Is there any answer I can give that won't result in more pushups?
July 19, 2013 10:57 AM   Subscribe

I need advice for gracious, loving, kind, and assertive ways to deal with a very specific type of bullying. I don't really know what to call it, but I will describe it as best I can.

I'm often confronted by people in power (bosses, parents, etc) who share a certain method of bullying. They will, in an hateful tone of voice, ask trick questions that can't really be answered. They will ask many questions of a certain theme in quick succession and interrupt you when you try to answer. There is no answer that you can give that will satisfy them. Any answer will either result in more questions or an attack of your answer. Obviously, the purpose of this excercise is not to resolve problems, but to vent anger and exert power.

An example:
"Why did you do X?"
"Well, the-"
"What made you think that doing X would be a good idea? What exactly were you thinking? What kind of person would do X?
"Actually, you told me to-"
Why wouldn't you do Y, I mean, wouldn't any idiot know to do Y? What exactly made you do X? I thought you were [quality, eg., a fairly smart person]. It is completely stupid to do X..." and so forth.

Usually, I just stay silent until they are finished, at which time they start demanding a response and asking if I am listening. I guess they want me to grovel.

In the most recent situation I had like this, I defended myself fairly siccessfully against the implied accusations by, in a similar tone of voice, pointing out that I had been following specific instructions and implying that the attacker was at fault. They then backpedaled, found someone else to blame, asked me not to be upset in a wheedling tone of voice and not to "take it personally", and started attacking someone else.

I feel like I need a better way to address this style of bullying. I don't appreciate being treated that way, even if I did "win", I don't like that the attacker started berating some other random person, and I especially don't like that I behaved that way. I'm a Christian, I believe it's vital that I don't lash out so cruelly in response to personal attacks, especially due to anger or hurt pride, verbally or physically (it's a learning curve)- so what's a better way of deflecting these kinds of attacks?
posted by windykites to Human Relations (33 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
My Mom used to do this to us when we were kids and it's maddening.

Now I just wait and if someone is asking that type of question I just pose it back, "Is there something wrong?" "Clearly you're upset about something, just tell me what the problem is."

My Manager does this thing where she pretends that she doesn't UNDERSTAND the item on a spreadsheet. What she really means is, "you messed up here."

So she called me into her office and runs the usual, "Gosh, this cell here is completely different..." so I said, "Clearly I made an error, you don't have to be sarcastic about it." She backpedaled, and I updated the spreadsheet with the correct info.

Don't play the game, re-frame the discussion. Stay calm and don't take it personally, the people who do this have serious problems, and they have nothing to do with you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:04 AM on July 19, 2013 [11 favorites]

Best answer: "You seem upset. Let's discuss this when you're ready to have a conversation."

Then disengage.
posted by trunk muffins at 11:04 AM on July 19, 2013 [15 favorites]

You say this "often" happens to you-- are all of these types of interactions at work? If being called an "idiot" and "stupid" is happening to you in the workplace, that is not OK under any circumstances, regardless of whatever error you may have made. This is not something you can fix with verbal skills, but should report to the appropriate people (HR) if that's an option, or find yourself a less insane workplace.

If this is coming from family members, it's trickier, but again, I'm not sure that any verbal jujitsu that will resolve the problem. You still deserve to be treated with respect, and if the other person can't do that, calmly excuse yourself and make plans to discuss the particulars of the case later, when they're calmer and you don't feel attacked.
posted by pantarei70 at 11:05 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

If you want to try going straight on the front foot and hurling them to the mat, here's some inspiration.
posted by flabdablet at 11:09 AM on July 19, 2013

Best answer: When this type of conversation happens, wait until you're allowed to speak, then say, "I understand there's an issue, but I do not appreciate being spoken to in that manner. Next time you talk to me like that, I'm walking away."

Then next time it happens, walk away.
posted by xingcat at 11:09 AM on July 19, 2013 [16 favorites]

I defended myself fairly siccessfully against the implied accusations by, in a similar tone of voice, pointing out that I had been following specific instructions and implying that the attacker was at fault. They then backpedaled, found someone else to blame, asked me not to be upset in a wheedling tone of voice and not to "take it personally", and started attacking someone else.

