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What Is A Bully?

(….or how a commonly used word is often not explored to clarify what is meant when someone uses it- and how that lack of clarity can lead to powerlessness.)

Before the recent General Election in the UK there was a spate of reports in the British press suggesting that ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a ‘bully’. In the London Evening Standard there were a few reports, one of them being from Joe Murphy, Political Editor who spoke to two ‘former insiders’ who worked at No.10, Downing Street.

Something that is often unclear is what it is that defines someone as ‘a bully’.
As a mediator, working to support people who are in dispute or experiencing a relationship breakdown with someone, I often hear people label those they are experiencing a difficulty with, using terms suggesting they are ‘a bully’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘arrogant’ etc. but rarely do people actually describe in any real detail the behaviours that lead them to describe the person this way.

This is often based on an assumption that we all know what ‘a bully’ is and what constitutes ‘bullying behaviour’.

As a mediator and as a conflict coach I would ask people for more information about this so that they can reflect on ways in which they might be able to respond more constructively and self-supportingly to those behaviours in the future. So for example I may ask:

‘What is it that X does that leads you to call him/her a bully?’

Example answer: ‘They intimidate me…’

What do they do that leads you to say that?

Example answer: ‘They shout at me when things don’t go right’

‘What sort of thing do they shout?’

Example answer, this time taken from the above article in the London Evening Standard: ‘Blame is a constant feature. “Why didn’t this happen? Why didn’t that happen?” Or it could be a tirade with the same questions asked more aggressively in the form of, “Why the f***?”

So my next question might be: ‘When you say blame is a constant feature, who is it who is being blamed when he shouts “Why didn’t this happen?”.’ …and so the exploration of their experience would continue.

Often the sense that someone else is ‘a bully’ leads to the person who experiences them as such to withdraw from looking at their own responses and so they render themselves powerless – often expecting the other person to change rather than consider more self-supporting ways of responding to the other’s behaviour.

It will not be the case that the person considered a bully is thought of as one by everyone they meet, even if they behave similarly with them. What matters is why the person who sees them as such is so powerfully affected by their behaviour, and how they can be supported in finding ways of responding that work better for them.

Unfortunately, for some observers, to consider such an approach is to suggest that the ‘problem’ is the ‘fault’ of the ‘victim’ and so this form of exploration ‘should not be pursued’. When this happens, exploration of the situation stagnates.

When someone can accept that they are having difficulty responding to the behaviour of someone they have thought of as a bully, without thinking this means they have done something ‘wrong’, for which they should be ‘blamed’, they are able to step back from their painful experience and sense of powerlessness and start to experience their capacity to create more effective ways of responding.

Another of the ‘insiders’ gave this perspective on the ex-Prime Minister:

There’s one really good thing about the man, which is that you are allowed to shout back without it being held against you. But shouting does not happen every day. It’s not like he wanders around seething all day. As for bullying, that’s utter bollocks. Can he have a violent temper? Yes, he can. Can he also be very kind? Yes. The idea that we were waiting for him to explode is nonsense.

There was not a blame culture. If you were in the room when something went wrong, he would shout but I never heard him say, “it’s all your fault”. It always ended up with him blaming himself.

It is notable, as in this quote, that the perspective that someone is a bully will not always be shared. While we can always acknowledge and accept that one person feels intimidated by the actions and behaviour of another, the power to respond to this differently always exists within the person feeling this way. When we focus more on the ‘bully’ and expect them to change and we ‘protect’ the ‘victim’, the result can be a reinforcement of the sense of powerlessness and passivity that is a feature of those who experience bullying.

And so, what is a Bully? Ultimately it is a concept, an idea that renders us powerless, that blinds us to our own capacity to find more effective, self-supporting ways of responding to behaviours in others that we find frightening, intimidating, scary, threatening etc. If, instead of simply labelling someone whose behaviour we find challenging as ‘a bully’, we think about what the person is doing that affects us, consider why it affects us in that way, acknowledge that it may not affect all people in that way, we can look at what we could do differently to look after ourselves when it happens.

If necessary we can look at how we respond directly to that person when it happens, in ways that support us but which also do not try to diminish them.

As a simple example we can ask someone not to shout when speaking to us about a problem. They may not do as we ask- but we have established our right and capacity to ask and taken that first step of action rather than remain passive. We can make our own choice about whether we wish to continue to engage with the person if they don’t stop shouting.

Some may argue that ‘you can’t do that with your boss!’. I would want to stop and reflect on that belief for a while. There will be some readers for whom that is an unquestionable truth – if not with their boss then another ‘bully’. There will be others who reject that notion out of hand.

The difference is simply a matter of what we believe, of what we understand a bully to be and whether we feel able to create a way of responding to their behaviour that works for us.

If we don’t believe it is possible we are likely to place ourselves in the position of powerlessness and continually have a sense of being a victim. If we believe it is possible to review our present response and remain open to creating different ones that may be more self-supporting and effective, then we immediately see we can escape the shackles that our label ‘bully’ creates for us.


Alan Sharland

I came into mediation in 1994 from being a Mathematics teacher in a Secondary School in Camden, London. There was often violence in the area in which I taught and pupils that I taught were involved in violence, either as victims or perpetrators. It led me to attend a course… MORE >

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