Adult bullies may not push their victims off swing sets, but they do use verbal or physical intimidation as a tactic to gain power, and they take pleasure in making the people around them feel small. 

A 2017 survey found that nearly one in three American adults has been bullied during adulthood—and many experienced stress, depression, diminished confidence and/or lost sleep as a result. A bully in the workplace can damage your career. A bully in your neighborhood or condo complex can fill you with anxiety. A bully in your social club or bar can suck all the joy out of visiting a favorite place. 

If you’re being bullied, understand that the bullying says much more about the bully than it does about you. Bullies don’t attack because something is wrong with their victims…they do so as a strategy to prevent people from noticing their own inadequacies, such as incompetence or self-centeredness.

Most victims want to stand up to bullies, to protect themselves and their friends, but they are either afraid to or just don’t know what to do. Here’s a three-step strategy that really works…

1. Warn yourself that an attack is i­mminent. You walk into your club—and see someone you know to be a bully seated at the bar. You’re giving a presentation—and you know a workplace bully is going to be in the audience. 

Silently warn yourself, He/she is going to try to come after me, and remind yourself that anything that gets said will be about the bully and not about you. Then if the bully does indeed start speaking to you, mentally disengage from the conversation—try to experience it as an observer watching from a distance. Silently tell yourself, Ah, there he goes again—I was expecting that

Bullies try to throw their victims off balance with shocking statements, then move in for the kill before the victims regain their footing. Anticipating their attacks and mentally separating yourself from those attacks blunts the bullies’ psychological impact, helping you remain calm.

Anticipating the attack might not be possible when bullying comes from an unexpected source, such as someone you have never dealt with before. But even here you can detach yourself from the interaction and blunt its impact by telling yourself, Ah, he’s a bully—I’ve dealt with people like this before.

Important: Use these tactics even if you’re not scared of bullies. One of the secrets of bullies is that they do not ­depend exclusively on fear. Victims can experience outrage, defensiveness or shock rather than fear—but the bullies get the best of these people, too. That’s because outrage, defensiveness and shock work as well as fear.

2. Pause for two seconds after the bully concludes his bullying ­statement. ­Silently count off these seconds. Maintain eye contact with the bully as you do this (turn to face the bully to make this eye contact if you were not facing him initially), and put a puzzled expression on your face—a slight head tilt helps. Your eye contact sends a message that you haven’t been cowed by the bully…while your pause and puzzled expression show that you haven’t been driven to outrage or defensiveness. Your facial expression says, Really? You’ve got to be kidding me or You are making an idiot of yourself. 

Note: This stage of the interaction is ­silent. No words are required. Your expression will say it all. Sometimes a bully’s initial response when you fail to show cowering deference might be to escalate the situation. If so, wait out his bluster with your bemused expression and eye contact before proceeding to step three.

3. Offer a response that makes the bully look laughable and reinforces that he hasn’t gotten to you. Speak in a calm, clear voice that everyone present can hear. Pick among these options…

“My mind wandered there for a second…could you repeat what you just said?” This sends the message that the bully hasn’t thrown you off balance ­at all—he’s barely even worthy of your attention. It also puts him in the position of having to repeat the ridiculous or horrible thing he just said. 

If the Bully Is Your Boss

Different tactics are called for when the bully is someone who has power over you, such as your boss. Calling out this powerful bully’s misbehavior, as above, could lead to retribution, even though that is wrong. 

One alternative is to report the bullying to someone who has some power over the bully, such as the human resources department or your boss’s boss. But that shouldn’t be done unless you’re ready to make a job change if necessary. 

If you’re feeling brave, another alternative is to speak to the boss yourself in a private meeting. Say, “Could I ask you a favor? When you tell me something, it’s inevitably something important that I need to hear…but sometimes the way it’s presented puts me on the defensive, which makes it hard for me to hear what you have to say.” This strategy could result in better interactions.