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How to Respond to Verbal Attacks

By |June 17, 2024

Verbal attacks can happen in both personal and professional settings, triggering emotional responses that can cloud our judgment and derail conversations. Knowing how to respond effectively is crucial for maintaining control and fostering positive outcomes. 

The attack is a trigger stimulus. When we are triggered, we get hippocampus and amygdala activation. That puts us in a frame of mind to do one of three things: fight, flight, or freeze. We have always espoused at The Black Swan Group™ that the other option is to use Tactical Empathy™ to make friends. Making friends using Tactical Empathy™ removes the adversarial prism through which we view our counterpart.  Using it, turns, them from a foe into a teammate in a problem-solving venture.

Starting with an Apology

“I apologize. I know you can't stand me right now. I know I've made you angry. I know you're pissed off.”

The only aspect of any conversation that we have absolute control over is our own behavior. It's essential not to try to control or attack  the attacker. Instead, focus on staying calm. This self-regulation is critical in managing the situation effectively. When attacked, it’s common to pivot away from the issue at hand to restore calm. However, staying in the moment and addressing the issue directly is more effective.

Staying in the moment means going directly at the issue starting with an apology. Many people forget the value of an apology. People often hesitate to apologize to avoid appearing vulnerable.

In our questionnaires and debriefs, all three negotiator personality types, including Assertives, emphasized the need for an apology when offended - yes, even Assertives. . An apology will  diffuse tension  and show selflessness. It’s important to acknowledge the other person’s feelings with a sincere apology. After dissipating  the attack,  drill down further to uncover the true source of the attack.  Do so by Labeling and/or Mislabeling the perceived emotions.

Saying things like “It seems like you’re really frustrated”—helps to identify and address the underlying issues driving the attack.

After apologizing and Labeling emotions, dig deeper to understand the specifics of the issue. Ask clarifying questions to uncover what’s really bothering the attacker. For instance, say, “It seems like I’m failing to be sensitive to something really important to you” followed by Dynamic Silence.  Verbal attacks often stem from unspoken dynamics such as feeling unheard, being under pressure, or attempting to manipulate. Identifying these latent dynamics is crucial. If someone feels you’re not listening, acknowledge this and seek to understand their perspective better.

Understanding that attacks often come from feeling unheard or from pressure can help you stay empathetic. 

Using I-Messages to confront Persistent Counterproductive Behavior

Implementation Note:  the I-Message is one of the most assertive moves that we have in our arsenal. And because most people are conditioned to be assertive during conversations, they gravitate towards the  I-Message™ and they use it prematurely. This is designed specifically for persistent counterproductive behavior.

At some point, you'll need to confront counterproductive behavior. This happens when someone repeatedly interrupts, launches ad hominem attacks, or targets you and your organization. Failure to address persistent attacks hinder our ability to influence others.

And so the best way to do it is with the I-Message.

The I-Message is a face-saving technique that we use to confront the person exhibiting the counterproductive behavior without being confrontational.  Without us being accusatory. We identify the problem or the issue without actually focusing.  Without actually blaming or accusing. We use it to (1) highlight the behavior, (2) highlight its impact, and (3) what they stand to lose if they do not cease and desist. 

The three parts that I-Message: 

  • When you [behavior]...
  • I feel [emotion
  •  because [impact].

Note - this is the deviation from our previous use of the I-Message™ “because” we used to use the “because” to talk about how it affects us. We have people reporting back to us that, 'You know, we said the when you, I feel because, and the because was directly related to me. And the response to the I-Message™ was, 'So? I don't care how it makes you feel. I don't care what it's doing to you.' So we modified that in recent years, to focus the offending party  on what they stand to lose.

An example would be if a guy or woman throws out an ultimatum, and they've done it multiple times during the course of the conversation, then my message would be, 'When you continuously throw out ultimatums, I feel backed into a corner because you're limiting the options that we have in moving forward.' And so it's clear, I'm telling them to knock it off. I'm not gonna sit here and be victimized by you any longer. If you continue, this conversation is over, without using any of those words. 

When faced with repeated attacks, maintain composure and continue to Label and seek clarification. This will help uncover the true issue and demonstrate your commitment to resolving the conflict. Addressing passive-aggressive behavior requires a similar approach. If someone shuts down or becomes silent, acknowledge their emotions and seek to understand the root cause. For instance, say, “It seems like something I did upset you?” 

By applying these strategies, you can effectively manage verbal attacks, fostering better communication and more positive outcomes. Remember to understand the nature of verbal attacks and distinguish a reaction from a response, focusing on self-regulation and staying in the moment. Use Tactical Empathy™ to transform adversarial interactions into cooperative ones, and don’t underestimate the value of a sincere apology. Labeling emotions and seeking specifics help uncover underlying issues, while understanding latent dynamics and confronting counterproductive behavior can further enhance your approach. Handle different types of attacks by adapting your response based on the nature of the attack.

Responding to verbal attacks requires a blend of empathy, self-regulation, and strategic communication. By understanding the nature of these attacks and applying the techniques outlined above, you can turn potentially destructive encounters into opportunities for constructive dialogue and problem-solving. Embrace these methods to enhance your ability to navigate verbal conflicts with confidence and tact.