The best method for organizing your anti-bully weapons is to define them according to the threat level posed by the bully. By tailoring your approach to the nature of your opponent, you can avoid using a sling-shot to fight a grizzly, or an elephant gun to get rid of an annoying insect.
Categories of Bullies
- A. Non-threatening bully
- B. Consistent bully
- C. Highly aggressive bully
A. Friendly handling of a non-threatening bully
When you see signs of workplace bullying, consider first whether the perpetrator is immature, socially incompetent, or overwhelmed by work or personal issues. Is this person otherwise quite reasonable? If so, an easy solution may be possible.
Try having a heart-to-heart talk. It’s not unusual for a non-threatening bully, when tactfully confronted, to recognize his errors and permanently end his bad behavior. He probably lacks extreme ambition and the fervent desire to control people--such as you find in a persistent bully--and thus will more likely abandon socially undesirable behaviors. You just need to point out the problems he has been causing for those around them. You will be doing him a favor.
There are several techniques for neutralizing non-threatening attacks without damaging your long-term relationship with a marginal bully.
- Ignore the bullying
- Dismiss the bullying
- Seek to understand the bully
- Give a friendly speech
1. Ignore the bullying
At times, you may just want to ignore the behavior, particularly if the bullying is minor and rarely occurs. The simplest, quickest answer is to merely say “Thank you” and leave.
“Thanks for your input. I’m going back to work now.”
Or act as if he didn’t say anything and ask a friendly question unrelated to the bullying. A non-threatening bully will treat you differently if all of his aggressions are met with friendly conversation.
2. Dismiss the bullying
When the bullying has occurred before and you need a slightly stronger response, make a comment that quickly dismisses the bullying, then change the subject. You can say:
“I don’t think so.”
“That’s an interesting perspective.”
You may want to be little harsher in some situations.
“Not in a thousand years.”
“Oh, give me a break.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“Where did you get that idea?”
“What did you say?” (Wait for answer.) “Oh, that’s what I thought you said.”
Or you can use an abrupt response that shows you are somewhat amused by his behavior.
“Thanks for the helpful input!”
“Thanks for being so honest with me!”
“Maybe your expectations of me were too high.”
“Sounds like the problem was caused by a lack of supervision”
Be careful not to say the last phrase to a bully who tends to micromanage or he’ll make sure you’re never unsupervised again.
Another response is to make a direct contradiction, then change the subject.
“No, I never believed that.”
“No, that’s not true.”
“That’s not the way it happened.”
“No; that’s ridiculous.”
3. Seek to understand the bully
When you show that you care, you may eliminate any desire he has to bully you. In essence, your empathy can change his view of you from adversary to friend.
“Why are you so upset over this?”
“Can you help me understand why you are so upset?”
“Can you help me understand why this is so important to you?”
“How did you arrive at that conclusion?”
“I’m sorry you’re upset. I can understand how you might see it that way.”
A soft voice and sincere concern will go a long way towards winning him as a friend.
4. Give a friendly speech
You can take control of a situation, perhaps even helping him, by giving a brief, friendly speech. Your purpose is to identify and solve his problem (also see "Tools for fighting back / Adopt a strong posture / Give a strong speech").
Show you care
Start by showing the bully that you care. Ask questions and be a good listener until you fully understand his thinking.
Next, start your speech by saying:
“I can understand why you’re upset...”
...and explain the issue from his point of view.
Then show some sympathy for his problem. “You don’t deserve this,” you might say, then explain why he probably doesn’t deserve it, again from his point of view. You might include some sincere appreciation of him, relating to the issue you’re discussing, such as:
“After all your hard work and sacrifice, you don’t deserve this.”
Alternatively, you can say:
“No one deserves to go through something like that.”
After that, state your intention to help him:
“I want to help you with this.”
Tell him your plan
Then tell him your specific plan for helping:
“Here’s what I’m going to do: ___. Is that all right with you?”
Or offer him alternatives to choose from.
“Would you rather ___ or ___?”
