Bullies, Bystanders and Assertive Communication

Anyone who knows me long enough will eventually get my spiel about the need to practice assertive communication. It was something that was presented to me back in 2007 when I took a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course – which means that yes, mindful awareness is part of the deal. The instructors gave this awesome handout that delineated verbal and non-verbal aggressive, passive and assertive behaviors as well as the goals and likely outcomes for each. Even though I was already familiar with this to some degree (aren’t we all?), it was still an eye opener. It gave me language to better identify my own actions as well as actions of those around me. And the best part was the helpful tips that were given to help one become more assertive. One of which was this handy formula: When you do X in situation Y, I feel Z. Such simple advice seemed to be really effective. Until the one day years later when I was working with a very sweet and wise little boy who told me that there was no way that he would tell the kids who were bullying him that he was hurt by their actions. I can remember him saying this as he swung a big stick at a nearby tree – maybe practice for self-defense? I wasn’t sure. But I had to stop and think about it, because he was right, what good would it do? Wouldn’t a bully only be encouraged by the fact that his or her tactics were working? And the other truth of the situation is that my experience of working in some of the schools led me to witness the often fruitless act of telling a trusted adult about the bullying, me being one of them. It’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of adults around with good intentions, but the reality is that there are limitations to what we can do, especially if we don’t witness directly what’s going on. I kept my eyes open for solutions to the problem and despite well-meaning efforts and presentations, I just didn’t see anything that would actually work. Until the day I came across a story about the need for bystanders to play an important role. How brilliant I thought, of course it’s important for children to stick together; bullies are less likely to bully someone who’s part of a group, even if that group only shows up in the moment. Easier said than done of course when there are a number of reasons why one might not want to intervene including the real possibility that the perpetrator will then turn on you. But as trauma specialist Judith Herman points out, “The victim’s greatest contempt is often reserved, not for the perpetrator, but for the passive bystander.” (Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, 2015, p.92). On NPR last week I heard this great 5-minute news story in response to the Harvey Weinstein allegations that apparently everyone in Hollywood knew about for years. In it, reporters begin to talk about bystander intervention training such as the technique of creating a distraction without naming it, to get the person in danger out of harm, and the need for bystanders to be willing to see it as a shared responsibility.

Although I get loud and clear that that are limitations to being assertive in certain situations, I will likely always remain an advocate – especially when it’s in regards to a relationship that you care about. Assertiveness is incredibly difficult to practice in the moment. So many of us are not aware of the physical sensations – the messages we get that inform us that something is off. We might not pay attention to them until it’s much too late, or the situation becomes overwhelming and freeze mode kicks in. Ashley Judd who has become an advocate for standing up to sexual harassment suggests a regular practice in responding to even the smallest of slights (aka microaggressions) “If it feels wrong, it is wrong. It’s really ok to say ‘that’s wrong.’”  In her video for Teen Vogue, Judd suggests calling out “Stop” with an extended halting hand, and merely responding “inappropriate and unwelcome” when faced with intrusive, unwelcome comments. I should add here that this approach doesn’t have to be limited to sexual harassment; bullying comes in many forms of manipulation. The great thing about this approach is that it can easily be practiced when with a group of friends or in a crowd of people. In this Ted Talk video, presenter Ken Brown demonstrates how to elicit help from a group of bystanders. “If you want help in a crowd” he says, “all you need is one person and then other people will follow…small groups getting things done will be the catalysts for other small groups to follow…movements are born by small groups of people taking action.”

I don’t think there’s any shortage of reasons to stand up and use your voice these days. It’s not a matter of allowing someone else to do the work anymore, it’s about each of us needing to make the assumption that no one else has – if it doesn’t feel safe to do it alone, invite a friend to join you, because this is of course all about power in numbers. And just as importantly know that there is never shame in doing what you need to do, to get out of a potentially dangerous situation (even if that means not doing this work yet because you might be triggered). As a wise woman recently suggested, women will be so much more powerful when we bond together to address important issues, so please let’s stop throwing passive judgments towards one another. Here’s my assertive formula in action for all bystanders: When you share responsibility and speak up to address an uncomfortable situation, I feel empowered to take action too.

In case you didn’t know, the #MeToo movement originally began with Tarana Burke – one person who inspired small groups of people to take action – check it out. 

This is what the power of shared responsibility looks like, as seen in nature: The Battle at Kruger (if you find it hard to watch at first, skip to 5:10) – it’s truly amazing!

Copyright 2017 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.