How to negotiate with a bully

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Bullying doesn’t end when you grow out of your playground days. In the workplace it can be especially challenging to know what to do when you’re faced with someone who wants to overpower you — especially if they’re in a hierarchical position of power. When the bully is someone who you have to work with and who can impact your chances for success, how do you negotiate a confrontation? 

Here are the three steps that can help you take back control when a bully tries to negotiate by force.

Pause

If you’re the type of person who turns into a deer in headlights when faced with confrontation, this might come naturally. Or perhaps you want to jump straight in the ring to fight back.  

Whatever your first impulse is, acknowledge it, but discipline yourself to pause before taking any action. Take five slow, complete breaths from the moment that you realize you’re being attacked. Slowing your breathing and heart rate will help you remain calm under pressure and maintain your composure. The thing the bully wants is to prove how tough he is by overwhelming and confusing you, which forces you to give in. Do not give him that satisfaction. 

When he runs out of steam, if you haven’t completed your five breaths yet, keep breathing. Resist the impulse to fill the silence. Remaining calm and unflustered in the face of a bully is a way to quietly assert your power.

Mirror

When a bully is speaking to you with vitriol — gritting his teeth, leaning over the table to crowd you out of your space, making you feel small — it feels chaotic. It can practically knock the wind out of you. Redirect the conversation by mirroring him: not his mannerisms, but his words.

 Violaine Galland, regional vice president at Scotwork North America, a negotiation training company, recommends this technique. Repeat back to the bully exactly what he said to you. Galland shared an example from her years working on Wall Street. An executive she worked with was in an uproar: “If we don’t get this done, we are completely f---. If you and your incompetent team don’t get me the data by Wednesday, I am going to call your boss and get you fired!” 

She calmly turned to the executive and said, “Sir, I understand that we are f--- if we don’t get this done. If me and my incompetent team don’t get you the data by Wednesday, you’ll call my boss and get me fired. Did I get that right?”

Her perspective for women who are facing a bully is this: don’t try to out-bully the bully. When you’re under pressure, rely your strengths. For many women, those include empathy and listening skills. Use them to your advantage. 

Talk or walk

Decide what your next step is: are you going to talk — reclaiming the conversation, or walk — adjourning to try again at another time? If you decide to stick it out, consider taking a short break before continuing. You can do this by stepping out to use the restroom, getting a coffee, or simply saying, “let’s take a short break before we continue.” This will make it easy for you to redirect the negotiation. 

When you return, model the behavior you hope to see. I recall a time when I was coaching someone on using new technology. She became increasingly frustrated and eventually started lashing out at me. She was yelling and making a scene, even though other colleagues were in earshot. Rather than yelling back or losing my cool, I lowered my voice and spoke softly. I wanted her to calm down and I used my voice as a contrast. Within a few minutes, she had settled down and we completed our training. She even emailed me later that day to thank me for helping her.

However, if you can’t or won’t keep going, honor that feeling. Know your own limits. If you’re being disrespected, there’s no need to submit. You can tell the bully, “I can’t continue like this, so I’m going to suggest that we revisit our discussion another time.” If you’re meeting in person, stand up to show that you’re ending the conversation.

Walking away gives both parties the opportunity to reflect. Resist the urge to catastrophize, and leave yourself the option to revisit the deal at another time.

This post originally appeared in Women@Forbes, where Alexandra Dickinson is a contributor. She writes about how to use a negotiation mindset to achieve your goals.

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Alexandra Dickinson

Alexandra Dickinson is the CEO and founder of Ask For It, a boutique consulting company working to close the gender wage gap by effecting change at both the institutional and individual level. We work with companies, schools, organizations and individuals through a combination of trainings, workshops and consulting. Our goal is for women and men to be paid based on their talents and skills, regardless of gender, and for our company to have been an important part of that change.