My five tips on how to handle a conversational bully

1. Keep yourself focused on your priority. When talking to a conversational bully (someone who behaves like a bully during conversations you have with her/him) it is easy to focus on the hurt the bulling inflicts or the anger the bulling triggers; but before becoming sucked up in these emotions asks yourself what is the main priority of this conversation. Is the point of this conversation to get or give information, is it to further progress toward a goal, is to foster the relationship or is it to express yourself? By keeping your eyes on the prize you can more easily decide how to respond to the conversational bully. For example, if the main priority is to give information, then regardless of how the conversational bully is acting – give your information and exit the dialogue.

2. Do not engage in a debate about the content of what the conversational bully is saying. Generally the content of the bully’s words is not accurate, but if you try to defend yourself against these untruths you entered the bully’s game, which is exactly what the bullying individual wants. So a smarter strategy is to ignore the content of what is being said.

3. If you want or need to assert a boundary then assert the boundary about the general behaviors – acting like a bully – not about the specific words that were said. Someone who behaves like a bully is often a skillful conversationalist and can twist words, deny that certain words were said, etc…. You will walk away feeling stronger if you calmly, clearly assert your boundary and the consequence if the boundary is violated. Keep in mind that the purpose of the boundary is far less for the conversational bully to actually respect the boundary (generally if the person who is bullying is interested in interpersonal boundaries he/she would not be bullying to begin with) but for you to have a game plan, to be empowered and have a clear sense of how to assert yourself. In other words the boundary is for you – so assert it, remember it and follow through on it; because the odds are wildly high that the person who is bullying will bulldoze right through your boundary.

4. One type of boundary that is helpful to identify is just how much of the bullying behaviors you can tolerate. This is not the same as saying the bullying is acceptable. Bullying is never acceptable, the question is how much can you ignore before the bullying words start to distress, hurt or damage you. It is important to be genuine with yourself on this – not everyone is the same; some people are not fazed by bullying words, some people have a thick skin for a certain amount of time and then become worn down while others struggle to not be hurt by off-hand comments let alone bullying words. Once you have a sense of how much you can ignore, how much you can tolerate – identify how you can and will end or exit the conversation if and when it surpasses your identified maximum level of bullying words. Keep in mind that you can always walk away and simply leave. If it is possible state that you are leaving but if you can’t then simply go. Many people feel that walking out of a conversation is a rude and inappropriate thing to do and while there is truth to this it is fundamental to keep in mind that by bullying, the other person has violated conversational norms and so it is pointless for you to be following them, when doing so puts you at risk.

5. Another way to help yourself navigate a conversational bully is to identify who within your social group is an influential and mature person – someone the bullying individual will regard as influential and someone who is mature enough not to join in or approve of the bullying behaviors. This can be someone who is influential due to power (like a supervisor, boss or coach), or it can be someone who has social influence (a well-liked, respected or ‘popular’ person). Once the bullying starts engage this influential and mature person into the conversation – odds are the presence of this individual will lead to a quieting of the bullying behaviors. If you feel comfortable seek out the influential and mature person, in private, and discuss the situation with her/him. Request that this individual not discuss the situation with the bulling person but rather take you under her/his wing for a bit. Ask her/him to interact with you, essentially display that she/he likes you, approves of you – make sure that these behaviors happen in a way so that the conversational bully is aware. Your alignment with someone that the bullying individual deems to be influential will most likely move you off the ‘can be bullied’ list, since your social status has been elevated.

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