Verbal attacks in office. How to fight back?


Research in Psychology has shown that all bullies want something – your attention, sadist pleasure from seeing you upset, hide their insecurities or personal failures. These are the reasons bullies use aggression to focus all energy on others.

This week I was part of yet another fierce meeting. Leaders shouting at each other, blaming each other, using power tactics and aggression. All this is not new in corporate world. But what I have learned and observed is that in doing all these, the business objective is sacrificed; team motivation dwindles and outputs suffer. Smart people and true leaders know their end objective. They know how to effectively respond to verbal attacks, without losing their calm and they get their things done. While I was part of this meeting, I got chance to implement my learning from a recent course I completed from Udemy.

How does psychology define verbal attack? Broadly, you are verbally attacked when you feel hurt, unable to reply or whenever you feel something is taken from you without your approval. So why would people want to verbally attack you? Again, there are four main types of verbal attacks.

1) Criticism or insults 2) Accusation or judgments 3) Blame or guilt traps 4) Asking abusive questions

1) People criticize or insult to get their ego boosted, to escape a bad situation or to hide a bad emotion by directing the attention towards others. 

2) Judgement or accusations focus solely on one bad act or behavior by putting that under microscope. It ignores all other aspects of your personality. People use this to intimidate you emotionally and make them look good by making you look bad. Research proves that someone who has a lot of self- pity might use this tactic a lot. 

3) Blame and guilt trap – Holding you accountable for something which is not completely your fault. This is used so that a person can

a) Escape responsibility.

b) To feel the need for playing victim.

It is a way to emotionally manipulate you. By playing this trick people will make you feel low, immoral. They force a situation in that the only way for you to feel good is to do what they say or apologies and make up to them. History digging is also a way of guilt trapping. It is a way to take focus away from current situation.

4) Abusive questions are asked not for the sake of getting an answer but to make you feel bad, incompetent or play victim on you.

So how do you verbally defend against such attacks? Well, to start with you need high awareness and presence to identify that you have been attacked. You need to understand the power equation and the level of your relationship with your attacker. You should have the foresight to predict how will the other person react from your response instead of impulsively replying. All these is very easily said than done but it’s a journey worth starting.

What is verbal defense?

Bob Francis, the instructor of the Udemy course, defines it as a way of using words in order to maintain mental and emotional safety. Using conflict management includes using tone of voice, posture, choice of words in order to reduce tension and calm a volatile situation. Making sure that you don’t burn a bridge and establish better relationship with attackers, of course all these without sacrificing on your business goal.

Below are few of the techniques that communication experts recommend:

1) Taking the attackers side – This is extensively used by customer service people and when you know that you are at fault or you don’t have much power. E.g. An angry customer calling and shouting on why the delivery was late and over and above, it was a wrong packet. To start off in such situations validate other person’s feelings. Reassure that you would also feel like them (mad, sad, angry etc.), if you were in that position and at last propose a solution.

2) Interrogate – When you realize that you are attacked but don’t know what to say, ask questions. When you need more time – ask questions. When you want to cool things down – ask questions. After Pause, questions are the most important tools to defend any verbal attack. It can be used to tackle over generalization effectively. e.g. Your boss telling that You are always late. Ask back, am I always that late? When you want some more time to reply or want the other person to reveal more – question their last couple of words. e.g. your boss shouting again – this research is not good enough. You – not good enough? 

3) Silence and total neglect are also a great tool to fight bullying in certain situations. Make sure there are no residual feelings of hurt in you. Otherwise you will have passive aggressive thoughts. You can use this when you know that the attack is as a part of person’s personality or mood swing etc. Allow the attacker the pleasure of ego boost but you just have a thicker skin and focus on your business results and not words. Just absorb the attack.

4) Dodge the bullying – You can use this when the power equation between you and the attacker are equal. Corollary to above point on silence is this point. You can 1) Play dumb 2) Continue to do what you were doing 3) Dismissing the attack (Aaha , cute.. ) 4) Misunderstanding – you pretend that you received a compliment. 5) Exaggerate their insults and make fun of yourself without being sarcastic 6) Reflect on their skills – Seriously, is that all you have? common you can do better.

5) The compliment method – If you are very connected with the attacker and you are currently experiencing some disharmony in your relationship – the solution is to resolve the problems by healing them. e.g. You are late again? Oh, I am so sorry I am not as good as you are. I am struggling to balance both work and life. My apologies. I will try and do better. And now change the subject. 

6) Nonsense is the sense! This is a confusion technique used against extreme aggression to drop adrenaline rush of the attacker. Again, this cannot be used in a formal setup or against authority. When someone is coming on you with full passion, no direct answer to that subject/topic can drastically drop their aggression. The trick here is to say something perfectly logical but something completely out of context. As the attacker tries to evaluate your words they will feel confused and thus feel a drop in their anger.

There are many other verbal defense techniques as well. Technique to help us fight colleague’s excuses, excessive lying or complaining. But I have found the above listed to be used the most.

Can you imagine yourself walking around in office with ability to handle all types of verbal abuse, insults, criticism, tantrums or blames? Having the ability to not let anyone impact your emotional state or let any situation shift your focus from your long-term relationship building or goals? Do you have the necessary verbal defense skills?


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