Reducing Verbal Abuse from Work Colleagues - Free Self-Help

By Diana Holbourn

Article Summary


This article describes several techniques for coping with verbal bullying at work, from malicious nit-picking by a colleague to heckling in a meeting. Techniques include deflecting streams of insults in various ways, trying to pretend they're not meant personally even when it's obvious they are, and other things.

The article also discusses some reasons why bullies bully, de-stressing, and taking things further if the techniques don't work.

Skip past the following quotes if you'd like to get straight down to reading the article.

Things People Have Said About Verbal Abuse, Unfair Criticism and Handling it

How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct.
--Benjamin Disraeli

Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain - and most fools do.
--Dale Carnegie

Criticism comes easier than craftsmanship.
--Zeuxis (400 BC, from Pliny the Elder, Natural History)

Abuse is the weapon of the vulgar.
--Samuel Griswold Goodrich

After all, one knows one's weak points so well, that it's rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.
--Edith Wharton

Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
--Eleanor Roosevelt

Pay no attention to what the critics say... Remember, a statue has never been set up in honor of a critic!
--Jean Sibelius

Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.
--Kurt Vonnegut

The Main Contents

Background Information About This Article

The Self-Help Information in the Article

  1. Trying to Deflect the Bully's Personal Attacks
  2. Dealing with Heckling in Meetings
  3. Trying to Encourage the Bully to Get a Life
  4. Calming Angry Impulses and Learning to be More Relaxed Around the Bully
  5. Threatening to Report the Bully to Management and Others if Nothing Else Works

Part One
Trying to Deflect the Bully's Personal Attacks

I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.
--Bill Cosby

You're never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you're never as bad as they say when you lose.
--Lou Holtz and John Heisler, (The Fighting Spirit)


Judith thinks:

I have to find a way to stop these conversations with the bully in their tracks! And then in future, I shall refuse to be drawn into these fruitless battles, where I just get more and more annoyed with the person insulting me, and then they point to my behaviour and people think it's bad. Perhaps I won't even begin to try to reason with a bully like that. I shouldn't assume that people like the bully have a good reason for calling me the names they do and making the other accusations they make; maybe they don't. So it seems that there's no point in me trying to give them the opportunity to explain them, or to even discuss the matter with them from my point of view. If they're only making the accusations to pick on me, they won't want to listen; they'll probably just say worse things. I'm going to do some research on bullying behaviour, to see if I can find out more about the reasons why bullies behave in the way they do, and whether there are things I can do about it. ...

Some Reasons Why Bullies Bully

Oh yes, I've found some articles. Good.

I've just read that often, bullies pick on people just because they have qualities that the bully lacks, like being very good on the whole at their job, having greater popularity, more integrity, more intellectual talent, or more creativity; and the bully's jealous, or it shows up their inadequacies. Or it can be that any weaknesses the target of bullying does have remind the bully of theirs and they can't stand it.

I need to remind myself that the bully's behaviour is unreasonable. My work performance isn't as bad as he claims; I don't need to feel bad about it. Yes, I sometimes make little mistakes, but so does everyone. And I can view any mistake I do make as a learning experience to help me in the future.

I've just read that bullies often criticize people not because they're so much worse than they are at their work, but because it gives them a sense of control, and that's what they're actually aiming for. Belittling people makes them feel good.

I've just found out about some ways I can get around it though. I've found something about verbal self-defence techniques, that can stop verbal attacks in their tracks. I'll think through how I can apply these to my communication with the bully in the future:

Diverting the Bully from Making Personal Attacks by Bringing the Discussion Back to the Issues

Being abusive

When the bully says to me something like, "You're such an incompetent; I don't know how you even dare voice an opinion on this matter!" I shouldn't imagine he has a good reason for calling me an incompetent, and I shouldn't try to expose the fact that he hasn't got one by asking him to explain why he said it. I know now that that'll just make him say worse things to cover up the fact that he hasn't got a good reason, or because he wants to pick on me; and then I'll get more annoyed, and the conflict will escalate as usual. If I side-step personal attacks, no matter how irritating they are, maybe I'll manage to calm things down most of the time. That's what the articles I've been reading are advising.

So in response to his accusation that I'm not qualified to say anything on a matter because I'm incompetent, I could try to focus his mind on the things of importance instead of on verbally attacking me, by saying something like:
"I can understand you being annoyed about this whole thing, but let's move back to discussing the pros and cons of this issue. On the plus side, we have ...", and so on.

Hopefully, that will distract him, and we can get back to the issues, and his personal attack will end.

Responding as if Things Aren't Meant Personally, Even When it's Obvious They Are


Or if he says something like, "People like you really annoy me!" I shouldn't give him the opportunity to verbally abuse me some more by asking him what he means. If he does have an issue with me, to express himself like that will mean he isn't in the mood to talk about it calmly, so for me to ask him what he means will just make him more abusive, and that will either upset me if I don't respond but just think about what he's said, or it will annoy me into responding angrily and making him feel at liberty to get more angry still.

So when he says a thing like that, I could distract him from the direct attack by calmly saying something detached like, "I'm sure annoyance is common in many workplaces. I don't suppose everyone could get along all the time."

That will hopefully mean the conflict doesn't escalate so much, because I haven't said anything that's directly encouraging him to continue the attack, like asking him why I annoy him, as I would have done before.

Or if he angrily says something like, "What do you do with all the pens around here!" I could ignore the suggestion that I've stolen or hidden them, and calmly say something like, "It is annoying when people can't find things", or "I suspect that many people all over the country have problems with misplaced stationery."

Perhaps I'll offer to help him look for one.

If he makes more hostile personal comments, I could just answer in the same calm, detached manner, like saying things like, "I'm sure a lot of people get irritated when they lose things" or, "Looking for lost things probably takes up valuable time out of everybody's lives."

Eventually, when he knows I'm not going to get angry and allow the attack to escalate, he'll hopefully give up picking on me, because he won't think it's enough fun. Since he knows he's been able to draw me into conflict with him before, it might take a few times of this to convince him that it won't happen any more. But I think it's worth persevering.