If he ignores your stated position, or the alternatives you’ve offered, repeat them exactly as before. That lets him know you aren’t going to be bullied.
“Look, I’ll help you if I can, but you need to either ___ or ____. I’m not going to ___.”
Be ready to end the conversation
If you can’t get him to choose from your suggestions, back off and end the conversation.
“Why don’t you think about it, then let me know what you want to do.”
Example of a friendly speech
Let’s say one morning your boss goes a little crazy when you get to work a few minutes late. Don’t become defensive or snap back at him, but instead wait a while, then go into his office.
Ask a sincere question, such as: “I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m not committed to my job. I am. But is there an issue with my coming in a little late now and then?”
Your boss may respond that promptness is important; that he needs to be able to count on you; that this has become a huge problem in the department. Follow up with questions to understand his attitude. This will become material for your mini-speech.
You then calmly begin your response to show that you understand his problems.
“I can see why you’re concerned. It must be frustrating not to know where people are when you need them.”
Offer to help:
“I want to help you on this.”
Then tell him your plan for solving the problem. You may need to first explain the situation:
“Some of us get stuck in traffic jams now and then. We have kids and can’t beat the traffic. We also like to go to doctors and dentists first thing in the morning to get it out of the way. But we could easily change those to afternoon appointments.
“But I don’t know how to fix the problem of getting in late. Maybe we could call whenever traffic is a problem. And I could get you a list of our cell phone numbers to keep handy so you can reach us when we’re stuck in traffic.”
Finally, ask for his response:
“Is that all right with you?”
If he is truly a non-threatening bully, your thoughtful consideration of his problem should result in an agreeable solution.
A much worse alternative
The unfortunate, all-too-common approach is to become angry and frustrated, harbor bad feelings and never address or resolve the underlying issue. Repeated attacks because of the same problem then cause the situation to deteriorate to the point where you resign or are fired.
Wouldn’t it be easier to solve the problem by taking a little initiative?
B. Moderate response to a consistent bully
When a workplace bully is consistently causing you problems, you may want to hit him between the eyes (figuratively speaking) in order to get his attention. Here are some verbal sledgehammers designed to stop a bully.
- Just say no
- Put him off
- Confront him privately
1. Just say no
Adopting a strong posture in saying “no” often stops a persistent bully. Use a strong, firm voice to show that you aren’t going to change your mind, even if he continues to badger you.
The most basic approach is to politely say “no,” such as:
“No, I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”
Then repeat the same rejection until he stops demanding that you submit to him.
You may need to use a harsher approach, although this technique has limited usefulness in most workplace situations. However, it is still useful to know, particularly when nothing else seems to convince the bully that you aren’t going to cooperate with an unreasonable demand. You can say:
“You don’t seem to be hearing me: the answer is no!”
“Hello? Can you hear me? I am saying NO.”
“Let me think about it...okay, I’ve thought about it. The answer is still no.”
2. Put him off
One of the more useful techniques is to avoid an argument by delaying your response. Refuse to explain yourself; just put him off until another day. For example:
“I’ll need to think it over.”
“I’ll get back to you on that”
“Can I get back to you on that?”
If he keeps insisting, and you’re not concerned about using a harsh tone, try saying:
“Which part of ‘I’ll need to think it over’ don’t you understand?”
Alternatively, you can respond to his repetitive demands by saying exactly the same thing, over and over again. For example, just keep saying:
“Can I get back to you on that?”
At some point, he may ask in a frustrated tone of voice: “Is that all you can say?”
“Can I get back to you on that?”
3. Confront a bully privately
It may take a private, one-on-one confrontation to change the behavior of a consistent bully. However, don’t expect too much from the conversation. He may see it as an opportunity to gain more control over you.
To confront the bully, wait for quiet, uninterrupted time (but not first thing in the morning when many people resent the intrusion). Try to meet in a private, neutral setting, such as a conference room or empty office (explain that you don’t want any interruptions). Bring a list of things you want to cover. Use one or two word reminders only; writing out full sentences to read aloud is counterproductive. You need to sound sincere and confident, not scripted and timid.
