Fighting Verbal Abuse: Step 1 — Knowing You Are “Under Attack” (Free Version)
People around the world are frightened, angry, on edge and impatient. The restrictions placed on all our lives as a result of Covid19 are feeling more and more limiting and people are desperate to “get back to normal”.
Unfortunately, as people become more frightened and more desperate they tend to strike out at nearby “targets” using various forms of verbal abuse. Their anxieties and fears fuel anger and aggression towards those close to them (i.e. family, co-workers, or the ubiquitous “they”).
Not only has the world become an unhealthier place by virtue of a virus run wild, but it’s become a more abusive place too.
You Don’t Have To Be A Victim
Fortunately, there are skills and strategies you can use to deflect, and/or calm down people who are occasionally abusive. Unfortunately, these techniques are not well known, and our “natural reactions” to verbal attacks tend to result in pouring hot oil on the fire.
While we don’t have space or time to teach you the many defusing and abuse stopping techniques (see the bibliography at the end), we CAN help you with the first step in countering verbal abuse; knowing when you are under attack.
Below you’ll find the full text from our “Helpcard” entitled Identify Subtle Verbal Abuse In Your Life, normally a paid product.
Subtle Verbal Abuse
Most of us are good at identifying the “in your face verbal abuse” in our lives. There’s no mistaking outright insults, yelling, swearing and other obvious forms of verbal abuse, but it’s much harder to identify the “death by a thousand insect bites” kind of verbal abuse.
In some ways subtle verbal abuse is actually more damaging than more obvious forms of it. Why? Because subtle verbal abuse is something you may experience every day, perhaps dozens of times a day. It works its damage beneath the surface affecting the way you think and feel about yourself and about the people using subtle abuse techniques, sometimes even unintentionally.
Purpose of Identifying Subtle Verbal Abuse
The first step in dealing with any kind of verbal abuse is to recognize its existence. You can’t make decisions about what to do about it unless a) you understand that it is occurring, and b) you are able to identify specific behaviors on the part of other people that are abusive in nature. Also once you are able to identify the specifics of verbal abuse, it’s possible to work with the other person to improve the relationship by dealing with specific relationship behaviors that need to be changed.
What You Need To Know About Subtle Abuse
It is exceedingly important that you understand some vital aspects of subtle verbal abuse. Make sure you read and understand the following before continuing.
¨ Something is verbally abusive if it demeans, or sends a message that the recipient is “less than” what they should be AND is unsolicited.
¨ Verbal abuse serves the needs of the sender, and ignores the needs of the recipient.
¨ Subtle verbally abusive speech doesn’t necessarily mean the individual is consciously trying to hurt you. Some people habitually speak using subtle verbal abuse. They may do so because they are tired, upset, angry and don’t know how to phrase things in constructive ways.
¨ All of us use subtle verbal abuse on occasion. That doesn’t make it acceptable, but it’s important not to over-react.
¨ Subtle verbal abuse is about hidden manipulation, where your feelings and behaviors are negatively and indirectly influenced. The words used are not themselves abusive, but the message that lies below the surface is.
¨ Subtle abuse is also used to obscure, or hide the issue under discussion, or create one or more of the following:
Other strong negative emotions
¨ Generally subtle verbal abuse is used to put you off balance so the other person (or you if it’s you using them) can get his or her way or negatively affect how you feel.
Common Subtle Verbal Abuse Techniques
Sympathy/Pity Based: An appeal to the other person’s compassion to get the person to give in. Common in children, but also used by adults, an example would be: “All my friends get to stay out late and they make fun of me, so can I…“ If you have kids you know this one.
Always/Never Language: Used by people to make their position or argument sound better, usually ends up in unpleasant arguments. For example: “You never take out the garbage” or “Why are you always late getting your projects done?” . These create arguments because there are very few things that are always or never true. Also suggests the recipient is “less than” he or she ought to be.
