Experiencing a verbal attack is never pleasant, especially when it is unwarranted and relies on inaccurate information. Unfortunately, it seems that uninformed, anger-driven, highly emotional public outbursts are increasingly common behaviors among those who disagree with decisions, want a change in policy, or otherwise fail to get their way.
Of course, there are steps we can take in formal meetings to limit unacceptable behavior, such as establishing norms and expectations and providing strong meeting facilitation. We can also choose not to take what is said personally. The person who launches a personal attack is responsible for their behavior. We do not have to own or accept their emotions or actions.
Still, we can feel powerless in the face of such attacks, especially when they occur away from a structured environment. Without thinking, we can respond in ways that make the situation worse. Let’s explore a six-part response strategy we can employ to protect ourselves and avoid escalating the situation.
First, we can resist becoming defensive. When we choose a defensive stance, we invite the attacker to counter our response and sustain their attack. We give the other person an easy target for their emotions. Further, when we become defensive, we typically stop listening and ready ourselves to push back. Choosing this stance makes escalation of the situation a predictable outcome. Rather, we can refuse to take the attack personally. What we are hearing may be directed at the position we hold as much as it is at us. Further, even if we have some fault in the situation, it is our behavior that is in question, not who we are as a person.
Second, we can affirm the emotions driving the attack without accepting accusations and assumptions behind the attack. We can acknowledge that the other person may be feeling fear, frustration, or confusion, but we need to remain calm and speak firmly. Our best response is to convey respect and caring. As examples, we might say, “I can see that you are upset.” Or, “I can see how that might be frustrating to you.”
Third, we can pose questions and collect information that positions the attacker to participate in an interchange that can help us to better understand what is behind the attack. For example, we might inquire about how the situation or decision has an impact on the attacker. We also might ask what positive suggestions the attacker has to resolve the situation. The goal is to have the attacker become a contributor to understanding and resolution rather than continuing to rant.
Fourth, where possible, we can reaffirm goals and principles we share with the attacker. If we can establish a connection and lift up shared interests, we move from a position of opposition to one of joint effort and partnership in finding a solution. We may even note past experiences we have shared that demonstrate common interests and efforts. The objective is to move past rhetoric and accusations to understanding, progress, and resolution.
Fifth, we can share information we have that might help the attacker better understand the situation, decisions, or other actions we have taken. When presented in the light of shared goals and common principles, background information and supporting rationale for our position or actions can further de-escalate the situation and move the interaction in a productive direction. However, we need to be careful not to attempt to shift blame, or “throw others under the bus” to make us look good or redirect frustrations.
Sixth, we can accept responsibility for actions we have taken and, if appropriate, apologize for any missteps or mistakes we made in the situation. The impact of the other five parts to our response will be undermined if we refuse to own our behavior and any impact it has had on the situation. Further, by taking appropriate responsibility we can lay the ground work for a future relationship and greater trust, understanding, and respect if a similar situation occurs in the future.
It may not be possible to prevent all verbal attacks. Yet, the way in which we respond to attacks can make a huge difference in what happens next, whether the interchange leads to a positive outcome, and whether the person chooses the same approach in the future.