Behind Bullying

Interview with Dale Atkins & Edythe Mencher

Aron Hirt-Manheimer (RJ editor): What is bullying?

Dr. Dale Atkins (psychologist, author, TV commentator, Reform congregant): Humiliating, shaming, threatening, or intimidating someone into acting or thinking a certain way.

Rabbi Edythe/Edie Mencher (clinical social work psychotherapist, author, organizational consultant): Determining whether or not bullying is occurring often depends on the context. Two people may perceive the same situation differently. A group of men teasing one another, for example, might be viewed by one person as bullying and by another as engaging in normal "guy" behavior. Another example: When a friend of mine-who is very articulate but has a mild spelling disability-was in fifth grade, her teacher wrote a comment on one of her assignments: "Amanda, the content is beautiful, but your spelling is disgusting." Feeling that such a comment was bullying and hurtful, her mother replied to the teacher: "Dear Mrs. G., Amanda has difficulties with spelling, and I don't mind if you tell her to correct the spelling, but could you please not say it is 'disgusting'?" The next time Amanda handed in a writing assignment, the teacher wrote another comment: "Amanda, sweetheart, your content is still beautiful, but your mother doesn't want me to tell you that your spelling is disgusting." Now an adult professional (though still not a great speller), Amanda considers Mrs. G. the best elementary school teacher she ever had, and her mother has come to agree. Clearly, in addition to communicating criticism in a blunt style, the teacher also wished to convey her affection for Amanda and her appreciation of Amanda's writing ability. Amanda did not feel belittled, demeaned, or silenced. For her, Mrs. G.'s style, color, humor, and zaniness were valuable and memorable, in contrast to more "safe" comments by other teachers that never made an impression.

We also need to be careful not to leap to the assumption that one person is bullying another just because he/she is acting in a way that seems inappropriate to us. Like the time I rushed into a bakery to buy challah right before Shabbat. Seeing two open registers, with two people at one and 10 at the other, I went to the back of the shorter line…and suddenly I felt the store go quiet. I paid, people wished me " Shabbat Shalom, " and it was only when I left that I realized that the first line was being fed by the second. Not one person in that store said to me, "Don't cut in line." They didn't want to shame me; they gave me the benefit of the doubt that my behavior was unintentional, probably a result of feeling pressured by Shabbat preparations. And, in fact, they would have been wrong to think I was purposefully bullying my way ahead of them rather than misperceiving the situation to my own advantage.

It is much better for one's peace of mind when we do not assume that every aggressive, unkind, inappropriate, or selfish act is perpetrated against us because we look like a pushover, and to allow for the possibility of another explanation. Maybe someone cut us off in traffic because he's rushing to a sick child. Or perhaps a coworker's disturbing comment is indicative of something's wrong at home. We can say to ourselves, I need more evidence to know if this is intentional bullying or not. And, if it's possible and appropriate, we can suspend judgment and ask the other person gently, "Is there a reason you really needed to go first?"

Joy Weinberg (RJ managing editor): Why do some adults feel entitled to act aggressively toward other adults?

Dale: They believe: I am worth more than others, and therefore I deserve more and come before anyone or anything else. They exempt themselves from the rules that apply to the rest of us.

Some of these adults were bullied when they were children. Some learned as kids that the only way to get what they wanted was to be antagonistic toward others. Some discovered that intimidation helped in climbing the career ladder, a belief often reinforced by those who've treated them deferentially despite their inappropriate behavior.

Edie: Some human beings appear to be born with a quicker temper, a lower frustration tolerance, a tendency to easily feel hurt, and a poor ability to modulate their impulses when they don't get their way. They may be "wired" to respond with aggression or outrage more often than others-which, of course, doesn't mean that they can't learn to inhibit these responses. In addition, some people express anger at someone else because it helps them feel stronger and less helpless in the face of disappointment.

A non-supportive, anxiety-provoking environment can also make the difference between aggressive behavior and more modulated responses. For example, an intimidated schoolteacher who has been told her job is on the line unless her children reach certain academic goals may become irate with students who haven't been doing their work. Conversely, if her principal supports her in becoming a more effective teacher, she may extend that same encouragement to her students.

