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  Next issue: Getting Value from Involuntary Seminars  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs a workplace bully targeting you? 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 . Order Now!

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[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. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Barash 2018]
David P. Barash. "Gaslighting for Dummies," Psychology Today, March 13, 2018. Available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

A multi-function phoneDeniable Intimidation
Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
Tornado in a mature stage of development (Photo #3 of a series of classic photographs)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.
Congessman Darryl Issa (R-CA)When the Chair Is a Bully: II
Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
An Africanized honeybee, also known as a killer beeRapid-Fire Attacks
Someone asks you a question. Within seconds of starting to reply, you're hit with another question, or a rejection of your reply. Abusively. The pattern repeats. And repeats again. And again. You're being attacked. What can you do?
A fist crushing a small cardboard containerOn Gratuitous Harshness
Rejecting with gratuitous harshness the contributions of others can be an expensive pattern to tolerate — or to indulge. Understanding how the costs arise and what factors exacerbate them is the first step to controlling the pattern.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938Coming March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
The S.S. Eastland, in Cleveland, Ohio, around 1911And on March 13: On Anticipating Consequences
Much of what goes wrong when we change systems to improve them falls into a category we call unanticipated consequences. Even when we lack models that can project these results accurately, morphological analysis that can help us avoid much misery. Available here and by RSS on March 13.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.