If you’ve ever been the butt of a joke (or a few), you know how bad it can feel after the laughter subsides. No one should have to deal with coworkers or friends making jokes at the expense of their confidence. There’s a difference between two pals joking around and one person intentionally making hurtful comments toward another. In this guide, we’ll look at the reasons as to why some people try to dominate others and how you can get the upper hand in the situation by knowing the psychology behind it.
A participant in our free email training once asked me how to handle a guy at work who tried to make fun of him. He told me that one day when the group was talking about movies at lunch, one of them asked: “So what movies do you like more than pornos? Hahaha!”
Needless to say, my client didn’t find that all too humorous.
It’s easy to get flustered and blank out during the moment someone blindsides you and tries to make fun of you like that. There are 3 techniques you can use that don’t require any quick thinking on your part and puts anyone overstepping your boundaries in their place.
Here’s the advice I gave my client to give him the upper hand over his workplace bully and to stop the teasing for good:
- 1 1. Turn their dominating behavior against them
- 2 2. Ignore the dominant person altogether
- 3 3. The sentence that forever stops people from dominating you
1. Turn their dominating behavior against them
This is my bread and butter when it comes to dealing with annoying people or people who feel like they need to be dominant at all times. This technique is effective and easy to implement for beginners just starting to find their voice against the “funny guys”. (Who, let’s be honest, only get pity laughs in the first place.)
This technique is simple: agree with their stupid question or statement in a neutral way. Don’t laugh with them, don’t smile, just give them your answer with a straight face.
Internal chaos in the “funny guy’s” head ensues.
The reason this works is that your response will be the opposite of what they will expect. They will either be at a loss for words entirely or they will look like a complete idiot if they try to press it even more. (Not like that’s our goal, but that may deter them from engaging in this behavior in the future.)
When you respond this way, your irony will be obvious. Everyone will see your disapproval and will realize that what the “funny guy” said wasn’t funny at all, leaving the bully as the only one laughing.
How to turn the tables on the “funny guy”:
- Funny guy: “So what movies do you like, you know, except for pornos? Hahahaha”
- You: “I’ll have you know I only like pornos.”
- Funny guy: “… well then.”
At this point, you’ll just want to change the topic and continue talking as if nothing happened. You’ll also want to ignore the “funny guy” and any further attempts at a joke he makes. Focus on someone else in the group and let them change the subject to detract attention from the presumably awkward moment that just happened.
The mistake most people make instead:
- Funny guy: “So what movies do you like, you know, except for pornos? Hahahaha”
- You: “Haha, yeah right!” or “Shut up!” or “Haha, no I don’t!”
- Funny guy: “I KNEW it!”
If you reply in this manner and feel uncomfortable by his comments, you’re giving the “funny guy” the response that he’s looking for. Everyone around you will most likely chime in with the laughter because they won’t immediately realize how uncomfortable you feel. Since the “funny guy” got the response he was looking for, he’s more likely to do it again in the future.
Why this works:
Reinforcement and punishment in psychology are very powerful tools that can help you teach someone how to respond to a certain situation in the future. B.F. Skinner, a famous psychologist, discovered how this worked and coined the term operant conditioning(1) to describe what was happening. Reinforcement and punishment each work in a different way, so let’s take a look at how they work in our scenario above.
Reinforcement in psychology means you want whatever behavior has occurred to happen again in the future. Punishment means you don’t want that behavior to happen. There are two types of reinforcement and two types of punishment: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. If you’re thinking “how can reinforcement be negative?”, well, here’s how:
Positive refers to adding something to get your desired outcome and negative refers to taking away something to get your outcome. For example, if you want to potty train your dog, giving them a treat when they go potty outside is positive reinforcement because you’re adding a treat to get the same outcome in the future. If you take away their favorite toy when they have an accident in the house, that’s negative punishment because you’re taking away something they enjoy in order to teach them what they did was wrong.
In our example above, if you don’t give the bully what they want, that’s negative punishment. You’re taking away their hopeful outcome (you looking embarrassed) in order to make sure the bullying doesn’t happen again. The more often you do this, the less likely the person will pick on you. Thanks, Skinner!
Don’t try to be polite or laugh sympathetically at all when these kinds of comments are made. Instead, break the pattern by “agreeing” with them.
When you use the above technique it’s important that you use a flat tone of voice and stare blankly at them. Think of yourself as an extra on the cast of the British version of The Office if you need acting inspiration. If you don’t respond as blandly as possible, they still get some sort of reaction from you. This will give them some encouragement to act that way in the future.
By being non-reactive while you “agree” with them, your irony and disapproval will be crystal clear to the bully and everyone around.
2. Ignore the dominant person altogether
If people act out and single out others to embarrass them, that means they’re just doing it to provoke some reaction out of the other person. They may even be doing it to feel some sort of power over another person, which can give the dominant person the illusion that they’re in control of the situation.
Since we’re pretty sure what the “funny guy’s” motives are, it becomes clear that one solution to the problem is to take away the positive feedback the “funny guy” would receive after making a joke. When they realize it’s no longer a rewarding experience, they’ll look for other ways (not involving you) to get that feeling.