One's experience growing up can also play a significant role. Both a child who has never been given what she needs as well as one who has never been denied what she wants may have difficulty bearing frustration in adulthood.

Understanding the origin of another person's disturbing behavior, however, does not excuse it, but may afford us some insights to help us respond effectively and wisely.

Joy: What are some of the best ways to respond when you're being bullied?

Dale: If you can, resist feeling intimidated-which is often what the aggressor wants you to feel. Sometimes people don't stand up to a bully because they are afraid of being attacked or because they fear retribution. But failure to take action sends the message that the bully can continue intimidating you, and reinforces your own sense of powerlessness.

Try assertive responses against the bully, such as looking him/her firmly in the eye while standing straight, and in a clear tone of voice (without sounding threatening) saying, "I believe you are trying to bully me. I want this behavior to stop."

Do not fall into the trap of responding to bullying behavior by saying or doing something nasty to the perpetrator. Doing so will only demonstrate that the bully has succeeded in getting to you, which is liable to escalate the intimidating behavior.

Edie: A colleague of mine uses the "traffic-light technique" to calibrate her response to what feels like bullying. Though this method may seem simple or obvious, it is, in fact, difficult to sustain. It works like this: When you are in the red zone, overcome by anger, frustration, or fear: STOP-don't say or do anything, because your response is likely to be extreme and you might regret it later. Try to calm yourself with deep breathing, counting, or whatever helps you regain composure and perspective.

When you are in the yellow zone, a little calmer and less driven by strong emotion, consider explanations for the offending person's behavior that aren't personally aimed at you-perhaps there was a misunderstanding, the other person is upset about something else, or he/she doesn't realize the impact. Then, weigh how you might respond constructively, gauging how a range of possible responses are likely to affect the other person as well as contemplating what's in your own best interest.

Depending upon your temperament, the level of distress evoked by the situation, and your state of mind, it may take a few moments or more than a few hours to move from red through yellow to the green zone, where your responses are likely to reflect control and wisdom. When you are confident that you're in the green zone, able to bring together both your emotional and your measured responses, proceed with whatever action seems best-which, depending on the situation, may also be to keep your own counsel on the matter.

Joy: Such as when you're being bullied by your supervisor at work and speaking up might endanger your job?

Dale: Yes, in that instance, you may be better off documenting the negative episodes in writing (should you later choose to address the issue with HR) or seeking the help of a trusted colleague. Another strategy is navigating around a bullying boss. A woman I know tells this story: One of the worst bullies I've ever dealt with was a boss who was the company president's best friend. During staff meetings this boss would try to bait members of the management team into picking fights with him. As the only female on the team, I chose a different tactic: I refused to take the bait. Instead, I'd take a deep breath to help me remain calm, put a pleasant look on my face, stay quiet, and let him air his grievances until he literally ran out of steam. When he realized he couldn't lure me into an argument, he'd move on to the next person. The fights seemed to fill him with energy, as if he lived for those moments. So I always figured, why give him the satisfaction?

Also keep in mind that an adult can act nastily because of a false assumption that her target poses a threat or an obstacle in her path. Demonstrating that you are on her side-anything from saying a friendly "good morning" to offering help with something-may get you out of harm's way and avoid future incidents. However, if the bullying behavior continues, you'll need to try a different approach, because you don't want to send the message that you find her nastiness acceptable.

Joy: It's not easy to respond to provocation with restraint and compassion.

Dale: That's true. Try walking away from the person while holding an internal conversation about how sad it is that she needs to try to make someone else feel badly in order to make herself feel better. Think about the good things in your life: the people you love and who love you. Create a mental image of a time you were happy. You'll be walking away from a negative experience and replacing it with something positive.

