ISCP team member Andrew Hale, who provides emotional and mental health support for ISCP members, offers guidance on bullying and how to deal with this.
Bullying within the animal training industry has been in the spotlight recently and is something I have had to provide support for many times in my role within the ISCP. Thankfully more people are now prepared to talk about it and many feel able to share their own personal experiences within well moderated FB groups such as Dog Sense and Pet Professional Network. This article is meant to address some of the underlying motivations for bullying, how to protect ourselves from becoming a victim, and what to do if you should become victim to it. It is very much written with the animal training profession in mind and especially in regards to the internet.
Bullying is something we can label quite easily but is actually a complex issue. The motivation and mental health of the bully can be complicated and then there are the levels of sensitivity of the victim. Many people bully (by its definition) but are not aware they are doing so and may indeed be horrified that their actions have been labelled as so. Equally, some who are the target of bullying behaviour do not seem affected by it. I remember being in a work place environment and feeling concern for a colleague who I felt was being bullied by a line manager, but when I brought it up my colleague said she was not affected at all and merely deemed it as ‘workplace banter’. Equally someone might feel bullied even though the person perceived to be the bully is trying to motivate them to do something with best interests at heart (this is often the case with loved ones when they intend to help but actually end up bullying). So someone can sometimes feel bullied even though that was not the intention of the ‘bully’, but the emotional response of that person is still very real and must be recognised, regardless of the motivation of the other person. Although some people are just unaware of their words and actions and the hurt they might cause, others can have real intent with their bullying – they seek to do harm.
If bullying wasn’t complex enough, we now have the advent of cyber bullying. It has never been easier to say malicious, hurtful things in a pseudo anonymous way. Usually polite and civil people can find new venom when ‘hiding’ behind a keyboard, often egged on by other people jumping on the bullying band wagon and adding their comments to posts etc. Cyber bullying is definitely a major issue in our industry, but regardless of it being net-based or not, let us look at some of the possible reasons for bullying in our profession.
Bullying is often driven by either an individual’s sense of inferiority (helps them feel more powerful) or superiority (validates their sense of power). There are often issues underpinned by jealousy and insecurity. Aspects of our industry really build on all these factors. Being in the main unregulated, there are so many different entry points, education providers, methodologies and ideologies. In the same way this can lead to issues such as Imposter syndrome it is also fuel to the fire for some bullying. There are also genuinely held passionate beliefs and this can really motivate someone to ‘hunt down’ those that hold view alternative to their own. Some might genuinely feel their actions are somehow for the ‘greater good’ but can easily tip over into a hate and bullying campaign.
In relation to what we see in our industry I am going to break down bullying into two categories: The first one I will call ‘Drive-by bullying’, the second ‘Targeted bullying’.
Drive-by bullying is the more random bullying we see purely on social media. Someone sees a discussion or a post and hones in on it. This is not about them engaging in genuine debate or points of view – their posts are designed to poke ridicule at the person who made the post and deliberately say things to hurt and inflame. Quite often they are egged on by other virtual bystanders and it rapidly turns into nasty comments and attempts to upset. So many people can be deeply affected by this form of response and it is something I often hear about in my support role with the ISCP. I believe many drive-by bullies are unaware of the real hurt they cause by some of their comments, but again some are deliberately looking to cause distress.
Targeted bullying is when the bully deliberately goes for a certain individual. This can of course start as a drive-by bullying and the bully then engages in a campaign against an individual. In most cases, however, targeted bullying is done by someone either known to the victim or that the victim is known to the bully (even if that is just though the victim having a high profile). Targeted bullying is often driven by professional competition and jealousy, but can also be about personal opinions and professional methodologies. It can take the form of fake reviews, spreading lies and defamation by libel or slander, sharing personal details about someone, etc. Sadly all this is made so much easier with the internet and social media.
Regardless of the different motivations or methods of bullying, for the victim it is very real and can have devastating consequences on their emotional health, family, and in some cases the reputation and success of their business.
Here are some things to consider in helping to protect yourself from bullying, and some points should you feel you are being bullied.
- Have a great support network. I have mentioned in other articles that developing a strong and supportive network is so important in both our personal lives and in business. Having people who will shout out how great you are, how great your business is, etc., really helps to create a shield against anything that is targeted towards you. The voice of one lone detractor really can be drowned out by the many voices of support. Equally, having some safe supportive relationships means you have people you can talk to should you feel you are being targeted. It is so important to have someone you can talk over things with in a safe way. (Remember I provide the support services for all ISCP students and graduates, so please get in touch if you need to reach out.)
- Be aware of the comments you might leave on social media. It is important we all feel we have the right to free speech, but in the same way that it is not advisable to go down the back streets of the city after dark, we should consider if it is ‘safe’ to engage with some of the more contentious ‘discussions’ we come across on social media. It is important we add to the debate, but think about how your comments might be seen by others as you may become open to some drive-by bullying.
- Be mindful about how you go about self promotion. Increasing the profile of our business is important, but be aware that the more you put yourself in the spotlight the more unwanted attention you might receive. It helps if we make a big thing about what we DO and not who we ARE. Sadly, the more personal information and commentary we make the more open we become to the bullies.
- Name it. One of the most powerful things to do (if you feel you can) is to say you feel bullied. Most bullies hate the idea that they are one and definitely don’t want to be called out as one. By saying as early possible ‘I feel bullied by you’ or ‘you are bullying me’ or ‘sorry, I am leaving this chat as I feel bullied’ etc. can be really powerful. Remember, many bullies do not even perceive what they are doing as bullying, so that word, when said to them, can really echo around their heads! If you feel safe enough, speak to the person who is bullying you, especially if you have a connection with them. They may be genuinely horrified that their words and actions led to you feeling that way.
- Walk away. In contrast to the point above, sometimes it is best to just ‘walk away’ and not give power to the bully. This is often the best approach with drive-by bullying. For example, leave the discussion; don’t give their venom the decency of a reply. This can often starve the bully of the oxygen they need and they will soon move on to the next person.
- Reach out. In the case of real abusive or threatening bullying, or anything you feel will harm the integrity of your business, make sure you contact appropriate authorities; Admins on FB groups, legal advice from solicitors, following complaints procedures on social media platforms or, if needs be, the Police. Reach out to your support network, get advice, and look for support wherever you can get it. It is often a good strategy to threaten your course of action to the bully in a formal ‘cease and desist’ communication. It is amazing how often the bully moves on or withdraws on the mere presentation of this notice. Several people I know have contacted the people who have left false reviews with a threat of further action, and the reviews have swiftly been taken down.
- You are not the problem! Never see yourself as the problem. The bullies are ALWAYS the ones with the problem. They will try and give a projective narrative, so be guarded against believing that narrative. Stay true to yourself, believe in yourself, and remember that it is likely your achievements and successes that made you a target in the first place!
The main point of bullying is that for the victim it is very personal. EVERY story is different. It affects everyone who suffers it in different ways. There is no one way to protect ourselves from it, and there is definitely no one way to deal with it. It is always wise for the victim to try and step back and consider their next move and, if possible, consult with those they trust and any agencies that might help.