Stand Up Against Bullying: A blog to help stop workplace bullying
Workplace Bullying Bully

A Necessary Evil: How to confront a bully

two white characters sitting across from one anoter with one pointing at the other
Original publication date: August 31, 2015; Edited and republished on March 21, 2022

In a bully culture, confronting the workplace bully is always part the conversation.  In many cases, this is a requirement before leadership will even think about stepping in. It is often a necessary evil for targets to identify and confront the workplace bullying. Confronting the bully is always difficult and because of this it is often done in a hurried and unproductive manner. 

It is important to think about the when, where, and how to communicate with the bully about their behavior. Thus, ensuring the confrontation causes the target the least amount of harm.

The first step in talking with the bully is to maintain self-control and keeping our emotions in check. In and of itself, workplace bullying creates increased tension and high emotions that are easily triggered. Targets feel victimized and are frequently kept on the defensive making them vulnerable to being reactionary and responding in ways that are not beneficial. Bullies know this and will increase the abuse during a confrontation if a target loses control of their emotions and behavior. Developing a plan on how to the target will maintain control during the confrontation with the bully is vital for targets to protect themselves. 

Another important tip is to use effective communication skills.  It is best practice to use “I” statements, be clear, and stick to the facts. This seems easy, but bullies know how to push the target’s buttons and know how to maximize their abuse to get the best results. Role playing is a good way for targets to practice before they confront the bully.

Targets should develop neutral responses that they can use to defuse any situation when a bully pushes back. Neutral responses are verbal statements that a target develops before they confront the bully statements that they can automatically fall back on in stressful situations. These might include just restating what the aggressor said, or “I hear what you are saying,” or “I will take that into consideration.” These help the target de-escalate rather than escalate a situation with the workplace bully.

Having a trusted colleague present as a witness is also a good strategy for targets if possible. Targets should think about ways to gracefully exit the meeting with the bully if it starts in case the meeting goes south and the workplace bullying gets out of hand. These graceful strategies to get away from the bully are called diversion strategies. Diversion strategies are another effective way for targets to reduce the harm they are experiencing. They are subtle and allow the target to get away from the bully without them knowing. For example, during a confrontation that is getting heated, a target could look at their cell phone and “pretend” there was an important missed call. The target could excuse themselves from the meeting to return the call. This disruption can decrease emotions and interrupt the workplace bullying.

Confronting the bully is always difficult. Strategizing before the confrontation is a must for targets so they can better manage the bully culture.