4 Tips For Handling Conversation Bullies

conversationYou’re at a cocktail party or in the office break room, and someone goes on a rant about their political views. Only in the process of sharing their own views, they are also demeaning everyone else’s.

Or you’re at a family Thanksgiving gathering, and as you sit down next to Uncle Charlie at the dinner table, he starts in with his usual diatribe against everything you believe in, complete with expletives and offensive labels.

Pushy, abrasive people like these are conversational bullies. They exercise control over conversations by insulting, hurting or belittling (sometimes without either the intention or realization that they have).

We’ve all been in these kinds of conversations, right? These tips for handling conversational bullies will help you survive them.

First, be sure you’re doing everything you can to keep the conversation civil and productive.

Tighten up your listening skills so that you are really hearing what the other person is saying. Don’t interrupt, rebut, dismiss or minimize (even with the voice inside your head). In other words, don’t listen with a critical ear – JUST LISTEN. And try to understand the other person’s perspective, even if they are communicating it in a less-then-respectful way.

If their language (curse words, belittling phrases or pejorative slang) is making it difficult for you to hear their point, then say this. Explain, politely, that these kinds of words and phrases are offensive to you, and ask if they could refrain from using them. MOST people will be able to do this for at least a short period of time. If your person can’t, then I suggest you go right to choice #2 below.

conversationOnce the other person is done speaking, stay calm (go to your happy place if you need to) and do two things before you take your turn.

First, let them know you’ve heard and understood them. Paraphrase back what you think you heard them say (maybe softening their language a bit to model better communication skills), paying special attention to what they seemed to be saying about their feelings. And be open to correction; you might not have gotten it right the first time.

Then, even though it’s killing you to do this, try to find some way to validate their perspective (like, “I see what you mean” or “I understand you feel strongly about this”) so that by the time it’s your turn to speak the other person really feels heard and understood, and might be calm enough to give you half a chance to share your own views.

When it’s your turn to speak, you have two choices:

If you feel the other person’s manner, as negative as it is, leaves some room for a productive conversation, then by all means share your opinion. But be sure to share it respectfully and in a non-blaming, non-combative manner. Stick to talking about your feelings and perceptions, not the truth with a capital T, and use I statements instead of You statements whenever possible.

And be sure that you are really willing to agree to disagree on the topic, that you don’t have a secret “I need to be right here” agenda. (I may or may not struggle with this issue myself.)

If, on the other hand, the other person’s manner is just too critical or offensive, or perhaps downright abusive, then it’s time to bow out of the conversation and move on to someone else. Know your values and limits here, and don’t be afraid to stand up (or move down the table) for them.

One important thing to remember – this parting doesn’t have to happen in an emotional or confrontational way. In any exchange, while you don’t have a bit of control over the other person (really, you don’t), you always have control over your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. You can choose to allow someone’s behavior to trigger you into behaving badly, or you can choose to respond less reactively and more in line with the positive force you want to be in the world.

conversationAnd, yes, there are certainly times, if the person in question has shown they are either unwilling or unable to ever speak and act in a respectful manner, if it is clear that they don’t value you or your boundaries, when it may be wise to actually end your relationship with them.

Don’t get me wrong; we need people with different opinions in our life. What we don’t need is someone who can’t value and honor our perspective even as they assert his or her own.

Whether you’re leaving this person for the evening or for good, leave in a positive frame of mind. Take a deep breath, validate the person’s perspective, wish them well, and remind yourself as you are walking away that they’re still learning how to share their views in a manner that doesn’t demean yours.

And, when next Thanksgiving rolls around, don’t sit by Uncle Charlie.

A slightly different version of this post appears here on the relationship website Your Tango.

What about you? Do you have experience with a conversational bully? Do you have strategies that have worked for you in these situations? If so, please share them with us in a comment below.

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