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Why Solving Bullying Could Possibly Be Making It Worse

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

“Tell the bully to stop.”

“Ignore the bully.”

“Stand up for yourself and tell a trusted adult.”

“If you see someone being bullied, stand up for them.”

These are the standard anti-bullying techniques that are taught in schools. Techniques that I was taught when I was in school three decades ago.

The basic anti-bullying messages haven’t changed, nor have they been updated yet the bullying continues. Clearly, something isn’t working.

Image credit: John Hain from Pixaby

Let us start with the goals of a bully. All they want is to gain control of a situation and draw power from it. Essentially, bullies feel powerless until their target reacts to their taunts – that is where the bully gets their power from.

Considering this, when we tell a bully to stop, they recognise their taunts are having the very effect they want to have, upsetting the target, and hence feeling more powerful than the target. This technique has the opposite of the intended effect.

What about ignoring the bully, according to John Lenhart of Flowcess, this is known as the Absolve technique. Let’s be honest here, when has a problem ever gone away by ignoring it? This option is like covering an abscess with a Band-Aid. The infection continues to fester underneath.

We often teach children to stand up for themselves but don’t show them how to (other than telling the bully to stop which we have already seen doesn’t work). Telling a trusted adult is the solve technique as identified by John. This results in three additional problems being created. Let us see how.

Two years ago, when my son was being bullied, he used all the tactics taught to him by the school and anti-bullying workshops. The bullying didn’t stop, and the teacher got involved. This resulted in the bully being kept away from my son, the teacher having to monitor him constantly, and additional stress experienced by all three parties. The teacher experienced additional stress because of new routines set to keep the bully under check, my son experienced additional stress as he had to be more aware than usual of his surroundings so as not to cross paths with the bully and the bully experienced additional stress from fear of being punished if he crossed the line. Notice how three additional problems were created because of the “solve” technique?

Another way bullying is addressed is using the Resolve technique. According to John, this is based on punishment and reward which is ineffective when it comes to changing the behaviour of the bully. Ultimately, a bully is after one thing – attention and this just becomes another way of getting it.

If you see someone being bullied, stand up for them. The question remains, how? Using Absolve, Resolve or Solve? None of these work as we have seen so far. In addition to this, the person who stands up for the target risks becoming a target of the bully themselves which is why there are so many silent bystanders. They choose to stay quiet to safeguard themselves.

So, what is the answer? According to John, the dissolve technique, which involves collaborative communication and unconscious confrontation.

Collaborative communication has three simple rules – make statements on yourself, ask questions, and answer questions. Unconscious confrontation? Perhaps it is best to illustrate this with an example.

A few months ago, the parent of a 10-year-old boy came to me for a private consultation. Her son was being bullied by a girl because he loved theater. This girl would tell him over and over, “You are a theater boy. Theater is only for girls.”

This is how I taught him to use collaborative communication and unconscious confrontation:

She said, “You are a theater boy!”

He replied, “Yes I am.” (Collaborative communication – making statements on himself, not on her).

She said, “Theater is only for girls!”

He responded, “Well, I am changing that. What are you doing to change the world?” (Both sentences are collaborative communication while the second one has an additional twist of unconscious confrontation). After saying this, he walked away. Walking away is key – leave the bully to wrestle with their conscience which you have awoken with this questioning.

The bully never bothered him again.

Another teen I worked with had a bully tell her, “Why don’t you just go kill yourself?” The unconscious confrontation I taught her to respond with was, “Would it be okay if I said that to you?” She did this, walked away, and the bully was left speechless never to bother this teen again.

Why does this work? We have direct control over only 10% of our brain – the conscious brain while our energy and behaviour are run by our unconscious brain. If our conscious brain was responsible for our behaviours, a bully would stop upon being told to stop or upon being threatened with punishment.  In the same light, if our behaviours were determined by our conscious brain, then we would change the way we eat and exercise upon being told how to do it the right way. However, this doesn’t work but we continue using this technique with the behaviour of others and ourselves. Why?

Until proven otherwise, our unconscious brain believes the best about us. Meaning the bully’s unconscious brain sees no ill intentions in the bully’s behaviour until the supposedly harmless question is asked. This results in the unconscious brain being presented with the opportunity to determine if the bullying is deliberate.

Consequently, the bully has no option but to acknowledge (to themselves) that their destructive behaviour is intentional resulting in internal conflict for previous bullying behaviour. Alternatively, the bully may avoid answering the question and their unconscious brain will drain their energy towards future bullying behaviour. This is how to end bullying permanently – by dissolving it.

So, what is stopping us from teaching these effective techniques in schools today? I have reached out to many schools eager to teach this on a mass scale only to be declined. Why? Perhaps you can answer this question for me.

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