How Verbal Self-Defense Works

Use Computer Mode

Hostile language in English almost always has two identifying characteristics:

  1. lots and lots of personal vocabulary and personal comments.
  2. lots of extra stress on words and parts of words.

Responding with more of the same is like throwing gasoline on a fire; it gives your attacker everything needed to feed the argument and make it escalate. There's a very different way of talking (from the work of Virginia Satir), that I call Computer Mode. To use Computer Mode: You avoid everything personal; you talk in platitudes and generalities and hypotheticals; and you keep your body language -- including the tune your words are set to -- neutral and controlled. Computer Mode defuses verbal attacks because it doesn't give the attacker what he or she wants and it doesn't give the attacker any fuel with which to keep the altercation going. There is no safer stance.

Suppose somebody has come at you with an attack like "WHY can't I ever FIND anything around this place? Do you HIDE STUFF just to be annoying, or WHAT??" Don't take the bait. Don't start claiming that you don't hide things; don't start explaining your system for putting things in their places; don't start yelling that the attacker is the one who misplaces everything or is just too stupid to be able to find anything; don't just yell, "Get out of my FACE, you creep!" All those responses reward the attacker and make you a participating verbal victim. Instead, say something like this:

  • "People get irritated when they can't find things."
  • "It's very annoying not to be able to find things."
  • "Misplaced tools [or books, or supplies, or whatever] cause problems in every workplace [or home, or clinic, or whatever]."
  • "Nothing is more distressing than having to hunt for things."

No matter how many more times the attacker throws hostile language at you, continue to answer only with another response in Computer Mode. If the hostile strategy has always worked in the past, it may take the attacker a while to understand that it's not going to work this time. Eventually, the attacker will run out of steam and give up -- and again, will make a mental note that you're no fun as a victim and shouldn't be chosen for that role in the future.

You'd be amazed at how many potential arguments I've nipped in the bud with a single meaningless emergency platitude. The attacker makes the first hostile move; and I answer, solemnly, "You know, you can't tell which way the train went by looking at the tracks." Many, many times, the next line from the poor soul attacking has been, "I never thought of it like that." Almost every time, the argument has ended right there -- for an impressive savings in time and energy all around, and far less pollution of the language environment.