Two of the top questions we receive are:
How do I know if this is a bully or a difficult person?
How do I approach or confront a bully vs a difficult person?
Here’s the difference: Knowing if it is a bullying situation or an unsuspecting conflict situation is key as approaching them is almost 180 different from one another. You will want to make sure.
Bullying is: deliberate, disrespectful, repeated behavior toward another for the bully’s gratification.
Workplace bullying is deliberate; not accidental. Difficult people may or may not be deliberate; they may be unaware. A bully is absolutely aware of what they are doing. Here is a question for you: Has this person in question been able to treat others with respect and kindness but has not treated you in the same respectful and kind way? If they’ve been “able” in other circumstances, then they are “able”.
Still not convinced? (If) you approached this person in a respectful, non-defensive way with regard to your perception of their behaviour toward you, and they in turn react without showing any interest or regard for your circumstances, then there is a good chance they are more concerned with their own needs and they are not committed to seeking to understand yours. Both bullies and difficult people can be defensive; however, some difficult people as opposed to bullies, if approached well, have the ability to see another person’s needs; it’s called humanity and maturity.
Bullies are out for power-over at the expense of another. They need a target in order to complete their mission. Difficult people are not necessarily out to harm another; they are out to protect their own needs, and you might just happen to be in their way of their self-preservation. They are not usually “out-to-get-you”, so the intent and motivation is different. Experiencing these disrespectful behaviors is still frustrating and hurtful, but being clear on motivations can assist in gaining back some strength.
You can possibly reason and negotiate with a difficult person. You cannot reason or negotiate with a workplace bully.
Most people/targets want to hold on to the belief that “people are basically good”, and that if they were to give “feedback” to another, that the person receiving the feedback would take a sincere interest. We somehow think “if I just say it this way” or if I bring them a coffee … then… they’ll come around.
Most bosses, in their attempt to help an employee with a bullying situation or difficult person situation, often offer this advice: “Treat them the way you want to be treated” or “extend the olive branch” and they’ll somehow come around and be enlightened.
This influencing strategy can work – but only with minor difficult situations where the difficult person has a healthy enough self image to be able to receive feedback in order to come around. Let me be clear – influencing techniques such as these can work with the good natured mature individuals whose heart sincerely seeks a win-win.
Now that you know this, you can try this influencing strategy of extending the “olive branch” for minor offences, but do not expect results when dealing with workplace bullying behavior.
If you face moderate difficult behavior, and in some very rare cases of minor bullying, you can approach the person with a crucial conversation. A crucial conversation is an attempt to reach out and share what you need/want, with the hope of receiving acknowledgement of your situation and an agreement between parties.
Note: Many people get confused here. If you are certain you are facing a bully, or someone who is highly oppositional, this influencing strategy will NOT work – you cannot rationalize with a bully, and attempting to open up a dialogue will only expose you. Remember: crucial conversations only work when both parties are interested!
Also, note that workplace bullying situations usually require an intervention with a higher authority to enforce and uphold decisions. If you are not certain if you are in a bullying situation and you are hesitant as to your approach to influence or use an intervention, you could:
Try the crucial conversation influencing strategy very carefully by testing for interest first – if there is interest in having a conversation, you have a difficult situation that hopefully can be resolved using traditional conflict resolution. If it doesn’t work, you likely have an oppositional or workplace bullying situation, where the individual is interested in retaliating and aiming to control you once you are exposed. Make your attempt carefully and back off if you experience resistance such as denial, dismissal, ignoring etc: these are classic oppositional tactics. Further exposing yourself is not wise.
If you know this is workplace bullying behavior, (workplace bullying behavior is deliberate, not accidental, disrespectful and repeated toward an individual that the bully derives pleasure from hurting), then proceed to intervention – do not pass GO, do not collect $200…
Lastly, note this once you identify if your situation is workplace bullying behavior: remember that this individual is incapable of any meaningful feedback. Remember they usually create more pressure for a target when the target introduces an issue that needs to be resolved. Remember to fully internalize the fact that you cannot reach out and rationalize with a bully. Period.
There is a lot to learn as with anything important such as your career, life, well-being. Your next step is to become fully aware of all of your options and possible strategies so you are not stuck in self-doubt and illusion, thinking that if you are “nice”, this person will come around. Your education will be your empowerment.
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Valerie Cade, CSP is a Workplace Bullying Expert, Speaker and Author of "Bully Free at Work: What You Can Do To Stop Workplace Bullying Now!" which has been distributed in over 100 countries worldwide. For presentations and consulting on workplace bullying prevention and respectful workplace implementation, go to http://www.BullyFreeAtWork.com
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