It can occur in at any place – at work, in the field, even at home. It can be as small as a subtle “dig” or as blatant as an outright assault on your capabilities or character. But no matter how or when it happens, a personal attack can bring consequences. Personal attacks can make you feel badly – or make you look bad in front of customers, colleagues, friends or your boss.
But just as there are effective techniques to neutralize a physical assault, there is a way to successfully neutralize a verbal attack that can leave you looking and feeling good. It can dissuade your opponent from doing it again – and help you gain respect. How can you do it?
A little psychology can go a long way
When under attack, our natural response is to retaliate or retreat. Neither will get us the result we want. Instead, understanding and applying some sound psychology can dramatically improve the situation.
According to eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson, PhD:
“During the past half-century social psychologists have discovered that one of the most powerful determinants of human behavior stems from our need to preserve a stable, positive self-image.”
This demonstrates why we need to avoid embarrassing others – they need to view themselves as good, intelligent, rational individuals. People will go a long way to defend their self-image. Retaliating only brings further attacks. But running away from a bully marks us as an easy target for future aggression. Bullies want to make themselves look and feel better by making us look and feel worse.
How to stop a harsh critic in his tracks
The key, then, to defeating this behavior is to use your detractor’s need for a positive self-image to make him stop his verbal aggression. According to Dr. Aronson and colleague Dr. Carol Tavris, PhD:
“When you do anything that harms someone else – get them in trouble, verbally abuse them or punch them out – a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did.”
So, the one making any type of verbal attack has to justify it in order to continue to feel good about himself. If he* cannot justify his behavior, he may experience significant cognitive dissonance. And according to Dr. Aronson and his coauthors:
“Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.”
That’s another reason why retaliating doesn’t work. If you respond with a cutting remark or point out his flaws, your adversary will ignore his own unkind words and focus completely on what you said. Your reply will let him off the emotional hook. He may, in fact, come to feel that you deserved his attack and will be more inclined towards another verbal assault in the future.
You can avoid all this by making it difficult or impossible for your opponent to justify what he did. How can you do that? A great method was revealed by wise King Solomon, who wrote:
“If the one hating you is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For coals are what you are raking together upon his head…”
Solomon here refers to early smelting techniques. Ancient metalworkers would build a fire and then put iron ore on the hot coals, hoping to melt down the metal within. That procedure usually worked. But if the iron was deep within the ore, more was required. Metalworkers would rake hot coals on top of the ore. Tremendous heat from above and below would usually melt the stubborn metal.
Accordingly, if you respond to cutting remarks with kindness, you make it very hard for your adversary to justify his unkind words. He may feel significant mental discomfort. His conscience may begin to bother him. His only way to get relief is to stop attacking you, soften his stance, or even apologize. Like an ancient metalworker, you will melt down his opposition. In addition, you will display great emotional strength. Bosses, coworkers, prospects, parents, friends and even bullies have to admire strength.
Changing a critic into a supporter
In fact, psychologists have found that people feel a strong need to repay the kindness shown them with thoughtfulness of their own. We learn from youth that favors must be appropriately reimbursed. When someone goes out of their way to do or say something nice, we often find ourselves compelled to do the same to them. Kind words and deeds beget more kind words and deeds.
If we consistently speak graciously with others, regardless of how they speak to us, we will often ultimately receive respect and kindness. Our work teams can become more enjoyable and productive, which will lead to greater rewards for all.
* While we speak of verbal aggressors as “he,” the principles here work well for anyone with a working conscience, male or female.