Dealing with Bullies

Growing up, I was taught to be an open and honest communicator.  It was expected.  It was expected that if you had a problem, or if you had a conflict, that you discussed it.  You didn’t whine about it.  You didn’t sweep it under the rug.  And, you didn’t act passively aggressively.  Instead, you talked it out, you explained how you felt and you came up with ways to fix it or deal with it.  Although as a child there were times that I thought our household did too much communicating, I now pride myself in being open, honest and forthright.

Recently, however, my belief in open communication turned against me.  Over the last couple of months, I had noticed that my colleague (let’s call him Tom) started acting distant and dismissive.  As peers, my work and his work needed to be integrated to get the job done.  Yet, I constantly felt as though he wasn’t respecting me or including me in important discussions that were vital to the work we were doing.  It became clear that it needed to be addressed, and I told him in a couple of ways, that I’d appreciate if he would ensure that I was part of these discussions.  Ignoring these requests, Tom started displaying passive aggressive tendencies towards me and it was starting to affect the way we worked together.  Finally, one interaction pushed me over the edge, causing me to want to address the situation immediately.  I discreetly pulled Tom aside and told him that I detected something was wrong.  Trying to be sensitive to Tom’s feelings and to avoid putting him on the defensive, I put the responsibility on me by saying that I hoped that I hadn’t done anything to offend him.  This plan backfired.

Instead of taking my gesture as an opening to an honest two-way dialogue, Tom used this opportunity to bully me.  I patiently listened until it was obvious he was through, making sure that I let him fully express himself.  When he was done, I apologized for how he felt and started to explain how I was feeling.  He quickly made it clear that he didn’t care.  All of the feelings I had been feeling for the better part of two months, were completely dismissed.  Further, he was quick to let me know that he had no intention of taking any responsibility for any part of the situation, implying that the problem was completely my fault.  I came away feeling stomped on, deflated and disrespected.  Not quite the outcome I had hoped for.

Although I believe that open communication is the key to successful relationships, this interaction made me realize that it doesn’t work with everyone.  Although I do think speaking with Tom was better than not saying anything at all, it obviously didn’t accomplish what I had hoped it would.

Tom was given the gift of closure; he got to express everything he felt.  I on the other hand, didn’t get to express much of anything and as a result, was left feeling even worse than I did before the discussion.  In hindsight, I feel that I left it all on the table, without any recourse or ability to defend myself.  I feel that I gave him an opening to put me down and to belittle me.  And, I feel that he completely took advantage of me and the situation.

There were a lot of things left unsaid, and I so wish I could have another opportunity to tell Tom what I really think.  Instead, I have to let it go.  Letting go is SO hard!  Especially when you feel that you’ve been beat-up with no ability to defend yourself.  The only thing you can really do in these situations, I guess, is to learn from them, so that maybe history doesn’t repeat itself.  Here were the lessons I learned:

  1. Mutual Respect: If you embark on an open dialogue with someone, make sure that both of you respect one another.  If a person doesn’t respect you, talking to them may fall on deaf ears, and you may find yourself in a worse off position.
  2. Be Prepared: If you attempt to resolve a conflict, prepare yourself for the possibility of it not going as you would expect.  Otherwise, you may not get all that you wanted out of the conversation.  Create a list of the things you want to address to ensure that you get to make all the points you want to make.
  3. It Takes Two to Communicate: If the person is not a big communicator to begin with, it might be a sign that the conversation may not go as you hope.  It was clear to me that open communication was not in Tom’s repertoire unless it was one-way.
  4. Sharing Requires Caring: If the person you are hoping to speak with is not interested in your feelings or concerns, you may be left feeling empty.  If the person doesn’t care, it isn’t worth the emotional investment.  Stick to the facts and don’t let emotions get involved.
  5. Timing: When we are upset and want to talk about something, it is important to take some time to really think through how we are going to have the conversation.  I reacted emotionally, wanting to solve something on the spot.  As a result, I didn’t really think through how I would approach him or where we would have the conversation.  Instead, it was on the fly and in a setting that didn’t lend itself to having a thorough conversation.
  6. Self Confidence: We all have moments where we lack confidence, but if someone has self esteem issues deep down at the core, they will mask it by being a bully or pointing fingers…and not taking any responsibility for anything themselves.  In this case, I suspect that Tom has issues that have nothing to do with me, and instead of acknowledging that maybe he was partially wrong in the situation, he had to make himself look and feel better by placing all of the blame on me.

Replaying the conversation in my head, I realize that I totally enabled his behavior. I didn’t stand up for myself, because I was blindsided by his attack.  If you think you want to have a conversation with someone, be sure to respect yourself in the process.  You are the only one who is going to stand up for yourself!

Have you had a situation that was similar?  Did you open a conversation with someone only to find that they didn’t value or respect you?

