Beware the bully who hides behind “frank” talk–their love of “robust” feedback is a cloak for abuse


Bullies come in many shapes and sizes.  It is not always easy to spot them.  Their mode of operation can be insidious, hidden.  I have recently found a new way to spot one:

Is there someone in your office or in your life who specialises in giving “frank” feedback?  Do they love to talk about how they welcome open and blunt conversation?

A friend was relating to me a story about just such a person at the office, and a recent experience gave me a revelation about this kind of behaviour.

What we both discovered is that very often, such people just say they like “robust” discussion for the “clarity” it provides only because what they want to do is feel free to criticise you, to give you blunt feedback, to “help” you because doing so makes them feel good…but when you might dare to do the same, all hell breaks loose, and there is no doubt at all that feedback is not a two-way street.

This appears to me to occur mainly in situations where there is an imbalance of power.  In my friend’s case, with a boss.  My own experience would parallel that framing loosely.  “Rain does not fall up,” as they say, and so too with feedback.  It takes a strong person, perhaps, to receive feedback from a subordinate.  And maybe that explains part of the reason for this being such a common trope.

Does the superior think that the subordinate is “uppity” or presumptuous?  Is it arrogant of them to think so?  That would feel about right to me.

I remember an excruciating moment visiting my father in his office.  I can’t remember the context.  I was 13 at the time, and his secretary was there.  He referred to himself as “a tough boss, but a fair one,” and then went on to press his secretary for confirmation that she liked working for him because he was fair—as if to to say that the “punishment” he meted out was welcome and appropriate because it was “fair”.  That somehow we could and should all accept his role as judge and punisher.  His secretary glanced at me and the weary, twisted smile on her face said it all…how she tolerated him, how she was there before him and would be there after him, how his arrogance was not welcome…and how it was somewhat embarrassing for her and me both to be there in that moment.

And I remember thinking, “what an idiot!” to think that anyone wants someone else to be “tough but fair” on them.  The arrogance is beyond belief.

Be very wary of the person who says they like blunt conversation—they are just warning you that they like to bully you…don’t believe me?  Try pushing back.  Those kinds of people are paper tigers—they only like the frank conversation when they are judging you, giving you feedback, telling you what’s wrong with you.  Who needs it?

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