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:
- Looking the Other Way
- Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't
intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking
the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
- Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II
- Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review
of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
- Dealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
- When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining
to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management
wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
- So You Want the Bullying to End: I
- If you're the target of a workplace bully, you probably want the bullying to end. If you've ever been
the target of a workplace bully, you probably remember wanting it to end. But how it ends can be more
important than whether or when it ends.
- Overtalking: I
- Overtalking is the practice of using one's own talking to prevent others from talking. It can lead to
hurt feelings and toxic conflict. Why does it happen and what can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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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.