Put up your hand if you’ve bullied someone. Chances are nearly everyone’s hand just went up – maybe tentatively – but let’s be honest we are all guilty of bullying someone at some time in our life.
My first recollection of “bullying” someone was when I was 7 years old.
My dad was a priest and this girl (I’ll call her Chrissie) and I used to go to the same school and to the same church. We regularly caught the bus to and from school together (this was the 70s and seven year old children regularly caught buses to and from school without a supervising adult). We were sort of friends. But the main reason that I wanted to hang around Chrissie was because I really liked her mum. Chrissie’s mum was kind, generous and funny and I desperately wanted to spend time with her.
That’s because my mum wasn’t so great. She took the advice about having a Bex and lie down very seriously. My mum suffered from chronic depression and for her own reasons she didn’t manage it very well. She regularly mixed a lot of alcohol with sedatives that she “borrowed” from her nursing home patients and would be unconscious for hours at a time.
So I was always in search of good mum figures and Chrissie’s mum was my favourite. Chrissie’s mum was very good to me and I used to try and spend a lot of time with Chrissie as a result. The problem was that I didn’t think that Chrissie valued her mum enough. I thought that Chrissie was rude to her mum; that she didn’t treat her very well. And that upset me a lot.
So much so that one day I must have been very upset by her behaviour and decided that Chrissie should be taught a lesson. So on a typical school day I decided to hide Chrissie’s school shoes whilst we were having our sports lesson. This action had the desired effect – Chrissie couldn’t find her school shoes anywhere. She was desperately looking for them everywhere and, as expected she ended up in tears. There – that will learn her!! In my mind my behaviour was absolutely justified. I wanted Chrissie to be upset; I wanted her to know what it is was like to feel bad, for things to go wrong. I wanted her to feel what I was feeling most of the time.
Well, I got in trouble and my favourite teacher told me off. I spent a couple of lunchtimes sitting by myself “thinking about how mean I had been”. I felt bad, mainly because I got told off. I was usually a goodie-two-shoes. I didn’t like being singled out as the bad person. But secretly I still thought my behaviour was justified. I could live with it. It was worth it.
I am now an adult and I don’t go about hiding shoes from people any more. I am a lot more self aware and I don’t actively seek out opportunities to upset people. But I still occasionally have hurtful thoughts. I can still think that’s someone got their comeuppance – that karma had done her thing. I am not proud of those thoughts – but I am human and I am not always fair and reasonable. That is particularly so when I am tired, stressed and self absorbed. When I’m not my best self I am more likely to privately (and sometimes publicly) celebrate payback and Schadenfreude and I can easily justify my thinking and joke with friends about it because I know that we all do it. It is something we have in common.
In my work as a mediator I regularly see people act in a way that they know is wrong or inappropriate but which they easily justify because they feel they have been wronged at some stage or in some way. It can take quite a long time for them to recognise that continuing to act in a vengeful manner or to continuously have negative thoughts about another person is just compounding the problems in their relationship. They do not want to be the one that is responsible for the continuing conflict. They didn’t start it and so it is not their fault.
However conflict only exists if we choose to participate in it. We choose how we respond to a situation. If a very young child hits out in frustration, we don’t automatically hit the child back or seek some sort of revenge. But if an adult verbally hits out in frustration, we sometimes decide that some form of similar response is appropriate. How is that we can recognise that a child is frustrated, tired and emotional but we don’t give adults the same courtesy?
As adults in the workplace, probably because we are far more stressed and have significantly more responsibilities than we did as children, we are much more likely to interpret someone else’s behaviour as a personal attack on us; we are far more paranoid and self absorbed. We get stuck in our world of one where the focus is on “me”. If someone doesn’t acknowledge us as we walk in the door we can quickly decide that this person doesn’t like us or that we have done something to up set them; or if one of our “enemies” is talking to the manager in a whisper we usually assume that they are talking about us, that they are plotting our downfall.
We look for signs that feed our self doubts. We rarely ask what’s going on. We just jump in, sum up the situation in the negative and muse on these thoughts for hours on end. It impacts on our productivity and it has the potential to destroy our working relationships.
What we know though is that people don’t act out or seek to hurt another person without reason. So there is a lot of behaviour that we misinterpret and then there are times when people do act out; do behave badly. And that’s when we need to be curious and find out what is going on.
For example, if an adult feels vulnerable or frightened that their job is at risk due to a change in their work environment due to restructure, loss of funding or technological change; or because they believe that the boss is constantly criticising their work or the new person is favoured by management; chances are they are going to behave in a manner that reflects that. A scared person might withdraw, or act up, insult people, go slow… there are so many ways they may behave in response to their heightened emotional state. It doesn’t mean that behaviour is okay (depending on how far they go), but it is providing a lot of information that there is a significant problem and that they need help, support, reassurance and a greater level of understanding.
It doesn’t help improve the situation or change the behaviour of the scared person to be critical of them, to punish them. This only proves the point that their employment is at risk, that they are not valued. Chances are that being critical of a scared, vulnerable person at this point will probably escalate issues quickly.
This is not to say that we have to like everyone or that with a bit of understanding that we can get on with everyone we work with. There will always be people who hold beliefs that we vehemently disagree with; or who we think should take greater responsibility for their negative or destructive behaviours. There are also going to be people outside of our personal world whose behaviour we really struggle with and will criticise. For example we may be very critical of some high profile people, such as politicians or people in the media etc whose actions and comments impact directly on us or our community at large. We may have some understanding and/or sympathy as to why they act or behave the way they do; but we don’t have to agree with it or condone it.
But there are many people in our lives that we deal with daily, often at work, that we really struggle with. It’s easy for us to right them off as “dickheads” or “losers”. We don’t like their behaviour or their beliefs and if we have to have direct dealings with them, we can unnecessarily be looking for a fight.
Yet if we have to work with them, then we need to find ways to make that work.
And, in particular, if someone’s behaviour suddenly changes, if they are demonstrating that they are feeling attacked or vulnerable – stop and listen to them. Check in with them. Don’t assume that they are a “bad” person. Find out what is triggering this behaviour. And remember that no-one is going to be honest and tell you what is going on unless they feel safe. They need to know that any discussions will be, at least at the beginning, confidential and respectful. We’ve all seen those emotionally charged dog videos on social media where angry, terrified and emotionally scarred dogs can turn their aggressive behaviour around over time with lots of care and attention.
I accept that it wasn’t ok for me to hide Chrissie’s shoes when I was seven years old and that my teacher had to set boundaries around my behaviour. But I also wish that my teacher had checked in on me and made sure that I was OK. I desperately needed extra care and understanding from the adults in my life at that time.