Don’t Take the Bait; Stop Verbal Aggression Before It Stops You.

– Stay cool while helping others come to their senses.

We need each other at work, at home and in our community. Cultivating and maintaining good relationships is critical for our success and happiness. They are the source of rich opportunities, essential information and needed support.

Solid relationships require good communication. However, stress and frustration can turn someone we ordinarily get along with into someone disagreeable. When someone verbally attacks us, it’s easy to retaliate and become equally dysfunctional.

The good news is that you don’t have to take the bait. You can learn to stay cool and help others come to their senses. When you switch focus to the value of the relationship instead of what they said, you can override the need to defend yourself. You can transform the dysfunctional back to functional.
What is verbal aggression?
The most apparent forms include name-calling, yelling or swearing. In these cases, the only response is a direct one with the option of a second chance later.

Please stop….I’d be happy to continue this conversation when you do.

However, with more subtle forms of verbal aggression such as blame, sarcasm and criticism, there are effective ways to people self-correct and keep the communication going.

There are many reasons people lash out. Most stem from a feeling of powerlessness that forces them to be aggressive as a self-defense measure. We’ve all been there, pressured to the point of losing control. It helps to remember this the next time someone gets verbally aggressive with us.

Typically, we respond to verbal aggression by attacking or avoiding it. Neither builds trust. You can win the day and bring the relationship back to a healthy balance by neutralizing the attack and empowering them to soften their approach.

Your inner response is your first line of defense.
Since the other person has likely triggered a flood of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and sensations, you must tend to yourself first. Awareness of your breathing enables you to notice what’s happening more quickly. Your goal is to stay part of the communication, not to escalate or abandon it because of your triggers.

To get communication back on track, you don’t need to fight fire with fire or walk away (unless there is an imminent physical threat). A third option is to neutralize by being open and non-combative. At first, this may not be easy. It’s probably the opposite of what you want to do since fight or flight is our natural response when we feel threatened.

As you become aware of your breathing, try slowing it down with a few deep breaths. This action will buy you time and create space between your initial triggered response and something more conscious and neutralizing. You want to avoid correcting them directly (except in the case above) because it’s likely to be met with more aggression. When someone uses aggression to overcome their powerlessness, they want to escalate the fight to feel more powerful. It’s a lose/lose situation.

What do you say?
Taming verbal aggression is more of an art than a science. It depends on the relationship and the situation. You want to be as open and non-combative in your verbal response as possible without being passive. The goal is to diffuse the tension and give the person space to self-correct and restart the conversation more balanced.

Here are a couple of suggestions to reduce aggression and make it more manageable. You may have to use these techniques multiple times and in different combinations, until you succeed.

Validate and be curious.
The element of surprise is your best offense. Most verbal aggressors expect you to invalidate them. When you acknowledge their situation or position and follow up with sincere curiosity, you take the wind out of their sails. You invite them to share instead of vent. The key is to be sincere. If you remember the moments when you lost it, you’ll be naturally compassionate and authentic in your delivery.

-That sounds frustrating. Can you tell me more?
-I’m glad you brought that up. Can you expand on that?
-That’s surprising. What happened next?

Be agreeable.
Being agreeable is not the same as agreeing. Instead, being friendly and courteous shows that you want to stand shoulder to shoulder with this person instead of in opposition to them, even if you disagree. You allow the other person to see you as their ally instead of their opponent. 

-You might be right.
-That’s a possibility.
-Good point, which makes me wonder…

Make a neutral observation.
A cousin of being agreeable is to describe what you see or hear in a non-combative way. You focus them on your observation instead of opposing what they said. You can completely disagree with the person and still make a neutral comment about it. When you do, you help them observe more neutrally as well.

-That’s interesting… surprising… unusual…
-I never thought of it that way.
-I never expected to see that

Say something true.
Most verbal aggression is about emotion rather than correct information. When you can find something true to say, it keeps you in the conversation without adding to the fight. Truth is difficult to argue with. Here are three examples of sharing the truth that helps sober emotions for a more constructive conversation.

Generally accepted as true:
-The report was late.
-Employee turnover is high everywhere these days.

True for you.
-I didn’t care for the topic.
-It’s hard for me to know what will happen next week.

True for them.
-I’m sure many people would agree with you.
-Sounds like you thought a lot about this.

Save relationships by effectively handling aggression.
Trust is the glue that holds relationships together. How you handle another person’s verbal aggression says a lot about who you are and what you value. It’s tempting in this age of anxiety to be impatient and discount people who are verbally aggressive with us. But you can be different, using aggression as an opportunity to form strong bonds for everyone’s benefit.

Don’t take the bait the next time someone is verbally aggressive with you. Choose the option of building trust instead. Decide to calmly stay in the conversation and support the return to a healthy and balanced relationship.

Your success and happiness depend on it.

Work Your Authentic Genius.

  1. What’s the most challenging part about “not taking the bait” when others are verbally aggressive towards you?
  2. How does breathing help you manage any triggers of thought, emotion and sensation?
  3. Which techniques for neutralizing are the least appealing for you? Why? Would you be willing to try them anyway and see what happens?

Thanks for reading. Stay authentic. It matters.
Til next week…

Jo-Aynne Von Born, Leadership/Executive Coach

Ready to Kickstart Success?

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