Appeals To Authority: Invoking the ideas or words of someone who sounds important or sounds like they know about the issue being discussed. In other words calling on an expert. For example: “Dr. Phil says that you are making the worst mistake a person in a marriage could make”. The reason this type of thing is manipulative is that Dr. Phil isn’t there to ask, and certainly isn’t in a position to know the exact context of your discussion. It’s a pressure tactic.
The Unnamed They Tactic: A favorite of people trying to convince you of the evil intent of one group or another, or just generally to support an argument. For example: “Well, we’d love to refund your money but they won’t let us”. Or, “I don’t like giving out the information because they might use it without my knowing”. Also used to completely avoid taking responsibility for anything. Here’s another example: “Well you know everyone thinks you come across as arrogant”
Use of Status/Knowledge: This involves moving from a discussion of the facts and issues, to questioning the other person’s status or qualification or knowledge. For example: “What could you possibly know about cars”, or, “I’ve studied this and have a college degree in this, so I know.” Notice the two different ways this is used. The first example is a demeaning attack, while the second is an attempt to present oneself as an expert to intimidate.
The Everyone Tactic: “Everyone does it“, is a refrain that is used to excuse oneself for doing something stupid, because other people are doing that same stupid thing. Not only used as manipulative, but it’s also a means of self-deception. For example: “Everyone drives over the speed limit so what‘s the big deal?”, “Well, I‘m not the only one eating a lot of junk food, you know”, or “Everyone cheats on their taxes.” Another example: “Everyone does it so why don’t you? What’s wrong with you?”
The Common Sense Pressure Tactic: What does it mean when someone says “Well, it’s common sense, you know”? Usually it means they don’t know how to support their position, so they fall back to this completely empty statement. What’s common sense (or obvious) is subjective. The message underlying this technique is that if you disagree with the speaker’s position, you are obviously lacking in common sense, which is a form of personal attack.
Vested Interest Tactic: Involves an attempt to invalidate another’s opinion through association, implying hidden motive. For example, “Well, you would say that wouldn’t you. After all you are a LIBERAL.”, or “Since you’re well-paid I can see you wouldn’t give a damn about pay raises for anyone else in this company”. The hidden attack here is that you are not trustworthy, and perhaps even dishonest.
You Do It Too: Often used in arguments between spouses, the logic of this attempt is that since YOU do the same bad thing, it’s ok for ME to do the same bad thing. For example: “Hey, don’t complain about me leaving my underwear in the living room. You do it with your pantyhose.” Another example: “Well, yeah I drink too much but you smoke like a chimney”.
Ditching Tactic: This involves ditching the conversation, leaving the issue unresolved, and is done unilaterally. For example, “Talking with you is a waste of time”, or “I’m not going to waste my time with you”, and then walking away and refusing to talk about the issue.
There is a subtle difference between ditching, which is outright refusal, and a person putting a discussion on hold for a few minutes or until the timing is better. The latter isn’t abusive. The former probably is.
The Cause & Effect Trick: This is a logical error people make and involves assuming there is a causal link between two events just because they occur close together. For example, a husband borrows wife’s car. The next day the car won’t start. Wife says: “George, what did you do to my car?”, assuming that George actually caused the problem when in fact it’s just as likely that it’s simply coincidence. It’s the particular phrasing that is problematic since it suggests that the husband is at fault without first verifying that is true.
The Impossible Proof Tactic: When one person asks another to prove something that is almost impossible to prove. For example: “Prove to me that you love me, then.” Or, “Prove to me that you don’t drink too much”. Or, “Prove to me that you have never used illegal drugs.”
The Sub-Text Attack: Probably the most complex, subtle verbal abuse tactic, this involves sending a message underneath the words used. It allows the speaker deniability, since the insult or insinuation isn’t explicit. For example: “If you really loved me, you’d let me go to the party”, or, “If you were really committed to your job, you’d work more overtime.” In the first the sub-text is “you don’t love me”, while in the second, it’s “your aren’t committed”.
