Why Assertiveness Does Not Work with Bullies

babsYeah, really! I know what you’re thinking. Assertiveness is the gold standard for communicating with difficult people in difficult situations, right?

Wrong. Verbal assertiveness is a great communication skill, but without the personal power to back it up, it can simply be a red flag to a bully.

Let me explain. We communicate on more than one level. We are most consciously aware of the verbal level of communication; the words we say. Less consciously, we respond to another person’s state of mind, communicated by their posture, facial expression, body language, brainwaves, and electromagnetic field (yep.)

Guess which one has the least impact. Communications experts estimate that verbal messages account for only 7% of communications. I’m not sure how they came up with this measure. Judging by certain people in my family, I would say 7% is quite generous. So, 93% of what you communicate is stuff you are not really consciously aware of, like your posture, body language and that telltale facial tic.

So, you approach someone who has bullied you, and say some beautifully assertive thing about how you felt when that person yelled at you in a meeting, but you are feeling nervous about this assertion and half expect Mr. Bully to yell at you again. You fail to impress this person who wants nothing more than to have power over you.

Mr. Bully will unconsciously assess all your unconsciously projected messages and see that you don’t feel powerful. Mr. Bully is a predator, so he’s only impressed by those who project a powerful state. Furthermore, you just criticized Mr. Bully’s behavior, however nicely, and Mr. Bully doesn’t like criticism.

A normally empathic person would probably not yell at you in the first place, but your assertiveness would be effective in dealing with conflict with this person as he wants to collaborate and not to overpower you. Mr. Bully’s yelling is not a conflict, however, it’s a power play. Assertion to him is a challenge.

Animal wranglers are taught to never act like prey around a predator. Targets of bullies can learn a similar message: Act powerful around a bully. If you learn a mindset of personal power, and that power shows in your posture and expression, Mr. Bully is likely to unconsciously assess you as being powerful. You may not look like a good target and he may not get around to yelling at you.

If Mr. Bully is your boss, you should not verbally address his behavior at all, as he sees this as breaking rank. No, this is neither fair nor right, but realistically, if you have to be around a bully, learning a powerful state of being will serve you better than assertiveness.

You can learn a state of power by recalling the feelings of power and confidence and practicing them until you can recall them at will. And, if Will is power hungry, you’ll find it well worth the practice.

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