If someone you know is a victim of bullying or abuse, there are things you can say and do that will really help, and well meaning things that can make the situation worse.
Being ‘neutral’ can feel like a moral choice. It isn’t. Doing nothing always supports bullies and abusers and enables them to continue. It always undermines the victim. If both people tell you they are the victim and you don’t know what to do, look at the power balance. If all else fails, support the person who is asking for comfort and safety not the person who is asking to punish someone. Abusers will gather support to pile further abuse on victims, and you can avoid becoming part of this.
Listen. Really listen. Don’t bring assumptions with you or ideas about what you would have done differently. Don’t assume that because the bully is nice to you that they wouldn’t do this. Bullies and abusers cultivate supporters – how else could they operate successfully? They are in control of what they do, and will deliberately isolate their victims.
Micro-aggressions are a real thing. If the individual events described to you seem trivial, remember to look at the bigger picture. If someone is facing a constant drip of poison, put downs, humiliations, criticism, being overloaded, being blamed and the like than the damage done will be greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t dismiss bullying on the basis that it just looked like one small thing. Also remember that experiences that aren’t a big deal for you might feel very different to someone else.
Don’t try to explain, justify or minimise the abuse. There may be a time in the future where understanding why would be helpful, but right now the most important thing is that the victim feels safe and supported. Don’t make the bully and their issues the more important thing. Being hurt, being a former victim, being under a lot of stress, having mental health problems – these things do not make it ok to hurt other people. Many hurt and damaged people manage not to hurt anyone else. It’s not inevitable and no free passes should be given.
Don’t tell them to be stoical. Don’t tell them it will pass, or not to make a fuss, or not to take it to heart. That’s just a way of shutting people down. If what they say makes you uncomfortable, that really shouldn’t be the most important thing. Your mild discomfort at hearing this is nothing compared to actually living with it. This includes being made to feel uncomfortable about someone you liked.
Don’t ask them to put the wellbeing of the community first. Don’t tell them to be silent for fear they will harm the company or the organisation. Any group that puts looking good ahead of caring for the people in it, is toxic. Any group that thinks its reputation is more important than whether it is enabling abuse, will keep enabling abuse and must be stopped. However important you think the community, or the work the group is doing really is, this stuff will rot it to the core if undealt with.
Don’t make the victim responsible for sorting out the situation. Don’t make it their job to better humour and pacify their abuser. Don’t tell them to put up with it. Listen to them, support them, act to make safer and healthier spaces. If you truly can’t tell who the bully is in a situation, working broadly to improve safety will either sort things out or make it clearer what’s going on. Sometimes people truly believe they are victims because they can’t accept others holding reasonable boundaries or can’t bear being given a ‘no’ as an answer. The person who is able to say no is usually the person with the power in any given situation, and the person who is not allowed to say no is the person who needs your help.