A friend of mine is working in an organisation where someone is being a bully. We were talking about it today. On the one hand, we talked about taking a hard line. That is, senior managers in my friend’s organisation need to be very firm with this person. On the other hand, thinking of compassion, we talked about the importance of remembering that chances are the destructive behaviours this person is giving to the outside world are also being turned inwards. Does this justify what she’s doing? No. Why should we seek to understand why someone is behaving the way they are behaving and/or to look at how it might be affecting them? Well, wouldn’t you want someone to do the same for you? Because haven’t you been destructive to others at some point in your life? And aren’t you, or anyone else, less likely to keep up such behaviour if people around you try and help you to see what you are doing, rather than simply punish you for it? At the same time, isn’t the hard line part – drawing boundaries to wake you up – part of being compassionate? In other words, compassion entails both discipline, boundaries and firm words as well as empathy and sensitivity.
Sometimes, no matter what we do – no matter how compassionate we are with someone – they will be unable to see what they are doing to themselves and others. When those moments come, we often will have a hard choice to make. We might have to let go. We can make it clear we are always there for that person to walk in and say ‘I need help.’ At the same time, we can make it clear that we are not here to be abused or harmed or to support destructive behaviours generally. This is tricky. It seems like this means placing conditions on love – when the ideal is unconditional love.
Which makes me wonder – ask myself – can we still love people even as we are asking them to stay away or as we keep a distance in order to protect ourselves? Yes, we can. In fact, as I suggested above, I’m inclined think that doing so – keeping that distance – is a loving act. Because that person who is doing the harm – well, chances are they do not want to be causing harm. In this way, it seems that preventing them from harming you further is an act of love – though it might not seem that way at the time. I guess it is what we have come to call ‘tough love.’
Something else my friend and I discussed about her colleague is that the colleague doing the bullying does not realise the impact she is having on people around her. And chances are if she knew and understood what she was doing, she would feel quite badly about it. And if she didn’t – if there were no remorse – then we know she is suffering from something quite profound. For whatever reason – a congenital inheritance or a mental illness that developed in response to environmental circumstances – she is disconnected from her compassionate, creative and collaborative human spirit. Surely, if we can help that person reconnect with her spirited self, we should try to do so.
Some people are beyond help. But I think they are a very small number. The majority of us would welcome help – though it might not always seem to be the case. Help doesn’t mean being the saviour or the hero. Sometimes our role is merely to plant seeds. Another person might water them. And yet another might check on them and do what they can to be nurturing. Another person might be the one to be there when the seeds start to open up. And yet another might take them from budding to blooming or bearing fruit. No single individual is fully responsible for someone changing – many people, especially the person with the destructive behaviours – play a role.
This has got me thinking about how I can be mindful of my potential to play any one of those roles in the lives of others – be they strangers or dear friends. This means, taking with me a consciousness when I am speaking to people – including those who might be acting like a bully. Compassion means having a firm hand and also – as I’m now inclined to call it – a gardner’s hand. In nearly every person who acts like a bully is fertile soil for sowing seeds of change. What can I do to plant and nurture those seeds? That is the question I shall ask myself.
What would it mean for you to apply the gardner’s hand the next time you encounter a person who is acting like a bully?