The Bullied Can Bully Too


Have you ever had the experience of a book flying off a bookstore shelf and landing in your hands…literally? This is what happened with Katherine Preston’s Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice. As someone who lived through a childhood and adolescence with various orthodontic devices and extreme embarrassment over the impact these devices had on her ability to communicate, Preston’s part autographic, part ethnographic account of growing up with a stutter landed in the right hands. While I’m less than 100 pages in and fortunate not to have experienced a long-lasting speech impediment, I’ve been impacted by Preston’s description of her own anger over her disability.

I’d forgotten how angry I was for so many years feeling like I couldn’t communicate aloud with the clarity my thoughts had when I shaped and listened to them in my head. Like Preston, my communication at times elicited sneers and pity from my peers. And if the term bullying were around when I was a kid, I likely would have placed myself in the category of being bullied.

But if I’m honest, I also could be the bully. The anger I at times felt towards the effortless communicators in the world and the self-loathing I felt for myself for not having been similarly granted an access pass meant that I could be really awful to other kids if and when they were more vulnerable than me. And as I grew up, shed the metal, and experienced some status at my all girls’ high school, I definitely got–I think it would be fair to say–a little more awful. I felt entitled to gossip. To make-up excuses to avoid hanging out with certain girls. To flip flop between best friends depending on who served me more on a given week. I’d paid my dues in elementary and middle school. Up until Preston’s book, though, I didn’t have a chapter in my autobiography for my brief stint as a bully. I was simply the ‘victim’ until I wasn’t.

That’s the danger with how we think about bullying–whether we are talking about it on the playground or in the boardroom. Most of us have found ourselves in both the role of bully and bullied, yet very few of us identify ourselves by the former behavior. It’s something we do, but it’s not the truth of us. Unfortunately, as conversations with a few people I went to high school with would prove–I suspect–we might be deluding ourselves to think that others don’t define us by our at times bullying behaviors.

While most of us recognize that when we are yelling we are entering our bully zone, we can ignore and fail to take responsibility for curbing some equally dangerous adult  bullying communication behaviors.

1. Using  jokes and sarcasm to wrap insults and judgments. Trust me, as the recipient of much of this from a s0-called friend when I was in my early 20s, the recipient always knows you are not really kidding.

2. Making feedback personal. Focus on the behaviors you want someone to adjust. Leave the story you’ve created around what happened, somebody’s personality, and your own ego out of it.

3. Giving ultimatums–be they spoken or implied. Use your power to give people choices. Even if none are perfect, there is nothing more crushing than someone with more power than us using her or his authority, knowledge, or position to make us feel backed into a corner.

4. Triangulation. If you’ve got an issue with someone, step into your moxie and go speak directly with him or her.

5. Sharing a confidant’s private information. If you feel that you must share, let the person know. And as scary as it must be, tell her or him why.