‘Quiet’ makes noise in psychology circles

by M.C. Parker

Our culture made a virtue living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.

– Anaïs Nin
(epigraph from the concluding chapter of

Quiet book cover

Growing up, were you ever told you were “too sensitive” or “too quiet”? Do you enjoy solitude, prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities, and would rather have an in-depth conversation than make small talk? If you answered yes to these questions, chances are you’re most likely an introvert, according to the introduction of New York Times bestseller Quiet by Susan Cain.

Subtitled The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Cain’s book seeks to redress the power imbalance between introverts and extroverts, and is a thoughtful treatise on the respect deserved of the quiet, introverted souls who make up as much as half the population.

Perhaps you had extroverted parents who tried to get you to “socialize” more, or the other way around: told to be “seen and not heard.” Either way, respecting the differences between introverts and extroverts instead of trying to make one more like the other, is the only logical way to proceed, notes Cain. In her quiet, methodical way, through diligent research of voluminous studies, she documents the characteristics and contributions of introverts in society.

Defined as a ‘person of contemplation,’ introverts are described as sensitive, reflective, serious, and shy. An extrovert, on the other hand, is defined as a ‘person of action’ and can be described as sociable, active, and dominant. Most of us fall on a continuum somewhere between the two extremes, and Cain makes the sensible argument that the two types complement each other.

The problem is that the extrovert personality has been labeled as the “cultural ideal” in North American society, particularly due to the heavyweight influence of the world of business, where assertiveness, sociability and outgoingness are seen as the norm, and the value of the reflective introvert largely ignored or discounted. Self-help gurus like Dale Carnegie and Tony Robbins and institutions like Harvard School of Business have all helped to promote this ideal. Cain counterbalances with many anecdotes, studies and examples that show introverts are just as good, if not better, at sales, leadership, and collaboration.

Exploring the science behind temperament, introverted children are found to be highly sensitive and reactive to their environment – experiencing sensory overload – hence the need for quiet and solitude. However, the extrovert is actually under-stimulated, hence the need for action, activity and excitement. There are also interesting cultural differences with the more introverted “soft power” personality favored in Asian culture.

Not to be confused with meekness, introverts can step into the spotlight when the cause is right, and examples are given of Rosa Parks, as well as artists, musicians, educators, etc. Working and living happily as an introvert in today’s society means understanding specific needs for downtime while respecting loved ones’ need to socialize and interact; Cain provides good advice for introverts on how to best function at work and at home.

Parents should note that introverts respond better to a gentle, soothing manner (“Very nice, keep up the good work”), while extroverts prefer assertive language (“You can do better!”). Teachers need to respect introverted children and not try to “cure” them of shyness; and praise their intense interests and passions as “they are the artists, engineers and thinkers of tomorrow,” says Cain. Some final words of advice: “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.”

© M.C. Parker, 2013. Former member, Professional Writers Association of Canada. For more information about this writer, please visit www.parker-press.com.

Names CAN hurt – the art of verbal self-defense

by M.C. Parker

Chronic mistreatment the hallmark of verbal, emotional and psychological abuse

Teen girls gossiping ID-100103331

“Ha-ha!” Nelson gleefully taunts on favorite animated TV show The Simpsons. Remember those classic schoolyard chants like “Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah – Mary is a four-eyes,” or “Jimmy is a fatso”? When classmates call each other names, as all children are wont to do at one time or another, the “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” chant was a typical response – as though a protective force field that could break the evil name-calling spell.

But what happens when that torment happens repeatedly both on and off the playground, at school, home or work? The childhood rhyme doesn’t work when a loved one such as a parent or older sibling, or someone in a position of authority, such as a teacher or boss, is regularly putting you down and calling you names. It may not even be overt name-calling; it can be a general undermining of confidence. Since children have no frame of reference, they immediately accept the blame and internalize all criticism.