Set a positive, friendly tone for your meeting by telling him that you want to figure out how to better work together. If he begins to lose control, excuse yourself, saying that you would rather wait until he is not so angry. Also, if he insists on meeting you in his office, but then takes a phone call, excuse yourself and leave. You can always go back later and start again.
Stick to the facts
During the confrontation, don’t tell him how you feel. He may view that as a sign of weakness. Instead, confront him with the facts of his bad behavior and ask for his response. For example:
“I was told you said that I ____. Is that true?”
“I want us to work well together, but I can’t because of the way you ____. In the future, I need you to ____.”
“Can you suggest some things we can do to solve this problem?”
“Is there some way we can work together more effectively?”
Clarify and agree
After he responds, you can ask follow-up questions to clarify his meaning and perhaps uncover his underlying intentions. If he suggests a reasonable resolution to the problem, agree with his proposal, thank him and end the meeting. That demonstrates your desire to cooperate, as long as he acts fairly towards you.
Give a strong speech
Very often, he won’t come up with a useful suggestion. If this happens, you may want to switch gears and use a modified version of the “Give a friendly speech” technique. With a consistent bully, your little speech should get to the point more quickly. The following outline may be useful.
- Start your speech by explaining the issue from his point of view.
- State your intention to find a solution.
- Tell him your specific plan for resolving the issue (possibly offering some alternatives for his behavior).
- Ask him if your plan is acceptable to him (or ask him to choose an alternative).
You may discover that nothing satisfies the bully during your confrontation. Don’t worry if that is the case; at least you’ve put him on notice that you are not a doormat for him to wipe his feet on.
If you can’t come to a reasonable solution, back off and end the conversation, saying:
“Why don’t you think about it; we can talk again later.”
“I think you understand my concerns now.”
Then thank him for his time and leave.
Careful confrontation = a win for you
He will think twice before bullying you again, since he knows you will confront his bad behavior. If nothing else, he will be motivated to find easier targets for his future bullying.
C. Powerful response to a
highly aggressive bully
Does it seem like you’ve tried everything, but the bully is still winning? Maybe you need more firepower. Be cautious, however: with some bullies, the more force you exert, the greater his retaliation.
- Encourage him to open up
- Question underlying thinking
- Offer meaningless apology
- Force him to make meaningful point
- Force him to explain behaviors
- Criticize him openly
- Tell him you recognize his bullying nature
- Tell him to leave you alone
- Imply something is wrong with him
- Imply he is a good person
1. Encourage a bully to fully express himself
As usual, an important first step is to encourage your opponent to fully express himself. Try asking:
“You seem very angry. Why?”
“Why does that bother you?”
“What else is bothering you?”
“What do you think we should do about it?”
2. Question his underlying thinking
Once he describes a problem, follow up with questions to uncover his underlying thinking.
“What’s behind your concerns?”
“What’s the real problem here?”
But don’t accept what he says at face value. If you sense he is still holding back, don’t waste your time trying to uncover things he will never reveal. Instead, appreciate the additional pieces of the puzzle he has given you and make an educated guess as to his real motives.
3. Offer meaningless apology or appreciation
Despite your efforts, you may not make any progress towards a solution. If you don’t see any benefit to pursuing it further, dismiss the problem with a brief, meaningless comment and walk away.
“Thanks for your advice. I’ll need to think about that.”
“I’m sorry that I bother you so much.”
You can also use the old stand-by:
“Dealing with you provides wonderful opportunities for personal growth.”
4. Force him to make a meaningful point
Among the more powerful weapons are direct questions that force a bully to say something meaningful, rather than his usual rambling and generalizing. These questions can be effective both one-on-one and at meetings.
“What’s your point?”
“What do you mean?”
“How is that relevant?”
“What are you getting at?”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Why are you telling us this?”
“If there’s something you want, why don’t you come out and say it?”
“Does anyone here understand what he is saying?”
“Is anyone else as confused by this as I am?”
