, look for contradictions and absurdities in a bully’s attacks or mannerisms. Make a subtle remark or ask a question that highlights the humorous aspect.
Mock his innuendo
Let’s say he treats your recent phone call with an ex-employee, now at a competitor, as very suspicious. Using innuendo, he suggests you are emailing the ex-employee valuable documents. One possible response:
“So you’re saying that I shouldn’t ask _____ where he left a client’s file because that might lead to my selling him company secrets?”
A more subtle approach is to act amused by a bully’s attack. In the case of an unfair criticism, you could repeat the essence of his comment as a humorous question. For example, if he suggests you can’t follow simple directions, you could smile and say:
“Maybe you’re right. Could you make them more complicated next time?”
Be careful not to venture into sarcasm, however. It seems like a clever idea at the time, but it tends to come back to hurt you.
Mild satire is a good alternative, but difficult to achieve without a well-developed sense of comedy. In the proper use of satire, you are like a good-natured stand-up comic who insults an audience member’s hometown, and then says: “You know I’m only kidding. I love people from ________.”
There is a thin line between satire and sarcasm. If your voice is dripping with sarcasm, even well-intentioned satire will come across as sarcastic. But if you maintain a sincere, innocent tone of voice, it is more likely to be recognized as good-natured humor. It may be useful to add:
“I’m only kidding around. You’re making some good points.”
Even satire has its risks
Always remember who you’re dealing with: a bully tends to be careful about his image, always alert for demeaning comments. Will he interpret your mild satire as a blatant attempt to embarrass him? If so, it won’t be the first time that someone with a good sense of humor ends up on a bully’s list of enemies.
Mock his criticisms
Let’s assume you are brave (or foolish) enough to satirize a bully. A simple method is to exaggerate his unjustified, over-the-top criticisms by agreeing with his attack and then taking it one step further.
If he accuses you of irrationally undermining his plans, you could respond:
“You’re making a good point there. Yes, I’m finally beginning to see the light: I’m sorry I don’t understand why you’re always right.”
It’s always better to laugh at yourself
A more tactful approach--and a highly effective use of humor--is to laugh at yourself. To accomplish this, respond to a bully’s attack by mocking your own mistakes and shortcomings.
Be sincere in your self-reproach; after all, we all have weaknesses. If you come across as sarcastic, you will do more harm than good. You may want to start with a simple acknowledgement of an obvious mistake.
Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself in front of others. Not only can you have fun doing it, but you will highlight the bully’s arrogance. And by acknowledging your weaknesses, you deprive the bully of ammunition to attack you.
If the bully accuses you of false humility, you can respond:
“No way! I’m very proud of my humility. It’s one of my best qualities.”
Using humor won’t guarantee a victory, but at least you can be comforted by the idea that you showed everyone you are above the ugly, small-minded attacks of a workplace bully.
6. Things to avoid in your technique
Don’t become your own worse enemy in dealing with a workplace bully. Certain types of mistakes can give him the upper hand, especially if you repeat them over and over.
Things to avoid:
- Don’t be defensive
- Don’t be timid
- Don’t be fooled
- Don’t stoop to his level
1. Don’t be defensive
First of all, never let a bully put you on the defensive. Don’t apologize for your behavior, unless it was truly a mistake. Instead, just acknowledge that you heard his criticism, and state that you will be more careful in the future. Never argue or become angry. Never plead or beg.
2. Don’t be timid
Never display a timid or wishy-washy personality. Otherwise, he will think you can be easily intimidated or manipulated. Never change your plans solely because of bullying and never give in to any unrealistic demands (except possibly to compromise on a minor item). Don’t buckle under the pressure of his threats. Don’t try to appease him.
3. Don’t be fooled
You also need to show that you can’t be confused and misled. Never be fooled by a bully’s misstatements and never take his words at face value. Don’t automatically accept the premise of his comments or questions, which could sidetrack you from the main issue. Show him you can think clearly even when under attack.
4. Don’t stoop to his level
Finally, never stoop to the level of a workplace bully. By learning these skills for fighting back, you will gain the ability (but I hope not the desire) to bully others. Don’t be tempted to use this new-found power for deception, manipulation and intimidation, even against bullies.
