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One of the particularly interesting things about the recent testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee had nothing to do with lies, leaks, or Russia.

What struck me was his story — how when the person in authority said something outrageous, even a tall white man in a position of power could feel so disconcerted that he couldn’t find the appropriate response.

One focus of the media coverage and conversation after Comey’s testimony was that this kind of scenario happens frequently in both workplace and social settings to women and girls. But it also occurs in other contexts any time a person of greater rank or power inveigles or suckers a person of lower rank or power into an inappropriate situation that they cannot control.

Here’s the set-up: A manipulator, predator, or bully takes advantage of the person in the weaker position. Their communication, whether belligerently explicit or persuasively nuanced, is so shockingly awkward that the person with less power is literally at a loss for words and doesn’t know how to respond.

You Can Protect Yourself

Whether the situation involves ethical misconduct, sexual innuendo, or a corporate power play, the person in the weaker position still has a couple of tools that can help them in the moment — even when they’re nonplussed and distressed.

  1. Use your discomfort. Usually, it’s our discomfort that silences us when a manipulator creates a tacit relationship or agreement that surrounds us in confusion, obligation, or guilt. Good people can slip into a kind of fearful brain fog while trying to figure out how they caused this bad thing to happen, or how they can escape, or how they can protect themselves.

    But you can make your fear work for you, if you listen to your body: Is your chest tight? Are you having trouble drawing breath? Are your face and neck so hot that you’re probably the color of a ripe tomato? Is your stomach doing flip-flops? The simplest thing to say when your body tells you that something wrong is happening is, “I’m feeling very uncomfortable right now.” Or: “Your last comment was quite disturbing to me.”

    Perhaps the most important thing is not to be silent. Silence condones — and in effect, makes you a part of something against your control. Don’t worry that admitting your discomfort gives manipulators more power. It’s actually the not-naming that gives them power. Once you’ve spoken, and are breathing again, there is the possibility to say more.

    1. Ask for clarification and confirmation. Surprisingly, one of best deterrents in this kind of situation is to declare that you’re listening very thoughtfully and understanding exactly what the manipulator is doing. If you confirm and clarify, then you give them the chance to back away from their inappropriate statement. Here are some examples of responses you could use:
      • “Are you actually asking me to do X?” Or: “Do you mean you want me to do X?”
      • “I’ll be happy to work your request out with So-and-So, and I’ll explain to her that you’ve asked me to do it.”
      • “I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure what you want from me. I can tell you want something but I don’t know exactly what. Could you explain, please?”

In other words, don’t interpret for the bully, even if you have to play a little dumb. If you’d like to show a little more edge, you can respond even more directly:

    • “Did you just say X?”
    • “Would you repeat that, please? I want to be sure I understand exactly what you’re saying.”
    • “Excuse me, did you just refer to me as…”

Just Stick to the Facts

If you speak up, most garden-variety manipulators will retract, at least a little bit: “No, that’s not what I meant,” or “No, you don’t need to do that.” Or else they may claim that you misunderstood them, and then backpedal to something more innocuous.

Once you’ve escaped the painful circumstance, take one leaf out of Director Comey’s book, and immediately make notes about the encounter: what the manipulator said and did, what you said and did, and what you believed the intent was.

It can also be useful to pay a visit to your human resources business partner or talk with a trusted senior executive, and share your experience:

He said thus-and-so. When I asked him if he was telling me to do thus-and-so, he said no, he didn’t mean that, but the whole situation seemed strange to me, so I thought I should mention it.

Then you can decide if you want to let that HR partner or senior executive talk you out of your concern or not.