How To Stop a Bully—Before Anyone Gets Hurt

Stop bullying in its tracks

With the school year upon us, kids across the country are bound to encounter bullying on the playground and online. The most common reactions to bullying are either silence or physical aggression. Our silence tacitly condones the abuse and can allow it to escalate to the point that only aggressive action can shut it down.

Effective communication can be a powerful deterrent to bullying, but only if you know how to navigate a high-emotion situation. Parents should discuss these steps with older children and teens at the beginning of the school year to minimize problems with bullying.Beyond teaching key skills for diffusing conflict, this conversation will help kids know when to alert an adult about physical or emotional aggression. These tips are relevant to anyone who has direct contact with a bully, including children and teens, but are also helpful for teachers and parents.

Here are four tips for stopping both playground and cyber bullying in its tracks-before someone gets really hurt.

  1. Sooner is easier. When bullying is flagrant and undeniable, it's hard to confront the perpetrator without provoking defensiveness and conflict. If you speak up as soon as you or another human being has been turned into a target, you can stop the abuse.
  2. Trust your gut. If it feels like your communication is changing from playful to hurtful, it probably is. It's time to act.
  3. Protect first and foremost. If you think there's potential risk to someone's physical or emotional safety, get immediate help from a third party.
  4. Match the intensity. Respond to inappropriate comments with appropriate energy. If the bullying is subtle, a nudge is often enough. If it is flagrant, you'll have to step it up by confronting the bullying face-to-face.

If the confrontation reaches the point of requiring a face-to-face confrontation, an effective communicator will leverage the following four levels of intensity in sequential fashion. Start with the lowest then ratchet it up as needed.

  1. Humanize the victim. If someone is making derogatory comments about another, inform rather than defend. Help others connect with the humanity of the person they are targeting. Articulate how the victim might feel or share a quality or tell a story about the victim that will help others see beyond the caricature they've fabricated.
  2. Go private. If emotional abuse persists, confront the loudest voice privately. Ask to speak with the bully or send a private message - but do so with humor and affirmation. Assume the bully doesn't understand how he/she is coming across and gently request that he/she revise his/her approach. For example, "Terry - you probably didn't read your last post the way I did. When you called Sunni a "wench" I'm guessing you were joking. If you take that comment down I'll let you pick any of mine you want removed, too!"
  3. Go public. If others are piling on, or if the behavior has crossed a line and is causing emotional harm, you'll have to go public. Publicly share or post your views. Call out the bad behavior by simply describing it and the effect it is having. Then stack the deck. Recruit others to go public with you. For example, "This is going too far for me. Sunni may have made a mistake, but who hasn't. I think calling her names and posting it to the world is wrong. Anyone else out there agree?"
  4. Impose consequences—virtual and real. The highest level of intensity is to create negative consequences for the perpetrators. Some can be virtual, like unfriending or drawing others' attention to the abuse. Some must be real-world consequences like notifying teachers, parents, bosses, etc. If the bullying intensity is significant, you must take action or you will become a silent accomplice.


About the author: Joseph Grenny is the four-time New York Times best-selling co-author of Crucial Conversations, a dynamic keynote speaker and a leading social scientist for business performance. He is also the co-founder of corporate training and leadership development innovator VitalSmarts.

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