Unlocking the silence

Unlocking the silence


The silence of bystanders in the face of bullying  reinforces the behaviour, writes Terri Ryan


The word bully triggers images of a robust bully or bullies who use dominance on someone who has become submissive and defenceless to stand up to them.

You feel sad for the victim, which quickly deepens to concern. This is because you know the intention is to cause harm to the victim, who finds themselves bullied within an environment or group they once belonged or wanted to belong to.

Bullying is a multifaceted form of mistreatment that transcends all boundaries of socio-economic status, age, gender, and level of education. It exists where power and dominance conflict with the fundamental rights and values of people who want to live in harmony. It undermines the work ethic and lowers productivity.

The behaviour hoovers up much of the success achieved through community, love and the good work of parents. It sometimes ruins people’s lives, and always reduces human value.

Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to the suffering of the poor, once said: ”The biggest disease was not leprosy or tuberculosis, but the feeling of being unwanted.”

To belong and be accepted in a group where you work or live is a basic primal need.

To want acceptance and respect is in our nature as children. In contrast to the child, adult belonging is never as natural and playful.

It has to be chosen, received, renewed, and in the communal areas of schools, workplaces and community it often has to regulated.

We have probably all experienced or witnessed the behaviour of bullying at some point. Perhaps it was a family member who was ostracised and became branded as the ‘black sheep’.

Maybe it was bullying you witnessed in the schoolyard, or the dominant dynamic you saw between spouses. People you saw in their homes and neighbourhoods who were targeted by individuals and gangs who ‘picked’ on them just to watch their fear and pain grow.

Why bullying exists at different stages and ages in people’s lives, we may never understand. We can, however, acknowledge the behaviour exists, and support the fact that restorative measures can be applied in some cases.

We can also seek to put preventative anti-bullying measures in place in the areas of our community where bullying can hugely affect people’s lives.


Like all behaviour, it is suggested that bullying has its origins in childhood. A child who learns to get their way through the use of manipulation, coercion and dominance from the time they are babies can learn very quickly that these skills are very useful.

When the child’s behaviour goes unchallenged and unchecked, the child continues to learn that they get what they want through negative rather than positive behaviour.

As the child matures, the behaviour matures and becomes more sophisticated. It adapts to become covert, camouflaged and less obvious within the public regulated structures such as schools, third level institutions and the workplace.

Persistent loud crying to get attention may be substituted for gossiping overtly. Throwing a tantrum to maintain dominance may be substituted for character assassination.

Although both types of behaviour are entirely different in expression, they are both equally forceful forms of domination.

The characteristics that set bullying apart from most other behaviour is that the dynamic involves a bully with the need to have dominance and a victim who becomes the target of their behaviour.

What makes the bullying behaviour complete is that the victim who has been targeted, responds in a way that is perceived by both as a sign of submission.

When this response has been achieved, the cycle of bullying is set in motion. If the victim is unaware of the dynamic of bullying, they may be unable to acknowledge what has happened, stand up for themselves, or seek help.

Bullying is an escalating process, in the course of which the victim ends up in an inferior position, becoming the target as systematic and repeated negative acts.

As the bullying continues, it causes further and further upset to the victim who becomes defenceless to stand up to it.

Others can be encouraged to join in as a collective form of bullying known as ‘mobbing’ until the behaviour escalates out of control and the effect on the victim becomes chronic. In most cases, the bully needs the support or approval of colleagues, school mates, friends or associates in order to maintain their position of dominance over the victim.

Alternatively, the bully needs to create the illusion of the support from mutual friends or colleagues. It is often that support, or the illusion of that support, that causes the victim to feel defeated and submissive, or instils a fear in the victim that prevents them from speaking out.

People who witness the behaviour of bullying but remain silent and passive are known as bystanders.


It is the general unwillingness of the bystanders to disturb the group dynamic that the bully relies on to maintain their monopoly of power.

Bystanders usually say nothing or side with the bully, but rarely speak up for the victim. Like the tip of a hat or a nod or a wink, the silence of the bystanders is seen by the bully as approval or permission to continue.

Fear of not being accepted by the group or being the next victim of the bully is often what stops the bystander from speaking out.

Through their silence and passivity, however, the bystanders play a significant role in the dynamic of bullying, becoming the unwitting collaborators and cohorts of the bully.

When incidences of bullying are not addressed, it gives the message that little value is placed on the mistreatment of people.

When this continues and transfers to the next incident of mistreatment, it can result in a further reduction in human value.

Bystanders who witness bullying, especially for the first time, often disapprove of bullying and feel they are innocent parties to behaviour they consider to be morally wrong.

However, when bystanders learn that there are few penalties against bullying behaviour, bystanders begin to believe that bullying is accepted behaviour, and part of the value system.

The collective challenge by peers, classmates, colleagues, friends, teachers, managers and leaders is to unlock the silence of bystanders which can provide the key to destroying the path the behaviour of bullying travels on, and encourage bystanders to step up rather than step out when they witness bullying.

It will also help re-focus the energy and activity of people back on the communal objective goals of schools, workplaces and clubs, rather than constant concern, worry and dynamic of who is, or is not, going to have the approval of the bully.

Nothing strengthens as much as silence” — Leonardo da Vinci.

All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men (and women) do nothing” – Edmund Burke.

This is an extract from the book Bullies, Victims and Bystanders by Terri Ryan (Published by Irish Development & Information Guides, €10).

See www.bulliesvictimsandbystanders.com