You can still come across the grown-up version of abusive behavior, from outright obscenities yelled out a car window as someone cuts you off, to the window-dressed, sophisticated language and labeling of the corporate work world, but it can be just as damaging. Schoolyard bullies can grow up to become workplace bullies. So how do you deal with verbal, emotional and psychological abuse in a productive, healthy manner?

How to identify “the systematic diminishment of another”

Psychological abuse includes acts such as belittling, denigrating, terrorizing, exploiting, emotional unresponsiveness, or corrupting a person’s to the point their well-being is at risk, according to Dr. Harriet MacMillan, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences and pediatrics at McMaster University.

“We are talking about extremes and the likelihood of harm, or risk of harm, resulting from the kinds of behavior that make a child feel worthless, unloved or unwanted,” she said, giving the example of a mother leaving her infant alone in a crib all day or a father involving his teenager in his drug habit.

Harmful forms of interaction

A parent raising their voice to a strident pitch after asking a child for the eighth time to put on their running shoes is not psychological abuse, says MacMillan. “But, yelling at a child every day and giving the message that the child is a terrible person, and that the parent regrets bringing the child into this world, is an example of a potentially very harmful form of interaction.”

Emotionally abusive traits have been defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as causing fear by intimidation, threatening any kind of physical harm, destruction of pets and property, and forcing isolation from family, friends, school or work, notes Wikipedia. You can also refer to an earlier article that helpfully lists basic human rights.

Social scientists believe it is a pervasive pattern of behavior. Andrew Vachss, author, attorney and former sex crimes investigator, defines emotional abuse as “the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event.”

Subtler emotionally abusive tactics include insults, put-downs, arbitrary and unpredictable inconsistency, and gaslighting (denial that previous abusive incidents occurred), notes Wikipedia. Of course, modern technology has led to new forms of abuse, by text messaging and online cyber-bullying.

Effects of emotional abuse

“The effects of psychological maltreatment during the first three years of life can be particularly profound,” says MacMillan. This form of mistreatment is more common in homes with multiple stresses, including family conflict, mental health issues, physical violence, depression or substance abuse.

Children whose families are characterized by interpersonal violence, including psychological aggression and verbal aggression, may exhibit a range of serious disorders, including chronic depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation and anger, according to one study. Another study reported that victims exhibit high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction and alcoholism.

How to circumvent verbal abuse

“Hostile language — often called verbal abuse — is one of the worst problems people face today,” according to Suzette Haden Elgin, an expert in applied psycholinguistics. “Hostile language is as dangerous to health and well-being as toxic waste, not only because of its own destructive nature but because it so often escalates into physical violence.”

Elgin identifies two types of verbal aggressors, the first, who is merely ignorant and needs to be educated, and the second, more common, repeat offender, who sets off warning bells quickly. She suggests two effective strategies for responding: boring the aggressor to tears or affecting an emotionless computer mode.

Bore aggressor to tears

For the boring response, Elgin suggests saying something along the lines of “That reminds me of the time when I was a kid in North Bay…no, we were living in Paris then…and my aunt came to visit…and she had this little dog, you know the little ones with the big ears?…” The message the aggressor gets is that it’s too boring and annoying to attack you, so they leave off, noting that you don’t make a good victim.

Emotionless computer mode

The other approach is to make a simple statement without any emotion. For example, if someone who’s looking for something and blaming you for not being able to find it, Elgin provides some good sample emotionless responses.

“People get irritated when they can’t find things.”

“It’s very annoying not to be able to find things.”

“Misplaced [items] cause problems in every workplace [or home, or clinic, or whatever].”

“Nothing is more distressing than having to hunt for things.”

Although it may take awhile for the attacker to catch on, Elgin says once they do, they will once again note that you don’t make a good reactive victim and move on. The key is to avoid reacting in an emotional manner since that only adds fuel to the fire.

So the next time someone tries to verbally abuse you, instead of reacting emotionally or walking away, try boring them to tears, or repetitively empathically describing their complaint without any emotion.

