Back off, Bully!
Stand your ground with PowerPhrases
© 2009 Meryl Runion


He didnít really just say that, did he?
As a nurse, Gloria had spent much more time with the patient than the doctor had. When the doctorís recommended treatment seemed to overlook some symptoms, she spoke up about it. The doctorís response was,

- Iíll tell you whatÖhow about I be the doctor and you be the nurse.

The doctorís admonishment effectively shut Gloria down.

One week later, Gloria suspected a patient had meningitis. She wasn’t sure…it was just a suspicion. But she felt it was almost a certainty that the doctor would not welcome her input. Instead of risking the doctorís wrath, she held her tongue.

That was a silence she would regret for the rest of her life. She was later sick at heart when the patient died of meningitis.

Hindsight is 20/20. Had the patient recovered, Gloria might not have given her silence a second thought. Instead, it was a decisive moment that Gloria replayed in her mind a hundred times. After that wakeup call, Gloria resolved to speak up and get the bully to back off. She had the commitment to speak, but she didnít have the skills.

From communication scripts to communication skills
There are eight lame excuses for not speaking up when the stakes are high. One driving consideration is that when people donít know what to say, they usually say nothing. When they have the words, they use them. I wrote PowerPhrases! to provide people with new ways of expressing themselves.

Thatís a great start. The next step is to develop the skills to create your own PowerPhrases. Thatís why I wrote SpeakStrong Ė and thatís why I wrote this article.

If you get stuck by your limited repertoire of responses, read on to learn how to brainstorm a plethora of comebacks that will break your habit of backing down Ė and get the bullies in your life to BACK OFF!

What possible responses can you think of to a bully remark like the doctorís snide remark? I walk you through a series of options in this article. The process will bring up ideas you wonít want to use Ė but even a bad idea can lead to a good one.

Learn to resist intimidation on the smaller issues. As I apply the steps to the nurseís communication challenge, apply them yourself to a remark someone made to you that has shut you down.

Six approaches to get a bully to back off
There are six approaches to bullyproofing your conversations. Work with each approach to break out of habit patterns that donít serve you. Some of the phrases you come up with will be better left unsaid. Even those have value, however, because by considering ways of speaking that are new to you, you will break your reflexive reactions.

Other phrases will be the exact ones you need to be armed and ready to disarm the bully.

1. Tai chi Ė align and redirect
This approach agrees with the remark and then takes it to a conclusion that supports truth or the requirements of the situation as you see it. For example:

  • Thatís a good plan. Iíll offer input as a nursing professional who has spent many hours with this patient and leave it to you to use that information to determine appropriate treatment.

2. Question
When a remark seems unfair, belittling and unreasonable, it can seem futile to ask questions. Yet that can often be the best approach. For example:

  • What approach do you think is appropriate for a nurse to take when sheís concerned a treatment could cause damage?

3. State effect
Let the offender know how their remark affects you. For example:

  • That remark cuts off feedback that could be crucial to patient care.

4. State your own opinion
Let them know what you think in a direct way.

  • I am speaking as a nursing professional. That prescription is contraindicated.

5. Throw it back at them
I donít usually recommend responding in kind, but sometimes it can be a needed wakeup call. Whether you choose this approach or not, considering it can break an overly-cautious mindset.

  • Iíll tell you what Ė how about you do your job so I can do mine.

6. Ask for what you want
Ignore any emotional dynamic and simply ask for what you want. For example:

  • I am a professional and I expect to be treated as one.

Pick Your PowerPhrase
Once you go through the process, review your phrases for the PowerPhrase principles. Are they short? Specific? Are they targeted and likely to get the result you want? Do they say what you mean? (Think, feel and want?) Do you mean what your phrases say Ė and are you willing to back your words up with action? And finally, are your phrases mean? Or are they as strong as they need to be and no stronger?

If youíre serious about learning to Speak Strong, go through this process with several Poison Phrases that have been used to silence you and to shut conversation down.

Start with the small issues so you will be more likely to be able to find the words when the stakes are high.

Do let me know how it goes. Thanks!

PowerPhrase Tutorial
SpeakStrong offers a PowerPhrase Tutorial at:
to walk you through the creation of your own PowerPhrases.

Bullyproof yourself with PowerPhrases!
PowerPhrases! offers a chapter on saying no and SpeakStrong offers several chapters on setting great boundaries. How to Use PowerPhrases shares stories and examples of people who have learned to say no. I just put a package together that includes these three resources. It's called the The Quick Start Communication Transformation Book Package.

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Meryl Runion and Speak Strong (SpeakStrong) provides Power Phrases (PowerPhrases) and other tools to help you improve communication skills at work and at home. You can read more about her at

Meryl is the author of six books on communication that have sold over a quarter million copies worldwide, including Speak Strong, PowerPhrases!, How to Use PowerPhrases, Perfect Phrases for Managers and Supervisors, and How to Say It: Performance Reviews. You can reach her at 719-684-2633, or by email:

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