Everyone has met a bully. Perhaps you have one in your workplace, on your school board, at your volunteer organization, or in your family.

Bullying behaviors by people in positions of influence can make even the simplest tasks a headache. Studies show bullying in our society is on the rise. A 2019 Monster.com survey found that nearly 94% of 2,081 employees polled said they had been bullied in the workplace, representing an increase of 19% in the last 11 years. We could blame social media or our polarized society, but whatever the cause, bullying needs to be stopped.

What can be done to disarm bullies? Here are seven strategies.

  1. Understand the Bully’s Agenda. This may seem counterintuitive, but the more you understand about the bully’s agenda, the more you can mitigate their behavior. People who bully others are often insecure. They use toxic behaviors to try to make themselves appear more powerful and important. They may not feel appreciated or valued or respected. Somewhere along the way they learned to compensate by being a tyrant. Frequently, they have been victims of an abuser themselves. If you try to combat a bully with aggression, chances are you will lose.

    The best strategy is to win without them knowing it. Make them believe you support them and are open to their agenda. This will defuse their behaviors, because it’s difficult to browbeat someone who is being compliant. If nothing else, you’ll make them work a lot harder trying to find something else to throw at you. For example, even if you disagree with a bully you’re forced to work with, try using phrases such as, “I think you have an important point,” “I’m open to looking at this from all angles,” and “Your opinion is fair,” and move quickly to table the current discussion and set up another meeting. This may defuse the bully and, once removed from their audience, they may be less confrontational.
  2. Understand the Bully’s Tactics. Do they micromanage? Do they raise their voice? Do they conspire with others behind your back? Bullying behaviors can take many forms and require different approaches. 

    When faced with a bully who is intent on keeping you from accomplishing the task at hand, don’t say “it’s not your business”; rather, flood them with information. It can be time-consuming for you, but this bully’s micromanaging comes from insecurity that no one can do the job as well as he or she could and from feeling left out. The more details you provide, the more you assure them you are capable and that the situation is under control. 

    If you encounter bullies who raise their voice, you’ll never outshout them. Instead, speak more softly. Studies have shown that responding in a soft voice de-escalates yelling. If you raise your voice in response, you are escalating the combative situation. Include anti-bullying techniques in your association leadership training to give your volunteers the tools they need to stand up to the bullies in their lives.
  1. Focus on the Job, Not the Bully. Keep your focus on the good work you’re doing, the goal you’re trying to accomplish, or the task you’re attempting to complete instead of the bully in your way. By doing so, you remove the negative attention the bully wants and can concentrate on the positive. 
  2. Focus on Facts. Don’t play into emotional warfare. Bullies move from one manipulation or coercion to another in a microsecond. Use facts, and not emotions, to respond to their intimidation and threatening behaviors. Take detailed notes of conversations with times, dates, and others present and let them know you’re taking notes by referring to them frequently. When being accused, present the bully with the facts of what happened. This keeps the situation grounded in the facts and gives you more power.
  3. Use Effective Body Language. Look the bully directly in the eye when responding and stand straight and tall. If he or she stands, you stand, too. When we cower in any way, which is a natural response to bullying, we give the bully more power. When we look the bully straight in the eye at our full height, this lets them know we are unwilling to participate in their intimidation. You can also turn your body away or slightly away from the bully when responding to demonstrate that you won’t participate in their toxic behaviors. If the bully starts yelling or using other toxic behaviors, respond calmly and walk away if necessary. 
  4. Protect Your Self-Esteem and Your Reputation. It can be psychologically debilitating to know that we’re giving in to a tyrant. Their behaviors and our acquiescence can lower our self-esteem and cause us to question ourselves. Did we really do what we’re being accused of? Are we really that incompetent and we never knew it? Creating this type of self-doubt is one of the bully’s primary aims. Another aspect of this is the respect we can win or lose when others see how we respond.

    We demonstrate our leadership skills for all to see when we effectively manage a tyrant. Witnesses to abuse experience the same emotions as the one being targeted. By effectively managing a bully, you not only help yourself, you help the others around you. Your stature and respect in the eyes of those around you will increase exponentially as witnesses see how adeptly you manage the tyrant.
  5. Protect Yourself Personally. Don’t share any personal information with a tyrant. They will use it against you. While it may seem like a strategy to share personal information by trying to demonstrate that we’re all human, this backfires with bullies who are primarily interested in how they can manipulate you. Keep your personal life personal with these types of people. If you’ve already shared personal information, don’t continue.

Remember, you are a leader and you want to demonstrate those skills. It’s unlikely you can entirely please someone who treats you poorly. Try to realize the toxic individual very likely treats others the same way and it’s a direct reflection of their own emotional state.

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