Elgin’s book The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense offers a system for establishing a language environment in which hostile language interactions almost never happen, and if they do, are handled efficiently, effectively, and with no loss of face on either side.

Although verbal abuse is usually part and parcel of emotional abuse, dealing with it effectively is the first step to standing up for yourself and moving away from abusive treatment.

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

© M.C. Parker, 2013. Member, Professional Writers Association of Canada. For more information about this writer, please visit www.parker-press.com.

People can change: New Year’s Affirmations not Resolutions

by M.C. Parker

There’s nothing wrong with having goals and dreams

Setting goals like New Year’s resolutions give you something to shoot for. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, right? As the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Just be sure to take “baby steps” as discussed in the humorous Bill Murray-Richard Dreyfus movie What About Bob?

ID-10043345 New Year

What do you want to change?

Huge, sweeping changes would be daunting for anyone, so, it’s much better to break it down into small “baby steps.” Changes both great and small all have a starting point – and that begins with an awareness that you want to change. One of the top goals is losing weight and the Mayo Clinic has some great tips. Other classic New Year’s resolutions include quitting smoking, drinking less, exercising more, and eating healthier – all wonderful changes that indicate a willingness to nurture and care for yourself.

If you’ve been using food, nicotine, alcohol or other drugs to self-medicate, you may want to begin thinking about what life would look like if you used these things in moderation, and then gradually sparingly or perhaps not at all.

Make a list of all the things you would like to improve in your life. It helps to write them down, read them out loud, think about how you might get to there.

Dream big, start small

Do you dislike your job? Do key relationships add to or detract from your happiness? It’s never too late to make changes. You’re hampered only by your imagination – so dream big, you only go around once. Begin taking small steps towards accomplishing the changes on your list.

Want to lose weight? Start by taking a 15-minute walk per day. That’s it. Once you can accomplish this daily, you’re ready to take your next baby step – maybe it’s two 15-minute walks per day or one 30-minute walk after dinner – you decide. From there you might join a gym and commit to going to one class per week, and gradually work your way up to a comfortable routine. Warning: exercise is addictive!

Want to quit smoking? Start by delaying your first cigarette of the day by 15 minutes. See if you can gradually wean yourself off smoking throughout the work day. Any time you make a change such as a move or a new job, these are actually great times to shed bad habits or at least rein them in. Again, you’re experimenting and pushing yourself towards being a non-smoker; and when you’re ready, it’s actually pretty easy.

Want a better job? If you’re not sure what type of job would make you happy, why not explore vocational counselling? If you already know what direction you want to go in, start researching the best professional associations and begin to attend meetings and network, perhaps find an internship or mentor. The trick is to surround yourself with people who are already doing the type of work you want to do.

Can you visualize yourself changing?

Change takes practice, it doesn’t happen overnight. Rather than simply stopping cold turkey, gradually replace an unhealthy behaviour with a healthy one. When you’re learning new, healthier techniques such as living as a non-smoker, joining a gym, cooking healthy meals, you can’t expect to hit it out of the park the first time or every time. Go easy on yourself.

Practice builds confidence and expertise for any activity; the trick is to get started and begin building it into your routine little by little, and before you know it, it’s become a new healthy habit in your life without even really trying.

For example, gradually replace smoking with meditation; junk food with healthier alternatives; inactivity for short walks; keep a journal to track the emotional triggers and determine healthy alternatives. For example, when you’re angry, rather than have a cigarette, practice meditation and deep breathing. If you’re lonely, rather than eat that doughnut or bag of chips, invite a friend for lunch or dinner. Instead of having a drink after work to deal with stress, hit the gym.

What would the outcome be?

The great thing about change is that instead of “some day,” you’re living the way you want to live now. Instead of seeing the future as some far off place, you’re living in the present moment, which makes for a much happier life.

By acting as though the future is already here, you start deciding to live your life as you want it to be right now.  That’s where New Year’s resolutions come in. They help lay the groundwork for living how you really want to, not just reacting the same old ways and feeling guilty or hopeless about it.

