How to Listen to Someone Who’s Being Bullied
Welcome to the September edition of Bully-Free Workplace Monthly. I’m Valerie Cade, and I’m the founder of How to Have a Bully Free Workplace. And today, we are looking at how to listen to someone who has been bullied. So you may have been bullied and you’re probably craving a wonderful interaction with somebody that could actually hear your story, validate you, perhaps even help you along. The other is, you might be a manager, and you do have some people that you know are being bullied at work, and you are just wondering what to do, your hands are tied; in fact you might even be avoiding them because you’re just not simply aware of what to do.
So when we look at our readership, people all over the world have been letting us know what they need in terms of empowering themselves against the bully. Today we look at the very aspect of how to create an environment where you can actually listen and validate the target. Now for those of you that are listening, you might be thinking, “Well, that’s great. Have you noticed the people that are here are the ones that are already converted? It’s the ones that are not listening to this that need to hear it.” Well, our suggestion to you is to say, “You know, I believe that there’s a podcast, an audio message here that might help in terms of us having a good discussion. And I think it will help you help me.” Feel free to use this, share it with people that you know. And if you do have a trusted friend, a husband, a wife, a good co-worker, a good friend, it’s not a bad idea to say, “I think this will help you help me.”
Some good news for us today. We have a trusted advisor here and his name is Gary Gerber. Gary is a marriage and family therapist and he specializes in workplace communication, workplace conflict, and in addition to that, he has very practical, usable skills in terms of identifying the conflict and what you can do about it. So welcome Gary to our podcast.
Gary: Thank you.
Valerie: And Gary, you’ve been a marriage and family therapist for 25 years?
Gary: 25 years plus, yes.
Valerie: In a row?
Gary: 2 rows.
Valerie: 2 rows, right. You’re into your 3rd row?
Gary: Into my 3rd row, yes.
Valerie: That’s great. And you know today, it’s just an interesting fact that many people skip around in their careers. They might have five different career paths in their entire lifetime. You’ve stayed at this for 25 years, so you must know a few things.
Gary: Well, I think I know some things about it. I certainly don’t know everything there is to know but I’m happy to share what I’ve gleaned over the years. And yes, sometimes we’re surprised at how much we know when we’ve worked that long in the same field.
Valerie: Well, as many people have said, “Humbleness comes before honor.” So you’re certainly humble with your talent and your gifts.
Gary: Thank you.
Valerie: So thank you for joining us today. Did you know that in most of our podcasts, Gary, we cover a few statistics, because statistics actually set the stage? And many, many people could be going through their day in denial. The ones who are unaware of bullying and the ones who are being bullied often resort to denial. Why? Many of us don’t know exactly what to do. So we have a few statistics every time just to highlight the prevalence of workplace bullying.
Valerie: The first statistic we have is 71% of the bullies are bosses, 71%. Have you ever worked for any bullying bosses in any way, shape or form?
Gary: Well, I have worked for a boss who would give subtle, negative feedback from time to time and I guess you could classify this as a mild example of a bullying boss. At that time, I certainly didn’t think of it in that way. But there’d be underhanded comments from time to time about “Do this”, and “Why haven’t you done that?”, and I’d often wonder where the guy was coming from. But what I really noticed is I’d go home at night and really be angry about it when I want to go to sleep. And that’s where it took its toll on me. And I often thought why am I feeling this way? I’d like to throttle the guy. But he seemed like a nice enough person, you know, so it was weird.
Valerie: It was confusing?
Gary: It was very confusing.
Valerie: Now you didn’t stay at that workplace very long because you went on to be a marriage and family therapist.
Valerie: Imagine if you would have stayed. And that’s what a lot of people are faced with. They stay working for these bullying bosses. They feel like there’s no other place to go. And they say that 1 in 6 people are actually bullied right now. And that 75% of those being bullied can handle this with some degree of skill; but I think they walk away, like you were walking away – angry, perplexed – and it hangs with you, doesn’t it?
Gary: It does hang with you. And there’s another statistic that says that in peoples’ lifetimes, 50% of the workforce will have been bullied.
Valerie: Wow. I wonder how many of those people are even aware.
Gary: Some of them would be, some of them are not. Because the bullies are very subtle people, they’re very crafty in how they dish out their negative behavior. They’ll push the target only far enough that the target really gets hurt and feels it, but they don’t get caught.
Gary: And they’ve been groomed ever since they’ve been little kids, even on the playground, and then they get to high school and university and they just step it up a notch, each time they go to a higher school of learning. By the time they get to the workplace, they can be pretty lethal.
Valerie: Is that right? And it is true, you know, we certainly know about bullying in the school yard, and the image that comes to mind is someone beating somebody up in the school yard, very over-aggressive behavior. And do we see that in the workplace?
