When I was a child, we attended church with a very unhappy woman. My mother is a very nice person and made every effort to be kind to this woman, who we'll call Valerie. One Sunday, just before the opening hymn, my mother picked up the hymn book and offered half to Valerie, so they could sing together.
"I don't need it," Valerie snapped, "I have all the hymns memorized."
"Wow!" my mother replied, "That's really impressive!"
"Well, I had to do it. Every time we sing, I always get the heavy side of the hymnbook."
Thinking about what the chorister and congregation would have to go through to ensure that Valerie always ended up with the heavy side of the hymn book is laughable, but she absolutely, positively believed it. The chorister was a bully who purposely picked on Valerie by ensuring she would end up with the heavy side of the hymnbook.
Valerie isn't the only person who believe she's being picked on or bullied, when in reality, the "perpetrator" had no intention of hurting her feelings or even has any idea that she has done so. Sometimes, the person knows feeling have been hurt, but never intended any harm.
Gabrielle S. Adams, an assistant professor at the London Business School and a visiting fellow at Harvard University, studies workplace conflicts, and especially how empathy can play a role in conflict resolution. They New York Times writes,
In recent studies, Professor Adams found that misunderstandings often exist between the victims of harm and the people who committed the harm. In many cases, the transgressors did not intend a negative effect, whereas the victims tended to think that the damage was intentional. In addition, transgressors frequently felt guilty and wanted to be forgiven much more than their victims realized.
Normally, when we think about bullying situations, our goal is to convince the bully to understand the feelings of the victim, so that they don't re-offend, but Professor Adams' research flips that on its head.
A lot of the people we identify as bullies want to be forgiven and didn't mean to offend in the first place. Often, they don't even know they offended someone in the first place. She conducted a study in which participants had to choose between two tasks--an interesting one and a boring one. The first person picked, which means the second generally had to do the boring task.
Those with the boring tasks resented the other participants, even though those people meant no harm. Professor Adams found that when the first people learned the other people were angry about being assigned the tedious task, they felt guilty. They certainly didn't mean any harm.
She asked the "victims" to empathize with the "transgressors" and ponder why they made their choice. The victims were better able to understand what really happened.
If Valerie, the hymn book lady, had ever stopped to think, "Why did the chorister pick this hymn?" she might have come to the conclusion that it went along with the topic for the day, or that it was sheer coincidence, or even that she didn't always get the heavy side of the hymn book.
When you're looking at conflict resolution within the workplace, keep the role of empathy in mind for both "victim" and "perpetrator."
I frequently receive emails from people who have "mean" bosses, but when I explain what the boss was probably thinking, the person is better able to understand the situation and act to fix the situation.
As Professor Adams points out, we often think about bullying, but don't identify ourselves as bullies. Someone has to be doing it--and it may be you, and yet you don't even know about it.
If you feel bullied, take the time to think about why the bully did what they did and if there is another viewpoint to the situation. What would you do if you were the other person? Why? If you're the person doing the conflict resolution, use empathy to help both parties understand where the other person is coming from.