Other people have done it: quit smoking, lost weight, moved toward healthier and happier living. If there’s anyone in your life you admire and who has made these types of changes, ask for their support.

New Year’s Affirmations anyone?

Rather than New Year’s Resolutions, how about a list of affirmations about you and your life? The word “affirmation” has a much more positive ring than the bossy “resolution.” Not only that, self-affirmations put a positive spin on life and “affirm” certain attitudes and behavior, focusing on important qualities that make each of us unique. Self-affirmations allow us to ride out our missteps and errors, so that we keep our eyes on the prize. Instead of “no smoking” or “no junk food,” think “I lead a healthy life,” or “I enjoy healthy foods that give me energy.”

Here are a few sample affirmations to get you started:

– I value myself and what I have to contribute.

– I let go of life-depleting cravings.

– I let go of excess body weight.

– I take in new life-enhancing mature habits.

– I see what needs to be done and commit myself to action.

Celebrate your triumphs

Throughout the year, take the time to note your special achievements and milestones on a slip of paper and store them in a jar. Come next New Year’s Eve or Day, go through the notes and be sure to pat yourself on the back for everything you’ve done. Once you’ve acknowledged all that you’ve accomplished, you’re in the right frame of mind to start setting new goals and affirmations for the coming year. Happy New Year, indeed!

Illustration credit: Freedigitalphotos.net

© M.C. Parker, 2013. Member, Professional Writers Association of Canada. For more information about this writer, please visit www.parker-press.com.

Oscar! Oscar!

by M.C. Parker

84th Annual Academy Awards one incredibly long commercial for the Hollywood film industry

Watching the red carpet hype of the 84th annual Academy Awards on my rabbit-eared low-definition TV, and the actors being asked “who” they were wearing, my literal mind saw designers being piggybacked to the awards – a bit of a challenge for those in heels.

I have to hand it to Hollywood for seizing any and all opportunities to promote their industry via fashion designers, jewelry retailers, and, as Marilyn Manson phrased it, “the beautiful people.” Other industries could take a page from their book of shameless self-promotion – the entire awards ceremony was one incredibly long commercial for Hollywood movies, reminding all those downloaders to get back in the theatre.

Billy Crystal hosting 84th Academy Awards. Photo credit: Michael Yada / A.M.P.A.S.

I remember once being caught up in the glitz and the glamour, but having written hundreds of celebrity, movie, and music “stories,” I see how much entertainment is churned out like the next big thing, and that the hype is usually overdone. Of course, there will always be quality music and film, however, when everything is promoted with the same fervour and fanfare, most movie reviews are suspect these days. I miss Jay Scott and Pauline Kael.

Kiwi Bret McKenzie won an Oscar for his Muppet song. I loved him and his music in Flight of the Conchords. I think he also gave the best acceptance speech, joking about how Kermit was just like a real frog once you got to know him.

Compare Bret McKenzie and Christopher Plummer’s witty acceptance speeches to Octavia Spencer’s meltdown and you just want to say to her, “Don’t take it so seriously.” Sure the win is supposed to do wonders for your career, but you also have an opportunity to showcase yourself in front of billions of people – does it really have to be disbelief, tears, and “aw shucks” – because it’s not like you didn’t know you were nominated, and it’s not like you’re not a trained performer.

The absolute strangest thing about the evening was that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was in the running (please comment so I know I’m not the only one who felt this way). Hollywood remade a Swedish original almost shot for shot while managing to turn the hugely popular strong female protagonist Lisbeth Salander into a lame supporting role for a dandified Daniel Craig – and then it wins an Oscar for editing of all things. An editing award for a remake, does anyone else not see the irony of this? Even the guys accepting the award seemed embarrassed.

Billy Crystal did his charming vaudevillian Mr. Saturday Night shtick with “Oscar! Oscar!” He sneaked in a few nasty curveballs à la Gervais, singing about Jonah Hill’s girth and joking about the canine Uggie’s private parts (are they private if they’re canine)? His unashamed pandering to the younger “demographic” by placing teen pop star Justin Bieber in his opening medley only served to make Crystal seem older and oilier than usual.

