How to Deal With an Adult Bully

Bullies aren’t just found on the elementary school playground. They exist in adulthood too. From the aggressive coworker at the office to the pushy mom running your kid’s afterschool activity, these combative types can be lurking just about anywhere. Adults are more likely to use verbal bullying, as opposed to the physical stuff that’s seen more often in schoolchildren. But that doesn’t make it any less hurtful or frustrating. You can try to ignore them—and that may be effective in the short-term—but there are also more productive ways to address the issue head-on.

1. Understand what the bully is trying to do

Try not to take anything the bully says personally. Whatever he or she is doing is an attempt to gain power and assert him or herself above others, regardless of whomever stands in the way. In this case, it happens to be you. Realize that this person was likely a bully as a child or bullied as a kid and he or she is just repeating a behavior from the past. It probably has very little to do with you.

2. Don’t let the bully see you upset

Part of what fuels this person is knowing that he or she is having an effect on others. If you never let him or her see you frustrated or upset, then you can work towards neutralizing his or her actions. Bullying in the workplace can make for an unproductive, hostile environment. You especially don’t want to let your boss see you flustered or to catch wind of potential problems going on. If the bully is your boss, then try your absolute best to remain professional at all times.

3. Try to be as nice as possible

Although you may want to lash out or seek revenge on someone who’s making your life difficult, those efforts can often backfire and just make you look bad. Instead of fighting fire with fire, be as kind as possible to the harasser in an attempt to dissuade negativity. The idea here is for the bully to stop seeing you as some sort of threat and to see you as an ally instead. If this approach doesn’t work after many repeated attempts however, you should abandon it and try to ignore the bully for the time being.

4. Consider being more emphatic

If your attempts to be nice to the bully haven’t worked, try a different approach and change your attitude slightly. Rather than letting the bully have his or her say all the time, assert your own opinion and don’t back down. Be sure not to come across as aggressive though, as that will likely instigate the aggressor. Simply make eye contact, state your case and then have all the proper information and support to back up your statements. If there isn’t an opportunity to defend yourself in a professional setting and it’s more of an informal relationship, then calmly ask the person why he or she is treating you in this way. You might catch the bully off-guard and embarrass him or her into stopping the behavior. Or you might get an honest reaction from the bully and learn what’s going on in his or her life that’s causing the attitude. Either way, you will likely initiate a change.

5. Find a true ally

If you know that others have been targeted by the aggressive person, try to have some casual conversations with those people to brainstorm how you might deflect the bully’s future attacks. You can confide in one another but avoid secretly ganging up on the bully and spreading any negative energy.

6. Document the instances of bullying

If it comes down to it and you need to take legal action, you must have solid proof of what’s been going on. Save any harassing emails or written evidence of what this person has been doing to intimidate you. Read up on the local law and company regulations so you know if the bully is in violation of particular rules and be prepared to report his or her behavior to the authorities when the time comes.

7. Talk to a professional

You may not realize what a profound effect a bully has had on you until you talk to a mental health professional. If you find yourself frequently thinking or worrying about that person outside of the office or school (or wherever you encounter him or her), it’s probably a good idea to enlist a therapist. You may be holding in a lot of tension and talking about it with a third party can help you feel better and work towards a solution.

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