How to handle adult bullies
Most of us encounter adult bullies at certain points in our lives. An adult bully can be an intimidating boss or colleague, a controlling romantic partner, an unruly neighbor, a high pressure sales/business representative, a condescending family member, a shaming social acquaintance, or other types of abusive relationships.
There are five major types of bullying:
Physical Bullying – The use of physical intimidation, threat, harassment and/or harm.
Tangible/Material Bullying – Using one’s formal power (i.e. title or position) or material leverage (i.e. financial, informational, or legal) as forms of intimidation, threat, harassment, and/or harm.
Verbal Bullying – Threats. Shaming. Hostile Teasing. Insults. Constant negative judgment and criticism. Racist, sexist, homophobic language.
Covert or Passive-Aggressive Bullying – Negative Gossip. Negative joking at someone’s expense. Sarcasm. Condescending eye contact, facial expression or gestures. Mimic to ridicule. Deliberately causing embarrassment. Social exclusion. Deliberately sabotaging someone’s well-being, happiness, and success.
Cyber Bullying – Examples of verbal and passive-aggressive behaviors mentioned above can be conveyed on-line, via social media, texting, video, email, on-line discussion, and other digital formats. Identity theft is also a form of cyber bullying.
On the surface, an adult bully may come across as aggressive, demanding, and domineering. However, with an astute approach and assertive communication, you can turn aggression into respect. Here are eight keys to successfully handle adult bullies, with excerpts from my book: “How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, and Controlling People.” Not all of the tips below may apply to your particular situation. Simply use what works, and leave the rest.
1. Keep Safe
The most important priority in the face of an adult bully is to protect yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable with a situation, leave. Seek help and support if necessary. Contact law enforcement, emergency hotline, crisis hotline, social agencies, or legal representatives if you have to. Should you decide to deal with the aggressor, consider the following skills and strategies.
2. Keep Your Distance and Keep Your Options Open
Not all adult bullies are worth tasseling with. Your time is valuable, and your happiness and well-being are important. Unless there’s something critical at stake, don’t expend yourself by trying to grapple with a person who’s negatively entrenched. Whether you’re dealing with a road rage driver, a pushy salesperson, a hostile neighbor, an obnoxious relation, or a domineering supervisor, keep a healthy distance, and avoid engagement unless you absolutely have to.
There are times when you may feel like you’re “stuck” with a very difficult person, and there’s “no way out.” In these situations, think outside the box. Consult with trusted friends and advisors about different courses of action, with your personal well-being as the number one priority. We’re never stuck unless we have blinders on. Keep your options open.
3. Keep Your Cool and Avoid Being Reactive
A common characteristic of bullies is that they project their aggression to push your buttons and keep you off balance. By doing so, they create an advantage from which they can exploit your weaknesses.
If you are required to deal with an adult bully, one of the most important rules of thumb is to keep your cool. The less reactive you are to provocations, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the situation. Some bullying scenarios may require a strong and assertive response, while others may be handled simply with you being unimpressed. Either way, keep your cool when you approach the situation. Maintain superior composure.
4. Know Your Fundamental Human Rights
A crucial idea to keep in mind when you’re dealing with an adult bully is to know your rights, and recognize when they’re being violated.
As long as you do not harm others, you have the right to stand-up for yourself and defend your rights. On the other hand, if you bring harm to others, you may forfeit these rights. The following are some of our fundamental human rights:
- You have the right to be treated with respect.
- You have the right to express your feelings, opinions and wants.
- You have the right to set your own priorities.
- You have the right to say “no” without feeling guilty.
- You have the right to get what you pay for.
- You have the right to have opinions different than others.
- You have the right to take care of and protect yourself from being threatened physically, mentally or emotionally.
- You have the right to create your own happy and healthy life.
The Fundamental Human Rights are grounded in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, laws in many democratic nations protecting against abuse, exploitation, and fraud, and, if you’re in the United States, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
These Fundamental Human Rights represent your boundaries.
Of course, our society is full of people who do not respect these rights. Bullies, in particular, want to deprive you of your rights so they can control and take advantage of you. But you have the power and moral authority to declare that it is you, not the bully, who’s in charge of your life. Focus on these rights, and allow them to keep your cause just and strong.
5. Utilize Assertive and Effective Communication
As mentioned above, avoid interacting with aggressors unless you absolutely have to. When you are required to deal with one, strengthen your position by utilizing assertive communication skills. For more on this topic, see my Psychology Today article: “How to Negotiate With Difficult and Aggressive People“
6. Talk About Your Experience
Some victims of adult bullying remain quiet about their experience, and hide their suffering within. Reasons for keeping silent may include, and are not limited to fear, shame, embarrassment, denial, a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, as well as gender, cultural, social, and/or institutional conditioning.
However, being a quiet victim is not only mentally and emotionally unhealthy, it can encourage the bully to repeat and intensify their aggressive behavior. No matter how difficult the circumstance, seek out trustworthy individuals to confide in, whether they be friends, family, workplace confidants, counselors, or operators on a crisis hotline. Sharing your experience is not only cathartic; the support you receive may often strengthen your ability to handle the challenge.
7. In Serious Situations, Proactively Deal with the Problem Early On and Formalize Your Communication.
With adult bullies whom you need to interact with on a regular basis, it’s important to put a stop to any serious, potentially damaging patterns early on. Let yourself, not the bully, be the one who sets the tone of the relationship.
Whenever possible, formalize your daily communication with the bully by either putting things in writing, or having a third party present as witness. Keep a paper trail of facts, issues, agreements, disagreements, and timelines. Build a strong case of factual evidence against the aggressor. In addition, identify whether there may be other victims of the bully, and consider a joint, formalized response. Leverage strength in numbers.
8. Set Consequences to Compel Respect
When an adult bully insists on violating your boundaries, and won’t take “no” for an answer, deploy consequences.
The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to “stand down” a difficult person. When effectively articulated, strong and reasonable consequence(s) gives pause to the adult bully, and compels him or her to shift from violation to respect. In my book “How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, and Controlling People”, consequence is presented as seven different types of power you can utilize to affect strong and positive change.
In conclusion, to know how to handle adult bullies is to truly master the art of communication. As you utilize these skills, you may experience less grief, greater confidence, better relationships, and higher communication prowess. You are on your way to leadership success!
Albert, D.J.; Walsh, M.L.; Jonik, R.H. Aggression in Humans: What is Its Biological Foundation?. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 17. (1993)
Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology. (2002)
Berkowitz, L. Aggression: Its Causes, Consequences, and Control. McGraw-Hill. (1993)
Bloom, Sandra L. M.D. When Victims Turn Into Bullies. The Psychotherapy Review. (2000)
Carr-Ruffino, Norma. The Promotable Woman. Career Pr Inc; 4th ed. (2004)
How to Deal with Bullies. The National Center Against Bullying. www.ncab.org.au/kids/whattodo/
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). United Nations General Assembly. (1948)
and the author of Communication Success with Four Personality Types
and How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People.