Bullies pick victims they think are available targets. You presented yourself as an equal on the same level as the accuser and an "unavailable" target of the bully, and thus the bully went off in search of a better target.

My reaction in these situations is not to start answering the questions. They don't want an answer. They want to vent. So I raise my eyebrow or tilt my head such in order to indicate, "Go on..." I let them finish venting and then deal with the issue.
posted by deanc at 11:17 AM on July 19, 2013

Best answer: "What made you think that doing X would be a good idea? What exactly were you thinking? What kind of person would do X?

"Let's stick to the business at hand. How do you want it handled? What's your specific complaint?"(pull out a pen and pad) Boil it down for me."
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:28 AM on July 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

What you're describing is a classic Double Bind, as discussed by Gregory Bateson and his colleagues. You might find some advice on handling it and changing the dynamic in his writings.
posted by alms at 11:29 AM on July 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Ugh I had this for almost 2 years on a project.

I handled it by remembering clearly what I did and why I did it. Then I calmly explained my thinking and logic, and wouldn't waver in it. It was invaluable in teaching me that I am ok, I'm not an idiot, I make good decisions in the face of ambiguous information.

They ARE looking to make you feel bad. They're looking for your guilt or low self-esteem button. Give them the minimal information and then get the hell away from them.

In the end I left the project because I realized the guy HATED me and it was actually kinder to leave... not out of pride or anger or ego but because it is what would truly put his mind at ease, since he hated me so much and thought I was so useless.

I think you ARE handling it in a very good and Christian way. Maybe praying for their peace of mind would also help. Smacking them down starts a turf war. I know you hate to see someone else the victim, but remember that you are not responsible for their atrocious behaviour.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:31 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the most recent situation I had like this, I defended myself fairly siccessfully against the implied accusations by, in a similar tone of voice, pointing out that I had been following specific instructions and implying that the attacker was at fault. They then backpedaled, found someone else to blame, asked me not to be upset in a wheedling tone of voice and not to "take it personally", and started attacking someone else.

Sounds like you did well. Good for you. The waiting and being silent is good, be sure to maintain eye contact the whole time so that they don't feel you're being intimidated. When they're done, wait a beat before speaking, and whether they demand you answer before you can speak or not, say "I wanted to give you time to finish. Are you finished?" as a way to throw them back on their feet a bit (they'll either have to keep on ranting, or say "yes, I'm done" which takes some of their power away.) Then do what you did this last time.
posted by davejay at 11:33 AM on July 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Separate process and content.

If they have a problem with something you did, that's the content of the conversation, such as it is.

If they immediately keep you from dealing with the content, that is a process problem. Interrupt it.

"Before we go any further Bob, we're going to have to agree how we discuss this. If you are going to stand here and run roughshod over everything I say, we're done now. Come back when you want to talk. Otherwise, state your piece and I'll respond. We can't have a discussion if only one of us talks, right?"

Once you agree on HOW to talk, you can talk about the content. Insist on a process. If they then violate the process, say "I'm done. Come back when you want an answer." Part of life is training people. Takes a while to get the hang of it. Give it a shot. Be the adult in the group.
posted by FauxScot at 11:42 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

"I'm certain upon reflection, that you want to discuss this calmly."
posted by Ironmouth at 11:45 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you are handling it pretty well. As one of the answers above pointed out, people who behave this way have serious problems and you are not going to be able to control whether or how they move on to other people.

I have had success with the relentless questioners by looking them straight in the eye and asking, in a calm tone of voice, "what are you getting at?" If necessary, you can escalate to "you seem to be looking for a specific answer, and I don't know what it is. What are you trying to say?" Generally, this type does not want to own the fact that they are attacking you so if you make them face you straight on, they will back down.
posted by rpfields at 11:59 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is called "badgering," and can constitute harassment in the workplace.
posted by rhizome at 12:17 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

When they're interrupting you to vent at you some more, throw them off their rhythm by interrupting them right back:

"Why did you do X?"
"Well, the-"
"What made you think-

"Would you care to pause for a moment so that I may answer the question you just asked?"

Adjust volume and intensity of your interruption as needed. If they keep taking right over you, just keep talking right over them until they stop.

