How to effectively deal with a conversation bully in the workplace – or anywhere!

Conversation bully

If you’ve ever dealt with someone who baits, berates or belittles you, you know what it’s like to deal with a conversation bully. Here are some ways to regain control of the situation.

Stay focused and calm

This is always (always always) the right response to any situation – including dealing with a conversation bully.

When a discussion turns sour, the first thing to do is, actually, nothing. Well, maybe not nothing, but nothing physical or outward.


Focus on what the person is saying and remain calm – especially in situations where someone is trying to goad you into a response you’ll likely regret.

Focusing on the word choices and listening to the tone of voice will tell you right away if a meaningful discussion can be had – or if you’re dealing with a conversational bully. And, while I’m not sure it’s even possible to have a meaningful discussion with a bully, there are some strategies we can all use to try and create one.

Ask for more

It’s important to remember that people who bully are vulnerable, and their behavior is not only a coping mechanism to deal with stress but it can also be a cry for help. You can diffuse the situation by asking them to give you more detail about the very thing they’re attacking you over. This sounds counterintuitive, but it gives you time to center yourself and it tells the other person that you’re interested in what they have to say.

Find points of agreement

It’s equally important to understand that people who resort to conversation bullying tactics are coming from a place of insecurity and hope to divert attention away from them or their involvement in whatever the situation is. But the fact that there is a situation at all is something you can both agree on. When you agree that, yes, there is a situation and ask them to tell you more about their position, you validate their perspective and can begin to move them into meaningful conversation.

The experience you have with others is about what you evoke from them.


When to walk away from a conversation bully

#1 – this should never be your first response. Ever.

It’s never ok to walk away before you’ve tried every respectful and proactive approach to positively advance the conversation.


But knowing when it is ok and knowing how to walk away from difficult situations can be tricky, so here are a few quick hints.

It is ok to bow out when the other person is:

  • threatening
  • disrespectful
  • too emotional
  • breaks physical boundaries

It is also ok to bow out when you:

  • feel yourself losing the ability to control your emotions
  • know the conversation cannot have a positive outcome
  • don’t have all of the information to continue

When you know it’s ok to walk away, make sure you do it in a way that leaves the door open for future reconciliation by telling the other person why you’re bowing out. After all, you’re the one making the decision to exit the situation, so you have a responsibility to explain that.

Here are some examples of strategic exits from a conversation bully:

  • “I don’t feel this conversation has the constructive tone we need to solve the problem. Let’s talk about it some other time.”
  • “I don’t think I like where this conversation is headed, so I’m going to take a break so we can both get some perspective.”
  • “I feel like we’re in reaction mode and not listening to each other, so let’s put this on ice for a bit and come back to it later.”

Whatever your reason for leaving, you should make it clear to the other person that you do want to work it out — just not under the present circumstance.

Disagreements don’t create enemies, but the way we handle them sure can.

👋I’m Gretchen

👉I am a career and personal development strategist on a mission to teach you to find what you love without losing yourself in the process.

🎯I create sane strategies that produce serious results.

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