I recently spoke at a multi-day educational conference on different aspects of emotional intelligence. At the end of each presentation, people came up asking for some advice or coaching in situations where people are bullied. Some people asked, “What can I do if I am being bullied?” Others asked, “What can I do if I see others being bullied?” It appeared as if these people were overwhelmed and suffocating in the emotions that accompanied their experience. Listening to people’s experiences prompted a fair amount of introspection and a desire to address the issue of bullying whenever it occurs.
Over the years I have noticed that we tend to compare ourselves and our performance to others. These comparisons, whether accurate or not, lead individuals to compete with the object of their comparison. This so-called competition may be an attempt on our part to simply outperform others or to prove to ourselves that we are not as bad as we have decided we are. If we can’t seem to compete on some level, we may next complain about others or their performance. What usually follows the complaining phase is some sort of criticism of the other person which eventually devolves into the condemnation of that person. I call this very destructive process the “Five C’s.” As a result of this process, the person who feels inferior might turn to bullying in order to gain a sense of control.
Those who become the targets of such behavior often end up feeling embarrassed and immobilized. They may experience feelings of helplessness, grief, pain, and depression. They start to believe that they don’t fit in, that they aren’t accepted or acceptable, nor are they deemed to be good enough by others’ standards. Such thoughts and feelings taken to the extreme may even result in people becoming suicidal. At the very least, their capacity to perform is severely diminished.
Here are some suggestions for those who are bullied and for those who may observe others being bullied.
Recognize What’s Happening
Bullying is generally defined as an intentional act that causes harm to others and may involve verbal harassment, verbal or non-verbal threats, physical assault, stalking, or other methods of coercion such as manipulation, blackmail, or extortion. It is aggressive behavior that intends to hurt, threaten, or frighten another person. An imbalance of power between the aggressor and the victim is often involved. Understanding that you are being targeted is the first step in making a change. If you see a repeated pattern of inappropriate and hurtful behavior, it is important to recognize it for what it is.
It takes courage to stop this type of behavior. Although fear is a powerful emotion, it is important to identify what needs to change and make a plan to create a different outcome.
Recognize the Choice
Wherever you find yourself, no matter how bad the situation, it is important to remember that you always have a choice about how you are perceiving the situation and how you will choose to respond to it. Choosing to play “the victim” and doing nothing will not improve the situation. You alone can decide how you will respond and move forward in the context of that choice.
Although it may be difficult, talking with the person who seems to have an issue with you may help clear up any misunderstandings or problems that may be driving their behavior. You can also seek to improve your understanding of the current situation from others you know and trust. Gaining additional specific information will help you understand a different perspective and allow you to make any necessary changes.
Ask for Advice
Gather as much information as possible about what is happening. Identify people you know and trust who can properly advise you in the situation. It may be someone in Human Resources or it may be a person in a leadership position that can provide needed objectivity with your experience and recommend a course of action.
Generating a number of different options for handling a negative situation, either by yourself or with respected others, will help to broaden your view of the situation and increase your objectivity. This may also serve to provide some hope that things can be improved.
Search for the Basis of Your Feelings
If you are the focal point of bullying, the feelings that result from such treatment can be horrendous. Try to set your emotions aside and surface the thinking behind your feelings. For example, if your thinking was something like, “I will never be able to make a difference here,” then you need to ask yourself if such thinking is absolutely true. You will find that your thinking is flawed and inaccurate at best. When you can acknowledge that, then you can suspend the feelings that seem to color every moment. Remember that changing your thinking is an excellent way to change your feelings.
Forgive Them and Do Your Best to Move On
This is one of the hardest things to do, particularly if you have been unfairly or unjustly treated. However, the lack of forgiveness is emotionally and physically oppressive. It would serve you better to lighten your load and release the heavy negativity that encompasses holding a grudge, negative feelings, or judgments of others.
Look for Truth
If you have been on the receiving end of gossip, rumors, and negative judgments of others, you need to set all of that aside and look to find the truth in the situation. This forces you to look for data and fact, rather than accept the negative judgments and opinions of others. In doing so, you may find a lack of evidence to support the conclusions that others are offering as fact. This may necessitate establishing rapport with the accused and speaking with them instead of avoiding them and assuming the worst.
This requires that you ask questions and listen to what others have to say. It also implies that you move past the assumptions from which others are operating and look to establish your own conclusions rather than taking everything at face value.
Show Up for the Accused
You may be privy to the negative judgments, rumors, accusations, and gossip that are being spread by others about someone. When this happens, you can squelch the negativity by asking the offending party to show evidence to support what they are saying. Don’t be surprised if the person becomes defensive and can’t provide the evidence you are asking for. Let them know that you are simply trying to understand the basis for their accusations.
Separate Fact From Fiction
Fact is verifiable information while individual interpretation is the meaning that people assign the facts. For example, if an individual didn’t say anything in a meeting, that would be a fact. But if someone else said that the person didn’t say anything in the meeting because they were uncomfortable with the topic that would likely be their interpretation, not fact, unless they were privy to information you were not. Such an interpretation is impossible to establish as accurate unless one seeks to validate the meaning behind the behavior.
Offer Support and Encouragement
When people are being bullied, they generally feel like they are completely alone. Others tend to avoid the person who is being targeted out of fear that they will be targeted also. Taking the time to support others in their challenges helps keep the person from feeling ostracized and lets them know they aren’t facing the situation alone.
Being kind and understanding may provide you the opportunity to save another human being. We often judge ourselves by the way that people treat us. That is one reason that bullying can be so devastating. Taking the time to give those who are being maligned the benefit of the doubt, taking the time to get a clear perspective of the situation, and offering assistance where needed will help those being targeted feel valued and supported.
During my conference when I heard some of the stories that people had to share about bullying, I was shocked. As professional adults I would like to believe that we would be above such behavior, but sadly, that’s not always true. If you are a bully, stop it. Your behavior will not improve the situation. If you are being bullied, know that there will be better tomorrows and those tomorrows can be improved by the choices you make today. If you see others being bullied, reach out to them and be kind and understanding; offer support and help where appropriate. In a time when there is so much negativity and incivility toward others, I would hope that we all might make the choice to rise above the negativity and make a positive difference in the lives of others.