Guys like this (and it's always guys, isn't it) are 99% of the time all bluster; once they learn you're not willing to put up with it they'll quickly stop trying it on you. (You can then use your interrupting powers when you see them trying it on other people as well.)
posted by ook at 12:32 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Before defending oneself, I've found in my experience that it's helpful to identify the emotional part of these exchanges, and then skip right to letting them feel listened to by asking them for the answer they already have:

"Wow, Martha, you sound really angry about this! What would you recommend as a solution to this problem?"

They want you to grovel because they think they are not being heard. Hear them. Lots of bullies respond well to affirmation of their feelings because deep down, they feel unheard.
posted by juniperesque at 12:37 PM on July 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

Best answer: You have to be quietly assertive. When the barrage starts, press your lips together and really zone in and focus. Listen very carefully and when they run out of breath, just quietly say "Are you ready to hear my answer?" The tone of your voice should not have ANY attitude. This maintains a professional demeanor and quietly lets your bully know they have overstepped.
posted by raisingsand at 12:38 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

If they are really saying things like "stupid" and other insults, I think calling them out on it sets the tone that you're not going to take their crap. Mirror what they are saying back to them. My friend had a boss like this and it was relentless. Her therapist told her to confront her with it. Here's how the conversation went:
Boss: Why'd you do this? Are you stupid?
Friend: Well you asked me to...
Boss: That's idiotic, how stupid, I wouldn't do that.
Friend: Wait--are you calling me an idiot???
Boss: (taken aback) No, no! I would never do that...I just meant...(backpedaling, apologizing, etc)

This sounds so simple but my friend said it took everything in her to do it. And it felt SO good. She said once she did that, it changed everything for her.
posted by biscuits at 12:52 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the answer that is not caving in to bullying but also does not put you at risk of being seen as someone who is needlessly aggressive or talks back to managers is: "Thank you for letting me know that this was wrong. I did ________ because _________. In the future I will make sure to ____________."
posted by capricorn at 12:53 PM on July 19, 2013

I need advice for gracious, loving, kind, and assertive ways to deal with a very specific type of bullying. 

This is a losing proposition, sadly.

These people have identified your weakness, your proclivity towards "taking it" and are getting high off it. It's a trip for them. The solution you require takes a tremendous turn-around of your personality and makeup. That would involve strict commitment to therapy, training, reorientation - are you prepared for this level of readjustment? Why would you even want to? It's better to remove yourself from the reach of these bullies - as much as feasible.

Instead - start slow and plan plan plan. A change of job, moving to a different part of the country, a change of certain friends, distancing from guilty family members. Over 1, 2, 5 years your journey will be complete, and you can enjoy harassment free life thereafter.
posted by Kruger5 at 12:53 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

It isn't always guys; both my parents do this on a regular basis, and I've done it myself. It's not a form of communication; it's a form of either venting or punishment. Attempting to engage with it as if it were intended as two-way communication is naive and purposeless.

A strong example: after my ex cheated on me, I absolutely did this. I verbally shredded him. He was in tears by the end and that satisfied me. Did I really want an answer to questions like "what kind of person screws their ex while their girlfriend is sitting at home 9 months pregnant with his child?" Of course not. It's meant to make the other person feel horrible and impress upon them how shitty they or their behavior is. I will say, whatever it says about me, I don't feel guilty about that particular instance. I think there is a point of vengefulness where most of us want to lash back at someone for something, and there may even be cases where it's damned justified (people will obviously disagree with me on this).

However, some people have a very very low threshold of what they perceive as wrong and irresponsible. Some people walk around bitter at the world, circumstances and/or other people to the point where every small mistake or offense is an opening for them to feel ok in letting loose that anger on a "justified" target. These people are, as stated above, Very Not Well. I did it as a teen, I was Not Well and hated the world. I don't do it anymore... And never at work, because it's a very fucked up sort of power thing and absolutely not professional. I think it it kind of like physical aggression... If someone physically attacks me, I will probably hit them back; but if someone looks at me funny and I hit them back, I'm a sociopath. People who lash out on you for work mistakes and minor offenses (versus, you know, you having murdered their mother) are low-level sociopaths.

