Perhaps this has happened to you. You’re doing your work, and suddenly your boss comes over and starts screaming at you. Then they barge back into their office.
You wonder what just happened. Perhaps you start to cry. Perhaps you yell back. Perhaps you start to search for another job. How can you prevent verbal attacks? How can you stop the verbal attacker in their tracks? How can you make them understand that they are not going to get the rise out of you that they want?
There are several forms of verbal abuse and here’s how you can identify them, and respond to each one.
Techniques for responding include Sensory mode, Satir Mode, and Responding the VAPs, aka Verbal Attack Patterns. Let’s go into each one.
Use Sensory Modes
You can match the sensory mode coming at you and help the person attacking trust you more.
Sensory Modes sound like:
Sight: “I really like the way this looks.”
Hearing: “This sounds great to me!”
Smell: “This whole plan smells fishy to me.”
Taste: “This leaves an awful taste in my mouth.”
Touch: “I don’t feel right about this.”
If you can’t identify which sensory mode the person is using, don’t use any of this language at all.
Use Satir Modes
Dr. Virginia Satir was a world famous family therapist. She noticed that language behavior of people under stress tends to lead to five modes.
You can recognize Blaming in body language. The Blamer shakes their fists or index fingers, scowl and frown and loom. People use blamer mode because they are insecure and fraid that nobody will respect or obey them. They might say, “WHY don’t you ever think about anybody ELSE’S feelings?”
You can recognize Placating in body language. Placaters cling and fidget and lean on others. People use placater mode-saying that they don’t care-because they care so much. “Oh YOU know how I am! Whatever YOU want to do is okay with ME!”
You can recognize Computing in body language. Computers are stiff and rigid, moving as little as possible. People use Computer mode-saying “I have no emotions”-because they are aware of the emotions they actually feel and are afraid to let them show. “There is undoubtedly a good reason for this delay. No sensible person would be upset about it.”
You can recognize Distracting in body language. Distracters cycle through the other modes with their bodies. People in Distracter mode cycles through all of these states of mismatch, can talk like they’re jumping from one thing to another, and express panic. “What IS the MATTER with you ANYway? Not that I care! YOU know me-I can put up with ANYthing! However, common sense would indicate that the rules should be followed.”
You can recognize Leveling in body language because they don’t have these patterns and their bodies match their words. Levelers will say, “I like you. But I don’t like your methods.”
Try leveling and you’ll find that others will have little recourse but to understand that you’re not going to join them in Blame, Distraction, Computing, or Placating.
Recognizing and Responding to Verbal Attack Patterns of English
Verbal attack patterns are all about STRESS on the words or parts of the words in the sentence. There are two parts.
First there is the bait, which is the part that hurts, which the attacker expects you to respond to.
Then there’s the attack that matters, which is hidden in a supposition.
Have you ever had someone say,
“You could at LEAST get to WORK on time! or
“WHY don’t you ever LISTEN to me when I talk to you?” or perhaps
“EVerybody underSTANDS why you’re so TOUCHy, you know!”
There is no more important cue to recognizing verbal attacks than abnormal stress patterns.
To respond to this kind of attack, you need to respond to the supposition, not the bait. So instead of saying, “I DID get to work on time!” Say, “When did you start thinking that I didn’t listen when you talked?” or “When did you start thinking that I’m touchy?” When you address the hidden supposition, that there is no listening, or that you don’t get to work on time ever, or that you’re touchy, you can start to draw out concrete examples and get to the root of the problem directly. This is not what the attacker expects, and it can short circuit the confrontation.
Rule one: Ignore the bait.
Rule two: Respond directly to the attack hidden in the presuppositions.
Rule three: No matter what else you do, say something that transmits this message: “Don’t try that with me-I won’t play that game.”
Metaprinciple One: Anything you feed will grow
Metaprinciple Two: Anything you Starve, Smother, or Neglect will Fester and Die.
Metaprinciple Three: Every language interaction is an interactive feedback loop.
Metaprinciple Four: The only meaning an utterance has in the real world is the meaning the listener understands it to have.
Metaprinciple Five: Mismatch is a warning, watch for it.
Just remember, your boss or co-worker has no excuse for treating you this way. It’s not that “they’re having a bad day” if it’s 5 days a week. Don’t make excuses and say, “Well, men are just childish” or “Women are just overemotional.” There’s no excuse for workplace violence.
Tips gleaned from The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense, by Suzette Haden Elgin.
UPDATE Feb 2019
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[INFOGRAPHIC] This chart shows you hidden workplace dynamics