The Bridesmaids cast scored some laughs with their Martin Scorsese drinking game, leading one to think, “That Marty! How does he do it? Just about everything he touches turns into cinematic gold.”

Thank goodness, George Clooney didn’t win the best actor Oscar. I mean, set him next to Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Viggo Mortensen and his good looks are as two-dimensional as his acting abilities. The guy is paid to look good, like a Cary Grant-lite, end of story. He’s like the Marilyn Monroe of men, always wanting to be taken “seriously.”

If he weren’t so darned earnest about it, a lot more people would go see his movies. Well, bless him for his good intentions. There must be some algorithm that could amp his movie projects to be slightly more entertaining and less hit ’em over the head political soapboxing. It’s a fine line, for sure.

I admit it. I like Meryl Streep. So sue me, Kramer. My favourite part of the awards is finding out about good foreign films and documentaries (I was rooting for Canada’s Oscar-nominated foreign language film Monsieur Lazhar which I thoroughly enjoyed), and who might be an up-and-comer with an award-winning short film. There’s a story: Where are they now, those short-film Oscar winners?

When I turned off the TV, I swear I could almost hear the unified sigh of relief from all the actors and the rest of the Hollywood entertainment machinery as they geared down from another Oscar gala. Time to start planning number 85.

Book Review: How Doctors Think

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, M.D.
Medicine is “a mix of science and soul”

by M.C. Parker

Have you ever sat in a doctor’s waiting room anxiously worried that you either (a) have a terminal illness, or (b) are completely wasting your doctor’s time? (Hopefully, you’ve done your online research via the Mayo Clinic and WebMD and have a written list of questions for the good doc.)

In case you’re wondering “What does my doctor really think?,” Dr. Jerome Groopman fills in the other side of the equation: How doctors think, how they decide the next step, and the way a doctor’s subconscious biases – from what you look and smell like, to whether he or she likes you – can influence treatment.

A little background: Groopman holds the Dina and Raphael Recanati Chair of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and is chief of experimental medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts. He also has 150 scientific articles to his name, and holds a staff writer position at The New Yorker, and is an editorial contributor to the New Republic, Washington Post, and New York Times.

The book is a fascinating read for both the medical and lay community alike as Groopman compassionately probes into the psychology of doctors, hopefully helping them become more self-aware, while helping patients see their doctor in a new, more approachable light.

Mysteries of the medical mind revealed
According to the author, the average doctor interrupts their patient within 18 seconds, and many times their diagnosis is accurate, but sometimes it is not.

Each chapter is chock-full of real-life medical mysteries usually involving colossal misdiagnoses. The reader is fully engaged as details about the players – doctors, medical staff, patients, friends and family – and the plot – identifying and treating the illness or injury – are slowly revealed. Sometimes, it’s a major improvement in the quality of life, and sometimes, it’s life or death.

The key premise of the book is that doctors are human. They are fallible, they have their good days and bad, and it affects the way they think at any given time. You should be aware that your treatment will be influenced by whether the doctor is having a good or bad day, feeling happy or sad, tired or well-rested, and whether he or she likes you.

This may sound like common sense, but no one has really speculated on how a doctor’s personality affects their decision-making skills and how they deal with mistakes.

Some doctors could take a page from House M.D.
When the prescribed treatment fails, doctors generally do one of two things: the good ones go back to the drawing board and use their investigative skills to “think outside the box,” the not-so-good doctors tend to try to justify the diagnosis, creating a Procrustean solution by disregarding what doesn’t fit.

The first incredible case Dr. Groopman cites is that of a woman diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. For fifteen years she has been suffering from cramps, nausea and diarrhea, and continues to lose weight. By the time she goes to see her umpteenth specialist at the urging of her boyfriend, she has been labelled by the medical community as “non-compliant” and a “psychiatric case.”

