How many of you have experienced this with a bully? They create the problem, making it look like you are the bad guy that has harmed the bully. I know someone who had just this sort of thing happen to them. This person’s bully implied to anyone that would listen to him that the target was the one that was bad-mouthing him. He said that the target was calling him names to his subordinates, undermining him and making him look bad.
How did he do this, you may ask? By taking a tidbit of true information and exaggerating the exact words to create a mountain of lies that were impossible to disprove. Things were said in passing – words the target probably couldn’t recall a half an hour later – but nothing was intended to denigrate the bully. Yet the bully took the information that he had and was able to convince people that the target had made horrible, ludicrous remarks. When asked about the statements, the bully’s staff of course said that the target had said things – because they had – just not in the context that the bully implied.
For example – have you ever used an expletive – even just a mild one like “crap” – as a means of saying something in surprise? Say someone tells you that their hamster died. You may respond, “well, it was a hamster, but crap, that’s too bad.” You acknowledge that yes, it was “just a hamster” but you also recognize that it was this person’s pet and that they probably feel bad. Now – take that expression and using essentially the same words, see how the meaning can change even slightly. Instead of having the first statement, it actually comes out like “well, crap, it was a hamster – too bad!”
Now, if you are the one interviewing the person who heard the remark, you may ask if such an expression was said. The respondent of course will say something like “yes, I believe he did.” Now unless you are a skilled interviewer, you may let the interview stop there instead of pressing further about the context of the remark. This was what happened to the target I spoke of above – people knew what was said, but they did not elaborate on it, nor did the interviewer press them to. This is how a bully can make words come back to haunt a target – by implying that the context was vicious toward the bully.
Is there a way around this kind of communication snafu? Sure there is. First of all – watch what you say, whether it is about the bully or not. As the Miranda rights tell us, “anything you say can and will be held against you!” Words have a way of coming back to haunt people. My rule of thumb is this – if what you are about to say could embarrass you if it were printed on the front page of the newspaper (or in a blog!), don’t say it! If it is something that needs to be said, choose your words wisely.
Likewise, whenever possible, avoid references to specific people – if no one is named then there is no way to imply you were saying anything about anyone in particular. Second – if you know that you are being bullied, try to avoid engaging in conversations with others about the bully unless there is a witness present. Alliances are cheap – you never know when the person you are talking to could rat you out to the bully. Your words will be twisted to serve the bully’s (and their allies’) agenda.
Finally – never say anything out in the open at work unless you are comfortable with everyone knowing it. Keep your opinions to yourself unless you are in a private conversation with someone you KNOW can be trusted. If uncertain about someone’s trustworthiness, keep your mouth shut!
For more information, see “Cold Blooded Coworkers.”