Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 32;   August 8, 2018: Strategy for Targets of Verbal Abuse

Strategy for Targets of Verbal Abuse

by

Many targets of verbal abuse at work believe that they have just two strategic options: find a new job, or accept the abuse. In some cases, they're correct. But not always.
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941

Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941. Churchill was widely known for his witty and powerful use of the English language. Lady Astor once said to him, "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee." To which he replied, "Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it." His brilliant retort derives its power from its brevity and its tight reference to Astor's insult. Photo "The Roaring Lion" by Yousuf Karsh, courtesy Library and Archives Canada, via Wikipedia.

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 power
adopt 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  Go to top Top  

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesAre you being targeted by a workplace bully? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just USD 9.99. Order Now!

Footnotes

[Cukor 1944]
The term gaslight is a reference to the 1944 film Gaslight, directed by George Cukor, and starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. It was based on the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. Back
[Barash 2018]
"Gaslighting for Dummies," Psychology Today, March 13, 2018. Back

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More articles on Workplace Bullying:

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (Democrat of Wisconsin)Confronting the Workplace Bully: II
When bullied, one option is to fight back, but many don't, because they fear the consequences. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
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Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time are intuitive users of Boyd's OODA model. Here's Part II of an exploration of how bullies use the model.
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To make the bullying stop, many targets of bullies try to defend themselves. But defense alone is not sufficient — someone must make the bully stop. That's why counterattack is much more likely to work.
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Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.

See also Workplace Bullying and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A large audience listening to a speakerComing August 15: Getting Value from Involuntary Seminars
Whatever your organizational role, from time to time you might find yourself attending seminars or presentations involuntarily. The value you derive from these "opportunities" depends as much on you as on the presenter. Available here and by RSS on August 15.
The Jolly RogerAnd on August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.

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