Gaslighting is a tactic employed by verbal abusers to cause their targets to question their reality [Cukor 1944] [Barash 2018]. Technically speaking, few verbal abusers at work actually gaslight their targets. But when workplace abusers are at their most effective, they do manipulate their targets into believing that their options for response are limited to either finding a new job, or accepting further abuse.
Many targets of verbal abusers have another option: they can deter further abuse by responding in ways that express their personal power. But some don't recognize this choice because they've accepted the framework established by their abusers. By carefully choosing timing, setting, and tone for their attacks, abusers manipulate the minds of their targets, who see no opportunity for response in the moment, and then begin to believe that there is never any opportunity for response.
Strategically choosing timing, setting, and tone, as their abusers do, is an approach targets can use to find opportunities to respond with personal power. Consider this example. The abuser has chosen a private setting (See "Strategies of Verbal Abusers," Point Lookout for August 1, 2018) for the attack, and delivered the following comment in a stern, humorless tone:
We gave you this assignment because we wanted you to fail.
How can one respond to such a blatantly offensive remark? "You moronic jerk!" somehow lacks the impact required. Indeed, name-calling in general is a rather weak response.
To devise a more powerful response, begin by remembering that abusers choose timing, setting, and tone for their attacks. To respond in the moment is to accept the timing and setting. In this case, because the setting is private, a response in the moment might be feasible.
But must we Strategically choosing timing
setting, and tone, as their
abusers do, is an approach
targets can use to find
opportunities to respond
with personal poweradopt the abuser's tone? Is a serious, malicious tone likely to provide advantage to the target? Since the abuser chose a serious, malicious tone, it's likely that he or she is prepared for a response in kind. Something different is called for. To change the tone, try wit, with a slight bite, and humorous twinkle in the eye — if you can pull it off. For example:
[Abuser, to Target]: We gave you this assignment because we wanted you to fail.
[Target, to Abuser, with a twinkle in the eye, and a broad smile]: And I accepted the assignment because I was certain I would disappoint you.
Delivering a response with humor, wit, and twinkle in the eye can be effective, but there are risks. Unless delivered with care, it can border on flirtatiousness. If the verbal abuser might interpret twinkle-eyed humor that way, hold back a bit. A response like the following is powerful, yet neither flirtatious nor insubordinate:
[Abuser, to Target]: I want you to think about your career in terms of never being promoted.
[Target, to Abuser, with a slightly fainter twinkle in the eye]: Sorry; I can't do that. But it's my intention for you to think about my career in terms of never wanting to hold me back.
Expressing personal power has two beneficial effects. First, it tells the abuser that the target is unlikely to lose composure, even before witnesses. Because attacking a target who won't lose composure can be risky, expressing personal power deters abusers.
Second, expressing personal power enhances personal power. Making powerful statements can actually make you feel more powerful. And because others also assess you as more powerful, you're safer from attack. You begin to sense the reality that the more powerful you feel, the less likely you are to be attacked by verbal abusers.
But that sense of power comes with a risk. Some targets seek revenge against their abusers, or possibly justice. They want their abusers pay a price for their past transgressions. That's unlikely, in most cases. Assuming that revenge or penalty for the abuser is unlikely, the point of any response to verbal abuse is to convince the abuser to find a different target. Maintaining one's composure, while delivering wit and a little humor, can accomplish that. No guarantees, of course. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Hurtful Clichés: I
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
- Responding to Threats: II
- When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often
are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to
avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
- Meeting Bullies: Advice for Chairs
- Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public.
When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
- When the Chair Is a Bully: III
- When the Chair of the meeting is so dominant that attendees withhold comments or slant contributions
to please the Chair, meeting output is at risk of corruption. Because Chairs usually can retaliate against
attendees who aren't "cooperative," this problem is difficult to address. Here's Part III
of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
- Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying
- Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why
do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.