It’s natural to get defensive, but that only escalates the cycle of aggression.
A couple of years ago I was discussing a study of the habits of great musical composers when an audience member interrupted.
“That’s not true!” he shouted. “You’re totally ignorant — you don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Early in my career, I had let nasty people walk all over me. When a client berated me for my predecessor’s error on an ad, I gave in and offered him a full refund. When a boss threatened to fire me for defending a colleague who was treated poorly, I said nothing. But this time, I was prepared: I had trained as a conflict mediator, worked as a negotiator and become an organizational psychologist.
At some point in your work life, you’ve probably had to interact with a jerk. They’re the people who demean and disrespect you. They might steal credit for your successes, blame you for their failures, invade your privacy or break their promises, or bad-mouth you, scream at you and belittle you. As the organizational psychologist Bob Sutton puts it, they treat you like dirt, and either they don’t know it or they don’t care.
The natural response is to get defensive, but that only escalates the cycle of aggression. Take a classic study in which researchers recorded negotiators with different levels of skill. Average bargainers ended up in three times as many defend-attack spirals as expert negotiators. The experts escaped the heat of the moment and cooled the other person down, too. They calmly commented on their reactions to the other person’s behavior and tested their understanding of what the person was trying to convey.
I had been studying and teaching this evidence for years. Now it was time to practice it. I called a break, walked up to my heckler and said, “You’re welcome to disagree with the data, but I don’t think that’s a respectful way to express your opinion. It’s not how I was trained to have an intellectual debate. Were you?”
I was hoping to start a conversation about the conversation — to redirect the discussion away from the topic and toward some reflection on the tone of the discussion. To my surprise, it worked.
“Well, no …” he stammered, “I just think you’re wrong.” Later, I sent him the data and he sent me an apology.
My heckler was what Dr. Sutton calls a temporary jerk. We’re all capable of those behaviors, and we feel bad about them afterward. Onestudy showed that on days when leaders acted abusively, they ended up feeling less competent and less respected at work — and had more trouble relaxing at home.
But sometimes you’re stuck dealing with a certified jerk, someone who consistently demeans and disrespects others. A few years ago, I had a colleague who had a reputation for yelling at people during meetings. After witnessing it firsthand, I collected my thoughts and called to say I found it unprofessional. My colleague got defensive: “It was necessary to get my point across!”
Research on the psychology of certified jerks reveals that they have a habit of rationalizing aggression. They’ve convinced themselves that they have to act that way to get the results they want. I didn’t know how to respond until recently, when I interviewed Sheila Heen, a conflict mediation expert, for an episode of my WorkLife podcast on office jerks. She suggested finding a way to gently challenge the belief that aggression is necessary: “Really? It was my impression that you were smarter than that, and more creative than that — so I bet you could come up with some other ways to be just as clear without having to actually rip somebody else apart.”
If they’re not held accountable at school, what’s to stop them from becoming the villain of another woman’s #MeToo story once they enter the work force?
Among other changes, her proposed rule would require schools to dismiss all incidents that do not meet an extremely narrow definition of sexual harassment: “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access” to education. As Dana Bolger, a co-founder of Know Your IX, a national youth-led campaign against sexual violence, has pointed out, some courts have ruled that a rape does not meet this standard.
The rule would essentially eliminate schools’ responsibility to respond to incidents off campus, which make up 95 percent of sexual assaults of female students, according to the Department of Justice. Moreover, schools would not be legally responsible for addressing any sexual harassment that is not reported to a school official designated to deal with that issue.
The overall effect of the proposed rule — which supporters say would restore due-process rights to those accused of sexual assault and harassment — would be to make reporting, already an uphill battle for raped and harassed students, feel even more futile.
..“It is completely illogical that at a time when the public is finally coming to terms with the reality of how prevalent sexual violence is thanks to initiatives like Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, the DeVos administration is simultaneously attempting to weaken Title IX protections for survivors.”
It’s safe to assume that most perpetrators of sexual violence who have come to public notice through #MeToo didn’t suddenly become abusers after landing jobs in newsrooms and board rooms and on movie sets. Their idea that one can abuse with impunity is learned, and in many cases it is learned where most things are learned — at school.
Violent sexual behavior that goes unchecked during college does not reach a natural end at graduation. In fact, many perpetrators of sexual violence are serial offenders: Of men who acknowledge using sexually violent or coercive behaviors, around one in five report committing repeat assaults. Another study found that men reporting a history of sexually aggressive behavior commit, on average, more than six sexual assaults.
Examples of school perpetrators who skirted accountability and then offended after graduation are already emerging. Jameis Winston, who was accused of rape as a student at Florida State University and is now a professional football player, reached a settlement with an Uber driver who said he sexually assaulted her in her car in 2016.
But the path from perpetrator of school sexual violence to workplace abuser need not be inevitable. Interventions including cognitive behavioral therapy have proved to be highly effective in preventing perpetrators from reoffending. Far from being unfair, responding seriously to perpetrators of school sexual violence is tough kindness. As the world grows increasingly intolerant of violent sexual behavior, early intervention and clear messages about appropriate behavior can prevent perpetrators from reoffending and facing more long-term career, legal and personal consequences.
While I obtained a restraining order against the man who assaulted me in college, he graduated and got a coveted job, where he’ll only have more and more power as time goes on. While I hope he’ll never become the villain of another woman’s #MeToo story, I am not optimistic. The proposed rules make it even more likely that men like him will leave their college campuses and enter the work force believing they can abuse women and be assured “Nothing wrong occurred.”
