No such thing as a bully

Bullies have been on my mind lately.  A few weeks ago we had the headline in the Guardian about a ‘bullying culture’ in universities.  I work in this sector, so the story was both interesting and familiar and prompted me to a direct marketing campaign – I can help employers with this kind of problem.

Next I conducted a mediation where both parties were complaining about being bullied by the other.  This isn’t as unusual as it sounds.  My job (successful in this case) was to help each party hear the other explain how it felt when certain things were said and done.  Neither was the bully, in fact, which had to mean neither was being bullied.

Then I found myself being bullied.  Now that was really interesting.

Bully is a great word – it looks and sounds like a hard-nut.  It’s an unusual word, apparently describing the actions of the perpetrator while actually being all about how the victim feels.  The victim.  See, you can’t get away from the fact that one is doing bad and the other is innocent.

And that, to be fair, is how it felt.  For a period of about six weeks, I was on the receiving end of behaviour which seemed specifically designed to hurt, annoy, undermine, belittle and shame me all so that the bully would end up getting his way.

This, in more detail, is what it looked like:

Someone in a meeting implied I didn’t know what I was doing.

Someone talked over me in phone calls and laughed when I tried to explain myself.

Someone sent emails to other people expressing the view that I didn’t understand the situation.

Someone told me and others that they couldn’t believe I was being so unreasonable.

Someone refused to answer questions, saying they were irrelevant.

Someone excluded me from meetings where the important stuff was discussed.

Someone emailed me with unprofessional comments (and way too many exclamation marks).

It was a useful experience from a professional point of view.  Every discomfort adds to my satchel of resources.  For example, it’s useful now, as I review this list and notice how trivial each of these complaints sounds.  It’s hard to conjure the visceral lump of vulnerability that blocked my breathing when each happened.

But what was more interesting was what I found myself wanting to do.

What I wanted to do, and actually did, fairly often, was cry.  I’d come off the phone and burst into tears. And rant.  That helped, up to a point.  What I also wanted to do was berate the man in question, call him a bully, slam back at him what a despicable, pathetic, piece of crap he was and how everyone must hate him.

I also wanted to belittle him. I wanted to call him a prick (I did privately of course) and explain, in the most condescending voice I could muster that if he was going to throw his toys out of the pram, yet again, I might just not pick them up this time. I wanted to tell him I’d sussed his manipulative plan to get me to agree to everything he wanted, and ask him how he could actually live with himself.  I wanted to force him to feel the pain. The best – the only – way to do this was fight fire with fire, humiliate him, insult him and treat him with contempt.

I rehearsed all of this in my head.  At first there was something approaching satisfaction in the feeling it gave me. Then I got bored. Then I invited myself to think about what would happen if I did respond in this way, what it would likely cause him to do and where that would get us.

Then I started thinking about whether I was right. Whether the behaviour I had experienced was actually bullying. There was no doubt that I had experienced it as an attempt to humiliate me into a position; that I had felt frustrated at his refusal to hear me out, hurt at his public criticism of me. But bullying? Didn’t that imply a conscious attempt to do all those things, and how could I be sure that was his intention?

It was obvious, wasn’t it? He wanted to get his way, and this was the way he usually found was effective. Obvious.

Except was it?  Could I absolutely be sure that I was right, that he had set out with the sole and express intention to force me to agree to everything he suggested? I ran through the Byron Katie questions. What other explanations could there be for his actions? Could he, for instance, believe that his suggestion was the fair one? Could he be acting out of fear of something – the future, the deal not working, something that was going on at home?  Could I be wrong in my sense of what was fair?  Did he get the impression I wasn’t listening to him?  Was it true that those odd kind words, in amongst the angry ones, were genuine rather than crocodilish as I’d read them?

That person you’ve identified as a bully is very unlikely to be setting out to hurt you for the sheer hell of it.  He or she won’t be deliberately riding rough shod over everything that’s important to you, even if it feels that way.  They’re just trying to get their needs met, but in a hopeless way, a way that fails to realise they won’t succeed unless your priority needs are met too.

There is no such thing as a bully. I really do believe this. There is a feeling that you are being treated badly and you want the other person to stop because it hurts.  But just because you experience this pain, it doesn’t make the other person a bully.  There are psychopaths who do harm without being able to work out why that matters, and there is everyone else, just trying to get their needs met in the only way they know how.  Sometimes – usually – that way is rubbish, a tragic expression of need as Marshall Rosenburg puts it, (tragic because it will result in the opposite of the desired result) – but that’s all it is.

It can be satisfying, cathartic even to come off the phone and cry and rant, and accuse the other person of being the world’s meanest bully. Do that, by all means, but in the privacy of your own office. Take some breaths, go for a walk and then work out what’s really going on.






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