Gary: Well, occasionally you do. But that would be considered workplace violence or harassment. And bullying is a form of workplace violence. But you’ll more often see somebody who just kind of needles people and kind of chips away at them slowly. So that the one kind of critic would be the constant… or the bully would be the constant critic, as outlined by Ruth and Gary Namie. This is the person who really focuses on negativity; they’re just always negative about what you do. So you can turn in a report, and they’d find something not right about it, even though you’ve really worked at it. Or they could just nitpick about things that you’re doing or they could whine about stuff that you’re engaged in and how you’ve done your task and so on and so forth.
Valerie: And often with our bosses, we want our bosses to notice what we’ve done. I think this carries forth from when we were little boys and little girls and we got a sticker or a star on our paper.
Gary: Oh absolutely. In fact, if our bosses affirm us, they’re going to get a lot more productivity out of us than if they’re negative. Not only do they chip away at the person and destroy the person, which is bad enough; but they also are chipping away at the very company that they work for because they’re costing the company a lot in terms of human capital and also financial capital.
Valerie: Wouldn’t it be nice if all bosses just knew that the top motivation tool is to affirm one’s staff? If they understood that…
Gary: It would be great if they knew that. But the difference you see between the bully and a person who would be healthy and know that, is that the bully doesn’t care whether he knows that. The bully is out to hurt and gets his or her kicks by hurting somebody. Actually 58% of the bullies are women. So, you know that’s a bit of a startling statistic because we often attribute violence to males. But in this case, women do their share of bullying.
Valerie: Is that right? And it’s almost this passive-aggressiveness in the workplace that you’re highlighting here. By the time we graduate and we’re “adults” so to speak, in the workplace we find crafty ways to bully.
Gary: Very crafty ways to bully. And they really do that, like do things behind people’s backs, tell them one thing and do another, give them tasks that are unreasonable, you know, to do in a time frame that we give them to do them in. Things like that, that we do, or that bullies will do in the workplace.
Valerie: And you’re really highlighting the fact that a lot of these passive-aggressive techniques can create what we call “crazy-making”.
Gary: Crazy-making is the word. And it’s SO the word. And this disavows. It disavows the person’s reality. Some of the things that the bully will do is say, “Well, it didn’t really happen.” Or they will develop things to make the target look bad, that the target never did and attribute them to the target. So it’s total crazy-making. And we know from mental health theory, that one way to drive people mad is to disavow their reality. If you disavow somebody’s reality, it will actually drive them insane. And that’s what bullies do, in a very subtle way.
Valerie: Subtle, like cyanide.
Gary: So-called respectable, you know. Looks respectable to others but to the person who’s the target of that bully, it’s lethal.
Valerie: Right. So I’m just sensing what you’re saying here. Many people, maybe some of you who are listening, that are being bullied, you know something’s not right but you’re not sure what to do. Gary, in some of your How To’s, I think you said i the very first step to some of these things is to name it.
Gary: Yes, to name or identify it. You know that something’s wrong. Just as the targets know something’s wrong but they don’t know exactly what. They go home at night and they might feel really angry, or start to feel depressed. They start to feel a loss of self confidence, which is new for them. It’s atypical. They might feel nauseous, dizzy. They might start to feel faint, those kinds of things. And all these things are happening and they wonder “What’s going on with me?”. So they start to ask, “Is there something wrong?” And sometimes go to the doctor for a checkup. A doctor who don’t know about bullying wouldn’t catch this. But the target needs to be able to just name this stuff as bullying.
Valerie: As bullying. And to actually say out loud, “I am being bullied.”
Gary: That’s right.
Valerie: Would it be helpful to look in the mirror, and say to yourself, “I am being bullied”? To declare?
Gary: Probably would be. Yes, that’s a good way to say it. And to make yourself realize that something else is happening to you that is really outside of yourself. That you’re not somehow, that something isn’t wrong with you, but something very wrong is being done to you and giving you a lot of these symptoms that we just talked about.
Valerie: Excellent. I can almost see some of the pressure being alleviated if it was named.
Gary: Absolutely. It always takes the pressure off, because then you’ve got options. When it’s not named, it’s a kind of unconscious despair. Once you name it, you bring it to consciousness, what’s going on, and then you can figure out what your plan of attack is going to be. But until that time, you’re swimming in a sea of despair.
Valerie: Right, excellent. You know, after naming it, I would think that, you were saying earlier how “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to just be validated by talking to somebody?” And so today’s podcast is all about how to listen to someone who’s being bullied. Now as a therapist for over 25 years, I would think you’ve had to work very carefully at creating a safe environment for the people that you counsel. Could you talk to us today a little bit about how do we listen to somebody that’s being bullied?