Try to be peaceful and generous, too. Let's say your usually wonderful partner blurts out something cruel. Know that there's an underlying reason for his tactlessness-that the very moment when he is at his ugliest is also when he needs your love the most. Do not allow yourself to be verbally abused, but do open your heart and remember what he is like when he is at his best. And whatever the circumstances, remember that when somebody attacks you, it's not your fault. Whether you choose to work it through with the person or ignore it and move on, you do not deserve this kind of treatment. And if your emotional response to consistent provocation is fear-such as feeling stressed, vulnerable, afraid, anxious, diminished, and/or depressed-your physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health may be at risk. Get help from a doctor, rabbi, friend, or therapist.

Edie: There is a Chasidic teaching that asks: What might we find if we could see within the heart of evil? The answer: a crying baby. As this teaching suggests, when we encounter someone acting in seemingly cruel, selfish, even monstrous ways, often deep within the person is a hurt, desperate child who feels unheard and wants to be loved. While this reality may make the behavior no less dangerous, our awareness of it can help us respond in more gentle, empathetic ways which may work to disarm the person. Stories like Beauty and the Beast embody this wisdom. When we can convey to a human being who seems unattractively brutal our belief that he also has a beautiful and generous soul within, we may nurture the loving part of his character.

The Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 65b teaches that every individual can be judged by three measures: cos, kees, and ca'as. Cos refers to how the person acts when intoxicated (by alcohol or perhaps by power, fame, etc.). Kees refers to how the person manages his/her wallet-how generous, how miserly, how responsibly money is handled. Ca'as assesses how the person reacts when angered. One who engages in bullying behavior may abuse power, act ungenerously, and turn quickly to anger. And when we're attacked, whether or not we respond with anger is a measure of our character.

That said, even God wrestles with anger in responding to human beings' disobedience. In the Noah story, after the flood God hangs a rainbow in the sky as a reminder to never again unleash such destruction, saying: "I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth….This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations" (Genesis 9:12). In the Talmud, when asked what God's prayer might be, the rabbis responded: "May…My mercy…suppress My anger…so that I may deal with My children [with] mercy and go beyond the requirements of strict justice" (Talmud Berakhot 7a). Jewish tradition understands that we who are made in God's image also need to tap into our well of mercy to help us respond constructively when provoked.

Joy: Is it appropriate to intervene if a friend is being bullied?

Edie: Sometimes it is better to encourage a friend to speak up for himself. Hillel the Elder said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?...." That was my choice years ago when I watched a fellow camp counselor be the butt of supposedly innocuous but potentially humiliating jokes by one of the unit supervisors. While I was tempted to plea that we stop joking, as someone might feel belittled, I also recognized that publicly intervening would embarrass the supervisor and might be inappropriate. So instead I walked back to the bunk with my co-counselor and suggested that he talk with the supervisor privately, explaining that the jokes are hurtful to him, even though he does not let his feelings show. In the end, the supervisor thanked my colleague for telling him, and never did it again. I also sensed that my co-counselor rose in our supervisor's estimation. And we both became better counselors, too, because we came to recognize that seemly "harmless" joking really is humiliating, and we avoided that approach with the campers.

Other times, intervening on someone else's behalf is preferable. As the remainder of the Hillel quotation says, "If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" I once took a course in which many of the students were repeatedly intimidated by the professor, a respected scholar. One day, a student earnestly expressed an idea relating to valuing piety over scientific rationality, and the professor responded with mockery. The room fell silent. After a few moments, a second student spoke up, saying she was deeply uncomfortable with the way the professor had treated the first student. The professor turned on this second student in an even more insulting manner, which inspired the rest of us to seek the help of the dean, who worked over time to address the issue with the professor-and also made sure that the two students were protected from any further retaliation on the professor's part.

Overcoming fear and paralysis to speak out in someone's defense is not always easy; sometimes there is risk, and more often no immediate positive resolution. Everyone is strengthened, however, when we are moved to confront and diminish tyranny, even if it takes quite a while to achieve our goals. "Do not stand by idly as your neighbor bleeds" (Leviticus 19:16) is an important lesson.

If you do choose the path of involvement, refrain from responding with anger or humiliating the person who has behaved unkindly. As Babia Metzia 58b teaches: "Whosoever shames another in public is like shedding blood."

