Can you respect a bully?

A very long time ago I walked into the office of the rector-superior in the seminary I was attending at the University of Notre Dame. He was a good leader and known for being very direct. I needed to schedule a meeting w/him. I asked him “Can we book that meeting now?” I saw that he was sitting next to another staff member, having a conversation. He said “No, I’m busy now.” I thought, he is such a busy man it might take days to get a chance to schedule this, and spoke up confidently “It would be convenient to do it now.” He looked straight at me and said, “We are not here for your convenience.” (this is not him below, but what he looked like to me then)

OUCH! That hurt. That comment, and my internal story explaining why he said it, (because he was a bully) sent me into a tailspin of emotion and later on some counseling. The conflict that our exchange triggered that evening nearly got me kicked out of the seminary.


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“Who was being disrespectful in that moment?” I asked a room full of staff people at an event I was leading not long ago. “He was.” agreed four women sitting together. “It depends…what was his tone of voice?” asked a young man. “The tone was direct and business-like.” I said.

Hmmm… Who do you think was being disrespectful in this brief exchange? If you know anything about the Roman Catholic world, you know that it is not run like a democracy. I asked “Can we book that meeting now?” and he said a clear “No.”… I attempted to push through his answer.

I think that I was the disrespectful one in the fact that I didn’t listen to his “no”. He was my superior. I could have said, “Thank you, may I try you another time?”. I was not deferring to his authority or listening to his answer. And it took me a lot of years to come to this conclusion. That is the power of the righteous-ego and the force of psychological rank.

When we perceive the other to be a bully or a tyrant, even if that person is an elected political leader, it is especially hard for us to see the ways we might be acting as less than respectful. We feel righteous in our indignation and can minimize our own responsibility in the tense dynamics.  If we can see how we are being a little bit (or a lot) like them, it is easier to build a bridge of connection to them.  And in that moment I could not see that I was being a bit of a bully myself!!  See this for another approach when two people are at odds: “Ali in Battle”.

One thing I have learned in communication is that it is often best to “Press on a yes, but let go of a no.”   He said “no” and I could have let go. It might have saved me $100s of dollars in counseling and a lot of heart ache. If someone says “yes” but you sense they don’t mean it, then another gentle question could unearth some important information.

Either way, whether they say “yes” or they say “no”, people are not here for your convenience or mine.   And if we push them our direction, like I did, it is likely to get ugly. And when you add the complexities of race and diverse cultures it gets extra tricky.

There was an element of race to this story in the feedback I got when I told it recently. I plan to write more on this case in the next newsletter.

If you are in Minnesota next Wednesday Feb 8th please join me at the Leading Age Institute where I’ll be giving a workshop called “Courageous Conversations for Nice Minnesotans”.

Meanwhile keep being the brave conversational athlete I know you can be.

About Tom Esch

Tom Esch works with health care companies, counties, cities, construction companies, business analysts, attorneys, executives, owners, managers and non-profit executives to grow interpersonal awareness and foster effective communication.