If we know that one way to stop bullying is to take away the positive experience, we can ignore the bully’s comments altogether. That takes them out of the conversation entirely, giving them no control over the situation whatsoever.
How to ignore the “funny guy”:
- Don’t show any form of reaction. At all. Don’t try to say something smart back, don’t make another joke, don’t laugh with them, and most importantly, don’t show dislike or anger. Instead, ignore the other person. React as if you never heard their comment at all.
- To make it well known to the “funny guy” that you’re ignoring their crude jokes, continue the conversation from where it was just before the person made their rude comment. This is a cue to both the “funny guy” and the other people you’re talking to that you’re not tolerating that behavior.
To see how well this technique actually works, imagine you’re person B in the scenario below:
- Person A – Who’s joining me at the beach tomorrow? It’s supposed to be a gorgeous sunny day.
- Person B – Not Person C- he’s too pale to be allowed to take his shirt off. He’ll blind you if you don’t have your sunglasses on!
- Person C – Going to the beach sounds lovely. I’m free after 12 if that works for you?
Person B didn’t seem too funny after being given the cold shoulder, right? This technique works and it works well.
Why this works:
When you don’t pay attention to someone that is vying for attention, you’re socially ostracising them. A study conducted at Purdue University(2) looked at the effects of ignoring a person in conversation and how they typically respond to situations in which they’re being ignored.
“…the person will resign from the group entirely.”
One effect of being ignored may be that the person tries harder to fit into the group. Instead of making remarks that insult others, they’re more likely to mimic the behavior of other people in the group or to cooperate with others to be liked. If you ignore their comments long enough, there may be a chance that they’ll start playing nice to fit back in.
Another effect of being ignored may be that the person will resign from the group entirely. If you ignore a person for an extended period of time, they’re likely to not even want to try to continue being a part of the group. By effectively ignoring their comments for a long period of time, they’ll stop making comments altogether.
Since you don’t want to become the “funny guy’s” new bully, be sure to make sure that after the comments have stopped for a while, invite them back into your conversations. Though it may seem like you’re being the bigger person and that you shouldn’t have to, as long as they’ve changed (and you’re sure they have), there’s no reason to continue ignoring their presence.
3. The sentence that forever stops people from dominating you
The two methods above are great for stopping the “funny guy” in their tracks, but if you’re facing this problem long-term, you’ll want to make sure to do something that will fix the problem for good. One way you can do this is by using the simple sentence below.
This sentence is a method of giving feedback/criticism that works effectively in any type of relationship where you are both motivated to get along. If this is your coworker or someone that you see every day, you’ll want to address the problem instead of hoping that it will magically go away on its own. This sentence is not always useful if you don’t want to fix the relationship; in that kind of scenario, I recommend that you use one of the two methods we mentioned previously instead.
It’s your responsibility to tell the dominating person how you feel if you want them to stop. They are at fault, but since they are probably not even aware of how their behavior affects you, you need to make them aware of it (as politely as you possibly can).
When you are alone with the person causing you trouble, say something along these lines:
“Sometimes you say things that I don’t like. One example is when you [Tell the example]. I feel belittled when you make comments like that. It’s probably nothing you have been thinking about, but I would just like you to know how that made me feel.”
When you say this, think about the following:
- Don’t generalize. Don’t say “You always try to dominate me”. This will make the person defensive.
- Give a specific example. Since the person may not realize they’re doing it, it’s best to give them an exact instance of this happening.
- Tell the person how you feel. No one can argue against the feelings you have.
- “It’s probably nothing you have been thinking about” shows you are trying to help the person, not trying to cause a conflict.
It takes courage to say this to someone causing you harm, but standing up for yourself will be beneficial in the long run. You’ll be able to talk to your friends and coworkers without fear of being embarrassed by using this sentence, which gives you the power and independence you’ve been wanting.
Your next steps:
When dealing with a bully, you’ll want to find people to support you as you go through this process. Researchers at the University of New Mexico and Arizona State University teamed up and studied the effects of workplace bullying and how people best resolved the problem.(3)
They found that one effective way to cope with dominating behavior is to share your experience with others. Telling your friends and family (and the people at SocialPro) about what’s happened shows that you’re not going through this alone and that this sort of experience happens to everyone at some point in their lives.
What should you do now?
- Comment below sharing your experience with dominating people.
- Give encouragement to others and let them know they’re not alone.
- Try one (or all) of the tips above.
- Come back and let us know how the tips worked for you.
Navigating a dominating relationship is one that takes time, finesse, and patience. With the tips above, you will for sure be able to stop dominating behavior from happening again.
- Ferster, C. B., Skinner, B. F., Harvard University., & United States. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement: By C.B. Ferster and B.F. Skinner. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Williams, K. D., & Nida, S. A. (2011). Ostracism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), 71-75. doi:10.1177/0963721411402480
- Lutgen-Sandvik, P., & Tracy, S. J. (2011). Answering Five Key Questions About Workplace Bullying. Management Communication Quarterly, 26(1), 3-47. doi:10.1177/0893318911414400