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Dealing with Bullies

Posted Feb 10 2009 11:04am

by Brett Blumenthal

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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