Confusing or Diverting the Bully's Attention by Asking an Unexpected Question


Or if he says something like, "You're just doing this to get on people's nerves, aren't you", or "People like you never amount to anything special!" or he says he can imagine I'm the kind of person who'd abuse old people - the usual type of stuff he comes out with, I could distract him from his attempts to provoke me into getting angry by saying something like, "When did you begin to think that people like me do such things?" That might confuse him a bit and so slow down his attack, because it won't be what he was expecting.

I could use that tactic in all kinds of situations. I'll think about which ones would be best. Actually, it would be best to use it when he isn't saying a personal thing really, because if I used them in the ones I'm thinking of, he might respond by saying something nasty like, "I could tell you were like that not long after you walked in the door!" It might work best when he says something against a group of people, or someone I know, such as when I tell someone my sister's a nurse and he says something like, "Nurses are only in it to find good-looking doctors to go out with!"

It might be best to try something detached again when he tells me I get on his nerves or something, like, "I'm sure a fair number of people get on each other's nerves in the workplace."

Listening to What the Bully Says Without Commenting on it

If he goes into sentences and sentences of verbal abuse, most of it unjustified, I could maybe just keep quiet, nod sympathetically sometimes and quietly say things like "Mmmmm" or "OK", or "Yes" in a mildly sympathetic way, and at the end of what he's said, shrug and calmly say, "Well, that's your opinion". If he angrily says something like, "Are you going to take it on board?" I could just calmly tell him I've been listening, in a friendly way. This will mean he doesn't get the delight of provoking me into conflict, and it will hopefully get so boring for him eventually that he'll stop bothering me.

More Speculation as to the Bully's Motives

I might get a bit upset by all the horrible things he says about me till that happens, but I could try to calm myself down by trying to focus all my thoughts on what I want to achieve next, rather than on what the bully has said, and on reflecting on the fact that bullies often bully because they want a sense of control, and I've triumphed by depriving him of that. Maybe some bullies were made to feel powerless in their childhoods, and so feel insecure now, and so they want to compensate by making themselves feel powerful by manipulating people into behaving the way they want them to by bullying them. The contrast they feel when they feel like the powerful one probably just makes them feel good.

Also, most of this probably has nothing whatsoever to do with a genuine desire on his part to change or criticize my behaviour. He might just be picking on me because he's stressed because he's being bullied by someone else and wants to take it out on someone, or because his parents behaved like that with him and that's just the way he learned to behave, or because he knows I'm more conscientious and intellectually gifted than he is, and he feels it shows up his inadequacies so he's uncomfortable; or he's jealous, and merely wants to take it out on me, because he's resentful because I'm the one he thinks is showing him up.
Or maybe any shortcomings I do have remind him of his, and he hates them in himself, and so it puts him in a bad mood, or again, he thinks I've made him uncomfortable, so he's resentful, or wants to draw people's attention away from his shortcomings by picking on me, because he thinks that any of mine that remind him of his, whether they really are the same or not, will make people more likely to notice his if he doesn't direct their attention away from them by focusing it on me.

I'll try to think about that as little as possible, though, because the more I think about the way he annoys me, the more angry I'll feel with him, and so the less likely I am to want to respond calmly the next time he baits me. The less I think about his behaviour, the less of a bad mood I'll be in with him.

Working Off the Anger


I could work some of my anger off by doing some exercise in my lunch break or after work. And I could try to redirect some of it into doing positive things, like writing a list of all the ways in which I've successfully stopped things from getting worse, once I start, to remind me of what works in the future, and in case I can give suggestions to other people in the future on how to beat bullying, based on my experiences. It'll be nice to think that at least this experience is worthwhile because it might enable me to help other people.

Of course, if the bully has actually made any valid points, it will only be respectful of me to make efforts to change in accordance with his wishes. But I'm going to have to make sure I accept the rest for what it is - a probable attempt to get control over me by making me respond in accordance with the way he expects me to respond so he can make himself feel good by abusing me some more, and perhaps an outlet for insecurity and jealousy; and I'll try not to let it bother me. Reminding myself that it's probably to do with his inadequacies, not mine, should help.

Refusing to Engage in Conversation With the Bully

Perhaps another tactic I could use to deflect his attacks is waiting till he's finished and then simply calmly saying, "I'm sorry you choose to feel that way."

Or in the middle of his attack, I could simply look at him disinterestedly, and then calmly and slowly walk away.

Alternatively, right at the beginning when he starts to say something that sounds like bullying, maybe I could calmly and quietly say, "I don't allow people to talk to me like that", and get on with something else.

Of course, I don't suppose that will work with the current bully who I've been allowing to talk to me like that for some time, although I could say instead, "I will no longer allow people to talk to me like that."

Trying to Encourage the Bully to Criticize More Constructively

If he persists, I could try to suggest we talk to each other in an alternative way, by calmly saying something like:
"I told you, I will no longer allow people to talk to me like that. If you'd like to work towards a solution to a problem with me, I'll be happy to hear you out. You deserve that. I think the more constructively we talk about things, the more we can work towards an understanding and find solutions to problems. So if we focus on what we want the other person to achieve as an end result rather than on each other's faults, each of us will have our minds focused more on what to aim for rather than on anger at what the other person has just said."

If he doesn't take that on board, at least I'll end up looking like the reasonable one.

Trying to Bore the Bully into Silence


Maybe it would be possible to bore the bully into giving up the attack sometimes, if we're alone. When he asks hostile questions like, "Why can't you always make an effort to look your best at work", or, "Why don't you work faster", or, "Why do you always insist on leaving the paperwork till the last minute", or, "Why can't you do anything right"? I could give a rambling response that doesn't actually address his question but has the promise that it just might if he waits long enough, and that subtly changes the subject. I could stare off into space as if I'm thinking deep thoughts, and say something like:

"Well, I think it must all go back to my childhood. I remember eating apples one sunny morning in my parents' garden ... or was it at my school? Oh no, I think it must have been in my parents' garden, because I'm sure they were apples from my parents' apple trees. My parents had a lovely garden. I remember there were apple trees in it, and I used to love to collect the apples when they'd fallen off the trees in Autumn. And my parents grew gooseberries, and I used to love to fill bowls full of those, even though I would often scratch my hands while reaching for them, since the bushes were so prickly - and blackberry picking! Wasn't that nice! I remember walking through the woods with my sisters and finding bramble bushes, and filling bags full of blackberries. I didn't like them much, but I used to love to pick them. And strawberry picking! I enjoyed that too. And my parents grew runner beans at one time, which I used to love to pick. Oh, and I remember going to someone's house once and helping them prepare dinner by cutting up some beans, and they had something called a bean stringer which you put the beans through and it chopped the edges off to make sure there were no stringy bits. ..."

