The repeated aggressive actions designed to belittle, humiliate or exclude is the act of bullying. Whether it’s in the school playground, online, at work or in the board room, there are four groups involved in bullying. They are present in all cases, and if the bullying behaviour is to stop, you have to deal with all four.
Before I get onto them, let me clearly explain what bullying is, and is not. One off acts of aggression are not necessarily acts of bullying. Bullying is the repeated picking on someone, or some group of people, over time. Nasty, incessant and continual. It is done to put down the victim, who the bully (and their acolytes) are there to dominate. It is usually for some totally unfair reason, be it someone who is slightly ‘overweight’ or has red hair, something the victim cannot control. At the root of the bullying behaviour is a power play, with the distinct desire of the bully being to put the victim down, and to make the bully (feel) superior. It is highly likely the bully is themselves acting out an insecurity issue, or has been the subject of repeated violence before. It is learned behaviour.
Anyone who has been bullied knows the horrible sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach whenever the bully or their supporters are around. React, lash out or cry and the victim is laughed at, punched, pushed over, physically or verbally. Complain to the powers that be, and retribution can follow. It can involve exclusion, it can be online (sending photos around social media, mocking someone on Instagram.)
I came across bullying at school, both as a student and as a teacher. When I was on teacher training I researched this area, and found some great work from Denmark which clearly laid out how to deal with bullying instances. Before I get to this, let me outline what does not work.
What does not work
- Ignore it – “they just want a reaction” ~ understandably the victim might be to ignore what is going on, in the hope it simply goes away. The bully and their mates laugh, and see the victim as an easy target. It usually continues.
- Fight back – “Man up!” ~ Not only does this ignore the fact that 70% of school bullies are female, fighting back can get you into trouble, and lowers the victim to the bully’s level. Settling things through violence is precisely NOT the way to deal with this. In any case, if the bully thought you’d beat them in a fight, they would not have picked on you to start with.
- Punish the bully (only) ~ complaining to the teacher or an adult is the first thing a victim must do, but if that authority figure then simply metes out retribution to the bully only (thinking this will solve it), the bully could turn on the victim and worsen the situation. If it’s one word against another, with parents involved, what is the teacher to do? Detentions might be a badge of honour for the bully and their mates.
- Laugh it off ~ can work in some cases, if you are strong enough to laugh in the face of the bully and their supporters and get away with it. Chances are, this will not work, unless you can really sustain some very good scripting (see below).
The Four Groups
Bullying needs 4 things:
- A bully
- A victim
- A group of bully supporters (the acolytes)
- Everyone else does nothing (the silent majority)
To adequately deal with a break out of bullying behaviour, you need do counsel all four.
The bully needs to be isolated and talked to – why are they doing this? What is the problem? How do they think the victim feels? Is it right or wrong? Are they big enough to stop it? They might be acting out an insecurity. They may be suffering at home. They may have modelled this behaviour from others. Can they learn from this?
The victim also needs counselling. What signals are they giving off to the bully and their supporters? What can they do about the situation? What friends/assistance do they have? They may be submissive individuals. If you provide some ‘strengthening’ advice for the victim, they might be able to grow. “You’ve got a large nose”. “True, it is a bit big isn’t it?!”. “You’re an idiot.” “You think so – why’s that?”
The other (often ignored) group are those that egg on the bully. They are secretly glad the bully is not picking on them, and are usually scared of the bully themselves. They might not like the aggression, but fall into line through weakness. The bully, being manipulative, might end up getting them into trouble as well. This group needs talking with. Why are they doing this? Do they want it to end? This group can be the quickest to defeat bullying. Take away the crowd the bully is acting up to, and the major benefit for the bully evaporates.
The final group is also often forgotten in all this. Bad things happen only because good people allow them to continue. Everyone knows what is going on. While this group are not the bullies’ mates and not actively encouraging the behaviour, their silence and inaction allows it to continue. In fact, it’s a necessary precondition. If this group confronted the bully and their supporters, the bullying would cease. If they befriended the victim, they would out number the bully. The power balance would shift.
I witnessed some bad cases of bullying in schools. For each case, I tried to isolate the four groups and spoke with each of them. It took time. I engaged each group in finding a solution. They all knew I knew what was going on. After a week or so, the behaviour had completely gone. The victim had some good friends who looked out for him. He grew as a person. The victim was not that successful at school, and needed some better outlets. The acolytes felt a bit sheepish, as did the silent majority (where most of the victim’s new friends came from).
What sickens me about bullying is the total unfairness of it, and the deep hurt it can cause. It is every person’s basic human right NOT to be bullied, and to be able to go about their business without this kind of sickening antagonism. Some become so isolated, so hurt and unhappy they feel they do not want to go on. Youth suicide is a real issue. It’s dreadful. It is preventable.
Moving out into the world we see grown ups who act as bullies. They shout and stamp and think this is going to get them through. They may have large physical presences, and use this to get their way in business and in life. One even uses classic bully techniques to run for President. What is common to all bullies is a deep-seated insecurity. They are cowards. If the majority rise up and call them on it, they lash out, but in the end they are trumped.