The Tradition Response: Some examples: “We’ve always done it this way”, or, “In my family we always used to keep the ketchup in the cupboard, not the fridge.” It’s an attempt to crush discussion and pressure the other person into giving in.
For Me, Therefore For The World: A Pressure Move: Involves the belief that because one’s own limited experience with something is good (or bad), you should do or feel like they did. For example: “I lost 40 pounds on this diet, and you should follow it too.”. This becomes abusive when the rationale is used to pressure someone into compliance.
The Trick Question Attack: The trick question con involves a person asking a question of another, where, no matter how the person answers s/he gets painted in a bad light. You’ve probably heard the example, “When did you stop beating your wife?”
Twisted Meaning/Lack of Context: Often unintentional, although it appears malicious, it involves taking something someone said, and misinterpreting, mishearing, or forgetting about the context. Can be a result of not listening due to being upset. For example, one person says: “I don’t want you to get hurt because you do something stupid while you are driving”, and the other person says: “Don’t call me stupid”. The person feeling insulted has really not heard the meaning properly, since nobody called anyone stupid.
Learning to counter subtle verbal abuse takes time and some work. Sometimes it’s possible to learn to handle these situations on your own. Sometimes you need to have a sounding board (e.g. a counselor or psychologist) to help.
Here are a very few tips. Please keep in mind that when subtle abuse is coupled with extreme verbal abuse or there is a threat of violence, the situation is completely different and you should consult a local professional.
¨ The person using subtle verbal isn’t necessarily a bad person, or consciously trying to manipulate you. It’s absolutely essential that you understand that, and don’t demonize the person using them, since we all do it at one time or another.
¨ Keeping in mind the other person is probably not being malicious, the first step in defending yourself is to realize the other people is using these tactics to put you off balance or create confusion. Again, remember that it’s most likely they are doing so unconsciously. When you allow yourself to be put off balance or get upset you are actually rewarding the other person. Stay calm and don’t take the bait because it is in YOUR interest to do so.
¨ A guiding principle: Do not get lead down the garden path. Don’t let subtle verbal abuse pull you off topic or cause you to become irrational and insulting. For example, if you are arguing about who takes out the garbage, and the other person says: “You never take out the garbage on time”, (always/never), you do NOT want to reply by saying “That’s not true, I DO take out the garbage”. Why? Because then you get a bigger argument that has nothing to do with solving the problem of how to handle the garbage in the future and it opens the door for escalation. Bottom line: argue and you encourage abuse.
¨ Learn to “slip” subtle verbal abuse tactics without getting pulled in.
In the garbage example you might say: “Maybe it would work better if we tried to figure out what to do next week”. Focus on the present or future, not the past.
¨ Some cons can safely be ignored, as if the person didn’t say what they said. Since they aren’t constructive, often they aren’t worth focusing on. You have to look at the overall picture. Isolated instances are one thing. Constant everyday abuse from the same person is another.
Suggested Readings To Help You Learn Techniques To Counter Verbal Abuse
Any Verbal Self Defense Books By Suzette Haden Elgin. (click link for her books available on Amazon) Suzette has written a series of book that are full of very specific real world techniques to help you counter verbal abuse and shut down a lot of it with appropriate responses.
If It Wasn’t For The Customers I’d Really Like This Job: Stop Angry, Hostile Customers COLD While Remaining Professional, Stress Free, Efficient and Cool by Robert Bacal. Although written for people who deal with difficult customers, there are over 100 tactics and strategies for dealing with verbal abuse. Available in paperback or Kindle (click the link).
Conflict Prevention In The Workplace: Using Cooperative Communication by Robert Bacal At about 100 print pages long this tightly written book will teach you about “hot phrases” and communication styles that tend to provoke anger and bad behavior back at you. Identifies inflammatory language, and how to replace it.