The specialist asks her to tell her story from the beginning and encourages her to talk. The patient goes through her symptoms and is adamant that she ate everything she was told to eat, but still continued to lose weight. The specialist does some blood work and convinces her to undergo one more test. It turns out she has celiac disease – an allergy to gluten – once believed to be rare. Within months of the diagnosis she is finally putting on weight.

Some other things you should know about doctors:

Nobody likes a hypochondriac
Unsurprisingly, the patients doctors dislike the most are the anxious, neurotic types who worry about every little ache or pain. Trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, doctors are worried they might actually miss something important due to the overwhelming and distracting volume of complaints.

That being said, if you are a bit of a neurotic, be upfront about it with your doctor, and that will help them take you seriously if you are really worried about something.

No one likes to fail
Some doctors dislike failure, and unfortunately, if they feel you’re a terminal case, they may start to avoid you. If this happens to you, it would be a good time to seek another opinion.

No one wants to hurt a friend
If you have a close relationship with your doctor, they may be reluctant to schedule any painful or invasive tests. It’s up to you to let them know that you’re willing to undergo any tests, painful or otherwise, that would help them reach a diagnosis.

On the flip side, if your doctor doesn’t like you, dismisses your complaints or avoids you, this would be a good time to get another opinion.

U.S. healthcare has varying price tags
Groopman explains that since U.S. doctors are allowed to bill specific amounts for different types of surgeries and treatments, and may be influenced by swag from pharmaceutical companies (trips, conferences, etc.), this can consciously or subconsciously influence the direction a doctor decides to take in your treatment. In that vein, he warns that surgery should always be viewed as a last resort option, and cites his own surgery as an example of how you shouldn’t be in a rush for a quick fix.

Good questions to ask your doctor
If you’re experiencing serious symptoms, Groopman recommends you voice your worst fears and let the doctor know what is really frightening you.

The author also recommends some very specific questions that will help you help your doctor keep an open mind when investigating your complaint.

1. What else could it be?
2. Is there anything that doesn’t fit?
3. Is it possible I have more than one problem?

This book is a must-read for anyone with a life-threatening illness, so please feel free to pass along this review.

Books by Jerome Groopman, M.D.
The Measure of Our Days (1997)
Second Opinions (2000)
Anatomy of Hope (2004).
How Doctors Think (2007)
Your Medical Mind (2011), co-written with his wife Pamela Hartzband.

Your basic rights and how to deal with bullies

by M.C. Parker

Bullying seems to be endemic to the workplace. I kept running into it – especially in the corporate world. I needed to understand why I kept facing this issue, and find more productive ways to deal with it.

The most constructive advice I found came from a book by Jane Middleton-Moz and Mary Lee Zawadski called Bullies: From the playground to the boardroom – strategies for survival.

I used their list of basic rights as a guideline to help teach others how to treat me, recognize when boundaries are crossed, and as a healthy reminder on how to treat others.

Your Basic Rights
1.  The right to have your thoughts and feelings acknowledged and accepted as real. Your thoughts and feelings belong to you and no one else.
2.  The right to live a life that is free from judgement or blame.
3.  The right to emotional support.
4.  The right to live life that is free from physical and emotional threats.
5.  The right to be asked something, not ordered to do something.
6.  The right to be heard and treated with respect.
7.  The right to your own opinions and viewpoints, even when they’re different from those of others.
8.  The right to be loved and cherished.

What is bullying?
A bully, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary is “a person who uses strength or power to coerce others by fear; who persecutes or oppresses others by force or threats; or who pressures or coerces a person to do something.”

“Bullying,” as defined by authors Jane Middleton-Moz and Mary Lee Zawadski, “is a cruel and deliberate act of intimidation with the intent to gain power or control over another person.

“It leaves its victims with intense feelings of vulnerability, fear, shame and low self-esteem.”

Are you being bullied?
Take the test (http://www.bullyfreeatwork.com/blog/?page_id=2) and find out.