Hopefully, by then, the bully will have got bored, said, "Oh never mind!" and walked off. If instead, he says, "Come on, get to the point!" I could say, "I'm coming to it." And then I could carry on rambling for a while and then say, "Actually, I'd better get back and do some work. I'll tell you the rest later." Hopefully, he'll have forgotten the question by then.

Or I could just ramble on irrelevantly about little incidents from my childhood or mundane events from recent times, until he does get bored and say it doesn't matter and walks off. It might take a while before he does, but it'll be worth it if it puts him off in future.

If he complains that what I'm saying is irrelevant to the topic, I could maybe say something like, "You'll see the relevance in a minute."

Hopefully, after a few times of that kind of response, he'll decide that I'm far too boring to be a victim and stop bothering me.

I'm going to have to try to make sure I can say these things with a totally straight face as if I'm deadly serious. If he thinks I'm being sarcastic or making fun of him or something, he'll think I'm attacking back and get angry.

If he uses a statement to say hostile things instead, like, "You never do anything right" or, "You always nibble on things when you're working; it looks so untidy!" I could simply start the rambling a little differently, by saying dreamily, "Yes. That reminds me of something that happened when I was a child. I was eating apples ..." etc.

Or I could say something like, "That reminds me of something I read in an article in the paper. No, hang on a minute, I think it must have been on the Internet, not in the paper, because I'm sure it came from one of my favourite news websites; yes, I know, it was the one where they have all kinds of news, and they link to it all on the home page, sports news, funny news, celebrity news ... mind you, I'm sure a lot of news websites do that really. The archives go back a few years in the one I'm thinking of. But then, I don't visit it much, because I don't like reading the news much most of the time. ..." and so on, in the hope that he'll get bored.

I'll have to plan several of these responses beforehand, so I'll have one handy when I need it and won't be stuck for words.

But then, it might often be better to respond in the shortest possible time, because the more I say, the more he has to distort and use as ammunition against me. For instance, he could pick up on my comment about blackberry picking and say, "Oh yes. I know a lot of people do that when they're playing truant, don't they! How often did you bunk off school? I thought you looked the type!" Or he might respond to my comment about browsing the Internet by saying, "I wondered why not enough work is being done around here!"

So it might often be better to respond to a hostile question like, "Why do you insist on crunching carrots at work?" by simply shrugging and saying with a smile, "Well, that's just me!" and then trying to move on and do something else.

Of course, that might sometimes provoke an unpleasant response. I think I'll probably have to experiment with a bit of trial and error before I find the approach that works best. But it'll be worth it.

But maybe if he interrupts me in the middle of my waffling to insult me, I could say, "Yes, I think that must go back to when I was very young", and then start turning it around till I'm rambling irrelevantly again about trivial things, such as saying something dreamily like, "I remember I used to keep rabbits. Actually, a few people at my school did. One person had one called Heidi, with ears that hung down on either side of its head instead of being at the top, like a dog's ears. It's interesting that there are so many different varieties in one species. Take dogs. There are so many different breeds. But they reckon they all descended from wolves. Now there are small yappy dogs that snap at people's ankles, Labradors that are supposed to be clever but chew everything, aggressive big rottweilers, dogs that are so finely bread they almost have to be kept in a germ-free bubble in case they catch cold ...", and I can waffle on like that for a while. Hopefully, he'll eventually get so bored that he feels he just can't tolerate picking on me anymore! I'll see.

He might start making rude remarks about how boring I am, but I'll know the joke's really on him. I suppose he might start gossipping to other people about how boring I am or how little sense I can make; but since they'll know I'm not like that with them, they might not be all that quick to believe what he says.

I'll think of quite a few subjects I can waffle on about beforehand, so I know I've got one handy when he starts to harass me again, and in case it takes a few times before he gets bored.

If any of these tactics seems to be making him worse, I'll just switch to another one.

Why it's Best Not to Respond to a Bully in Kind

Of course, these types of responses will deprive me of the fun of putting the bully in his place, which I might consider that he deserves. I often find it easy and fun to do.

But I've just read that bullies can often be vindictive, and if you get the better of them once, they'll resent you for it and try to do worse things to get at you, so the conflict will escalate until you end up looking unprofessional in front of everyone. So it's far better to just try and defuse verbal attacks. Show up how stupid a bully is being and he will probably eventually back down and stop troubling you. But that might not be before you've gained a bad reputation.

Yes, I've noticed!


One article I've just read says that you might think that a verbal attacker shouldn't be allowed to get away with what he's just said, but when you understand that he's saying it not to upset you but to manipulate you into getting involved in a conflict so he can think he's controlling you and getting all your attention, which is what he wants, because he's basically an attention seeker, you can appreciate that to refuse to get involved in a conflict is what will give him the least reward.

Another article says that bullying is an addictive/obsessive behaviour. It says bullies thrive on the adrenaline rush they get when they bully people, and so when people rise to the bait, that gives them even more of an adrenaline rush, and so bullying becomes even more addictive for them, so they'll do it more and more.

Also, it says that when you start allowing the bully to drag you down to anywhere near his level, you lose your right to report what's happening, because he can simply say that you did to him what he did to you, and you'll get nowhere.

I suppose it might actually be a fun challenge to try and think of more and more ways of deflecting the bully's attacks, to stop him getting what he wants. Every time he says something nasty to me and I manage to say something that stops it turning into an argument, I could be pleased with myself for having the creativity to do it.

Trying to Remain Calm While Being Insulted

It certainly isn't easy. And it gets harder the more time you have to spend with the annoying person! But someone's just told me a few things she's learned through experience:

Dealing With the Bully's Clique of Friends

Talked to angrily by several people at once

As for the bully's friends who now think I deserve to be constantly slapped down because I've supposedly persecuted the bully and I'm the cause of all the workplace tension, maybe if they see me getting on better with the bully, they'll calm down. There might be bad feeling between us for some time, but I could at least try to evade any more arguments with them.

