Many among us have fantasized about a world where there is only one rule: “Be Kind.” We imagine a utopic society where everyone is held in a global embrace. Connection to others is immeasurably important, especially for outliers whose developmental uniqueness is socially isolating by definition. Arguably, feeling connected to community is the single most important predictor of healthy development. As global citizens, each of us is tasked with creating more inclusive communities.
Pain Caused by 2016 Election Results
Tragically, we have to face the reality that many of our neighbors are being harassed because of their race, gender, sexual identity, cognitive differences and/or spiritual practices – from name calling, to threats, to exclusion and marginalization (including “de-friending” people from social media who express differing view points) or worse.
Our children are growing increasingly sensitive and cognitively complex. Some are emotional sponges, physically experiencing the emotional pain of the people around them. Many feel scared because of prior harassing, discriminatory and/or abusive behavior; some have experienced physical injuries, others emotional, including PTSD. Reminders of past traumatic events can cause re-traumatization (like a vet who hears a fan which triggers memories of a helicopter in a war zone). For some, this is at the heart of their election pain – Trump’s racist, sexist and abusive behavior causes re-traumatization.
The “B” Word: About Bullying
In schools, this behavior is addressed under the construct of “bullying.” Bright students can camouflage suffering and also be manipulative – the child claiming they are being bullied may very well be engaging in relational aggression, and likewise, the student who says nothing, may be in desperate need of help. Furthermore, many children’s sensitivities and perfectionism can negatively influence how they interpret social exchanges. It can be difficult to discern between conflict and bullying. Recently, I supported a school through a situation where a parent was bullying another child by calling the student a “bully.” The family exhibited individualist, competitive behavior; it seemed the mother possibly saw the other child’s accomplishments as a threat. Fortunately, the school caught on. Teachers continued supporting both children equally. When the mother did not get her way (sadly, she was set on the other child being labeled a “bully” and was pushing for expulsion even though there were no indicators of bullying behavior), she transitioned to a new school resulting in a healthier classroom community for those who remained. Name calling, including labeling someone a “bully” or “evil” whether at school, home or work is bullying behavior. The bullied becomes the bully, the oppressed the oppressor. To stop the cycle of violence, we must address the behavior rather than draw divisive lines that separate and perpetuate.
Individual and collective decisions shape culture, which in turn, influences cognitive development. I have been fortunate to support in co-creating a few communities where diverse learners thrived. The level of synchronicity was magical. There is an art to balancing responsibilities with commensurate expertise and decision making authority. When expectations, expertise and authority are mismatched, resources do not align with needs and/or injurious behavior is left unaddressed, the system becomes imbalanced. Nature corrects with chaos. In these situations, injustices may spread like wildfire, the smoke signaling destruction needs to occur before flowers can bloom again.
Inclusive communities take measures to prevent and address aggressive behavior. When harmful behavior is purposefully or selectively ignored, it can fuel a destructive blaze. It helps to clearly define bullying behavior; Stopbullying.gov describes it as follows:
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.
Bullying behavior does not end in school. Here are a few things we can do to promote healthy community development in both schools and the workplace.
Five Precautionary Measures:
- Adopt and publish healthy communication practices and conflict resolution protocol. Craft a communication manifesto – resolve to assume positive intent! Distinguish between conflict and bullying behavior. With conflict there is acceptance of responsibility, expression of regret and a change in behavior. Excluding someone who is open to genuine dialogue perpetuates the cycle of aggression. There will be times every human disagrees with others. Diversity is not only our strength, it unites. Organizations need frameworks for navigating disagreements and conflict in healthy ways. Tensions among individuals often illustrate unmet needs and areas for growth. If we are unwilling to engage in perspective taking, all loose. The Center for Nonviolent Communication has many wonderful resources to support dialogue (cnvc.org).
- Outline an investigation process and take all allegations of bullying behavior seriously. Identify and communicate consequences for bullying behavior, and also for submitting knowingly false accusations.
- Protect from retaliation. Limit interactions between individuals involved until the investigation is complete. The perpetrator of bullying behavior may try to stop the inquiry and injurious behavior may escalate. Some individuals can be particularly sensitive to perceived criticism; the fear of negative behavior being revealed may result in more egregious acts.
- Educate about bias. There are a variety of biases that impact how we process information. Understanding the variety of factors influencing our thinking supports just decision making. There are countless different types of biases – click here for a helpful overview.
- Celebrate upstanders. The Bully Project defines an upstander as “someone who recognizes something is wrong and acts to make it right.” Witnesses who do not take action are implicitly supporting and empowering bullying behavior. The long term benefits of taking action to stop aggressive behavior always outweigh the short term costs.
The Virtual Paradox
Social media has enhanced our ability to connect with others around the globe. At the same time, the geographic distance makes it easier to bully as individuals do not experience the impact of their words on others. Individuals posting hateful words and lies in public spaces can often harm with impunity given the dearth of bullying legislation. Additionally, sometimes there is incongruence between a person’s actions and what they write about on-line. The images and words a person posts can be deceiving. The virtual world holds equal potential to empower and destroy.
The complexity of educating requires tolerance for ambiguity as we teach children to trust, while also protecting from harm. In healthy learning communities, sometimes temporary separation is the only way to nurture inclusivity. When one child hits another, literally or metaphorically, the kind thing to say is a firm, “Ouch!” or “Stop!”
What to Do in the Moment
Here is an excellent video on what peace makers can do should they witness racist, or other types of threatening or abusive behavior:
And a few additional resources:
- The Center for Nonviolent Communication
- Stop Bullying
- Workplace Bullying Institute
- The Bully Project
- The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso
Thank you for your work to support each human being in thriving!
(Adapted from an article originally crafted for the September 2015 SENGVine Newsletter)