Gary: Well, the first thing to realize when you’re talking to somebody who’s being bullied is that they’re going to feel very embarrassed. They’re going to be very hesitant to tell you about it. And it’s like pulling teeth to get them to talk about it sometimes because it’s just so weird in their minds that they can’t make sense of it. So they don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to be a burden. They don’t want to sound like a cry baby. So, when I’m listening to people in my office, that’s one of the things I really need to recognize and keep teasing it out, just keep saying, “Yeah, yeah, that’s right, I understand that.” And you feedback and let them know that you understand what they’re saying, and you validate that. And that gives them a lot of relief already, because they don’t validate themselves at that point. They think that there’s something wrong with them.
Valerie: So that this is the second mirror. The first mirror is the one in your house, when you’re getting ready in the morning, “I am being bullied.” The second mirror is the trusted friend that can actually validate you as a person, that you are worthy.
Gary: And the trusted friend has to know how to do that so that they don’t spew their own thoughts onto the person who’s trying to tell them something that’s already very difficult to speak about.
Gary: Because with bullying, we all have strong emotional gut reactions to this stuff. And our mind is going a mile a minute when we listen to the stories and we want to come up with, “Well, you should do this, you should do that. Have you thought of this? Well, that so and so. Why would—?” You know, that’s not helpful. That stuff is not helpful. The thing to do is suspend your own thoughts and your feelings long enough to attend to the person who’s telling you this sordid story. And validate what you’re hearing. The more you validate, the more they’re going to tell you. Then you validate that, and they’ll tell you some more.
Valerie: Is this like active listening?
Gary: It’s very much like active listening.
Valerie: So you’re hanging in there with the person, but you’re really allowing them the floor.
Gary: You’re allowing them the floor and you DO NOT come up with solutions. Solutions are not going to help them at this point in time. It’s so important to just be there for them, and let them know that you’re going to be there. And surprisingly and miraculously enough, they find their own solutions. If you have listened long enough, they’ll come up with their own solutions. And there’s no quick, cheap solution to bullying. So, one of the first things to help them with would be to say, “Yes, I agree with you. Something is wrong here. You’re not the person that you’re starting to feel. I know you differently than the way you’re describing how you’re feeling. So something’s going on that’s creating that.” So establish that much when you listen to them. Then you can start to think about a plan of attack. But get that piece out first. Don’t start trying to find a solution before you even understand what the issue is that you’re sorting out.
Valerie: Right. I think in most business relationships, they would teach us that we must establish rapport with somebody before we can ever think of moving them forward in any way, shape, or form -whether it’s a sale or a solution, or to follow someone’s advice. So maybe expand a little bit. What does creating a safe environment look like? Is there anything with body language that we should be doing?
Gary: Well, it helps to sit down and take a more relaxed position so that you’re not standing in a more dominant position. We often say in my business, when we listen to somebody, we want to be a half step behind them, just a half step behind, so we’re not leading the discussion but they know we’re there in the discussion. So that’s a nice image to hold when you’re listening to somebody. So you don’t lead the discussion but you’re certainly there to carry it, to hold it as they give it to you.
Valerie: Right. And in terms of body language and even in the way your office is set up, first thing that comes to mind, if somebody’s being bullied and they want to talk right now, you might be beside the photocopier and they’ve got to unload. If you’re the trusted friend and listener, would it be wise to say, “You know what – I really want to hear this out. Now’s not a good time. But could we meet at 1:00?” And you have this safe, private environment, the privacy thing…
Gary: That can certainly work. Or you could just suggest they come into your office, and close the door, and just give them some time. That would be a very caring thing to do. And for sure to let them know that you’re not looking at them kind of out of the corner of your eyes and wondering if they’re kind of strange? That is the last thing they need because they’re already doing that to themselves. So, the task of the listener is to somehow validate them and tell them that they’re good people. They’re okay and that they ARE normal, but something abnormal is happening to them.
Valerie: Yes. For anybody that’s listening, it’s so important to remember: most people just want somebody to hear them.
Gary: Most people, that’s exactly what they want; and it helps people feel better and it helps people find their own solutions. We don’t even have to work so hard. We men, particularly, think we have to solve things for people in a hurry when we hear problems. And one of the keys here to remember is that people come up with their own solutions if we can sit back and listen long enough for them to find them. Because after all, a true solution has to come from within the person himself; it can’t come from somebody outside himself.
Valerie: Yes, and it is true, if we feel better, we will probably create the awareness that we could solve our own problems. So if we feel better by being validated and listened to, we might have some hope and creativity; even creating a solution.
Gary: Well, it takes the pressure off so we can think about possibilities. And we can be creative again, we’re moving toward creativity at least. But if we feel all the pressure inside, and we’ve got this tremendous tension, and we’re uptight, we don’t come up with good solutions in those situations. That’s why we need each other.