If they don't quieten down, I could warn them that to spread accusations about me like they do is slander, or if they're written, it's libel, and that unless they can give me a detailed description of the evidence they have against me, then what they're doing is illegal, and if it continues, I won't hesitate to consult a lawyer on the matter.

As for Olivia, the one who's been dogging me most, actually, I feel sure she genuinely means most of the things she says and isn't just saying them to be nasty, or at least she somehow thinks I deserve them. So maybe I could reason with her. I'm desperate to do something to get her off my back anyway. Maybe I could write down some of the things she says in the next few days on a piece of paper I keep on me, or on the computer, and try to remember as many of the things she's said before as I can, retrieving any of them she said in emails, and then send her an email, quoting them back to her, and explaining why they were so inappropriate. Now, if I try to say something in my defence, she ridicules it. But if I sent her an email telling her my side of the story in more detail, illustrating why she was wrong or unfair in what she said, by quoting what she said in response to things I said that weren't meant the way she took them, she might stop to think. I won't get the chance to do that if I try to talk to her, because she'll interrupt and won't listen. But in an email, I'll get the opportunity to say everything I want to without interruption, and she might just read it all, and if she does, then she might realise she hasn't been fair, and change her attitude. It may be that when she sees what she said quoted back to her, she'll feel ashamed of having said it.

I think I'll try that with some of the others as well. I'll apologise in the emails for anything I said that was out of line, saying I hope we can get on better in the future, because I certainly haven't been blameless myself.

Part Two
Dealing with Heckling in Meetings

A sneer is the weapon of the weak.
--James Russell Lowell

Great ideas often receive violent opposition from mediocre minds.
--Albert Einstein

There is no squabbling so violent as that between people who accepted an idea yesterday and those who will accept the same idea tomorrow.
--Christopher Morley

That talk I've just heard about dealing with difficult people in the workplace gave me some more hopeful ideas. I could try to modify this bully's desire to speak harshly to people because he wants to control things, by persuading him gradually that this doesn't have to be a competitive environment where people here have to either win or lose; we'll achieve more together if we work towards a common goal. We can have win/win situations. I think I'll read more about negotiating skills, so I can use them in team meetings with him. Maybe I'll get that book they recommended. If I can change my attitude towards him so I'm more patient with him and more willing to listen to his concerns, he might not feel so insecure, supposing he does, and so he might not feel such a need to dominate things and put people down. I'll try to put the tips I heard in that talk into practice.

Listening to the Bully's Concerns Without Commenting Till He's Finished

Near the beginning of every team meeting, before I express my point of view, I can ask the bully if he has any concerns he'd like to express, and hear him out to the end, despite any unpleasant things he might say. Then I'll repeat back to him the essence of what he's said, in as positive a way as I can put it, so he knows he's been heard. That'll make him happier.

And during the meeting, if he says something I disagree with, I won't immediately risk a confrontation by telling him I disagree, but I'll ask him why he holds the views he does, so I'll understand him better. It might mean he raises issues of concern that we weren't aware of, that we would have missed if we'd just disagreed with him, and which we can then discuss and help to sort out with him.
You never know your luck!
Then if I still disagree with him in general, I might still think there are a few good points in what he says, so I'll try to pick up on them and take them into account, emphasising them, so he feels as if he's been listened to, and that at least some of what he said has been taken on board.

Focusing on the Positive

I'll try to focus as much as possible on the positive things the bully says throughout the meeting, repeating them back to him to put the emphasis on the positive. I could try re-phrasing some of the negative things he says in a positive way in the hope it slightly alters his attitude.

So, for instance, if he says, "I'm always irritated by the fact that you never seem to finish what you're doing till we're right on the deadline!" I could calmly say, "You say you'd prefer me to finish work comfortably before a deadline? Maybe I'll make more of an effort to finish earlier. I can understand you feeling anxious by my timing, but I think you can be reassured by the fact that I've never actually over-run a deadline."

Confronting the Heckler


I'll try that approach when the bully just seems to be being disruptive as well. When he heckles me in meetings when I'm presenting a new idea to the group, when I suggest, for instance, that we interview someone from a mental health charity about a new report on workplace stress or something, and he mockingly says, "Perhaps you ought to take them aside and request a personal interview about your own mental health problems", and he carries on like that throughout everything I have to say, like when I say I have a contact in the charity I could speak to and he says, "Aha! So you've been counselled already by them, have you?" and I'm sure he's just trying to sabotage my ideas, I should no longer dispute the details of his suggestions or keep quiet and just carry on regardless.

Maybe trying to confront him in a positive way would work. For instance, I could address him by name, in case he's using the cover of the group as security, thinking somehow that he won't be identified in their midst. Then I could say to him directly something like,

"Let's stick to the issues, please. Do you have any new suggestions as to what we could do? Or do you have any problems you'd like to discuss with me? I'd like to understand what you're really trying to say."

If he hasn't got anything constructive to say, he might decide it's best to keep quiet from then on. If he says something like, "Can't you take a joke?" I could say something like, "Yes, but I'd still like to understand what you're trying to get through to me here. You seem uncomfortable about something. Please could you explain for us? If you have a problem with me or anything I've said, I'd like to know, so we can come to an understanding."

It's unlikely that he'll want to launch into a full-scale attack on me in front of the whole group, when we're supposed to be discussing something else together; and having been shown up once, he probably won't want that to happen again. Hopefully then, he'll stop being disruptive.

I think that tactic would be far better than engaging in discussion with him about whether his actual comments are true, because then the meeting will get right off track and could turn into a destructive slanging match, and if there isn't any truth in his comments, to pick up on them would give them a credibility they don't deserve. They won't be worth taking seriously. Hopefully, if I don't give them credence by discussing them as if they were meant seriously, no one else in the group will think there's anything in them either.

If the bully interrupts me and starts talking about his own ideas, I could try to keep as calm as possible and interrupt him back, saying something like, "Excuse me; I'd like to hear what you have to say, but please could you let me finish what I have to say first, so I don't forget it?"

