6 keys to dealing with business bullies.

There are people in business who see their key to success as the ability to intimidate others in order to get their way.  I personally like these people a lot.  Because it is exceptionally fun to say no to them, often setting them off into a tirade that can be very entertaining to watch.  But there are some key things to do right when dealing with a bully.

Most small business owners are relatively nice people.  And some unscrupulous types like to take advantage of this and prey on the natural tendency of people to avoid conflict whenever possible.  The easiest way to avoid conflict with a bully is just to give them what they want.  But sooner or later, what they want will be more than you’re willing to give them.  The hassle of dealing with them becomes less painful than the price of what they are asking for, and it’s time to meet them head on.  Here are some tips.

  1. Know your facts.  Bullies love to rattle off facts to “prove” their position, but they also tend to love to distort facts or present only limited facts that help them.  They do so aggressively and apply time pressure to keep you on your heels.  But a mastery of your facts can be a great asset to rebut their partial truths or outright false claims.  Now they are on the defensive instead of you.  It also allows you to call out their empty threats.  We had a bully threatening to kick our client our of her commercial space later that day if they didn’t get their way.  I calmly reminded him that on a verbal lease in Illinois the best he could do was remove her on the last day of the following month.  Knowing the facts took the wind out of the sails of his empty threat.
  2. Only use facts to rebut.  Knowing your facts is important, but don’t rely on them exclusively.  It’s easy to get sucked into a debate about what did or did not happen, while entirely bypassing the basic truth that what the bully is asking for is fundamentally wrong.  With confidence, continually steer the conversation toward what is right, and what is true.  Use facts primarily just to rebut their lies and half-truths as noted above.
  3. Don’t allow distractions.  Typically, people are bullies because the facts are not on their side.  They substitute intimidation for simply being in the right.  Since the facts don’t favor them, they love to introduce distractions.  Your issue is with payment on five invoices that are seven months old.  They are trying to bring up the fact that last month one item was missing from their shipment.  “Okay, we’ll talk about that missing item once we’ve resolved these older open invoices.  Let’s take care of that first.”  Don’t let them distract you.
  4. Remain absolutely calm, if not cordial.  You notice in the quote above that my tone is absolutely calm.  I often enjoy actually being overly nice (to a degree, don’t overdo it) to bullies because they hate it.  They rely on their ability to make you angry, because people make poor decisions when they are emotional.  Make the conscious decision that you are not going to blow your top.
  5. Don’t allow false time pressure.  One of the most common tools of the bully is to invent false time pressure.  “I need an answer by noon today or I will do XYZ.”  If moving quickly is possible, then do so.  Don’t intentionally slow the process down if you don’t need to.  But when it will take time to handle the situation correctly, calmly inform the bully that their deadline won’t work but you will get back to them by XYZ date.  Be specific, don’t leave it open ended.  But don’t buy into their false sense of urgency.  But remember to know your facts.  If there is REAL time pressure in a situation, you need to know that before slowing things down and paying the price for it.
  6. Communicate via email, but never argue via email.  I’ve covered this in a prior post, but email is great for communicating.  It is terrible for resolving conflict.  When you get the inflamed email from the bully, pick up the phone and call them.  Pursue a solution, not an empty “email victory.”

Have an awesome day, and go launch, build and exit strong.


One meeting = 20 emails.

I deal with conflict on a regular basis.  And there is a very simple rule to live by when it comes to conflict, especially when emotions start running high: Conflict is not resolved via email.

Let me write that again: Conflict is not resolved via email.

When you really need to get something done, there is no substitute for the in person meeting.  In a world of Skype, conference calls, and email, this seems entirely unnecessary.  And for the most part, that’s true.  But there are times that there is simply no substitute.

I’ve caught myself doing it.  After the fifth email back and forth with zero progress, I finally step back from the conflict and realize it’s time to pick up the phone, or even better, schedule a meeting.  When I’m dealing with attorneys far senior to me in years, they go for the meeting or phone even faster than I do.  Not because they are old-timers who don’t understand email.  But because they know that problems are solved with direct human interaction.

Use email when it is the right tool.  But it is never the right tool when emotions start running high, and real consequences are on the line.  When that is the case, always go for an in person meeting even if it is inconvenient or difficult.  Can’t pull it off?  Then pick up the phone.  But whatever you do, stop yourself before launching into an email assault on your opposing party.  That email will almost always make you feel better.  But it will almost never actually solve your problem.

In person communication is better where there is no conflict as well.  Many times I’ve been on the seventh long paragraph of an email to client and realized this could all be explained easily in a fifteen minute phone call, and with even greater clarity.  It would have taken a dozen emails back and forth to cover all the nuanced questions the client had in that short call.

Email is great at some things.  And quite terrible at others.  Be self-aware about when it’s time to stop typing, and start dialing or driving.

Have an awesome day,