Last week, three women from different organizations described the same kind of confusing, uncomfortable situation to me. I suspect this kind of problem comes up pretty frequently, and not just for women — but that it can feel so embarrassing that many people hide it and stress over it privately. If you’re facing something comparable, I hope the explanations and techniques here will help you, too.
All three women who confided in me work hard, try their best, and are attuned to and generous about supporting others. Nonetheless, they were taken aback by the sniping, hypercritical, or sardonic behavior of certain male colleagues. Think: sarcasm, mean jokes, a kind of “polite” version of bullying. All three women initially assumed that they must have done something wrong, and therefore felt upset, guilty, or wounded. But when they realized that the sniping behavior was part of a pattern, not a one-time occurrence, they became resentful and angry.
None of them had enough positional power to force their male colleagues to cease and desist, and each of them understood that their colleagues employed this bad behavior as a way to protect themselves, deflect blame, or stay in a one-up position. The women’s requests to me had two goals: to minimize their negative self-talk and distress and, simultaneously, to behave well toward their colleagues.
Create Your Own Sense of Safety
Specifically, they wanted to know how to strengthen themselves so they wouldn’t feel so hurt and upset over what they believed were not direct personal attacks meant to cause damage. Second, they hoped to find ways to deal with the nettlesome men, because if the men were behaving badly with them, they were probably behaving badly with other people, too — which is not good for relationships or for work groups.
So we started not with conversational gambits or direct confrontations, but with self-strengthening exercises. I advised that whenever their colleagues made a cutting or unpleasant comment, they should not worry about him in the moment — he wasn’t really looking for a response. Instead, as soon as they remembered to do it, they should ask themselves — aloud, if possible, but silently, if necessary — “Right this moment, am I actually safe?” Even better, they could address themselves by name, as in: “Jane, right this moment, are you safe?”
They each agreed to try this practice and noted that they already knew they would be able to answer in the affirmative. If they could make this self-check a habit, over time, I suggested, they would change their brain patterns and convince themselves. They would actually feel safer, either as an underlying condition or automatically in response to their own question. Just by feeling safer themselves, they would weaken the sting of the men’s annoying comments, which in turn would lead to it being less satisfying for their colleagues to make such remarks.
See the Vulnerability in Your Colleague’s Bad Behavior
Remarkably, the women all maintained some faith in or fondness for their slightly bullying colleagues, and still saw them as essentially decent human beings. Realizing that the impetus for the mean-spirited remarks came from weakness, not strength, the women wished there was some way their colleagues could learn to be more comfortable in themselves with whatever was happening and stop needing to make these kinds of remarks.
So I suggested another mental exercise: I asked each of the women to hold a hand out, palm up, and to picture the bully as being no more than one inch tall, standing on her palm, feeling small and vulnerable and trying to protect himself by using snide, critical words. I encouraged the women to wonder what would help this little bully feel better and do better — without taking it as their responsibility to take care of, instruct, or change him. Instead, I proposed that they only try to understand him better because, sometimes, the understanding itself can shift the way you interact.
Personal Strength Supports Better Relationships
I emphasized that it wasn’t the women’s job to make their colleagues stronger, healthier people, but that there was real utility for their organizations and themselves if their colleagues could give up their bad communication and relationship habits. All three women committed to using the exercises, could see why they would be effective, and clearly felt comforted that there was something they could do without going on the defensive or counterattacking. They had enough confidence to see that if they felt stronger themselves, the barbs and prods might stop on their own — or they might find ways to speak up, kindly and perhaps with humor, to help their male colleagues shift.
These kinds of exercises are much less likely to be effective if you’re facing a structural imbalance of power, so don’t expect your boss to stop picking on you just because you’ve learned to help yourself feel safer. Getting a determined or intentional bully to change their behavior requires a more assertive form of confrontation or the threat of formal discipline. But among “friends,” the stronger you are, the less likely a potential bully is to bother you, or even to want to try.
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