What to Do About Personal Verbal Attacks?

I am often asked by people how they should handle personal attacks by those they are forced to interact with? Those who they can’t simply walk away from and never see again, which is sometimes my preferred option. These people can be friends, family, work colleagues, bosses and even people in business for whom you are a customer or customers you need to tolerate.

Now to be fair, I must exude some slight sense of don’t mess with me menace, as I don’t get this myself much these days. But back in the day, I had plenty of experience…. So what to do?

My most common recommendation, is to always respond to an attack, not with a counter attack, like saying: “you are another”…But to respond with a question. This is disconcerting to someone expecting a lob back from you and an attack to which they can attack back like a tennis match. So ask an appropriate question. Some of my favorites are:

  • Was that a put down and why would you want to put me down?
  • What evidence do you have for that statement about me?
  • Why would you say that about me in that way?
  • In what way is doing what you suggest in my interests?
  • What would you do if you were in my situation of being attacked by you?
  • How would you feel if I said that to you?
  • Is your comment fair? Is it reasonable?
  • Why are you so unhappy?
  • What else have you considered?
  • Can you re-phrase that so I can better understand your point
  • Can we have an adjournment as this seems to be going off the rails (this is not the same as walking out) and get back together in half an hour, tomorrow, next week whatever
  • What would your comment look like to an outsider?

There are some other approaches that may also that are not questions as such:

  • Silence; not hostile, but simply open silence, as if you are expecting further explanation of the reason for the attack. Maybe even nod encouragingly…this can be deeply irritating to the attacker.
  • If you are sitting down and have pen and paper, write notes on what the person is saying to attack you, as if you want to capture every nuance of the attack. This is pretty disconcerting for most people…
  • And for really advanced work, I always found eye-balling is helpful: looking deep into the attackers soul via their eyes with a slight closing of your left eye to show focus. But this requires a lot of experience and is not recommended for beginners.

In the meantime, remember also humor can help and yes some of the above questions can be asked in an ironic way, but are best played straight. And this is probably why I don’t get this problem. 🙂

Footnote: this posting is dedicated to my friend Z in the hope it helps. 🙂


Job Interview: Human Resources Manager: “What is your greatest weakness?” Old Man : “Honesty.” Human Resources Manager: “I don’t think honesty is a weakness.” Old Man : “I don’t really give a shit what you think.”

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Humor, Conflict Processes, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What to Do About Personal Verbal Attacks?

  1. havingabadtime says:

    How can you say for beginners? No one agrees with being verbally abused. No one wants to be that abused, where a bunch of lame men get to feel liked, because that is what happens when me and other people who complain speak up – men feel like they are given a chance. How can it be that way? Why can’t people be respectful without feeling: ‘then you need to take an old mans advice first or you need to do drugs/party or you need to go through mazes of humiliating crap with people who feel they have mastered that pain’. What makes a disappointing lame man welcome to roam around and make people disrespectful to prove a woman is wrong and every female must be like whom ever gives him an easier time? I am not asking of men anything. I am being used with no other resource because some people prefer it this way. It must end. They hang on to me as if I am not living for myself but that I have to live for whatever people think of themselves as a ruler or better than me. Can someone not stop these people ? Why does it have to be emotional burden ?

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