Tips for battling bullies

I received an email request from a reader this week. He posed concerns about the “toxic political climate,” and the “vitriol” that exists across the public square.

He wrote, “I am not political by nature, I vote, pay my bills and my taxes on time, raise my daughter well and try to be a good citizen.”

He lamented what he sees societally and wondered whether I had any thoughts on negativism and reduced civility. I do, and I am grateful to him for giving me impetus. It may not be what he was anticipating — my focus is an elimination of bullying.

Bullying can be defined as “a mental disorder in which person(s) have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for flattery, as well as a nearly complete lack of empathy for others.” It’s repeated and aggressive verbal abuse and behavior that takes advantage of a perceived or real power imbalance. Bullying behaviors include “name-calling, taunting, rudeness, hurtful ‘trash-talk’ and threats of harm.”

Bullies are everywhere, and they spew toxic poison. I have no research to support this, but I believe it is a behavior that could become epidemic. We find bullying behaviors in families, in schoolyards and in the workplace. It seems particularly rampant across the political spectrum of late. Have you noticed?

This observation caught my attention: “Bullies are only as powerful as we allow them to be.” I thought about that when I witnessed a politician being booed and jeered when he trash-talked his opponent. In another illustration, more of a schoolyard bullying incident, those people observing a bully’s self-indulgent personal boasts laughed — long and loudly. It’s an interesting strategy.

I will keep those examples in reserve, but I wonder if the “hold your own confidence” and “stay connected” approaches have more usefulness. Those strategies remind the person(s) being bullied not to let themselves become defensive or rattled. Any challenge only feeds the sense of power the bully is seeking. The “stay connected” approach underscores the importance of linking arms with other victims of bullying in clear-headed and collective admonition.

All these ideas were detailed in a 2017 article in Psychology Today that references a book I have not read but most definitely will: “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,” by Malcom Gladwell.

Advice suggests that when confronted with a bully “use simple, unemotional language.” The key is to remain polite and professional but set limits. As an example: “I do not like your negative tone. I will not permit it in our discussion.” Note that the word “I” is used, not “you.” That simple word-use claims conversational ground, sets a stage for more successful outcomes.

But the most provocative suggestion I came across states, “Strike while the iron is cold.” It encourages stepping back and configuring a cooler-head response to outlandish bullying behaviors. Pause, gather your facts, double-check them and then put forth commentary with unrelenting certitude. Another way of looking at that is, “Never interfere with an enemy while he is in the process of destroying himself.”

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at

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