Refusing to Get Involved in the Blame Game

I'll try to remove all phraseology that has the implication of accusation from my language to him. So, for instance, instead of saying, "Why did you do that?" which might put him on the defensive and make him respond in a nasty way, I could say, "I'm curious to know why that happened", which isn't directly blaming him.

If he starts accusing me of things that aren't directly my fault, I could try to distract him and make his focus more positive by saying something like,

"I can understand you not being happy about things that may have happened in the past. We can come back to those if need be. But let's think about how we get from here to where we want to be in the future. Let's focus for the time being on what the best possible outcome of this meeting might be. Here's an idea: Let's close our eyes for a minute and imagine that everything was running smoothly and everyone was getting their needs and goals fulfilled. How would that be? Then let's talk about how to get there."

Hopefully, that will distract him and move the focus of the conversation somewhere totally different. It might also genuinely mean that people are more likely to come up with new inspirational ideas.

Getting the Meeting Off to a Positive Start

At the beginning of small group meetings that are quite formal, I could suggest that everyone sums up what they're hoping to gain from the meeting first, so we can make sure we don't finish without discussing anyone's aspirations, and so we can hopefully start in a positive mood. I could sometimes say something like,

"Does everyone agree that we want a fair, open meeting which helps everyone to gain a satisfactory outcome?"

They'll have difficulty saying no to that, so they'll probably all say yes.

Then I could say something like,

"Does everyone agree that we want to deal firmly with the issues and leave personalities out of this?"

It's unlikely that anyone would openly say no to that, so they'll probably all say yes again.

Then I could say something like,

"Do we want a result in which everyone feels they've gained something from our negotiation?"

Again, people aren't going to openly say no to that, so they'll probably say yes.

After the bully's agreed to those things, it may be more difficult for him to behave in ways contrary to the ones he's agreed to behave in. It may also mean he's in a more positive frame of mind, so he's more likely to say yes to anything else I propose.

That's what the talk was saying anyway.

I could use the same tactics with all the work colleagues who are now being abusive.

I think it might take more confidence than I feel at the moment to behave as if I'm in charge like that, and maybe at the moment, to speak up at the beginning of meetings might provoke people into making hostile comments. But when things have calmed down a bit, I might try it.

Part Three
Trying to Encourage the Bully to Get a Life

I owe much to my friends; but, all things considered, it strikes me that I owe even more to my enemies. The real person springs life under a sting even better than under a caress.
--André Gide

A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her.
--David Brinkley

That conversation I've just had with Andrew about my attitude to people here was inspiring! I feel more positive towards them now. I don't know how long it'll last. But it's given me some good ideas to try!

It might not be easy at all, but if I could change my attitude to the person bullying me so I feel compassionate to him instead of irritated with him, I could stop the cycle of my anger in its tracks. I could try to view what he's saying in future through a filter of thoughts like, "Poor thing! He can't be happy if he wants to criticize and insult people all the time. If he was really happy, he'd be in such a good mood he'd only want to display goodwill towards them. He might think his behaviour's making him happy, but he can't possibly be experiencing anything like pure joyfulness or contentedness."

I've just read an article that's kinder to verbal attackers than the other ones I've read. It says that most of them are actually just trying to seek attention most of the time, and if they can't get positive attention, they'll settle for negative attention. So that's a good reason to feel sorry for the bully, if that's true. It's sad that he doesn't seem to know how to get attention in more healthy ways. If I can start to feel sorry for him, perhaps I can be more compassionate towards him.

Perhaps the enmity between us has gone too far now, but if anyone else does this to me, maybe I could use the solution focused therapy techniques I've heard about on them, without saying what they are.

So, for instance, maybe I could say to them:

"You know, I don't believe you're really happy, are you? I don't think you can have much love for yourself. I think that if you did, you'd be in too good a mood to want to treat people like this. What do you think could be done to make your life happier?"

The bully might just say something horrible like, "I'd be happier if you performed your work better!" or, "Picking on you makes me happy". But even if they did, I could say something like, "I'm sorry if I have any shortcomings. But is there anything else that would make you happier?"

They might not talk to me about it. But still, it might be worth me thinking about that kind of approach to see if anything like it might work.

I could even go to them on their lunch break or if there happens to be a time when we're not very busy, and get into conversation with them, and try to move it around to the subject of happiness, and if I think they're amenable to it, I could then say something like,

"On a scale of nought to ten, how happy would you say you are?"

The bully might say, "I haven't got time for this nonsense!"
But even if they did, I could always wait and try to persuade them to join in some other time, or use some other technique on them at some other time.

But if the bully responds, and says something like "four", I could say something like, "So some things must be going well in your life. What are you doing right, to make it a 4 rather than a nought?"

The bully might not think it's any of my business and think I'm being intolerably nosy. But still, if I can manage to word things in a way he'll find interesting and the atmosphere's friendly enough at that time, it might start a decent conversation. So perhaps they would tell me about several things they enjoy doing, and I could encourage them to do them some more if they're good things.

I could then say, "What small things do you think would have to happen to move the number up to a five?"

Then the bully might talk about other things they could do to make themselves happier, or talk about problems that are stopping them from being happy, and I could talk them over with them and we could try to work out ways of solving them.

Then I could say something like,

"On a scale of nought to ten, how positive do you feel about yourself?"

If they were prepared to go along with it and said something like, "Three", I could say something like,

"How come it's a three and not a nought? What do you like about yourself?"

Then they might tell me some things, and I could encourage them to tell me about the things they've achieved in the past, like a university degree perhaps, or a time when they did something for someone that reflects well on them, and about all the things they do that put them in a better mood. I could be pleased for them.

After that, I could say,

"What do you think would have to happen for you to feel more positive about yourself, so the number on the scale moved up from a three to a four?"

Then they might discuss with me changes they could make in their behaviour that would make them feel better about themselves.

The idea of moving the numbers up little by little is that their replies should be achievable. So if they said something that would be a major step forward in their lives that it would be unrealistic that they could achieve, I could say something like,

"Wouldn't that move it up to something more like a ten? What would move the number up just a little bit, something you could achieve fairly quickly without too much effort?"

I could ask them what changes they'd like to make in their life now to work towards feeling the way they'd like to feel. I could leave them with the suggestion that they could learn to love themselves more by doing those things.

