Turning the Tables on Workplace Bullies
“Where’d you come up with this crap?” Steve snarls.
Your stomach plummets. Your breathing stops. Steve has once again taken you apart in a staff meeting. As everyone’s eyes turns to you, you struggle to find the right words for finishing your presentation.
Bullies like Steve excel at preemptive attacks that leave their targets defensive, flustered, and tongue-tied. Do you work alongside a workplace bully who takes you apart with demeaning insults? Learn to turn the tables on any bully by taking control of yourself and the interaction.
Imagine a large, angry tiger leaping toward you, its teeth bared in a ferocious snarl. If you truly imagine this, you may feel your breath catching and the urge to run. Even if you run, the tiger is able to outrun you and sinks its claws and teeth into your back.
When you react to an attack, you rarely think clearly and sometimes don’t think at all. You temporarily stop breathing or breathe shallowly and rapidly. When that happens, you momentarily lose easy, simultaneous access to both mental hemispheres, the left and the right.
Fear or anxiety caused by the bully’s intimidation “pulls” you toward processing information in your right hemisphere, the hemisphere that comes into play when you emotionally react. To handle a bully’s attack, you also need the ability to think and to put your thoughts into language. These functions, along with the ability to strategize, are located in your left hemisphere. This explains why you may occasionally be unable to speak when upset. If you are able to calm yourself by slowing and deepening your breathing, you increase your ability to access left and right hemispheres simultaneously and to couple analysis and problem-solving with emotional reaction.
Take control by asking a question
What happens if I slam you with a putdown and attack me back or respond defensively? I put a game in motion and you play it – by my rules. What if you instead you respond with a question? You’ve just taken control of our encounter.
Suppose a bully knows you’re sensitive about your appearance, and says to you, “You look like a dog”? You might redden and tighten your jaw in response to this snarky comment. If others are watching, they may pity you. If you instead ask, “What breed?” you sidestep the attack and take control of the interaction. If your bully confronts you in front of an audience, they then laugh with and not at you.
Ignore blame and move toward a solution
Suppose you work for a bully boss who regularly yells at you, “Is that all you got done?” If you respond, “You don’t understand how long these things take,” you sound defensive. If, however, you ask “What would you like me to work on next?” you diplomatically move you and your boss forward toward a solution.
Call the bully on his game
Bullies often smirk and say, “Just kidding” after they jab you. If you protest, they blame you for feeling stung, by asking, “Why are you making a big deal about this?” Challenge this maneuver. Imagine the bully says “you’re a fool,” and you say, “that’s not true and it’s rude.” If the bully then says “just kidding,” you can respond “I don’t think so.”
How could you have handled Steve? You could have asked, “What exactly do you mean?” Chances are, Steve wouldn’t have had a response, but if he had, you could have then said, “Steve and everyone, here’s why my proposal makes sense.”
© 2016, Lynne Curry; adapted from Beating the Workplace Bully, AMACOM, 2015. Curry is author of Beating the Workplace Bully and Solutions, President of The Growth Company, Inc. and founder of www.workplacecoachblog.com and www.bullywhisperer.com ™. Beating the Workplace Bully offers readers twenty-eight chapters providing solutions for handling bullies.