Just something to keep in mind in dealing with this kind of thing.
posted by celtalitha at 12:54 PM on July 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

I don't know if this applies to your situtation, but Ruthless Bunny noted that "My Manager does this thing where she pretends that she doesn't UNDERSTAND the item on a spreadsheet. What she really means is, 'you messed up here.'"

I sometimes do this as an attempt to be polite. If I see an apparent mistake, "Why did you do this?" give the other person an opportunity to explain to me some reason for the approach that I might not have thought of or understood.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:56 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a person who behaves in this infuriating manner and I've recently been called out on it in a way that I think has helped. When I do it I am usually being condescending and sarcastic but I think the root of it is that I am not handling my own mood or emotions well and taking it out on someone else. It's not really about the content of what I am saying or complaining about.

What stopped me in my tracks was the other person waiting until I was finished, asking if I was finished in a quieter voice than the one I was using, and telling me in that same quiet voice that when I talk to them that way, I make them feel condescended to and they will not engage if I do it again. This left me scrambling for a response and in that space they laid out the matter as they saw it. At that point I still disagreed with them but I was now aware that I would be the loser if I continued the way I had before. What this bullying person does NOT want is for you to walk away and reveal them to be insignificant.

It's important to try to use a quieter, calmer voice than the bully. It's important to plainly state what they are the doing and the consequences. It's also important to know this isn't about you or your intellect or even your behavior, I really think it's something going on inside the bully. They might be displacing frustration on you or maybe they are just hungry or tired. Regardless, they are not truly superior and the bullying questions are a way of boosting their own insecurity.

I'm not sure if this is a great strategy for bullies who always act this way but if it's someone who does it sometimes, like me, I think it is useful.
posted by Danila at 12:57 PM on July 19, 2013 [19 favorites]

Also, when I do this now (to a much lesser extent) it's because I am overwhelmed and frustrated and Danila's suggestion is absolutely exactly what works for me. If I am venting and ranting and the person responds in a calm, personal way it humanizes the situation and sort of snaps me out of it (because when I'm ranting I am not really aware of you, it's about my own frustration). Of course this only works if the person does, at core, actually care about people...
posted by celtalitha at 1:01 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

""Please tell me exactly what you need to know."

I hate this kind of thing.

posted by triggerfinger at 12:56 PM on July 19"


Don't answer questions with questions. Don't go silent. Don't get manipulative by speaking in a "calmer" voice (that is SO patronizing and wrong.)

Speak in a strong clear mature voice. Be direct. It's OK to say "I don't know," if you truly don't know the answer.

When you have control of yourself, it helps the other person involved feel less upset, deflating the interaction or conflict.

Practicing mindfulness meditation might help you find your center when others around you get riled up.

I think Jesus was a very centered being. Strengthening your emotional core helps others by providing them a safe and sane place to interact with you.
posted by jbenben at 1:42 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Rhetorical questions, when will they end? ;)

I often find "What would you like me to say?" useful, if you can manage to feign good-natured confusion.

If I don't care what the other person thinks of me, I like to politely ask "May I have an example of an answer to that question?" This can be really fun.

"What the hell is wrong with you!?!"
"May I have an example of an answer to that question?"
posted by STFUDonnie at 1:49 PM on July 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

You may find this book useful - _Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No_.

You probably have good boundaries already, but I found the examples in the book very useful for also dealing with verbal crazy-making like this.
posted by RogueTech at 1:53 PM on July 19, 2013

Best answer: The rumposinc method.

What it's called seems to be a mix of Abusive Anger and Countering. Patricia Evans is a good source of scripts against this, but mostly for personal relationships. In the workplace she recommends writing down what was said and asking "have you got the exact time?" as you do so.
posted by tel3path at 2:18 PM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

The fact that it's people in power speaking to you like this makes it especially tricky to respond to them in a way that won't get you into further trouble with them. I think in most cases, they really aren't trying to engage you in a discussion; they are expressing their frustration, which may or may not be a result of something that is your fault, their fault, or anyone else's fault.

I used to work for someone who would fly off the handle like this when I followed her instructions exactly, as opposed to magically knowing the way she wanted me to do something. I'd tell her I did what she said, and she'd be like "WTF? NO. Why did you do that? How could you not know to do it this other way? What is wrong with you?" etc. If I'd responded to her insults in the way some of these answers are suggesting, I'm pretty sure I would've gotten canned for being insubordinate.

