If bullies were actually like Nelson from the Simpsons, they would be easy to avoid. Unfortunately, most of the verbal abuse you will ever experience in life will come from co-workers, friends, or family. The people you like or love are often the worst offenders, whether they meant to or not. Even worse, most of the verbal attacks will not be obvious or cutting, but instead, they will be subtle and sarcastic. Individually, small verbal stings may not feel painful, but over time, these stings can take a toll on your confidence, stress levels, and relationships.
You won’t have time to analyze the attack and think about how to defend against it. That’s why it is important to have a response ready for any type of attack in any situation. The following two steps will show you how:
Step 1: Remove Yourself from the Role of a Victim
You may be confronted with a snide remark such as, “Are you always this absent-minded?”
How would you respond? Would you become defensive and say, “I am not absent-minded!”?
Many of us would be caught in the moment and become defensive. Some of us would freeze and say nothing. But the last thing you want to do is respond directly to their attack and give them the response they were looking for.
Your best initial move is to remove yourself from the position of the “victim.” Place yourself above the attack. Act like it doesn’t bother you. Step outside of the attack altogether and comment about the content of the attack itself (this is sometimes referred to as Meta-Talk). Talk about what they said or how they said it.
Let’s take a closer look at some example defenses:
“Stupid? Is that the best adjective you could come up with?”
“Wow, that was so clever…how do you keep coming up with such great jokes?” (sarcasm)
“That sounded like it was meant to insult me…”
“The way you said that was kind of child-ish, did you mean to say it like that?”
“Absent-minded? That’s a strong choice of words wouldn’t you say?”
“Wow, you sound so bitter…maybe you should go take a break for a minute.”
“You’re still hung up on pointing out my flaws, let’s try to move away from that and get down to the real issue.”
These defenses accomplish four primary objectives:
- It demonstrates to the attacker (and the audience), that the attack did not bother you
- It implies that you do not place much value on what the attacker says
- It implies that future attacks will not affect you either
- In case the attacker did not mean to attack you, this defense makes them aware that they crossed over the line
By vocally analyzing and dismantling their phrase or their delivery, you can take away its power and place yourself above the role of a “victim.” If you step outside the attack, it becomes impossible to be hit by the attack itself. In fact, not only are you avoiding the attack, but this type of defense can simultaneously mock the attacker at the same time.
If you’re faced with a relentless bully, you may want to add Step Two to your arsenal. Not only do you want to avoid their stings, but you want to make them think twice about attacking you again in the future.
Step 2: Place the Target Back On the Attacker
After you dodge the bullet, your next order of business is to shift the focus back on to your attacker. Not much good ever comes from keeping the focus on yourself when a verbal war is being waged.
An easy way to place the target back on the attacker is by exposing their intentions. You may be poor at comebacks and witty repartees, but that’s the beauty of questioning the attacker’s intentions – everyone has an intention. You don’t need to know some special information or come up with a clever remark in order to complete this type of defense.
A bully may state, “You’re always so defensive.”
A poor conversationalist would take the bait and respond, “No I’m not!”
Instead, expose the source with one of these lines:
“Were you trying to be funny just then? I wasn’t sure…”
“Why are you trying so hard to point that out? Do you need attention?”
“Are you trying to make me act defensive? Because it’s not going to work.”
“Are you obsessed with ________? Can’t you think of something else?”
“Do you really think you can persuade me to ______?”
“Do you always side with ______?”
“Are you always this angry?”
“Oh, you’re trying to be funny now, huh?”
“You think you’re pretty clever don’t you?”
These verbal defenses can easily throw your attacker off balance. When you question someone’s intentions in this manner, it can be very hard to come up with a good response. And if they do manage a successful response, you can go back to Step 1 and make a comment about it!
It’s important to note that the two tips will be rendered useless if you become defensive or over-react. Thomas Jefferson wisely said, “Nothing gives a person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.” That is still true today. The person who seems to maintain their composure always has the edge. If you can remain cool, calm, and collected during a verbal battle, you will always have the upper hand.