Valerie: So you’re really saying that in having a trusted friend in which someone can talk to, it’s really looking at “Well, is my perception correct? I’m being bullied, is this correct?” And the trusted friend can say, “You are a good person. It’s the bully that has the problem, not you.”
Gary: Yes, and the perception of yourself as a bad person is not correct. But the perception of being bullied is correct.
Valerie: Yes, thank you.
Gary: That would be the piece that needs to be clarified.
Valerie: Right. Well in our book, Bully Free At Work, it’s interesting – when we first started writing this book, a lot of people said, “What can I say to the bully?” That seems to be our #1 statement, if you can believe that. What can I say to the bully? And I used to think, “Gosh, we’d better figure out what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it.” And in all of my research, and I really stand firmly on this, things such as bully proofing yourself, naming it, having the trusted friend to listen to, you do become more confident with your abilities, your own self awareness, your own self image. And that in fact, anything could be going on around you and if you’re not taking it as personally, that gives you that resilience factor to perhaps even then consider confronting a bully. But I don’t think we would recommend confronting the bully without doing this.
Gary: Oh no, definitely not. There are so many different kinds of bullies. You’ve got to know. Some of them would be amenable to being confronted, and you might do very well. They might back off, because oftentimes when targets will stand up to bullies, the bully will stop and then look for a new target. But some bullies will not. And so you got to weigh this one out very carefully and decide whether it’s a good risk or not to confront, or are you simply opening yourself up for a lot more abuse.
Valerie: Right. You know lastly, Gary, it’s a mystery to me sometimes, there could be a lot of resources for people who are being bullied, and some How To’s, if we get into the How To phase, but yet sometimes people don’t use this information. What is your take on that?
Gary: Well, the nature of the target, of some targets at least, is that they’re most passive, they’re most resistant. They have a very idyllic view of the world and they think that their view of the world is held by other people too, so that other people wouldn’t possibly want to do hurtful things to them, and this simply isn’t true. And the passivity sometimes is so entrenched, even though they understand what they can do, they might read the book, or they might listen to the podcast, they still wouldn’t even act on it. Now this could be due to somebody who has a very passive personality or it could be somebody who’s become somewhat passive because of this whole process. But you have to stay with that, and one of the tasks in treating or helping these people is to help them get into action. The target’s task is to begin to see that they have power and take their power back and own it, and act on it.
Valerie: So for the targets – don’t wait until you feel like doing something. Go with the active discipline. And just know that it is imperative that you do something. In all the studies that we’ve seen, if you don’t do something, it will be done to you.
Gary: Yes, it’s like starting to run the first time, you know, when you start on a workout program. You don’t feel like doing it the first while. And you have to really be intentional about it. For the target, they have to be intentional in getting started too.
Valerie: Are you saying we can lose weight if we do this?
Gary: You can lose weight if you’d be very intentional about it, yeah. And don’t buy chocolate bars.
Valerie: Oh okay. Well, that’s probably a good little added bonus tip for you here! I guess after 25 years you’ve picked up some extra bonus tips for people. But you’ve really framed this well for us Gary, and what I like about your approach is it’s very simple but it works. And there’s so much confusion out there already in the world, and if you’re being bullied and you’re into this crazy-making cycle, what Gary is saying again is Number 1: to name this, and to say, “I am being bullied.” And number 2, is to talk to somebody you trust. And how do you do that? You say, “You know, I wouldn’t mind your opinion on this podcast.” Let them hear this podcast. And for those of you that are taking the measures to be the trusted friend for your friend that is being bullied, bravo to you. You know, we’ve said many times, it takes a village to raise a child; it takes a village to help somebody in need. It takes all of us for each of us to make that difference. So we do need each other. Those of you being bullied, you are not alone. It might not feel natural to reach out, but choose one person. If that doesn’t work out, choose somebody else. But you must talk to somebody. And bottom line, Gary, as you sit here with me today, I feel validated in the work that we’re doing, just the way you’ve created the environment here in our interview. And I could see that you’re a master at this skill. I’m sure it wasn’t natural at the beginning, but this is such a vital component to bringing out the best in people.
Gary: Thanks very much. It’s good to be here.
Valerie: So, thank you for being with us. And for those of you joining us for the very first time, you might not be aware, but we do have our book, Bully Free At Work, and it is an e-book. And what is an e-book? Electronic book. You can go to www.howtohaveabullyfreeworkplace.com and definitely check this out because it’s all about bully proofing yourself and making sure that you take the steps to actually have the resilience. And without the resilience, there’s just simply no hope. So we join with you in the efforts to stopping workplace bullying, not just here in North America, but worldwide. So, thank you for listening to how to listen to someone who’s being bullied and we look forward to hearing your responses. If there’s anything that you ever need, email us at info(at)howtohaveabullyfreeworkplace(dot)com. And know that we’re in your corner. Bye for now.