Saturday 22nd November 10:01

Communication Skills: Responding to Verbal Attacks

verbalselfdefence_175One of the most valuable communication skills you can learn is the ability to respond when you are being verbally attacked. Most people who are verbally attacked respond in like fashion. Because they interpret what the other person says as a threat, they go into fight-flight mode and either hit back or run away. In hitting back, their brains short-circuit their thinking processes and so respond with words that they later regret. The damage is done and the relationship suffers. In the skilled communicator, a verbal attack, for whatever reason, is dealt with in another way that defuses the attack, wrong-foots the attacker, and rescues the relationship. Here are 3 techniques that you can use to achieve these results.

1. Miller's Law

When most of us are attacked verbally, we go into self-defence mode and argue back. We assume that what the other person is saying is unfair and we stop listening and focus on ourselves. Psychologist George Miller suggests that, in order to rescue the exchange, we should do something different: assume for the moment that what the other person is saying is true and find out what it could be true of. So, if someone angrily says, "You xxxxxx, you're always ignoring me", respond with, "Yes, I have a tendency to do things that do look like I'm ignoring people sometimes" and then listen to find out more.

2. The Boring Baroque Response

Another way to respond to a verbal attack is to use the Boring Baroque Response, or BBR. The BBR tactic is to give a long-winded explanation of why the other person may be right that simply takes the sting out of their argument. So, if someone angrily says, "You xxxxxx, you're always ignoring me", respond with, "you know, I was reading the other day in the New York Times, or was it "The Washington Post", or maybe "The Herald", about something similar, well it's sort of similar, well, in any case, it struck me as similar..." and on and on. Do this while staring into space and in a straight way and you'll defuse the tension and stop the exchange going downhill.

3. Computer Mode

The third way to defuse verbal attacks and not give the attacker any fuel to keep an argument going, is to use a tactic that originally comes from Virginia Satir and is called "Computer Mode". In Computer Mode, you talk in platitudes, generalities, and hypotheticals and avoid anything personal. Your words can even be meaningless. So, if someone angrily says, "You xxxxxx, you're always ignoring me", respond with something like, "Nothing is more distressing than talking to people who don't respond the way you want", or even, "We're all like ships that pass in the night". In doing this, you signal to your attacker that you're not going to play the personal attack game no matter how much they want a response they can feed on.  

It is now proven that hostile language can be as damaging to you as hostile actions. People who are exposed to verbal attacks get sick more, are injured more, take longer to recover, and suffer more complications. It's toxic stuff. By managing your response with one of the 3 tactics above, you not only keep your health intact, you ride out a temporary aberration in your relationship and make you both safe to re-start it on a better tack.

For more on How Verbal Self-Defence Works, click here.