It is always better to maintain your integrity and sense of fair play, even if it means letting a workplace bully get the upper hand, or losing your job.
Rather than fighting it out in the trenches, why not take the high road instead? If you can calmly subdue the bully and resolve the situation, you will have truly won the day.
Once you master the fundamentals, you are ready for the next step: Don’t fight a bully, subdue him and offer to help him.
It’s tempting to use your new-found power to take down a workplace bully. After all, he deserves it, doesn’t he? But wouldn’t you rather learn how to redirect his energy in a harmless, or even positive, way?
Okay, probably not. We all know how satisfying it is to see the villain facing defeat at the end of a good action movie, and how fulfilled we feel when he falls for the final time, as the hero utters a pithy, memorable quote.
Nevertheless, this is real life, with your career at stake. No reason to risk it for a little short-term pleasure. If you want to enjoy some vengeance, go see a movie.
Let’s take a look at a masterful approach to neutralizing, then helping, a workplace bully. The exact process is more of an art than a science, but one possible approach is described below.
- Absorb his attack
- Subdue him
- Give a controlled response
- Handle objections
- Deal with continued aggression
- Calmly disengage
1. Absorb the bully’s attack
The first step is to calm the bully (while staying calm yourself). Ask questions to demonstrate that you sympathize with his problems. Your poise as you focus on his needs will demonstrate that you don’t take his attack personally, and your compassion and maturity will diffuse his desire to attack you.
2. Use the force of his attack to subdue him
Get him to continue talking about the issue. Even if he is angry and yells, let him vent. He will eventually calm down.
As part of this step, encourage him to restate his primary point. Ask him to clarify and expand on that point. Ask for his opinions on the matter. Ask about his relevant experiences in the past. Ask for his suggested solutions to the problem.
For greatest impact, you must listen actively. This includes an abundance of follow-up questions to uncover specifics, as well as occasional use of paraphrasing to make sure you understand his points.
Don’t forget to reevaluate your position. You should always consider the possibility that he is right. Acknowledging the truth doesn’t mean you are submitting to the bullying. If he is right, point it out.
3. Give a meaningful, controlled response
Now that you have figured out the specifics behind his rants, offer to help him.
Summarize the situation
Start by summarizing the situation. This will demonstrate that you have listened carefully and you understand things from his perspective. This simple act may transform his entire attitude to you (some bullies only yell because they believe others don’t pay sufficient attention to their ideas).
Summarize the options
Next, summarize the options in the matter. Try to blend with the bully’s thinking process and language style (both terminology and phrasing). Again, this demonstrates you listened carefully and fully understand his problem.
Give your conclusion
Then give your conclusion, beginning with: “Here’s what I am going to do.” You may also need to give him options for his behavior.
4. Effectively respond to objections
If he objects to your conclusion, restate your intentions, then describe his options again. Explain the benefits and problems of each of his options, then ask the bully to make a simple choice.
5. Effectively respond to continued aggression
Don’t be surprised if the bully again tries to intimidate or manipulate you. But don’t give up; at least not yet. Instead, calmly reject his demands:
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”
Next, ask him sincerely:
“Is there anything else I can do to help you?”
“Is there anything I can do to resolve this situation?”
6. If you still can’t overcome him, calmly disengage
At some point, it may become clear that you can’t accomplish anything by continuing the discussion. You’ve done your best; don’t pursue it any further. In a friendly tone of voice, agree to disagree:
“It looks like we disagree on this issue.”
“Let’s just agree to disagree.”
Then excuse yourself and leave. This will leave the door open for the bully to reform his ways. Once he has reflected on your mature, professional handling of his aggressive behavior, it could soften his approach.
Even if you don’t see a clear victory in this battle, your calm, skillful and assertive interaction with the bully will go a long way towards winning the war.
Simpler is usually better
The techniques we have just covered are fairly straightforward. But don’t underestimate their power. Something as basic as paraphrasing could become the most potent weapon in your entire arsenal.
Gven the choice of two viable methods of responding to a bully, you should choose the simplest one. Not only does it provide a more direct approach--a weapon that you can more accurately aim and fire--but it also stands a good chance of being the most effective response in any given situation.