Typical behaviour for bullies:
• Ignore you, not say hello when you greet them, not return phone calls or e-mails
• Dismiss what you’re saying or “put you down”
• Sabotage you or make you look foolish, or set you up to fail with impossible demands
• Spread rumours, lies and half-truths about you
• Frequently act impatient with you, treat you like you’re incompetent
• Try to intimidate you by interrupting, contradicting or giving you the silent treatment

What can you do about it?
In Bullies: From the playground to the boardroom, the authors note bullies are experts in intimidation and like to cause confusion, fear, or feelings of powerlessness in their intended victims. Bullies like to gain control of the situation by rendering their targets helpless or forcing them to lose control of their temper.

Swallowing your feelings or losing your temper will put your self-esteem at risk when faced with a bully.

Their advice is that you stand up to the bully, but avoid fighting with them. You need to be assertive, not demanding.

1. Look the bully straight in the eye.
We’re naturally inclined to avoid eye contact when confronting someone, but be warned, that will give you the appearance of being powerless. Bullies thrive on their victims’ helplessness.

Most people are uncomfortable with conflict and tend to stare at their shoes while delivering an otherwise assertive message. The message will not be communicated if nonverbal communication says, “I’m really afraid and powerless.”

2. Use confident body language.
Bullies can sense fear, so use a firm tone of voice and be certain your gestures match your words. Your assertive message will not come across the way you want if you are shuffling your feet and using a pleading tone of voice.

3. Choose carefully whether to confront the bully alone or with others who have also been bullied or witnessed your abuse.
Sometimes bullies depend on the apathy of the group to allow them free rein. In a group, they might fight to preserve their “image” and you may not be fully heard. If the bullying is recent and you have equal power (a co-worker, friend or family member) or you’re in a position of power (as the bully’s supervisor or mentor) then confronting the bully alone can be effective.

However, if the bully is your boss, which is most often the case in the vast majority of workplace bullying, or the bullying has been going on for a long period of time, then confronting the bully alone usually doesn’t work.

An interesting approach
One of the best things you can do with a bully is to literally walk away from them. Train yourself to listen critically to the bully and when you hear words of attack (criticism, blame or self-justification), simply excuse yourself with one of these bully-proof responses and walk away.

• Excuse me, I have a meeting to go to.
• I have something I have to attend to. I’ll get back with you later.
• Pardon me, I was just heading out. Can we talk tomorrow?
• Let’s talk later (this afternoon). I have something that can’t wait.
• (Non-defensively) Do you think so? Maybe you’re right.
• I don’t agree, but I’m sure we can talk about this another time.

If you’re stressed out and afraid to try this, practise rehearsing these lines out loud by yourself or with a friend. Visualize yourself assertively looking your bully in the eye, speaking with a firm voice, and successfully deflecting them. If it helps, keep referring ‘Your Basic Rights’ to bolster your confidence.

What if you’re the bully?
Bullies tend to have low self-esteem, poor social skills, and be overly concerned with their workplace image. Check out page 5 of Bullying in the Workplace: A handbook for the workplace (listed in the resources below) to answer questions that will help you determine if you’re helping or hurting the cause for creating a workplace culture of dignity and respect.

If you suspect or know you have bullying tendencies, it’s time to learn how to deal more effectively with people; perhaps get some additional training on sensitivity, communication skills, leadership, or get individual counselling to help you modify your behaviour. If you don’t change your behaviour, you may eventually find yourself in serious trouble in the workplace, maybe out of job or sued for your behaviour.

Resource information
Free publication
Bullying in the Workplace: A handbook for the workplace
Published by the Ontario Safety Association for Community & Healthcare
Includes excellent detailed information and strategies for both employers and employee and an extensive list of resource information.

The book I found most helpful
Bullies: From the playground to the boardroom – strategies for survival by Jane Middleton-Moz and Mary Lee Kawasaki.

Image credit: Free digital photos/Taoty

© 2012 M.C. Parker