In an earlier post, "Overt Verbal Abuse at Work," Point Lookout for July 20, 2022, I noted that many of those who abuse others verbally prefer to use tactics that provide them with plausible deniability. That is, perpetrators prefer tactics that enable them to deny that they were intending to harm or offend anyone. But tactics even more favored, from the perpetrator's perspective, are those that, while abusive, escape the notice of all concerned — both targets and bystanders. When artfully employed, these covert verbal abuse tactics do harm the perpetrator's targets, but they do so in ways that few notice. Many of those who do witness the use of these tactics misinterpret them as benign, supportive, or even laudatory.
Here are five examples of covert verbal abuse tactics.
- Unfavorable placement in lists
- The order of elements in a list communicates a subtle message pertaining to the relative significance of the elements of the list. For example, "I'd like to thank the entire maintenance team for their rapid response this weekend, and especially X, Y, and Z."
- The first and last positions of lists (in this example, X and Z) are the most significant. [Brenner 2022] But they can be either favorable or unfavorable, depending on the details of the presentation. In this tactic, the opportunity for abuse lies in the potential for misrepresenting the relative importance of the items in the list. The list placement tactic is subtle; perhaps that's why it's such a favorite of those who seek plausible deniability for their abusive behavior.
- To speak condescendingly to a target is to patronize, to speak haughtily, or to speak in a way that presumes superiority over the target. Example: "I might consider you annoying, if I gave you any thought." Or, upon meeting a former colleague from a previous place of employment, "Ah, I see you still exist."
- Unlike some Many of those who witness the use of covert
verbal abuse tactics misinterpret them as
benign, supportive, or even laudatory.of the other tactics discussed in Part 1 — threats are an example — condescension is employed primarily not for the target, but for third parties. When performed artfully, some targets are actually unaware of the condescension.
- Ridiculing or denigrating personal attributes is plausibly deniable if the perpetrator can couple the ridicule with genuine humor. Genuine humor can provide a cover for genuine abuse.
- The more hurtful forms of this abuse entail ridicule of personal attributes that the target cannot change, or wouldn't want to change, or finds difficult to modulate or impossible to conceal. Examples of these attributes are gender, sexual orientation, height, weight, demeanor, speech impediments, age, national origin, race, ethnic background, criminal record, and so on.
- Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which the perpetrator takes steps designed to make the target question his or her feelings or sanity. In extreme cases, targets doubt their own ability to accurately perceive reality. When the perpetrator can accomplish this, the perpetrator then can use control over the target to accomplish other objectives.
- For example, in a financially troubled company, key personnel sometimes depart voluntarily, exacerbating the company's troubles. The need to prevent further attrition of key personnel can drive management to conduct a series of all hands meetings in which they will reveal to employees "secret initiatives" that promise financial renewal. A condition of admission to these meetings is execution of a revised non-compete agreement that binds employees to the company more effectively than did the previous agreement. By highlighting the "secret initiatives" Management distorts employees perceptions of the non-compete agreement.
- Labeling, also known as name-calling, is the tactic of affixing a term to the target for the purpose of associating undesirable tropes with the target. Ethnic and religious slurs are examples of labeling. Although the racist and anti-religious forms of labeling do occur in the workplace, they tend not to provide plausible deniability. They are therefore found in use more frequently in private settings.
- More open usage of labeling is likely associated with stereotypes associated with professions. For example, technologists might be regarded as "too geeky to put in front of a customer." Or a technical writer might be directed to "rewrite the user guide in terms even HR can understand."
These five tactics are just examples. There are many more. Another example: "There's that tactic James was mentioning the other day, I've forgotten what it was, but there was some disagreement about whether it was abusive, can you remind me?" This way of describing the tactic makes it seem unimportant, while it associates it with James, making James seem unimportant. What looks like a comment about a tactic is actually a comment about James. Tricks like this are difficult to notice in real time. Practice does help. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Using Indirectness at Work
- Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information
indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore
well-being and comity within the organization.
- 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.
- Preventing Spontaneous Collapse of Agreements
- Agreements between people at work are often the basis of resolving conflict or political differences.
Sometimes agreements collapse spontaneously. When they do, the consequences can be costly. An understanding
of the mechanisms of spontaneous collapse of agreements can help us craft more stable agreements.
- Dealing with Deniable Intimidation
- Some people use intimidation so stealthily that only their targets recognize the behavior as abusive
or intimidating. Targets are often so frustrated, angered, and confused that they cannot find suitable
- Big, Complicated Problems
- Big, complicated problems can be difficult to solve. Even contemplating them can be daunting. But we
can survive them if we get advice we can trust, know our resources, recall solutions to past problems,
find workarounds, or as a last resort, escape.
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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