How you should respond to a bullying stranger

anger hate
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Faith Wood knows how to resolve conflict. Her years in front-line law enforcement taught her how to effectively de-escalate any situation to a successful conclusion. Faith will use her knowledge of conflict management to guide you through the often stressful experiences you may encounter in your personal or professional life. 

Faith Wood

Dear Conflict Coach: The other day, my husband’s colleague was in the work yard with his dog (a labradoodle). The dog is a feisty one-year-old and he’s working on teaching him manners – like when to come when called and how not to bark at everything that moves.

On this occasion, the dog was barking at cars on the highway and the colleague told the dog to “Shhhh” and then held his muzzle closed for a moment, saying, “No barking.”

A woman across the highway at another business yelled over at him and then stormed across, scolding him for abusing his dog.

What abuse?

This individual lit into my husband’s colleague for the next several minutes, and after the colleague went inside, she called the police to investigate this horrific event of animal cruelty.

How do you respond to bullying by a stranger?

Answer: Our communities are full of stories like this – moments when a passionate person goes on the attack, feeling justified in their actions based on their perception of possible harm to an innocent life.

There have been stories of windows being broken on a hot day, even when the AC is running in a vehicle. Exaggerated emotions are the culprit here. A genuine passion to save an animal from harm, perhaps, but a bit of an overzealous response.

An event like this can be alarming to someone who truly adores their pet and only wants what’s best for it. That includes correcting excited behaviour before it creates a problem for others – such as barking incessantly.

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Since my goal is to help folks resolve conflict, let us approach this from the concept of navigating aggressive behaviour rather than postulate about why this individual chose the approach she did.

When being aggressively confronted by a stranger, attempt to assume good intent even if the delivery of the message is poor. This individual is concerned for the welfare of the dog, after all. And if the dog was being injured, you might want someone to intervene.

When someone attacks or embarrasses you in public, take a deep breath before responding. The old count-to-10 technique truly works since it sends badly needed oxygen back to your brain.

It’s never a good idea to have dialogue when the brain is hijacked by emotion. Our IQ drops like a stone when strong negative emotions kidnap the thinking brain. Even the brightest minds among us, when enraged, appear scarcely more coherent than a wild animal.

When emotions are high, people hear things literally. If there are two ways to interpret a message, we often choose the negative in moments of high emotion, so choose your words carefully. Words are tools for making your intention clear, so focus on creating a calm, safe environment where it’s possible to have a civil conversation.

At any point, you can disengage and exit the situation. If you decide to do this, avoid turning your back. Keep a clear route to the exit and remain professional – avoid using an aggressive tone of voice or body language as you depart.

If you choose to stay in the conversation, keep your voice steady and calm while maintaining an assertive tone. This will affirm your position, while talking calmly will often encourage the other party to do so as well.

You may not be able to prevent an event such as you describe from occurring but how you respond to it is something you have influence over.

Stop yourself from making the issue bigger than it already is by responding with outrage or defensiveness. Practicing a communication interrupt can help avoid being drawn into a defensive position or an argumentative one. For example, agree with an arguer on some point – it tends to catch them off guard and often stops the flame.

Anger happens fast (and that speed will no doubt cause us to forget all these tips), so it’s a good idea to rehearse how you would handle aggressive situations before you’re blindsided by one.

Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.

For interview requests, click here.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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