09 Mar Never reason with a bully
On a good day, our boss was a bully. On a bad day, she was pathological. But she taught me a valuable lesson that has stuck with me: never reason with a bully.
Why? Because bullies aren’t reasonable.
We learned this with George, one of my close co-workers and friends. George was as talented and decent as human beings come. When we worked together, he often flew home on Fridays, with our boss’ full knowledge and blessing.
One week, George returned to work a half day later than normal. His young son had needed an unexpected surgery. Our boss claimed she hadn’t known about his schedule change. None of us believed her. Everyone knew.
Yet she became irrational, and soon unhinged. “I gave you a gift with these long weekends. Now I’m taking that gift away,” she said within earshot of twenty people, her voice dripping with venom.
It was awful.
George looked sucker punched. And he made the mistake we all do with bullies: he tried to reason with her. He reminded her how he’d told her of the surgery the week before.
But she entrenched. It was arbitrary, ugly, and unwinnable. We all felt helpless. George felt humiliated, defeated, and stuck.
His only option was to stop playing this crazy woman’s games. “You cannot work for her any longer,” I said to him, knowing he was out of plays.
So we did everything possible to get him out of there. Two months later, George pulled me aside to let me know that he’d landed a better position closer to his family. His relief and renewed confidence were palpable.
You just can’t reason with a bully.
And we can’t play their games.
That was the case with my friend Jill, who called me one night in a panic. Her daughter, Rebecca, had just started a new job in Florida. Three days after starting, she found out her pay was 25% less than originally agreed.
It was a mess.
“Let’s call Rebecca,” I said, trying to break through my friend’s panic.
Rebecca explained how the owner of the company had recruited her for months. And she’d been explicit about what she needed to work for his company.
He’d lied. He promised something, then reneged. And he’d used information about her family and finances against her, making it difficult for her to walk away despite the lower pay.
She’d been duped by a bully.
“It happens to all of us,” I assured her.
But the owner of the company had made a mistake: he’d revealed himself as a bully (and a dick). And once she wasn’t feeling so triggered and stuck, Rebecca could work with that information.
So we slowed everything down for her and her mom, whose anxiety was not helping the situation.
Clear thinking and strategies, not panic, were crucial to regaining her footing.
Rebecca’s instinct was to plead her case to the owner, who’d originally been friendly with her.
“That might work with a reasonable person,” I said. “But you’re not dealing with a reasonable person. You’re dealing with a bully.” And bullies have a way of pouncing on perceived weakness. Like George’s decency or Rebecca’s financial needs. After reality sunk in, Rebecca agreed not to act while she felt so vulnerable.
And we all conceded she would not “win” any arguments with this guy.
But this concession didn’t prevent Rebecca from reclaiming her dignity.
Sure, at face value, Rebecca’s options sounded bleak: stay at lower pay, confront a bully, or leave without a job. So we invented an alternative that all of us could live with: if Rebecca kept the job at lower pay to take care of her family, she would immediately start looking for a better job – with lots of help from her mom and me.
This plan made an awful situation feel a little better. Then we created some boundaries.
And boundaries build bravery.
For Rebecca to regain her confidence we knew she had to talk to the owner. But it wouldn’t be with the expectation of higher pay or standing up to him. She needed to talk to him to prove to herself that she could.
And to do that, she had to know what she would not say to him. Certain topics would be absolutely none of his business, especially how bad she felt and anything about her kids.
In a nutshell, Rebecca had to practice not talking.
Too much talking always backfires when dealing with bullies.
Her message had to be clear, brief, precise, and totally neutral. We tried a few sentences until we landed on one that met all four these. Clear, brief, precise, neutral.
And Rebecca practiced three words over and over: “You said ninety.”
She practiced removing the shaky emotion and accusation out of her voice. And because high emotion also leads to high pitch, Rebecca lowered her voice, which slowed down her speech and made us all laugh.
From that lower register we could hear her confidence and determination re-emerge.
“You said ninety,” became a mantra that focused Rebecca in an impossible situation with someone who seemed to have the upper hand.
All that preparation would help her avoid traps in this brief conversation. Even if they didn’t change her pay.
The next day, however, Rebecca texted me that her salary was now $90,000. And the owner mumbled something about a misunderstanding. In realizing that she couldn’t reason with this particular bully, she’d unexpectedly called his bluff .
An earlier version of this article was called “Never Negotiate with a Bully.” But I was WRONG. We can ONLY negotiate with bullies. More on that here: How to negotiate with anyone.
I help people re-wire and re-think. Even in unreasonable situations.
(My brother calls me a workshrink.)
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