Dale: To restrain yourself from "losing it," remember your goal: being there for your friend. An outburst is unlikely to keep her safe, secure, and supported. Also, question your motives and consider alternatives: Why do I want to shame or humiliate someone? Is there another way?

In addition, consider whether an intervention might backfire. For example, if your friend is in an abusive, dangerous relationship, interceding might place her in additional jeopardy; a better approach may be to wait until you can talk confidentially with your friend about finding safe haven, support, and resources if she considers leaving the relationship.

Aron: A friend of mine has witnessed public shaming at his temple board meetings. How is bullying behavior best handled in a congregational setting?

Edie: In this type of situation, it is often helpful to bring in an outside congregational consultant. A URJ consultant I know helped to diffuse tensions at a synagogue after the head of the ritual committee publicly criticized temple board members for failing to attend worship services and accused them of serving on the board only to gain status or enhance resumés. The rabbi was deeply troubled by the ritual committee president's attacks, but shared his concern about board members' absenteeism at services.

To help remedy this situation, the congregation held a board retreat in which the consultant asked everyone about their childhood and adult experiences with prayer. Some members shared their religious longings, their feelings of inadequacy in worship settings because of a lack of Hebrew comprehension, and their discomfort with certain rituals. Gradually, what emerged was an understanding of why some board members were avoiding services, even though Jewish connection mattered very much to them. The head of the ritual committee was then able to acknowledge that some people expressed their love of Judaism through devotion to community and acts of loving kindness. He also formed a work group of board members interested in exploring what might make worship services more engaging to those who avoided them. Some joined a "learners' minyan"; others selected inspirational readings addressing current community and personal concerns to include in services. In the end, some members remained uninterested in services, others found new meaning in regular prayer-but all had found a supportive way to acknowledge and address their differences.

Another approach to handling hurtful speech is to motivate each congregational committee, including the board, to become a caring community, and entrust one representative in every group to be aware of potential problems and bring them to the group's attention for everyone's well-being. A congregation's caring committee might include individuals who also serve on other committees, and in turn bring a commitment to mutual respect to those groups, thereby helping to transform the congregation into a more caring place. You can also engage in Jewish study together on what constitutes effective leadership, useful speech, and appropriate emotive responses.

Dale: I saw such remedies instituted at one congregation, and the differences were remarkable. Before the intervention, members of the board acted disrespectfully toward one another, making comments ("that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard"), interrupting before a thought was finished, sighing aloud, and using facial expressions (such as eye rolling) to communicate their displeasure. Sometimes votes were taken on important issues without full consideration because people did not want to risk feeling humiliated in this environment.

When some of the board members told the president they were considering resigning because of the disturbing tenor of the meetings, the president required every board member to attend three retreats facilitated by an expert in board relations. At the retreats, members participated in group problem-solving, role playing, and other exercises that demonstrated how each person's perspective was valuable in solving the issue at hand. Additionally, the group examined what was "acceptable" and "unacceptable" means of interaction through the lens of Jewish text, teachings, and stories. Together they formulated a new goal: to work together kindly.

Over time, board members changed their behavior. And on occasion, when they reverted to undesirable behavior patterns, others in the group gently reminded them about the group's mission. New board members were informed of the standards of behavior at the outset. It became safe to express disagreement with the prevailing opinion, and a fuller range of perspectives were on the table for consideration. In this open environment, people seemed to care more about one another and take responsibility for their own actions.

Edie: The lesson here reminds me of the story of the rabbi who was accosted by a group of pro-Nazi thugs in the years leading up to the Holocaust. One of the teens held a bird cupped in his hand and said, "Tell me, rabbi, since you Jews are supposed to be so wise and holy-is the bird I am holding alive or dead? I will show my friends how stupid you Jews really are!" The rabbi thought carefully before he responded. He knew that if he said, "The bird is dead," the bully would release it and affirm for his followers that Jews are fools, inciting more aggression; and if he said, "The bird is alive," the bully would squeeze it to death. The rabbi said softly, "The answer, my son, is in your hands. The answer is in your hands."

The answer to how we conduct ourselves when faced with-or tempted by-bullying behavior is in our own hands.