How to Defend Against Verbal Bullying

Bullies come in different kinds. The verbal bully uses words as weapons against you. The direct verbal bully says insulting things to your face. The indirect verbal bully says insulting things about you within your hearing or behind your back. This article explains how to defend against a verbal bully.


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    Treat verbal bullying like war. The fundamental rule of war is "Know your enemy, and do not play his game--make him play yours." If you don't understand the bully's game, you will lose. If you understand the bully's game but play it anyway, you will lose. If you understand the bully's game and do not play it, you will win.
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    Know the bully's game. All verbal bullies play the same game: they want something from you (respect, distress, counter-insults) and push you into accepting something that belongs to them (their negative attention). Put differently, they are trying to get something from you and trying to give something to you. What do bullies want from you? For you to do the following:
    • Give them attention
    • Act hurt or upset
    • Bully back or run away (fight or flight)
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    The art of war is simply to deny the bullies what they want. There are two useful metaphors for this strategy: the ghost, and the CEO.
    • Imagine an archer (bully) firing arrows (words) at a ghost (you). As a ghost, you are slightly amused and bored by the silly archer. The ghost cannot be hurt by the arrows. The ghost doesn't run away or fire arrows back. The ghost just yawns. What can the archer do to the ghost? Nothing but keep firing arrows that never hit the target. The ghost smiles when the archer finally gets bored or frustrated and gives up.
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    • Imagine yourself as a Fortune 500 CEO who passes a panhandler. You are an important, powerful man with a black belt in karate. You are on your way somewhere and have important things to do. The bully is like a small, weak, and annoying street hustler who is trying to get you to take a paper flower in exchange for coins put in his hat. The CEO doesn't get upset or talk to the panhandler as an equal. The CEO gives a preoccupied smile and keeps walking. The CEO has nothing against the panhandler. It is just that the panhandler barely exists in the CEO's world. This is the attitude you must cultivate. The bully doesn't matter to you (yawn) and doesn't hurt you in the slightest.
    • The ghost/CEO defense is indirect. It contrasts with the classic direct defense of "giving the bully a taste of his own medicine." The indirect defense is more effective because it lets the bully waste his strength without getting any reward. The more the bully attacks, the less you care, and the more frustrated he gets. In contrast, the direct defense gives the bully at least two things he wants: to matter to you and to be attacked with his own weapon of choice. The direct defense only works if you cause the bully so much pain that he does not bother you again, and even then you run the risk of provoking revenge.
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    Avoid trouble. This rule is so simple, yet so often disobeyed. For bullying to occur, two things have to happen: someone has to be around the bully, and this person must appear to the bully as prey. Think of a bullying incident as a battle. Prevent battle whenever possible by either not being around the bully, or being present on the battleground without appearing as prey.
    • To avoid the bully, learn the bully's habits and associates. If a bully always hangs out in a certain place, then don't go to that place unless you can't avoid it. Be very careful where you go and who you go with. Map out escape routes and even hiding places. Have a plan in your head.
    • Sometimes you cannot avoid a bully. In this case, think of what prey would look like to this bully, and try not to look like that. Stand up straight, but not rigid and tense. Keep your head and eyes up. Move confidently, rolling your shoulders and hips a little, without swaggering (which may invite bullying). Speak slowly, as if every word mattered. Every move you make should demonstrate a lack of fear. If you can't do this, then you can't. But try.
    • If a bully has marked you as prey, and you can't avoid battle, then try to choose the time and place of battle. Does the bully like to have a big audience? Then it's better to face him when few people are around. Does the bully stop bullying you when person X is there? Then try to be around X when the bully is near.
    • If you are forced to engage in verbal battle, try to have more friends with you than he has with him. This might be impossible because bullies are good at isolating their victims.
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    Your physical orientation to the bully is important. A rule of thumb in battle is "seek higher ground." If you can, stand while the bully sits; or stand on a step while the bully is below you. Also, keep a distance between you and the bully. Your physical orientation should send the message that you are above and out of reach. Do not hang your head, shrink back, or stare at the ground. Your posture and facial expression should show that you are unafraid, and more importantly, unimpressed.
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    If you find yourself being bullied at a bad time and place, then you still have options. Turn your body slightly away from him, implying his insignificance to you. If you can, keep moving so that you are leading (looking over your shoulder) and he is following. If you can, don't let yourself be backed against a wall. An exception is if you are sitting on a stool with your back to a counter or bar, and he is looking up at you.
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    Don't look upset. If you are bullied, then you can and almost certainly will feel upset. You may feel close to tears. This is completely normal and expected. Don't waste energy being mad at yourself because you feel this way. Conserve your energy. The key to your defense is not to show your feelings. Relax your face and body. If possible, smile. A smile is one of the very best weapons at your disposal because it is exactly the opposite of what the bully wants.
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    Don't play the bully's game. Deny the bully your upset, your respect, and your "fight or flight" stance. Frustrate the bully's expectations. The beggar tries to force the CEO to accept a paper flower and give him coins. The CEO can refuse to take the flower or give the money. By analogy, this rule says "don't give the beggar coins (upset, attention, insults) and don't keep his flower (insults)."
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    The bully wants you to be his opponent in the game and face him directly. To show that you're not playing, avoid saying "you" and talking to the bully directly. Why? Because talking to him directly shows him that he matters. Also, don't ask the bully questions. Why? Because then you want something from him--an answer or explanation. If you question him, then not only does the bully matter to you, but you are in a weak position because you are trying to get him to do something he may not do. Remember: You want nothing from the bully. The bully (beggar) doesn't matter enough to you (the CEO) for you to want anything from him. The bully barely exists to you.
