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How Verbal Self-Defense Works

The Basics of Verbal Self-Defense

Verbal self-defense has three basic parts:

  • understanding what's really going on
  • listening instead of leaping to conclusions
  • knowing how to respond.

Understanding what's really going on

First and foremost, you need to educate your amygdala. When somebody comes at you with hostile language, your amygdala typically says, "DANGER! RED ALERT!", and off you go. You need to be able to change the criteria your amygdala has for defining a threat.


Suppose a two-year-old runs at you screaming "YOU BIG MEANY! I don't LIKE you!" and starts pounding on your knees with tiny fists. Your amygdala doesn't pay the slightest attention. You know the toddler is no threat to you, you understand what causes such episodes, and you have better sense than to get involved in a fight with the poor little kid. The key here is that you understand what's going on, and that lets you stay detached and rational.

With verbal attackers, the problem is that we usually don't understand what's going on. The dominant idea about such people in our culture is that their goal in attacking you verbally is to hurt you, to cause you pain, to do you harm -- and that does of course fit your amygdala's specifications for danger. However, the idea is all wrong. It's a myth, just as "Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you" is a myth.

Anybody can verbally attack once in a while. You're over-tired, you've had a horrible day, you're coming down with a bad cold, somebody says a few innocuous words at you, and you lose it -- you go after them as if they'd approached you swinging an axe. But chronic verbal attackers -- the ones that keep everybody around them in turmoil all the time, the ones that people will flee into a restroom to avoid when they see them coming down the hall -- are different. Sure, they could be sadistic psychotics out to savage you, but that's not likely (and if they are, there'll be other clues, such as the fact that they are swinging an axe). Almost always, chronic verbal abusers behave the way they do for one of two reasons:

  1. A small percentage are simply klutzes. They're ignorant. They know no other way to communicate with other human beings. All they need is education.
  2. As for the rest, they're desperate for attention and they know that throwing hostile language at you will get your attention.

In both cases, once you understand what's really going on, your reaction to such people will no longer be, "Danger! Red alert!" Your reaction will be compassion. As in "Poor thing. Desperate to communicate, and that's the best he/she can do." Or "Poor thing. Desperate for attention, and that's the best he/she can do." You still may not like the attacker and you'll still find the attacker's behavior unacceptable, but you won't have any interest in arguing.

Listening instead of leaping to conclusions

Psychologist George Miller long ago said something so important that I call it Miller's Law; he said, "In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to find out what it could be true of." That is, when somebody says, "Hey! My toaster talks to me!", your proper response is a neutral "Oh? What does your toaster say?" Followed by careful listening, with your full attention. You're not accepting as true the statement that the person's toaster talks to him or her; you're assuming temporarily that it is true, and then you're listening carefully to find out what the statement could be true of.

That's not how most of us operate. Most of us use a rule that I call Miller's Law In Reverse. We hear somebody say something that we react to negatively; we immediately assume that the utterance is false; and we stop listening because we're busy telling ourselves what's wrong with the person that explains why they'd say something so unacceptable to us. We leap to conclusions. We tell ourselves things like these:

  • "He's only saying that because.... he's uneducated/crazy/drunk/old/sadistic/showing off."
  • "She's only saying that because.... she's an airhead/vicious/on drugs/totally confused/out to get me."
  • "They're only saying that because... I'm short/people like them have no manners/I can't afford a decent suit/they don't like me."

The minute we do that, all listening stops. You can't listen to what someone else is saying and listen to your own self-talk at the same time; it's not neurophysiologically possible. And what happens next? A great deal of the time, a fight happens. Like this:

X: "Hey! My toaster talks to me!"

YOU: "Look, I don't have time for that kind of garbage! I've got work to do!"

X: "And I suppose MY work isn't as important as yours?"

YOU: "I didn't say that."

X: "Oh, yes you did!"

YOU: "I did NOT! I just said..."

And so on, downhill from there.

People tell me they don't have time to listen, they're too busy. I can assure you, based on three decades of teaching verbal self-defense, that they spend far more time straightening out the messes that result from not listening. Give the speaker your full attention for as long as it takes to understand what's really being said and why. Even if the speaker is a child. Perhaps especially if the speaker is a child. I once heard a mother answer a child's "Mom, I wish I was dead" with "Were dead, dear, not was dead." This is how we end up reading in newspapers that a child has done some terrrible thing "without warning." This is what's behind going home one night and finding that your spouse has left you "without warning." There's always a warning, but somebody has to be listening to it; otherwise, the person will give up and stop trying.

Knowing how to respond

Our culture teaches three standard ways to respond to a verbal attack:

  1. Attacking back - "How DARE you say that to me!"
  2. Pleading - "I can't BELIEVE you're going to start that again when you KNOW how much work I have to do today!"
  3. Debating - "There are three reasons why what you say is ridiculous. First..."

All three are strategic errors, because all three reward the attacker by providing your immediate full attention, often with an emotional reaction thrown in that increases the intensity of that attention. All you do when you use those three traditional responses is encourage the attacker to do it again. After all, it worked.

What you need is a response that doesn't do this. You need a response that lets the attacker know you won't serve as willing victim. Fleeing the scene won't do it; fleeing makes it obvious to attackers that they "got to you"; they'll be eager to try again. Silently ignoring attackers won't serve either; in our culture, silence is punishment, and is just another kind of counterattack. Like fleeing, it says, "You got to me. You can push my buttons."

The verbal self-defense system that I teach includes an array of techniques too large to fit in this brief article. But I can give you two examples here (and you can find more information in my books or at my verbal self-defense Web site, Your goal is to respond to hostile language in a way that doesn't set you up as a victim, doesn't reward the attacker, doesn't require you to sacrifice your principles or dignity, and causes no loss of face on either side. For instance....