The last three items are particularly effective in motivating a bully to fire you.
5. Force him to explain his bullying behavior
Highly direct questions, focused on his bullying behavior, can also be useful in forcing him to explain himself.
“Why are you blaming me?”
“Why are you trying to make me feel guilty?”
“Why are you comparing me to _________?”
“How did you come to the conclusion that I’ve hurt your reputation?”
“How did you come to the conclusion that I’m not fully committed to the department?”
“Why do you believe that I’m not a team player?”
6. Criticize him openly
Criticizing a workplace bully in front of others will do more harm than good. It can also shift you from the role of being bullied into the role of bullying others.
This approach is not recommended.
However, if you feel you have a sympathetic audience and a compelling reason, here are a few things you can say to a highly aggressive bully:
“You seem to be blaming everyone but yourself.”
“Are you trying to be rude, or are you just insensitive?”
“We’re generating more heat than light here.” (say this after the bully speaks)
7. Tell him you recognize his bullying nature (Use with caution!)
During a one-on-one confrontation, you may want to tell a workplace bully that you understand what he is doing. Even though he will probably deny any less-than-honorable intentions, the message will be clear that you are fully aware of his bad behaviors.
“I believe your explanations are irrelevant. Your actions are what really matter.”
“I know what you’re up to, and I’m not playing along.”
“I’d really love to help you, but I make it a rule not to let people take advantage of me.”
8. Tell him to leave you alone
A more extreme approach is to firmly tell the bully to leave you alone.
“I don’t have time for this.” (Then turn and walk away)
“Can you do me a favor? Don’t bother me anymore.”
“I’m not listening to this any more. In my opinion, you’ve gone too far.”
9. Imply something is wrong with him (Use with caution!)
You can try to put a workplace bully on the defensive by asking questions about his well-being, such as:
“Is everything okay?”
“You don’t seem well today. What’s wrong?”
“Are you happy here?”
This technique also can be used to show your amusement at his highly aggressive behavior. For example, after he screams, calmly say:
“Thanks for caring so much. Your passion really shows through. Now, tell me, what’s the real problem?”
10. Imply that he is a good person displaying bad behavior
Then there is the compassionate approach. Maybe by this time you have developed some pity for the pathetic character of the bully. Put it this way: no matter the outcome, you will eventually end up in a healthy, normal work environment with positive, cooperative people. Meanwhile, the bully will continue in his living hell of dysfunctional interactions.
Now that you understand his sad future, why not try to rescue him?
Start by seeing him as he could be, or as he would be if he weren’t such an overly ambitious, egotistical jerk. Ascribe to him good qualities and see how he responds.
“I don’t believe that you’re really like this.”
“I know that underneath it all, you only want to do the right thing.”
“You may act like a tough manager, but underneath it all, I know you’re a good person.”
“That’s not like you! You must be under a lot of pressure.”
If he responds favorably (“You’re right, I am under a lot of pressure”), then you are well on your way to stopping the bullying, and perhaps even reforming the bully.
Your arsenal is now full. A wide variety of weapons are available to deal with the bullies lurking in a typical workplace.
But don’t be surprised if you end up using simple, basic techniques over and over again. In skilled hands, they are usually the most effective methods for dealing with bullies.
Make your own choices
Dealing with a skilled workplace bully can be overwhelming. But don’t feel you are alone: countless others are experiencing the same challenges, disappointments and frustrations.
No matter how difficult things become, remember that you always make your own choices: you can choose not to let the bully bother you, you can choose to fight back, or you can choose to leave the company. Even doing nothing and being a victim is a choice (though not a very good one).
Fighting back against workplace bullying may last weeks or months, or even years in some highly competitive industries where bullying is widespread. We could all benefit from a good coach, but in the absence of that, my hope is that this website can provide a few of the same insights and suggestions.
And now that you have the knowledge and tools to fight back, it’s time for you to face your fears and make your own choices. It’s not up to the workplace bullies of the world to dictate your future; it’s up to you.