How to React When a Coworker Bullies You

January 10, 2022

Three ladies from separate groups shared the same type of perplexing, unsettling incident to me last week. I assume that this kind of issue arises regularly, and not only among women — but that it is so humiliating that many people conceal it and worry about it privately.

If you're dealing with anything similar, I hope the explanations and approaches shown here may be useful to you as well.

All three ladies who confided in me work hard, give it their all, and are aware of and generous with others' needs. Nonetheless, many were caught aback by some male colleagues' sniping, hypercritical, or sarcastic conduct.

Consider sarcasm, cruel jokes, and a "polite" kind of bullying. All three ladies originally imagined they'd done something wrong and were angered, guilty, or injured as a result.

They felt bitter and outraged when they discovered the sniping behavior was part of a pattern, not a one-time incident.

None of them had the capacity to order their male colleagues to stop behaving badly, and each of them recognized that their male colleagues did so to protect themselves, deflect criticism, or maintain a one-up position. The women's requests to me had two objectives: to reduce their negative self-talk and discomfort while still acting professionally toward their coworkers.

Make your own sense of security

They wanted to know how to fortify themselves so that they wouldn't be as affected and agitated by what they thought were not direct personal assaults intended to cause harm. Second, they wanted to figure out how to deal with the obnoxious males, since if they were acting poorly with them, they were most likely behaving badly with others as well, which is terrible for relationships and work groups.

So we began with self-strengthening activities rather than verbal gambits or outright confrontations. I urged them not to worry about him in the time if one of their coworkers made a cutting or harsh remark — he wasn't seeking for a reaction.

Instead, they should question themselves — vocally if possible, but quietly if necessary — "Right now, am I actually safe?" as soon as they remember to do so. Better still, they might address themselves by name, as in "Jane, are you safe right now?"

They consented to do this exercise and said that they were confident in their ability to respond in the positive. I proposed that if they could make this self-check a habit, they would modify their brain processes and persuade themselves over time.

They'd feel safer, either as a result of the underlying situation or as an unconscious reaction to their own query. Simply by feeling safer, women would lessen the sting of the men's obnoxious statements, which would make it less rewarding for their colleagues to make such remarks.

Recognize the vulnerability in your coworker's negative behavior

Surprisingly, the ladies all had some confidence in or affection for their somewhat aggressive coworkers, and considered them as generally kind people. The ladies hoped there was some way their colleagues could learn to be more comfortable in themselves with whatever was going on and stop making these types of statements, realizing that the impulse for the mean-spirited remarks stemmed from weakness, not strength.

So I proposed another mental exercise: I asked each of the ladies to stretch out her hand, palm up, and imagine the bully standing on her palm, little more than an inch tall, feeling tiny and defenseless, and attempting to defend himself by using nasty, critical comments. I invited the ladies to consider what may make this young bully feel and act better — without feeling obligated to care for, educate, or alter him.

Instead, I suggested that they just strive to understand him better since understanding may sometimes change the way you engage.

Personal strength aids in the development of better relationships

I underlined that it was not the women's responsibility to make their colleagues better, healthier individuals, but that it would be beneficial to their companies and themselves if they could help their colleagues overcome their poor communication and relationship practices. All three ladies were committed to doing the exercises, could understand why they would be successful, and were plainly relieved to have something they could do without having to go on the defense or counterattack.

They had the self-assurance to recognize that if they felt stronger, the jabs and prods would cease on their own — or they might find ways to speak out, respectfully and maybe with humor, to assist their male colleagues in shifting.

If you're dealing with a power imbalance, these exercises are considerably less likely to work, so don't expect your boss to quit picking on you simply because you've learned to make yourself feel safer. A more vigorous style of interaction or the threat of formal punishment is required to get a determined or purposeful bully to stop their conduct.

However, the stronger you are among "friends," the less likely a prospective bully would trouble you, or even want to try.

Thanks to Liz Kislik at Business 2 Community whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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