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    Your body language is crucial. If possible, turn your body away from the bully, and make him talk to your back. If the bully is talking to your side or back, then he attacks from a position of weakness. If you talk to him, do it over your shoulder. Everything you say and do with your voice and body sends the message "You don't matter much."
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    Specifically, use the "big six" tactics of 1) ignoring; 2) dismissing; 3) misunderstanding; 4) agreeing; 5) ribbing; and 6) reflecting.
    • Ignoring: If you ignore the bully without looking like you are running away, then this tactic is effective. This tactic works great when you are wearing headphones, talking on a cell, or conversing with someone else. You can glance briefly and quizzically at the bully but turn away. A slight shrug is OK. Act as if you did not even hear what the bully said, or as if he said it in a foreign language.
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    • Dismissing: In this tactic, you acknowledge the bully, but brush him off in a way that shows he doesn't matter. The key move in the brush-off is turning away afterward. You don't want to sit there staring at the bully, waiting for another comment.
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      • For inspiration, imagine yourself as a CEO brushing off a panhandler. You might say, "How's it going" or "Maybe later" or "I'll get back to you" and turn away. One-word brush-offs are good. "'Sup." "Cute." "Clever." "Right." "I see." "OK." "Huh." "Gotcha."
      • Nonverbal brush-offs are good. You show the bully he is not worth enough to waste words on. Yawn. Nod. Shake your head. Scratch your chin. Purse your lips. Look puzzled as if someone just spoke to you in a foreign language. Turn to someone else, roll your eyes, and stick your thumb at the bully as if to say, "Can you believe this guy?"
    • Misunderstanding: In this tactic, you pretend that you just received a compliment. Perhaps the bully says, "That's a stupid hat." Act like the CEO who was complimented by the beggar on his hat. "Thanks, I guess." "Yeah, this hat is great." "Glad you like it." "You like hats." Whatever insult the bully makes, misunderstand it as a compliment. You can also turn the compliment into a joke. "Like it? When I get my hat [or shirt etc.] business going, you can be my distributor."
      • A variation on misunderstanding is mishearing. You never can't make out what the bully is saying as if you are hard of hearing.
        • BULLY: "You have a stupid shirt."
        • YOU: "Did someone say something?"
        • BULLY: "Yeah, I said you have a stupid shirt."
        • YOU: "Sounds like someone is saying he has a stupid shirt," or "You're shirt is a little dated, but it's not stupid. Don't be so hard on yourself."
        • BULLY: "Loser. Idiot. You know what I'm saying."
        • YOU: "I hear this high whining sound, like an insect. Or is that someone talking?" BULLY: "Shut up, jerk, you know what I'm saying."
        • YOU: "I wish this guy would make sense. Who knows what he's even talking about."
    • Agreeing: In this tactic, you agree with what the bully says, and make a joke of it. This tactic works well if a bully has a sense of humor. Say the bully says, "That's a stupid hat." You say, "If you like this one, you should see the one I wore yesterday. It was 2 feet (0.6 m) higher." Or, "I'm thinking of adding stripes to it." Or, "It's biodegradable." Basically, say anything that people listening would find funny. The bully himself might even laugh. In this case, his attack was rendered completely harmless.Note that that firing a joking insult back is not an element of the indirect defense. However, sometimes you can insert an insult into a joke. If the bully says, "You have a stupid haircut," you might laugh and say, "Yeah, I agree. I told your boyfriend how to cut it, but he messed it up anyway." If you use this tactic, be careful. You are on the verge of playing the bully's game.
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    • Ribbing: In this tactic, you rib the bully for his verbal ineptitude. Imagine that a goofy friend asks you for a game of one-on-one basketball. He dribbles with two hands, the ball slips out of his hands when he tries to shoot, he is immediately winded. He has no clue! You could bust up laughing and then walk away, saying nothing. The "laugh and go" approach can be very effective because it shows the bully he is too ridiculous to warrant a comment. Shake your head and keep chuckling to yourself as you walk away.
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    • Reflecting: You can also use words. You might chuckle at him good-naturally, shake your head, and say, "Man, is that your best game? You need work." Or, "A for effort. Come back and see me when you've got skills." Or, "Your game needs serious work. I can hook you up with some trainers." Or, "Dude, that was just lousy. You can do better." Or, "Your game definitely needs work." You get the idea.
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      • Remember, all bullies give you something (their attention) and try to get something (a negative reaction). One effective tactic against persistent bullies is to make fun of all the attention the bully is giving you. This is like holding up a shield when the bully throws a ball at you: the ball bounces back and hits the bully. The more balls he throws, the more he hits himself.
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    Adapt. Do whatever works right now. Any of the tactics may work or fail to work at a given time for a given person. The basic guideline is "Experiment, and be free to change at a moment's notice if something doesn't work." For example, ignoring may not work if the bully is persistent and calls you a coward. You might come back with reflecting. Or alternate dismissing and agreeing. There are no rules. Just experiment and go with what works best in a given situation.
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    If all else fails, be gone or be strong. If verbal bullying turns into physical bullying, then it's fight or flight. Know what to do, which is the steps above. Be aware and keep in mind to stand up for yourself and for others! Also, be sure not to fight back when the bully starts to go rough on you.
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    Remember that you will always have the moral high ground. If someone says a mean insult, no matter how and when you are always the better person. When someone bullies, they are showing a sign of weakness and insecurity. Even if it's just a one-off insult by someone, they are still showing a sign of them being weak and insecure. Do your best not to feel sad and upset, because what bullies do is they try to transfer something that makes them upset to you. Always remember that you are a wise person that has chosen not to go down the path that unfortunately, most people take.