In my experience, they don't want to hear that you were just doing what they told you to do and be made to feel stupid and wrong, the way they're trying to make you feel. They don't really want to know your reasoning. They just want whatever they're talking about to get done a certain way. So what worked for me was to just listen to them and basically say, "Okay, I'll do that now" or "All right, I'll do it that way from now on" or something along those lines. It would usually stop them in their tracks and snap them out of it, and they'd be like "Oh. Okay. Good." If they keep demanding a reason for why you did it, it's okay to say "I thought that's how you wanted me to do it. I'll do it this way from now on."
posted by wondermouse at 2:18 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice above - in the workplace, I would encourage you to document this antagonizing behaviour, each and every time it happens. Names, date, time, location, topic, names of witnesses; keep a journal. May save you from a nasty situation of termination or increased harassment.
posted by NorthernAutumn at 6:45 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have done this antagonistic inquisition on occasion. I've done it to SOs, and to people at work from other departments.

I do it because what they've done really irritates me, but I want / need to keep interacting with them, so I mentally project out years of dealing with this irritation. What I am hoping for is that they will inform me that I am not condemned to years of this.

My thought process is: "This is the fifth time in a week that Jane has given me a contract with mistake in important sections. Every error could have destroyed a deal. But Jane's boss likes her, so Jane is going to be around for a long time. I'm going to be reviewing Jane's contracts for years, even though it's not my job and I hate it."

Or "I hate the fact that my SO doesn't appreciate my jokes. It makes me feel bad. But it's not a dealbreaker, so I'm going to keep dating him. This means I'm going to feel bad about jokes for a long time to come."

In any of these cases, what would prevent me from doing this is the other person telling me that it won't happen again.

For example: "I had a lot of typos in these contracts because I was reviewing them late at night. I'm going to review them in the morning instead, so you don't need to worry about typos in future contracts."
posted by cheesecake at 8:55 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

So, I would separate out the boss - actual person who can fire you - from other people in terms of a response. Everyone other than a boss - absolutely what people say about the quieter voice and boundaries/consequences of continued behavior. Amazing that you would have to engage this way with parents, as these are exactly the strategies you use with unruly kids - but sometimes people aren't at their best. I wouldn't try to figure out why they are doing it - people are responsible for regulating themselves, and if they are verbal, they are responsible for verbalizing their concerns, rather than having someone translate their bad behavior.

Bosses are a little different because they can, well, fire you. For them, I think the, 'clearly you are upset. Can you identify what the problem is?' in a non-sarcastic tone is useful. Trying to identify why it happened (what were you thinking) is not as useful as first solving it. Sort of that story about when you get shot with an arrow it helps to focus on stopping the bleeding before figuring out why someone shot you. I would ask questions in return, but I would focus on the same question, repeatedly until we get there: 'clearly something is motivating you to ask this question. What happened?' Or some variation of that.
posted by anitanita at 10:59 PM on July 19, 2013

Ugg! My boss does this. I've found that it's usually a reaction to something else going on in her life that has her upset - but that doesn't excuse it, nor does it make the situation any less dangerous for you work-wise, because anything you say and do WILL be held against you. After much trial and error (error!!!) I've come up with the following techniques for getting out alive and sometimes even changing the entire tenor of the conversation:

1. Acknowledge their issue. You don't have to admit any error - just say something like "I can see that this might be confusing," or even just repeat their question back to them in a less confrontational way - "You'd like to know my methodology/reasoning for x?"

2. Do NOT attempt to defend yourself. This will invariably be seen as defensive (which it justifiably is) and is like waving a red flag at a bull. They WANT to be angry and this just gives them ammo. Speak confidently but not in a conciliatory way. Keep it all business.

3. Give yourself time to get yourself under control. Ask them to restate the question - confidently. Or, restate it for them "so what your saying is (blah)."

4. When you get under control, provide your answer - and be extremely detailed. Speak longer than they have (even if you need to rephrase yourself). I like to go with a verbal bullet list of replies.

Be in control. Don't fight but don't let them lead the conversation. Get some breathing room and then take over conversationally. Acknowledge their pain without taking responsibility. Then run like hell.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:22 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

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