Which World Do You Live In?

Angry hissing catThe biggest mistake civilized people make when dealing with bullies or controllers is to assume they inhabit the same reality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many of us live in a reality in which we want personal power and in which we respect the personal power of others. We believe in an egalitarian sharing of power, collaboration and win-win outcomes. Perhaps we even work toward a common goal!  This interaction allows growth and honesty and could be called Enlightened.

Once in a while, we run across someone who thinks we are attacking them when we try to negotiate a win-win agreement. Since attacking anyone is the farthest thing from a civilized person’s mind, most days, we assume the other person simply didn’t understand us.

So, we try to explain ourselves, but the explanation doesn’t somehow create clarity with this sort of person.  It causes friction.  Beware when efforts to create understanding blow up in your face.  This is the sign that you are interacting with someone from a different reality!

It may be that we find ourselves interacting with someone who is insulting or angry or critical, if they see us perform well, receive kudos or affection. We think perhaps they feel overshadowed and that if we extend good will toward them, they would know not to respond to us that way.  When the strange negative responses continue, we might think that if they understood how they come across, certainly they would stop it. So, we nicely confront them.

Bad idea. We get our head taken off and handed to us in an angry tirade. Wait a minute! That wasn’t supposed to happen!

The key to understanding the behavior of a bully is to realize that he or she lives in an entirely different reality with a different set of rules. Kathryn Brohl refers to this as “Neighbors living worlds apart,” in Social Service Workplace Bullying (Lyceum Books, Chicago, 2013). The bully’s reality has no room for collaboration. There is no shared power. There is only power over. All the games are zero sum. If you win, the bully loses, so you are not allowed to win.  The bully doesn’t win so much as overpower.

Once you see that this separate reality exists, a bully’s behavior is very easy to predict. In fact, bullies are tiresomely predictable and unoriginal.  My grandfather used to say that if you want to catch trout, you have to be able to think like a trout.  In the same way, if you want to deal successfully with a bully, you need to be able to think like a bully.

The bully is actually quite hostile – even though we use euphemisms like “controlling person” or “manipulator.” Power over behavior is hostile. I win. You lose. I can insult or disrespect you and hurt you. If you complain, that shows you can’t take it. You are too sensitive. Sensitivity is weakness.

This mentality is so prevalent on sitcoms, in schools, locker rooms and conference rooms that we hardly even notice it. We may wonder why we feel so tattered and torn after interactions with others.  What we thought were conversations were confrontations.

Once you understand the bully’s orientation, you won’t lose one minute of sleeping worrying about the way you might have said things. You’ll respond with something more intelligent. Perhaps you will break up with that person, join another church or hang around the coffee machine with different people. If your boss is the bully, you’ll be careful to be deferential and not shine too brightly – all while you look for a new job… I hope.     

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