Back in graduate school, I clashed repeatedly with one of my classmates, a guy with very strong opinions and a personality to match. Not being a wilting lily myself, it was easy for me to go to Mach 2 when he would say (in front of the whole class), in a condescending tone, “Shaunti, if you had ever worked in the area we’re talking about, you would know that your approach is how amateurs think.”
I would jump to defend myself (“Actually, I have worked in this area, and my approach was quite successful, thank you very much!”), or I would take umbrage (“Brent, I don’t appreciate your tone”). But it never worked very well. He would get even more fixed in his corner, and I would get fixed in mine.
And neither of us earned any points in the eyes of our classmates.
Over the years since then, as Jeff and I have conducted our research, I’ve learned many things about how to make relationships work. But what to say to a bully that would actually change anything always eluded me. It wasn’t until I did the research for The Kindness Challenge that it finally clicked.
Here’s the phrase that most defuses a jerk — and the next steps that, in most cases, will get you both out of your corners and actually moving down a positive path.
Step #1: “I know you don’t mean to be cruel — but you are.”
To interrupt the bully’s demeanor, you have to address the situation directly (“You are being cruel”). But to create actual change, you have to do it with overt kindness (“I know you don’t mean to be”).
Sorry. I know that robs us of the savage satisfaction of an undiluted smack-down.
But it works. And here’s why.
If you don’t address it at all, their jerkiness will keep working for them. They will keep getting their way, people will keep backing down, or they will continue to get the fight they are looking for. The mean girl at school or the harsh boss at the office will get even more entrenched in their habits.
So you need to address it. The problem is, most of the ways we naturally address a bully (or are told to) will not change their behavior. We “confront” the jerk, or we “put them in their place.” Standing up to a jerk and telling them their behavior is offensive is often needed — but too often, we simply end there. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps we don’t like confrontation, so we downplay it and don’t address it directly enough. (“You know, um, I might be too sensitive, and it’s not a big deal, but, um, every now and then there’s this thing you say …”)
Neither approach will change a thing.
What we found in the research for The Kindness Challenge is that, as odd as this sounds, giving the jerk the benefit of the doubt (“I know you don’t intend to be so harsh to the people on your team”) is a crucial starting point. In some subconscious way, it appeals to the better parts of their nature and melts through the defenses that the jerky part of their nature has built up over time. It moves them out of their corner, so they can start down a path that might actually lead somewhere. Note: it is not the last step, but the first one.
Step #2: “So this needs to change. If it doesn’t, here are the consequences. But I believe you can change.”
One of the women in our research told me how her older colleague’s harsh, almost abusive approach to his subordinates was causing chaos and turnover in their whole department. She wasn’t his boss. She had no ability to force him to change. But she went to him and said this:
“Tom, it is important to address something about how you treat your people. We’ve had three people leave just in the last quarter alone. I know you don’t intend to be cruel and harsh. I know that about you. But you need to know, you are being cruel in how you speak to them. For example, in the meeting yesterday, you told Mark to ‘shut up until you have something productive to share.’ That sort of language to anyone isn’t appropriate, much less to a productive employee like Mark. We can’t afford to keep losing good people. I think you may not realize how often you come across as a bully, and it needs to change. If it doesn’t change, I’ll have no choice but to raise this with HR. But I know this can change. What are your thoughts on this?”
Inside, she told me she was incredibly nervous to have this conversation with her peer. But once she started the discussion, directly but with kindness, it was clear that her colleague was listening. He acknowledged that he had probably been too harsh, or hadn’t cared enough about how his words were received. He said, “I probably need to pay more attention to this.”
She said it didn’t change everything overnight, but it was clear he was trying. And over the next few weeks she reinforced it when she saw him handling something well. (“I noticed that you praised Mark’s work to the task force. Great idea.”) She also calmly pointed out a few instances where he was reverting to bad habits.
Within a month, although he wasn’t close to perfect, he was clearly on a much better trajectory. And so was their team.
This approach certainly will not work with everyone. There will be a small subset of bullies who are truly pathological, or just enjoy abusing others too much to ever change. But in most cases, I suggest you try it. And you will probably see that this direct-but-kind approach will finally bring the change you’ve wanted the whole time.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Find Rest: A Women’s Devotional for Lasting Peace in Busy Life, focuses on a journey to rest even with life’s constant demands.
Visit www.shaunti.com for more.