  • If you have an iPod or headphones, put them in when you know the bully is coming, if you can't hear what they say they can't hurt you.
  • If they say something like," look at yourself in the mirror for goodness sake! Then you'll realize how ugly you are!" Then just reply," oh yeah thanks! I'm glad you know this that I always look at myself in the mirror because I'm so cute you see!" And chuckle! If they reply back something like," she thinks she's cute when she's actually not?" And chuckles, laugh off again and say," Do you think your opinion matters much?!well, I don't think so-so don't be bothered!"
  • Make your peers aware of how the bully is treating you, then they may help you overcome the bullying.
  • There are other variations. Attack their neediness. "You need a lot of attention. Some people are just needy, I guess." Or, "Wonder where all your need for attention comes from. Didn't get enough love at home, probably." If she says something else, then say, "See what I mean? Nothing is ever enough for a needy person."
  • Always use their points against them, especially in front of their peers. This may humiliate them and they might get a taste of their own medicine without you bullying them back.
  • There is another way to make the bully feel stupid without having to throw insults at the bully. When he insults you by saying something like "your stupid" or "Get a life" then simply say "Some people just don't get it". I find this very effective, as it shows that not only does the bully look foolish, it also shows that you don't really care about what they are saying. You can make this more effective by sighing and nodding your head. Look unimpressed, but not sad. If they throw another insult at you then simply walk by. If you have a friend with you then you can say "some people just don't get it do they (friends name)" your friend can then say "yeah" or something similar for an added effect.
  • Ignoring the bully may seem hard but think "What does it matter what the bully says to me, will it ruin my life, NO!, Will it matter in the years to come, NO!". If the bully makes fun of you or says mean things about you, ignore it, it won't make anyone think of you differently even though it may seem that way.
  • You should always tell an adult if someone is bullying you. They may not stop if you tell them, but getting a teacher involved most of the time stops them.


  • If you do all these things and the bully keeps harassing you, don't be afraid to tell a responsible adult that you trust. If anyone calls you a tattle-tale, don't reply; just smile and walk away because you know you are doing the right thing and that's what matters.
  • Some people try to bully the bully and think that it's a good way to get rid of them but it's actually the worst idea because it angers the bully even more!
  • Sometimes acting like a ghost or CEO doesn't work. The bully may get physically aggressive. In this case, the game changes completely. This article does not explain what to do in a physical confrontation.

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Categories: Dealing with Bullying