Mediate BC Blog

How to be Calm, Firm, and Rational with a Bully

Posted by cd.saint

Today is Pink Shirt Day, otherwise known as Anti-Bullying Day, in Canada and around the world. The theme for this year is “Lift each other up” because “when we lift each other up, we see past the things that separate us and see instead the things that unite us as people.”[1] I find this simple message powerful and to be true; yet it can also feel like one of the hardest things to do.


To see what unites us, we need to let go of blame and anger and the story we’re telling ourselves about the other person so we can find our curiosity. We need to strike the right balance of being firm and assertive without becoming aggressive.

Without care, the behaviours we use to try and protect ourselves can often be the same as the behaviours we are trying to protect ourselves from.

Consider this example:

You are making a presentation to a prospective client. Your team members are also attending this meeting with you. One colleague laughs to herself during you presentation and then when you’re finished, says you “are clearly a junior associate” and that you “don’t know what you’re doing”. You can’t believe your colleague would try to make you look so bad. You feel hurt and belittled. 

It might feel good in the moment to call your colleague a pompous idiot and let everyone know you think their ideas are old and stale. That momentary good feeling doesn’t last. Their behavior might escalate, or even more likely, they will complain to management and HR about your bullying behavior in the meeting!

So how do you appear calm, firm and rational in your approach? Here are the steps I have found to be helpful:


1. Get clear on what is fact and what is story

Facts are observable behaviours. Think about what a video camera would see and hear. What were the words said? What was the volume level? What movements did the person make?

Story is the set of conclusions and judgements you draw from the behaviours. It also includes how you feel. What meaning are you making of the behaviours?

Take a piece of paper and draw two columns: one for the facts and one for the story. Write out what you noticed in the appropriate column.

Using the example above, here’s a version of what that might look like:



  • Presentation to prospective client, colleagues also present
  • Laughed during the pitch
  • Said “you don’t know what you’re doing” and “clearly very junior”
  • Feel anxious and belittled
  • They’re trying to make me look bad to the client and colleagues



2. Prepare your “I Statement”

Start with the list of facts you made. Write out a sentence from the “I” to state the behaviours you observed.

When I see/hear/read __[insert fact(s) from your list]__

Then, using your story list, describe the story you are telling yourself.

I think __[conclusions or judgements]__ and I feel __[feelings from your list]__.

This lets the other person know what behaviours are not acceptable to you and why in a firm and respectful way.

Tip: See if you can describe the facts and the story without using the word “you”. The more the “you” is used the greater the possibility the other person will have of responding defensively.

Using the example:

When I hear “you don’t know what you’re doing” and my contribution is laughed at during a pitch meeting with clients and colleagues I think you’re trying to make me look bad and I feel belittled.


3. Get Curious

Ask the other person open questions to learn more about their intentions and perceptions. The most fruitful questions tend to start with “what” or “how”.

Try to avoid asking a question that starts with “why”. “Why” questions can be heard as challenging and provoke defensive results.

What was going on for you during that meeting? I would like to hear your perspective.


4. Describe the behaviour you want to see

Looking at your list of facts, consider what you would prefer to have seen. Make a list of these positive behaviours and then build them into a sentence from the “I”. Be firm in making this request and setting this boundary.

What I want to happen in the future is __[insert your preferred behaviours]__.

Using the example, it might look something like:

In the future I would like any concerns to be brought to me privately, ideally before a presentation.


5. Request commitment

Ask if the preferred behaviour is something the other person can commit to moving forward. Having someone make a choice improves the likelihood the new behaviour will be adhered to and increases accountability. If the person says no, then it is a good chance to get curious again and ask more “what” and “how” questions.

Is this something you can commit to moving forward?

Using the example, it might look something like:

Moving forward are you willing to commit to bringing any concerns to me privately?


You might notice that following these steps can take more time in preparation than the conversation itself. In my experience, these moments of preparation are the most valuable to help you be calm, firm and rational in your approach. It may just also help you both see the things that unite you as people.


About the Author

C.D. Saint is an Associate Civil Mediator. His conflict management practice focuses on addressing conflict constructively and restoring work relationships to support healthy and well-functioning workplaces.

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