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  • Marsha

    Thanks Brett. Although I felt better about handing in my notice I had been having second thoughts. With only three weeks to go the owner of the company is refusing to talk with me (and three other girls who have since handed in their notice), the Associate Director pulled me aside 5 mins before I was due to leave to go home and had a go at me for something HE did wrong. Luckily I was quite professional and confident and had back up on paper and all sources, but he wasn’t interested. I again explained in a calm manner that maybe he should keep me in the loop about matters as I always act immediately on major issues. I will be speaking with the MD tomorrow morning as it was totally out of the ble. I felt totally ambushed. It was the MD who asked for me to extend my notice period, but the AD is making my life hell. I am soo tempted to leave early as the AD is making my life hell. He never takes personal responsibility. I just want to leave with grace NOT disgrace. They haven’t organised a handover and won’t reduce my increased workload, so I should just leave them in the lurch.

  • Marsha

    I used to be a witty, confident person with an ability to talk about anything to anyone and treat everyone as equal until I formed my own opinion. My other half use to say that he was amazed at how many people gravitated towards me. How things change. I started working at a place I loved with people I thought down to earth and warm. How naive. My work productivity was on a high and I learnt things quite quickly. Even my original boss before he retired said that I had potential to be a manager. Unfortunately, my colleague (who was a good mate) became my boss and I was totally pleased for him and willing to help in anyway. Unfortunately, he was a weak boss and allowed the new guy (friend of the owner)to manipulate him into believing I was no good as he wanted my job. He succeeded. When I came back from holiday I was told that I was being moved departments. I was gutted as I had built up the job from scratch. As I needed the money I accepted the job which was a side step and avoided the newbie as much as possible. He kept harrassing me until I was forced to make an unofficial complaint with my new manager. Who just said I was being sensitive and didn’t get his humor. Eventually the newbie left and although my old colleague said that I was more than qualified to take my old role back the owner employed a friend who used to be a male stripper with no experience. WTF? Move forward a year and I have been in limbo with my boss who denies being my boss, ignores me, undermines me and takes the mick out of me behind my back with other colleagues. Everyone bad mouths him, but I refuse to take part just in case and put on a brave face and laugh with those I trust. Despite this I have focused on my job, saved the company loads, gained respect from my clients and other colleagues without complaint. I have become quite introverted and now cry in the toilets sometimes from the pressure which is something I NEVER EVER do. He even said if I fell off a building he would step aside and let me fall. He bullies other girls who differ in opinion or do not respond to his flirty ways so I know I am not alone. My question is what am I doing wrong to encourage this behaviour. I have totally lost confidence in myself and made the decision to hand in my notice as it was also affecting my marriage. If I am doing something wrong then I would prefer it if someone would tell me. A manager friend of mine who is close to this guy said to me that I have left a massive void and my boss was blanking me to put on a brave face. I am soo totally confused and depressed especially seeing as my old job appeared on the job website with all of the responsibilities I had been asking for but denied. I now worried that I may get a bad reference. I have never ever experienced anything like this in my life. I have always had a good rapport with people. I experience workplace bullying on a grand scale and my trust in people has now evaporated.

    • Brett

      Marsha, This sounds like a terrible situation. I would suggest you look for a new job. The environment you are in is downright toxic and is eating away at your very core. I have no doubt that you could get a wonderful reference from other people and I would focus on those relationships to get you through this. Don’t stop believing in yourself. If you do, you will lose all sense of self and your abilities. Good luck.

  • C

    It is so hard to unlearn old bad behavior when you are living with people like that all the time. What can one do? It’s so hard to know what to do in a surprise attack, when you can’t remove yourself from the situation, like being in a car, when your emotions seem so strong and you cannot think, what can one do? Is it ever possible to change? Isn’t practice the best way to change, but how does one practice if you’re never ready because everything comes suprisingly and then you react? What to do?

  • http://beckyblanton.com Becky Blanton

    Ah! Tom was/is truly a passive aggressive person!! Those are the WORST people in the world to communicate with, other than narcissists. They consider everything someone else’s fault and never ever accept responsibility for anything they say or do. They honestly don’t think they ever do anything wrong. The best way to deal with someone who is passive aggressive is to run away and never have anything to do with them ever again. If you have to work with them or interact with them, put everything in writing, email, notes etc. and be very blunt about what you expect, want and need. If (or rather when,) they don’t follow up, then you must follow up and confront them. “You said you would ____, but it’s not done. Can you tell me why?” Passive aggressive people have a lot of anger from an authority figure in their past, and other issues around self-esteem. Give them the attention and praise they want and they’ll cooperate as long as they’re getting it, but it’s a stressful game to play. Steer clear of them as much as you’re able. They’re just too good at being total jerks while appearing to be cooperative.

  • mary

    After one year i find myself speaking to my ex only to confront him with all things i felt were abusive. What i love about this timing is that im healed from my injured heart ..i can be clear and there are no emtions clouding my thoughts. Even i still.dont have a response from my ex i feel that this type of recognition of his bulliying toward myself even it happend yrs ago makes me feel better toward myself. I feel my heart healing fast.