Or maybe I could say to them something like:

"If you woke up one morning, and something miraculous had happened in the night and you were feeling really positive about yourself and you were very happy, and everything was going well for you, but you didn't know the miracle had happened, what would you notice about yourself in the morning that was different that would make you realise things had changed, apart from you being in such a good mood? What would be going well?"

I could see what they said, and then follow it up by asking something like,

"How would your behaviour be different in a way that would convince you that things had changed?"

Then after they'd answered, maybe I could ask,

"If a film crew decided to make a video of a working day in your new life, what would be the main ways the video would show that your behaviour and mood were different?"

When they'd answered that, I could say,

"Tell me about the smaller changes. What about first thing in the morning before you go to work? - How would they know you were living a more positive, happier life?"

When they'd answered that, I could ask them what their family would notice about them that was different.

Then I could ask what the family would do in response to the difference in them.

Then I could ask what difference that would make to them.

With every positive difference they suggest might be made in their lives, I could ask them what difference that would make to them. To each new answer they gave, I could again ask them what difference that would make in their lives. I could do that for several minutes if they're coming up with positive answers.

Then I could say,

"Tell me about how it would be on the way to work on the day the film crew made a record of the day in your life? - How would you be behaving differently that would show the people watching the film that was being made of you that you were much happier and everything was going well?"

When the bully had answered that, I could say,

"And what about your morning at work? - How would the video illustrate that you were much happier and living a life that was much more positive than it was before?"

When they'd answered that, I could ask them what their boss would notice about them that was different.

When they'd answered, I could say something like,

"And when the film crew filmed you on your lunch break, and on any other breaks, what would you be doing that would make their video illustrate that your mood was much better than it had been before?"

When they'd answered, I could ask what else they'd be doing, and then what else, and then what else.

When they'd answered, I could ask,

"And in the afternoon, what would you be doing and saying that would make the people watching the video realise that you felt a lot more positive about yourself and that things were going better than they ever had before?"

When they'd answered, I could ask,

"When your work colleagues looked back on the day afterwards, what would be the main things they'd notice about you that would make them think things were different?"

Then I could ask how they think their change in behaviour might affect the work colleagues and how they'd change as a result.

Then I could ask what difference the colleagues' behaviour change would make to them.

When they'd answered, I could ask what difference that would make to them.

And when they'd answered that, I could ask what difference that would make.

Then I could suggest they pick a few small things they could do differently to start changes for the better happening in their life now. I could suggest they could do more and more as time went on.

If they answered the questions, it would mean they were thinking of lots of ideas about what they could be doing to make things better for themselves.

If they were inspired to do them, they might not want to pick on me so much. After all, the next time they notice that I'm more honest or creative or intellectually gifted than they are, or whatever, instead of getting jealous and picking on me because of some excuse they've made up, when the real reason is because they feel jealous, they'll hopefully be focusing their mind on how to change things to try to bring out any creativity they do have, or whatever.

And the next time they notice a shortcoming in me that reminds them of one in themselves that they hate, instead of becoming enraged with me because it's made them uncomfortable because it's reminded them of the bad things about themselves and so they get resentful and want to take it out on me because they think I caused them to be uncomfortable, they'll hopefully have their mind focused instead on what they can do to change their behaviour for the better so they no longer hate themselves for their shortcomings.

And they'll hopefully be feeling so positive about part of their nature and some of their achievements because of our conversation about why the number they thought of when I asked them how positive they felt about themselves was higher than a nought, that they won't think they have to feel so bad about their shortcomings, because overall, they can love themselves, and what they can't love about themselves, they can be optimistic that they can change.

So hopefully they'll change and not want to bully me so much, especially if they're grateful to me for helping them start off doing more positive things in their lives.

And the more positive things I know about them, the more I can genuinely have at least some respect for them.

And I might feel better about them and less stressed if I make a deliberate effort to look out for any acts of consideration they do display and thank them or compliment them for them.

If the discussion we have about how they could change in a way that would make them happier and more positive about themselves inspires them to think that things could be much better if they did, then they might change quite a lot, fairly quickly.

It might not always work, but it could be worth a try. They might not be willing to talk about such personal things with me, but the approach is worth considering. If I'm friendly with them for a while beforehand, and then get them into relaxed conversation, they might be willing to talk.

Actually, it's possible that it could work with the person who's bullying me now, if I apologise for my part in any previous conflicts, suggest we both try to change, and then show goodwill towards him for a while.

I suppose it may be that someone I try that approach with might mention a really serious life issue that's standing in the way of making them happy or positive. If they do, I might be able to help them with it, or suggest places they can go to get help; or if I can't, it will probably make me more sympathetic towards them, so I can understand their behaviour a bit better so I'm not so irritated by it.

Trying to Encourage the Bully to Behave More Professionally

Or, perhaps with anyone else who bullies me where we don't have a long history of conflict on both sides, I could say something like:

"The way you're treating me is wrong. It's unprofessional, and it's wrong for me to allow it to continue. Let's start anew. I want to make you a promise. If we start afresh, I'll be a friend. I'll treat you with respect and kindness. People deserve that." Then I could leave them to ponder on it.

Maybe I could show them a few little acts of kindness over the coming weeks, like cooking something nice for my work colleagues and leaving some for them. And I'll smile in a friendly way when I meet them. If they do say horrible things to me, I'll try my best to side-step the attacks and not get irritated by them. They might be touched, and decide to change. They might not, but it may well improve the atmosphere.

If they're really just after attention, they might respond if I just show interest in the things they're interested in, and in them as a person, and ask them about them. I could ask about where they grew up and what it was like, and about any ideas they come up with or anything they've expressed an interest in. And I could compliment them on anything they do well. When they're getting their need for attention met in a positive way, they might like it and not want to antagonise me anymore.

I suppose there is the problem with showing more interest in them that they might think it means I fancy them and I'm leading them on, and they might be annoyed if they find it's not like that at all. I'll have to try to make sure it doesn't look like that somehow.

Part Four
Calming Angry Impulses and Learning to be More Relaxed Around the Bully

It is often better not to see an insult than to avenge it.

In arguing, too, the parson own'd his skill, For even though vanquished he could argue still.
--Oliver Goldsmith

Other people's opinion of you does not have to become your reality.
--Les Brown

I'm going to have to keep a greater control over my emotions so I can stay calm in the face of the bully's baiting all day.