As a Harvard alumna and a survivor of sexual assault, I applaud Leaders’ activism to hold our institution accountable. Not just the undergraduate colleague but particularly Harvard Business School, where men demean, degrade, harass and assault women on a scale I’ve never witnessed prior to enrolling in classes there. These are the men going on to run America and the world’s economies… woe to the women who will suffer their crimes.
Some of our worst inhumanities as nations, including Britain and America, have been perpetrated on foreign soil and kept at a distance, as if to hide from our own soul the sacrilege of what we are doing. . . . Something in our collective psyche has pretended that the families of another land are not as sacred as the sons and daughters of our own. . . .
.. Think of the hubris of our lives. Think of our individual arrogance, the way we pursue our own well-being at the neglect and even expense of [others]. . . . Think of the hubris of our nationhood, pretending that we could look after the safety of our homeland by ignoring and even violating the sovereignty of other lands.
.. [This] is opposite to the way of Jesus, who taught the strength of humility, of being close to the humus, close to the Ground from which we and all things come. The humblest, says Jesus, are “the greatest” (Matthew 18:4). Not that following Jesus’ path of humility is straightforward. Constantly there is tension—the tension of discerning how to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, how to honor the heart of another nation as we honor our own homeland, how to revere the truths of another wisdom tradition as we cherish our own inheritance, how to protect the life of other species as we guard the sanctity of our own life-form. Jesus knew such tension. He was tempted to use his wisdom and his power of presence to serve himself, to lift himself up over others. But to the tempter, he says, “Away with you, Satan!” (Matthew 4:10). Away with the falseness of believing that I can love myself and demean others.
Historians have long looked to a few key criteria in evaluating the beginning of a president’s administration.
First and foremost, any new president should execute public duties with a commanding civility and poise befitting the nation’s chief executive, but without appearing aloof or haughty. As George Washington observed at the outset of his presidency in 1789, the president cannot in any way “demean himself in his public character” and must act “in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of office.”
.. New presidents also try to avoid partisan and factional rancor, and endeavor to unite the country in a great common purpose.
They avoid even the slightest imputation of corruption, of course political but above all financial.
.. Over the decades, historians’ ratings of presidents have consistently consigned a dozen or so presidents to the bottom of the heap, including James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and, in recent evaluations, George W. Bush.
.. Yet the first years of these failed presidencies were not always so bad, and in nearly every case not as bad as Mr. Trump’s.
.. Warren G. Harding — darkly handsome, impeccably dressed and widely adored — acquired a reputation for cronyism, corruption and womanizing that continues to stain the reputation of his administration, which ended when he died of a heart attack in 1923. But while the corruption was very real, the worst of it, above all the Teapot Dome scandal, did not come to light until after his death.
.. Harding’s first year actually brought some auspicious legislative accomplishments, including passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which invested millions in the nation’s infant highway system.
In October, Harding addressed a huge segregated crowd in Birmingham, Ala., and courageously urged equal political rights for blacks, without which, he said, “our democracy is a lie.”
.. In public Harding was a paragon of dignity, and his death was universally mourned.
.. Richard M. Nixon’s first year in office produced mixed results. He continued the Vietnam War but floated reforms such as a guaranteed annual income for the poor. He hinted at retreating from civil rights laws and court rulings, but enforced them.
The year also yielded innovations like the National Environmental Policy Act, which Nixon signed into law in January 1970. The mixture of arrogance and paranoia that would lead to the Watergate scandal did not take hold until later.
.. George W. Bush has made some worst-presidents lists because of the disastrous Iraq war and the collapse of the economy under his watch. But his first year was notable for his post-Sept. 11 leadership, when he rallied the country’s spirit while cautioning Americans not to turn their grief and outrage into reprisals against Muslims. He ended his first year with an approval rating in the Gallup poll of 83 percent.
.. Only two of the failed presidents had horrendous first years, which, like Mr. Trump’s, were a result largely of their own actions. James Buchanan, a wealthy bachelor, at all times courteous and dignified, connived behind the scenes even before he was inaugurated to help coax the Supreme Court into the calamitous Dred Scott decision of 1857, handed down a few days after his swearing-in and widely considered among the court’s worst.
.. Calculated to suppress antislavery politics once and for all, the decision instead alarmed Northerners by allowing the expansion of slavery — and it helped set the nation on the political course that ended in civil war.
.. The financial panic of 1857 and subsequent depression, the splintering of the Union and the later exposure of rampant corruption inside the executive branch added to the sense of Buchanan’s fecklessness.
.. Andrew Johnson, a vituperative racist, was temperamentally and politically unsuited to succeed the slain Abraham Lincoln. His troubles began when he showed up for his swearing-in as vice president drunk and belligerent.
.. After becoming president through assassination, Johnson at first signaled he would take a hard line against the defeated rebels, but then switched to attacking civil rights for the former slaves, siding with the ex-Confederates and engaging in abusive tirades against the Radical Republicans in Congress. He closed his first year by vetoing the Civil Rights Bill, which would have given the former slaves citizenship. Both houses of Congress swiftly overrode the veto, setting in motion the events that would end with Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
.. Mr. Trump’s first year has been an unremitting parade of disgraces that have demeaned him as well as the dignity of his office, and he has shown that this is exactly how he believes he should govern.
.. he is the first president to fail to defend the nation from an attack on our democracy by a hostile foreign power — and to resist the investigation of that attack. He is the first to enrich his private interests, and those of his family, directly and openly.
.. He is the first president to denounce the press not simply as unfair but as “the enemy of the American people.”
He is the first to threaten his defeated political opponent with imprisonment.
He is the first to have denigrated friendly countries and allies as well as a whole continent with racist vulgarities.
.. If history is any guide — especially in light of the examples closest to his, of Buchanan and Andrew Johnson — Mr. Trump’s first year portends a very unhappy ending.