Cognitive Modification Can Be Beneficial When Dealing With Ongoing Bullying

by Jul 21, 2012

A distinguished difference exists between aggressive, passive and assertive communication. Aggressive communication includes that which is designed to be hurtful, or violates another person, much like a bully’s style of communication. Passive communication, on the other hand, is often perceived by others as having a low concern for yourself, or lack in ability to “stand up” for your beliefs.

Assertive behavior refers to expressing yourself in ways that do not violate another person’s views, but still allows you to maintain concern for your own self and well-being. It refers to the ability to “stand up” for you, without hurting other’s feelings, or offending them or onlookers.

Further, we often compensate for another person’s communication when we feel uncomfortable. For example, if a person is standing in our personal space, we likely back up a little to alieve our uncomfortableness and gain more space. By doing so, we have managed to maintain respect for ourselves without offending the other person by asking them to back away. In another example, if a bully is communicating aggressively, we likely compensate with passive communication, simply because aggressive communication is hard to handle.

Having read that, now read the following scenario:

Your manager is a bully, and often takes credit for your work, downplays the fantastic job you do, generally interrupts you when you are speaking, and ignores your ideas. During a staff meeting, you are asked to provide a status report on the project you were assigned to do in coordination with your manager. As you flip open the notepad you jotted some notes on and begin to speak, your manager interrupts you and charges into a play-by-play of the project with seemingly no discount for your input or feelings.

Describe to a partner or write out how the scenario would play out if you re-acted to your manager’s behavior using aggressive communication, passive communication and assertive communication.

Now discuss which communication style seemed to work the best? What was good and bad about each scenario? How did you feel at the end of each scenario?

This activity is the beginning of a process called cognitive modification. This trick, perhaps most commonly used to develop public speaking abilities, allows you to envision a communication scenario before it occurs, and cognitively assess it so that you are more prepared for it. In this case, it allows you to envision “standing up for yourself” without being seen as aggressive or disrespectful by the bully or the other people in the staff meeting. (Not that we care about being disrespectful to someone who is disrespectful to us, however in a workplace it is important others see you as respectful.)

Think of real interactions you have had with a bully at work and what your communication looked like during these interactions. Were you aggressive, passive, or assertive? If you were aggressive or passive, how could you have modified your communication style to an assertive one?

Continue to envision typical or potential interactions you may have with a bully, and continue to envision what your assertive response to the bully’s aggressive communication looks like. Continue to think about, and talk yourself through, these scenarios so as to build up your assertive communication skills. When you find yourself in a situation much like the one described above, you will already have a “plan of attack” that will allow you to keep their self-respect and yours.

Do you know how much money chronically bad behavior costs your company? Spoiler alert – it’s a LOT higher than you want it to be. Download our data and worksheet to see how it’s costing your organization and what you can do to fix it.


About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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