I could try to stop myself responding angrily to him when he annoys me by recognising that I'm likely to feel an instant angry urge when he taunts me, but that if I wait for it to die down, I'll be able to respond more calmly, and so the conflict hopefully won't escalate. Perhaps sometimes, it won't even take too long to die down.

I could pause for a few seconds before responding while I ask myself, "How could I best respond to this so as to keep the anger on both sides from escalating?", or count to five before I say anything, maybe just saying "Hmmm!" in a contemplative way, to cover up the pause.

Then, I could make a special effort to keep my voice on a fairly normal level, since when one person raises their voice, the other person tends to, and then the anger between both people increases.


If I'm so annoyed with him that I don't think I'm going to be able to stay calm for long, as long as it's practical for me to do so, I could try to put the conversation off till we've both cooled down a bit by saying something like, "It isn't a good time for me to talk about this right now, but I'd be happy to do that with you tomorrow or later today. Can we set a time to discuss it?"

It's going to take some practice for me to remember to respond calmly all the time, or to think things that make me feel more compassionate to the bully or less annoyed before I respond. And I can imagine becoming anxious at the thought of how I'm going to achieve it all day!

I'll try imagining having conversations with him and practising responding to him calmly. ...

I've just read some interesting advice. It says that I could do some regular relaxation techniques to put me more in the mood to respond calmly, which would also make me less anxious or irritated. I could take time out in the evenings and at certain other times of day to focus my attention on breathing very slowly and steadily for several minutes, because that's supposed to calm the body's anxiety levels.

If it does, hopefully the effect will last some time, so I'll be feeling fairly calm when he actually baits me.

But here's what I heard might work in a lecture I've been to:

For a while in the evenings, I could make time to rehearse responding calmly to the bully.

Playing in leaves

I could first relax myself by closing my eyes and spending a few minutes trying to imagine I'm somewhere nice, like lying on soft grass in a garden, with plants and trees around me, enjoying the sunshine, and smelling the beautiful scents of flowers and herbs. Doing that'll hopefully make me feel all soothed and peaceful, so I'm in a better frame of mind to think about responding calmly to provocation. When I'm relaxed, thoughts of him hopefully won't make me so annoyed.

So when I've relaxed myself, I could rehearse responding calmly to his taunts. The technique I've just heard about sounds interesting. This is what it suggests:

I could imagine a television screen in front of me, where scenes are being played for a few minutes, where he says horrible things, and I respond calmly. I'll imagine it's being played out on a television screen so it's one step removed from me, so maybe the thoughts won't annoy me so much. After all, as well as anything else, I'll have to concentrate on projecting the images onto a screen as well as thinking about what I could say to calm things down, so that'll be more difficult, and distract me from feelings of annoyance.

But when I'm comfortable with the images, I could move on and imagine I'm at work with him, in various situations throughout the day, with him saying horrible things to me; and I could imagine that my instant response is one of compassion or calmness, and that the thoughts that first come into my head are "What could I do to help him make his life happier" or "I'm sure I can deal with this effectively if I take charge and respond calmly", or, "Which one of the verbal self-defence strategies shall I use this time?" or that kind of thing.

Or I could imagine instantly saying something that calms him down or confronts him calmly in a way that'll hopefully make him quieten down. For instance, I could imagine we're in a meeting and he says horrible things as if he's trying to sabotage my ideas, and instead of becoming irritated, I stay relaxed, and calmly ask him if he could come up front and explain any problems he has, because he seems to feel uncomfortable, and so I'd like to get the matter sorted out with him.

I could practice responding like that quite often. It may be that the more I think through situations and rehearse responding calmly or compassionately to him, the more it will come naturally to me, so the less I'll get irritated with him or anxious at the thought of having to keep calm.

Well, it's an interesting idea anyway. I'll try it.


Or I could imagine that every time he starts to say nasty things, funny circus music starts up, and I notice he's got a banana on his head.

I could do that as long as that doesn't make it less likely that I could be compassionate towards him if the situation arose where I could do so. I'll see.

Or I could imagine I've got a metal shield around myself whenever he's around, and whenever he says horrible things, I could imagine They're darts that are bouncing off the metal shield with a ping or a boing and falling on the floor, instead of affecting me. That could be quite amusing.

Part Five
Threatening to Report the Bully to Management and Others if Nothing Else Works

No one gossips about other people's secret virtues.
--Bertrand Russell

You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.
--Winston Churchill

OK, so the bully's damaged my reputation. But I'm still in a job so far. And if I can show the other people over time that I'm not the kind of person the bully claimed, I'll hopefully restore my good name.

However, if the bully makes serious allegations, and continues to bully me despite my goodwill towards him, I'll have to take further action.

If he's still humiliating me by fault-finding and undermining my reputation with accusations in front of others after some time, especially in front of members of the public, and if he hasn't responded to informal verbal requests that he co-operate with me in communicating in a more positive and honest way, I'll start keeping a diary where I record all the incidents of bullying that take place. I'll write down what was said, the dates and times and circumstances, and whether there were any witnesses.

I'll keep the diary on a memory stick I'll carry around with me and keep at home when I'm not at work, in case it gets stolen.

Each individual incident may be fairly trivial, but if I can demonstrate that there's a constant behaviour pattern to this, that's what will distinguish it as bullying.

I'll keep all emails, letters, memos and text messages with bullying words in them that he sends to me, so I can show them all to the employer at a later date if I'm asked to do so when I complain.

I'll also keep copies of any appraisals or letters from management that praise me for being good at my job, which contradict what the bully says.

When I've got some evidence of the bullying, I'll write to the bully, requesting he either changes his behaviour and withdraws his allegations, or that he provides evidence that they're true.

If he doesn't do either, but makes up worse things, or if he denies he's doing anything wrong, or pretends that he's the one people should really feel sorry for, as he's always done in the past, and which I've heard is behaviour which is common to bullies and which they do to cover up their inadequacies or so they can carry on doing what they're doing with an excuse; and more importantly, if he refuses to change, I'll write him another letter, saying something like this, part of which I've just found on an anti-bullying website. I think I'll put it much more in my own words than this, so it sounds more like the kind of thing I'd say. But it'll be something that means something like this:

Broken contract

Your criticisms and allegations are specious and lack substantive and quantifiable evidence.

