Ask the grumpies: When bullies bully through tone-policing

Oldmdgirl asks:

[A]ny advice on how to handle the following scenario: Say, someone tries to bully you into doing something and you hold your ground patiently but firmly — often they will claim you were “rude” in order to try to get you in trouble with your superiors. I’m not sure how to handle this type of feedback since a) complying with their request may not have been reasonable/safe/possible in any way, b) you provided a completely reasonable alternative that they rejected without listening, c) they actually tried to bully you and were rude to you. Do you stand your ground? Do you defend yourself? What is the best way to handle this sort of scenario? I had something like this happen recently, and I was wondering if there was any merit to proactively seeking out feedback about how the situation could have been handled differently in order to have avoided the frustration on everybody’s part. Thoughts?

Crucial conversations tends to suggest you pretend they’re not bullying you and to reframe what they’re saying to make sure you understand etc. etc. etc.  You would then proactively seek feedback as you suggest, following their instructions on keeping the other party safe and focusing on the situation, not anything personal.  But Crucial Conversations also doesn’t really get that women are treated differently than men. Some of their afterwards from the updated edition get into this idea a little bit but don’t offer any solutions, just say that although their recommendations usually work with even difficult people, they don’t always work with all bullies.

With bullies, I have found that what often works the best (as a woman in a male-dominated field) is to channel your inner mom/kindergarten teacher/nun (your choice) and sigh a bit, and then talk in your disappointed voice. “I wish we could do that, but you know that isn’t safe/wasn’t reasonable/could hurt someone.” “Oh, [name], I did give you a suggestion, but …” “I don’t like being treated this way/Did you just say [x] to me? Why did you say [x]?  That wasn’t very nice/constructive/etc.” Some of my female heroes have this really cool way of being firm and disappointed at the same time. I’m mostly just disappointed– I’m working on getting more moxy so I can add just the right amount of underlying “they shoulda known better”.

People seem to be able to defer to a woman when reminded of a woman who once had power over them and you address them as if they’re naughty toddlers or elementary schoolers, especially when that’s what they’re acting like.  Students stopped trying to bully me pretty much entirely once I had a toddler of my own and started treating them like preschoolers instead of adults.  The same treatment works with overbearing white guys as well.

Grumpy Nation, do you have any suggestions from the trenches?

5 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: When bullies bully through tone-policing”

  1. Revanche Says:

    Wow. Though I have tons of experience with this stuff, I didn’t realize it’s now been a few years since I had to deal with it one on one. Hm. I work with reasonable people right now. Weird.

    With known bullies, I had a few approaches. For the ones who were willing to bully right in front of other people, I made it a point to clearly but politely contradict them if they were making false claims. I would say, “Ah on that point, it seems we’ve had a misunderstanding. The message from my team on this date was Thus-and-so. Given that, let’s talk about how we get to where we need to be.”

    Then I’d document all problems in writing or proactively discuss them reasonably with higher-ups in the course of general business so that it was clear to them that my MO is “reasonable” even when someone is being a turd. This historically made it hard to advance a claim that I was pointlessly obstructive (a popular standby of bullies I’ve known).

    For the ones who would do the fun behind your back bullying complaint, I’d take a different tack. While I couldn’t get away with treating them like infants, but I could definitely treat them like small children and use small words and non apologies. “Oh I didn’t realize you heard it that way! This is what I meant…” and then reiterate my position.

    Also I was practiced in spotting and claiming any mistakes that were my fault and fixing it so that if I disclaimed responsibility for something, it didn’t appear to be a habit of covering my ass, it was accepted as truth. I was good enough at this when I had external bullies try to claim I was the reason they failed, I was told by higher-ups to ignore it because *they* certainly weren’t giving it any credence.

  2. Cloud Says:

    I really struggle with dealing with bullies. I try to drive conversation to email, where I’ll have a record. I focus on controlling my emotional response so that I can reply calmly. And then I hope my superiors have my back. If it proves they don’t… well, I tend to leave. Life’s too short to work in such a toxic environment.

    One book that might have suggestions is Bob Sutton’s No Asshole Rule. I haven’t read it, but when I’ve read shorter things he’s written, he usually has good points- and he definitely knows the research. I’ve just started reading his book about bosses (Good Boss, Bad Boss), and it is good so far.

  3. taylorqlee Says:

    I’ve never had anyone try this with me in the workplace. I’ve been told I can be a “bitch” (read: assertive) since I was in high school so I just consider my “rudeness” to be part of my charming workplace personality and don’t tolerate unsubstantiated critiques on my “scary” (read: not always smiling) face. But I feel for LW dealing with people’s weird emotional manipulation tactics and wish her the best of luck.

  4. Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

    I also haven’t had it happen to me in a long time.

    When I’m asked to do or work on something outside of my scope of work (and I don’t think it adds value), I tell the person that I need to get approval from my manager to work on said item before I can commit. This is a pretty big cultural shift that took place at my company when it was sold. It went from a “boundaryless” culture to a much more rigid “hierarchical” one. It’s much harder to get stuff done, but at the same time, it pretty much eliminates bullies due to chain of command rules. Before, whoever screamed the loudest got the attention/resources.

    I also work for a really large company and I can avoid really unpleasant people and still get my job done.

  5. Jay Says:

    Terry Gross on Fresh Air once interviewed Gene Simmons from Kiss (the interview has been pulled from the Internet, as far as I know). He was horrifyingly rude and inappropriate and she essentially said, in that Terry Gross voice, utterly calm. “Did you just actually say that to me?” and then gave a soft, somewhat derisive laugh. It was PERFECT. I try to channel that.


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