Although abuse at work takes many forms, targets seeking to minimize the harmful effects of abuse would do well to study verbal abuse. Verbal abuse is the most common form of abuse at work for three reasons. First, anyone can engage in verbal abuse, because it doesn't require access to organizational resources. Second, we are (nearly) all experienced in abusing others verbally, because we learn to do it as children. And finally, when emotions take over, abusing others verbally is the one tactic that requires neither planning nor tools.
Effective responses to verbal abuse must necessarily begin with identification. Obviously, you can't respond effectively to an abusive act if you don't recognize it as abusive. That's one reason why covert verbal abuse tactics are so appealing to sophisticated perpetrators. But sophisticated perpetrators employ covert verbal abuse tactics for an even more important reason. They want to be able to plausibly deny having engaged in verbal abuse. Examples of plausible denials:
- "Don't be so sensitive. I didn't mean anything by it."
- "I was only yanking your chain. You have to learn to have a little more fun."
- "It's just the way he is. Don't take him so seriously."
Overt techniques of verbal abuse
I have Words can be the means by which we
exchange important information and
ideas. Or they can be the weapons
we use to harm each other.no examples of plausibly deniable verbal abuse because words don't appear to be abusive unless you know the context in which they are used. And typically, only the target has enough context to recognize the abuse as such.
But we can categorize the methods perpetrators use. Covert techniques of verbal abuse are those that are so subtle that they escape notice. I'll treat those in a future post. In this post, I provide examples of overt verbal abuse — tactics that are visible to anyone witnessing the exchange.
- Mispronuncing, misnaming, and misstating
- Intentionally mispronouncing the target's personal name can be a form of denying acknowledgement of the target's validity as a human being. Repeating this error, especially before an audience, enhances the effectiveness of this tactic. In written communication, this tactic takes the form of misspelling or misnaming. Referring to Ellison as Allison, or to Bart as Bert, are examples.
- But personal names are only one form of this technique. The perpetrator can apply this tactic when referring to projects, techniques, procedures, vendors, or initiatives — anything known to be favored by the target. The effect is similar: it communicates disdain for the item mis-referenced. The perpetrator thereby denies its very existence, indirectly abusing the target.
- Threats are explicit statements of intent to cause harm. These acts are perhaps the most obvious examples of verbal abuse. They usually consist of a condition and a consequence that the target regards as physically, professionally, or psychologically harmful. Example: "If you do X, I'll do Y." Either the condition or the consequence (or both) can occur in a negative form, as in, "If you don't do X, I'll do Y," or "If you do X, I won't do Y," or "If you don't do X, I won't do Y."
- Threats can also be unconditional, as in, "I'll do Y." Threats of this form are uncommon, because they don't require the target to undertake any action the perpetrator might find desirable. They merely inform the target that harm lies in the target's future. However, unconditional threats do serve as demonstrations of power, as in, "I'm about to harm you by doing Y, and there is nothing you can do about it."
- Because threatening is so widely viewed as unacceptable behavior, sophisticated abusers often deliver threats in private.
- Talking over
- Talking over someone is the practice of speaking while another person is speaking. When it happens accidentally, the partners halt immediately to politely resolve the collision. But talking over can occur intentionally as well. There are two modes: Defensive Talking Over and Offensive Talking Over. If Speaker 1 refuses to yield even after Speaker 2 interrupts to begin talking, then Speaker 1 is engaged in Defensive Talking Over. In that instance, Speaker 2 is engaged in Offensive Talking Over. When these incidents occur, a voice volume contest often ensues.
- Talking over another person can be abusive or disrespectful, depending on the intensity of the incident. But it isn't a favored tactic of sophisticated perpetrators. Although both modes (Offensive and Defensive) are potentially abusive, neither is deniable, at least not plausibly so. Usually, these incidents occur between rivals as part of a pattern of long standing.
- Even though these tactics are visible to all, the perpetrator can nevertheless deny that they were intended to be abusive. A name is mispronounced accidentally; the threat delivered in private "never happened;" the talking over was perhaps "excessively passionate," but not abusive. We all see what's happening, but because of the perpetrator's skill, we're compelled to admit that perhaps abuse did not actually occur. With enough repetition, though, the perpetrators can be found out.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"
- If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to
report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes
a top priority problem. What can you do?
- Nasty Questions: I
- Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather,
they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's
political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Indicators of Lock-In: II
- When a group of decision makers "locks in" on a choice, they can persist in that course even
when others have concluded that the choice is folly. Here's Part II of a set of indicators of lock-in.
- Impasses in Group Decision Making: I
- Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can
agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving
on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: II
- Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence
of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each
other, we can all help prevent trouble.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
- And on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
- Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.
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