Monday, September 14, 2015

Bullies and Boundaries

I was recently in a conversation with a prospective client about the possibility of my working with their group about the dynamics of bullying and boundaries. As I thought about it, I figured the first challenge was defining what those two concepts mean. Here's what I came up with:

Definition of Bullying
Let me start with this online definition from a school website:

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

In community, I'd modify this to say it's the perception that someone is purposefully communicating or behaving in a way that is uncomfortable, threatening, or disrespectful in order to put others at a disadvantage with respect to engaging on an issue. The effect of bullying behavior is often that engagement is unpleasant, tense, and ineffective. Sometimes it doesn't happen at all—because the person being "bullied" is too intimidated to even attempt it.

There is the perception that if the bully's behavior is tolerated, then the playing field has been tipped in their favor. This is seen as an abuse of power, and the bully comes across as being more interested in getting their way than in working it out with others. (If they were really interested in relationship or collaborative problem solving, they wouldn't behave that way.)

Note #1: The fact that the bully's behavior is unwanted and that this has been communicated to the bully (perhaps even repeatedly) does not necessarily mean that the bully knows another way, or that everyone experiences that behavior as bullying. Further complicating the dynamic, what is scary, aggressive, and threatening in one context, may be culturally appropriate or acceptable in another. This can be a diversity issue.

Note #2: While the most common way that bullying is understood is when a person uses forceful or threatening behaviors to get others to back down (perhaps the bully can tolerate being in a tension-filled environment better than others), the essence of this dynamic is when people use a communication style that is known to be awkward, difficult, or inaccessible to others, thereby placing the other person at a distinct disadvantage.

Thus, two people with very different communication styles can each feel bullied by the other. Because each may come across as insisting that the other person adopt their style as a pre-condition of being willing to communicate, it can lead to a stalemate with each blaming the other for the impasse.

One of the tricky aspects of bullying is that there is often an assignment of bad intent to the bully's behavior, and it is very difficult to know intent. It is not a simple matter to distinguish between an action that is deeply conditioned versus one that is calculated to cause distress.

All of that said, you do not just have to lump it if another's behavior or communication style doesn't work for you. You can still try to discuss it and explore what's possible with regard to the "bully" making efforts to move towards the comfort zone of others without becoming too uncomfortable themselves. Similarly, this can be worked from the other end as well: to what extent can those who struggle with the 'bully" learn to cope with their behavior, assuming good intent? (If you tense up in the presence of loud voices, are you willing to work on that response?)

Definition of Boundaries
In the context of a cooperative group, "boundaries" have to do with how far individuals (or the group) are willing to go to in attempting to engage with others in a good faith effort to work through issues. It comes into play when people feel they've tried enough and it's OK to disengage in integrity. You don't have to think very hard about this concept to appreciate that if boundaries are easily triggered, it leads to a lot of unresolved tension and general unhappiness. So healthy groups try to develop a culture in which there is ready support for people in tension, ostensibly so that those good faith efforts are easy to attempt and more likely to be productive.

While you can be sympathetic to the desire for boundaries (who wants to keep butting their head against the wall?), the danger is reaching for the boundary card prematurely. There is the general sense that Pontius Pilate was too quick on the trigger in writing off Jesus, and thus there is nuance about when you've tried enough and when you're simply trying to avoid something awkward while wrapping yourself in the flag of moral virtue.

While I believe that setting a boundary (giving up on the prospects for productive communication with someone) has to be an option (I've reached that point half a dozen times over the course of four decades in community and cooperative networking), the overwhelming danger is not trying too long; it's giving up too soon. The most seductive version of this is when there's a difficult individual with low social capital. Time and again I've witnessed groups embracing the story that the outlier's behavior is the problem and it's on that person to conform. Absent that, they'll be ignored.

Stretching, by definition, entails a certain amount of awkwardness, trying to figure out how far you're willing to move outside your comfort zone to find an intersection with a person you find difficult. If you're going to give up on them, you need to be able to sleep at night with having made that decision. Most people think of themselves as reasonable and compassionate. Have you lived up to your own standards with respect to adjusting how you come across in order to reach the other person? (Note: I'm not talking about trying the same thing over and over and it still not working; I'm talking about trying different things and none of them working.)

When people invoke boundaries—limiting their future engagement with people they find difficult—it makes it that much harder for the group to succeed. Communication and bridging are the lifeblood of the community and boundaries cut off the communication and block the bridges. It is an act of withdrawing the possibility of community with the person with whom you have established a boundary. It's a serious deal, and should only be taken after everything else has failed.

Too often, in my observation, people are willing to establish boundaries in retaliation for what they've experienced as disrespect (and perhaps disregard) by the other person (perhaps someone who comes across as a bully), without actually testing to see what the other person intended or checking for what they'd like their exchanges with you to be like, or are open to working on.

In effect, we're setting boundaries around unpleasantness, forgetting that it can have a profound impact on the people and relationships. If someone promised you that community living was not going to involve awkward dynamics, I have some oceanfront property in Utah that I'd like to talk to you about.

1 comment:

vera said...

I am not sure if you are interested in an exchange over this, Laird. I remember from the past you generally are not. But people change, so I throw in a few thoughts.

I have never seen a definition of bullying that includes "making people uncomfortable." Generally, bullying is about demeaning, one upmanship, name calling, using various fallacies in argumentation or even lying to score a point, and so on. While I believe people have a right to protect their groups and their discussions from this sort of behavior, I do not, and have not ever thought that I am deserving of being spared being uncomfortable. Neither do I think that "loud voices" per se are bullying. And I am wondering if you use those examples in order to minimize the seriousness of bullying in groups.

In my experience, bullying is always about power (as in power-over), whether it is intentional or unintentional, conscious or subconscious. I agree that is it difficult to know the intention of another person, and it helps to focus on the behavior, not the intention. (Sometimes intentions are so murky that even the individual in question does not rightly know.)

If someone in group demeans me or another regularly, what is the proper response? Is it to ask that I grow a thicker skin (thus helping the bully) or is it ... something quite different, something to do with effective boundaries?

And that brings me to the issue of boundaries. They are lines drawn by a person that specify what is, and isn't acceptable to me, in the way others treat me. Being put down, jeered at, vilified, called names are examples of behaviors a person might draw a boundary about. A boundary simply means that I will not permit another to treat me that way without consequences.

After having looked into the issue of boundaries at length, I have never seen anyone saying, as you do, that "giving up on the prospects for productive communication with someone" is the essence of boundaries. I would say that is the extreme boundary when everything else has been tried, and disengagement and distance are the only things left. But there is a long long road with many options before coming to that point.

Are boundaries triggered? In my experience, boundaries are trespassed, or not. Boundaries are set and defended, or not. Some boundaries are firm, others are negotiable.

If a group sets (and commits to defend) the boundary of, say, "no name-calling" then agreed upon consequences follow the breach. The simplest consequence being the interruption of the content, calling out "process!" and dealing with the boundary breach before moving on. And by the way, genuine apologies go a long way toward healing a boundary breach, and are the fastest way I know to return to the content of the group discussion.