How to Stop Bullying: Identify It
Given the heightened awareness around bullying nowadays, most of us think we know what it looks like. But even experts are sometimes surprised by the way this social scourge manifests, especially among adults.
Susan Wenzel, a relationship counsellor and sex therapist in Winnipeg, recently worked with a common-law couple that had fallen into a destructive pattern: the woman would regularly wake her partner up in the middle of the night to rehash an incident that had upset her. She would fixate on some perceived slight—that he ignored her at a party or that he failed to defend her when his mother voiced a criticism—and berate him.
Wenzel says the woman’s rationale was that “your time is my time, so I can wake you up.” Her haranguing would last several hours, and the relationship turned toxic. Once, the couple argued so fiercely that a neighbour called the police (no charges were laid). This played out over several months, and in addition to being sleep-deprived, the man felt emotionally drained and depressed. At first, says Wenzel, he saw his partner’s nocturnal grievances as a bad, unwanted habit. But eventually, she adds, “He started seeing it as emotional abuse.”
Bullying can come in many forms—from physical intimidation to online harassment to mind games. “It can cross gender lines and often doesn’t follow a predictable pattern. That makes it very hard to label,” says Anna Richards, a conflict coach and counsellor at the Neutral Zone, a counselling agency in Vancouver.
The end result, however, is typically the same in all instances of harassment: harmful relationships and potentially dire effects on the victim’s mental and physical health. Thankfully, there are strategies for dealing with intimidation.
How to Stop Bullying: Understand It
Simply put, bullying is a systematic, repetitive abuse of power. When we think of classic examples of harassment, such as children being bullied in school, power is often derived from physical strength, or higher social status. The victims are usually people who are seen as weak or different.
But bullying doesn’t always follow this stereotype, or automatically stop once you age. “The playground just becomes a bit more sophisticated,” says Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa. There isn’t much data available on the incidence of bullying, but Vaillancourt cites a 2006 Canadian study reporting that 40 per cent of adults are regularly bullied at work.
We know it also happens in close personal relationships, such as those between family members or romantic partners. Wenzel says that because each family is unique, victims might not identify a parent or sibling’s relentless digs as bullying—they might just see it as part of an established household dynamic.
Bullying can be deliberately subtle, such as withholding affection or questioning someone’s intelligence or life choices. Another example is exerting control in a relationship by constantly insisting that your partner is misremembering key moments or lying about them, to the point where they start to question their own sanity, a practice that has come to be known informally as “gaslighting.”
“That is a psychological mind game that happens in an abusive cycle where it’s not right there in your face, which I think is even more dangerous—it’s harder to detect,” says Wenzel.
Bullies often feel helpless in other aspects of their lives, says Richards: “People might feel disempowered at work and come home to unload on their partner.”
When bullies take aggression out on their co-workers, the intimidation tends to be more overt. The typical notion of a workplace bully is a boss who continually berates employees in front of their peers.
“Normally speaking, [harassment] comes from the top down,” says Jacqueline Power, a management professor at the University of Windsor. “But there are cases where people bully their boss.”
Power says employees who are uncooperative, openly defiant or insulting might believe they have leverage because their boss falls into a less privileged category—perhaps they are younger, female or a visible minority—or because they feel their superior is unqualified or ineffectual.
How to Stop Bullying: Take a Stand
There are ways to push back against bullies. If a person constantly belittles a colleague’s ideas in meetings, for example, the victim should first step back and take inventory of their feelings, says Dorothy Kudla, a Toronto-based facilitator who runs workshops on organizational effectiveness at Full Circle Connections. To boost their confidence, she says, they should remind themselves that they have the qualifications necessary to do their job. Then they should decide on the best of course of action.
That could mean finding an ally who will support their point of view in the next meeting. It could also mean approaching the bully privately and gently telling them that their behaviour isn’t productive. Kudla recommends emphasizing that “your projects are important to both of you, and if you’re going to be successful, you need to be working toward a common goal.”
Learning to stop bullying in our personal lives can be harder, because the circumstances are often complicated by love or a sense of duty. Nonetheless, calling out a bully can be an important step in neutralizing their behaviour. Richards says there’s a diplomatic, non-aggressive way of doing so, and it follows the acronym DEAR: describe the incident in a non-judgmental, calm way; explain how it made you feel; ask the bully what they were thinking at the time; and request how you’d like to be treated in the future.
If repeated attempts at communication don’t bring a change in behaviour, it’s a good sign that you should sever ties—the perpetrator isn’t respecting boundaries and feelings, and the relationship may be irreparable.
But overall, Richards tries to encourage her clients to let the bully explain themselves: “If you can actually suspend judgment long enough to hear the words coming out of their mouth, if you can ask open-ended questions in a way that invites them to share their perspective, and if you can hold on long enough to reflect back to them what you heard, you’ve done 99 per cent of the work of resolving this conflict.”
What makes listening effective, she says, is that you’re setting up a tone of collaboration, not an argument.