Your constant nit-picking and fault-finding prevents me from fulfilling my duties and constitutes unprofessional conduct.

Your criticisms are based on trivia; choosing to focus obsessively on trivia reveals unsound judgement and is one of the ways bullies identify and reveal themselves.

It's thought by some that The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy; those who choose to use bullying behaviours may therefore be revealing and admitting to their inadequacy.

I now ask you to withdraw your criticisms/allegations and provide me with evidence in writing that you have done so.

I remind you that making allegations and refusing to substantiate them in writing is a form of harassment. Such harassment prevents myself and others from fulfilling our contractual duties and legally binding obligations.

If you respond to being called to account by becoming yet more abusive, or by denying you have done anything wrong or that it's anything serious, or by pretending that you're a victim in all this, you will be exhibiting behaviours that I have it on authority are characteristic of bullies, and thus what you will be doing will be tantamount to an admission that you are one.

If you refuse to withdraw your allegations and change your behaviour, I shall perceive myself as having no option but to report you to appropriate authorities, such as union representatives, the director of the human resources department and the management, and to discuss the matter with a lawyer.

If you refuse to take this letter seriously, it will speed up my resolve to report you.

Hopefully, a letter like that would frighten him into silence. But if he retaliates rather than changes, I'll write to him again with a further warning, and then take the matter further if he doesn't change after that, or look for another job, or ask for a transfer to another department.

Hopefully things will never come to that, but if nothing else works, it may be the best option.

I'll give other options a chance first, though, since he might change. I'll try and deflect his criticisms and to change my emotional reactions to them, and to help him to get his problems solved and needs fulfilled, and to persuade him to focus on solutions and issues rather than problems and personalities. I'll read more about verbal self-defence and negotiation skills and relaxation exercises, to help me change, and so I can better try to persuade him to.


This article is written slightly differently from most articles. All the information in most of the articles in this series is written as if by someone finding out a lot of helpful information for the first time, just learning about it. That person themselves isn't real; they're just a representative of a lot of others suffering the same thing. Any little anecdotes they tell about their personal lives or those of people they know almost always have really happened though, usually either to the author or to someone else known to the author. The article comes with with a very short story about them to set the scene, and presents all the self-help information as if it's what they're finding out and what they think of it.

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The Story

The Way Things Are Before They Begin to Improve

Feeling worse and worse

Judith is transferred to a different department at work to replace someone who's just about to leave. Soon afterwards, she makes a few disparaging remarks about a recreational activity that turns out to be a favourite pastime of a new work colleague of hers, in response to something the person leaving says to him as he's going. The new work colleague launches into a barrage of totally unfair malicious insults against her for it, a response which is way out of proportion to what she actually said. She indignantly points that out to him. But instead of taking back the insults, he insults her some more.

After that, in the coming weeks and months, he keeps on saying insulting things to her, irritating her because he never explains why he's doing it. He just says that he doesn't see anything wrong with it, and if she doesn't like his insults, she can go and find another job. He mocks her as being very thin-skinned and over-sensitive when she complains.

He makes false accusations against her, which she assumes at first are misunderstandings which can be sorted out through dialogue, but he refuses to listen to what she says. She often asks him to explain why he's said what he's said, and instead of even giving a word of explanation, he just becomes more abusive, and when she protests, he becomes more abusive still.


She thinks she wouldn't mind him making his accusations if he explained the thinking behind them, but sometimes she insistently asks him why he's making them, and he just says he's sure she can remember what she said or did to deserve them, and if she can't, she just needs to think harder. The only thing she can think of is what she said when she first came, but he never says they're to do with that.

When she becomes angry with him, he appeals for sympathy to other people, making it look as if she's picking on him. Some people believe him, and start condemning her for "persecuting" him.

She feels so exasperated by the whole thing that she perhaps over-reacts to their criticisms, because she views them as an escalation of the conflict, as they are, rather than a set of isolated incidents, which on their own might seem trivial. They put the worst possible interpretations on everything she says, thinking the worst without being prepared to believe her side of the story. They and the bully were always a bit of a clique. They have thus considered her to be the problem rather than the bully. After all, they reason, he doesn't pick on us, and she's demonstrated that she can be unpleasant to us, so she must be the one causing the problem, not him. They try to ridicule everything she says in her defence.

Over the next few weeks, she considers them to be increasingly harassing her and being unreasonable, and she becomes more exasperated still, but it provokes more hostility from them. Some of them say far worse things to her than the bully ever did. They believe the lies the bully tells about her, colluding with him in spreading them, saying it's only right that people should know the truth about her.

One of them, Olivia, tells Judith she wonders whether she's capable of any sensitive human emotion, because if she was, she'd be sympathising with the man she victimised, and she wouldn't have even done it; she would have felt caring towards him instead of persecuting him and judging his lifestyle. Olivia says many other unfair things, and Judith feels badgered by her. Her criticisms become ever more spiteful.


Meanwhile, the bully enjoys the conflict he has created between Judith and the others. He continues to criticize her for the slightest thing, sometimes making absurd-seeming allegations, and sometimes picking up on little things about her work performance that he blows way out of proportion, as if she's done something very seriously wrong.

But sometimes, when the others are around, he plays the aggrieved victim again, complaining to Judith that she doesn't show him any empathy, saying that nothing seems to touch her, so she must be heartless. That gains him even more sympathy from them.

However, one day, he reveals that he bullies Judith, saying he likes it. That's the first time Judith realises that what's been happening to her has been bullying. His behaviour finally makes sense to her. She realises that his failure to take her points on board and sort out matters with her isn't because he's too unintelligent to take in what she's saying or because she somehow isn't managing to put them across coherently, but because he doesn't actually want to resolve the conflict with her, because if he did, it would deprive him of a way of bullying her. She's glad she finally understands. His admission of bullying doesn't change the attitude of the others, though. They still think she's victimising him.

The group hostility towards Judith begins to undermine her confidence. She worries that she'll lose her job soon, or that her mental health will suffer.

Thankfully, she discovers possible ways of improving the situation a lot or even eliminating it, and becomes hopeful she can soon change things for the better.

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