We all have to work with difficult people. That's a fact of life -- and work. And one person's difficult person isn't necessarily another's. You might experience Analytical Amy as challenging to work with because she slows every single process down in order to make sure every detail is correct, but your boss is eternally grateful for her laser focus and problem spotting.
Or you might bristle when partnering with Driven Dave, who is so committed to fast action that his work is peppered with mistakes, but your sales manager loves how quickly Dave gets new customers on board. Chances are, you have colleagues whose pace, approach and style makes your job easier -- and others whose way of working makes you cringe.
But no matter what anyone's particular working style preferences are, nobody likes working with a bully. People who yell, interrupt, explode, or otherwise overstep their boundaries in hostile ways aren't just bad for your mood and morale -- they're bad for your mind.
Bullying behavior causes strong negative emotions, which, according to research from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany, cause massive stress in the brain. When our brains are stressed, we made poor decisions, including reacting immediately rather than responding thoughtfully. This can make a bad situation worse, by responding with anger (which escalates the problem) or deference (which gives the bully tacit permission to continue).
A bully doesn't have to threaten you for you to feel threatened. A bully doesn't have to mock you personally for it to feel personal. A bully doesn't have to violate HR policies for you to feel violated. So how you can respond to someone who regularly ignores your needs in pursuit of his own? Calmly, cleanly and consistently.
Here are seven approaches to try:
- Use the broken record technique. Try repeatedly saying "You're interrupting me...You're interrupting me... You're interrupting me" until you break the flow of his tirade.
- Notice and name what she is doing using morally neutral language. "You have been speaking for five minutes" is less accusatory and judgmental than "You haven't shut up once in five minutes" or "You're not letting me talk!"
- Try "fogging" to buy some time and distance. "You might be right" or "You've given me something to think about" or "I hadn't considered that" are all probably true, but don't make him right or make you wrong.
- Express the impact she is having on you. Say, "You're raising your voice, and that makes me feel unsafe/uncomfortable/angry. What was your intention?"
- Make a direct request. "Stop interrupting me."
- Separate the tone from the content. Get curious to see if there's any merit in the content that you can address positively, like, "I agree with several of your points, and I'd like to tell you what really resonates with me. In order for me to do that, I need to be able to speak uninterrupted. Would you be willing to do that?"
- Go get some advice. Check in with someone who doesn't experience this person the same way you do. This shouldn't become a gripe session, but a conversation where you can learn some new approaches and strategies you may not have considered.
As actor and activist Michael J. Fox remarked, "One's dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered." When dealing with a bully, you don't want to lose the battle -- or your dignity.