Verbal Self-Defense is Like Judo

Don’t Suck at Verbal Self-Defense

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Have you ever been verbally attacked but didn’t quite know how to respond? I, for one, have been there, and it can be quite a frustrating experience. Perhaps you tried to argue against a ridiculous accusation using facts, only to see the doubt remain on the other people’s faces.

Or even worse, the verbal attack completely stunned you, and you didn’t react at all. With each passing minute, you felt more certain that you should have done something, but the longer you waited, the harder it became. But what exactly could you have done?

  Disproving a preposterous accusation doesn’t accomplish a thing.

Let’s analyze the typical series of events:

  1. A preposterous accusation is made against you.
  2. You are shocked or completely stunned.
  3. Disproving the accusation has no apparent effect on the observers.

Does this sound familiar?

If it does, it’s because most verbal abuse follows the same basic pattern:

  • The “hook”, which is usually something preposterous.
  • A hidden implication, which is aimed to do real harm.

The hook needs to be shocking, both to distract you and to get you off balance. Also, while you are foaming at the mouth and attacking the hook (or just blinking in utter disbelief), you are essentially letting the implication stand. Every minute spent on the topic actually gives more and more weight to the implication!

This kind of power game happens at work quite often, and it also happens within family settings. The reason behind why people do it is a completely different topic, but what is important to remember is that the pattern is almost always the same.

So, the next question is: how do you defend yourself?

This depends on many factors: what’s the attacker’s motivation? What type of person is he or she? What is the power balance between you, the attacker, and the audience? Obviously, with all of these variables, it can be a long path to mastering the art of verbal judo.

Fortunately, there is a simple approach you can start applying immediately. This formula unfailingly gives you much more power in those types of situations:

  • Ignore the hook completely, as though it wasn’t said at all. Never take the bait, because that is precisely what your attacker wants you to do.
  • Recognize the implication and reveal it to everyone. Then, address the implication in whatever way you think is appropriate.

  You must ignore the hook, and deal with the implication instead.

For example, if “unfortunately” and due to “understanding circumstances” some of your results are implied to “always” be of little use, then you can ask exactly when the verbal attacker concluded that you didn’t know how to do your job.

Or, if the attacker is going overboard to patronize you or be condescending, you can thank him or her for holding your hand, but also state that it isn’t necessary.

Verbal Attack Structure

Sometimes, you might not have the faintest idea of what to do. However you still need to respond just the same. Just be sure to ignore the hook and attack the implication without losing your smile or your cool. Some people might not agree, but my personal opinion is that you should never let verbal attacks go undefended. Never. As I see it, your actual choice in this situation is either:

A) Willingly allow someone to take your power away; or

B) Risk making yourself somewhat of an unsophisticated caveman.

I’ll pick the caveman route every time, but that’s my own personal choice. I had learned the hard way not to give any of my personal power away without my consent.

  You MUST act immediately, otherwise you are giving your power away.

A real eye-opener for me was reading the book “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense,” by Suzette Elgin. It’s relatively old, yet I was completely captivated while reading it. Much of the advice from the book can also be applied immediately, which allows you to see the impact of your attitude change very quickly.

In short, however, everything boils down to these two points again:

  • Be aware of the hook/implication trick.
  • Ignore the hook and react instead to the underlying implication.

What now:


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  • Bryan

    I have been on the end of many personal attacks both from family and work colleagues. I still can’t decide which is worse but I do heartily agree with you that neither can be left undefended. I do need to improve my ability to ignore the hook and deal with the implication – the hook is often SO insulting or insensitive that it just sucks you in.

  • geaniemarie

    I’m lucky to be in a situation where verbal attacks are few and far between. That said, when things do pop up I’m the person who is stunned into silence. This is all good advice, although I’d like to know more about the topic and will look at the book you suggested. The main thing I get from this article is to not take the bait. Your descriptions of how it feels to be ambushed are right on.

  • Morgan

    I think this article could use a more specific, personal example of a situation wherein someone was accusing you of something and how you responded to the “hook.” Aside from this, I like the imagery. Really makes me think of fishing. It’s sad but true, many people who start problems at work (or in other social situations) are essentially just trying to get your attention and reel you in. How you respond showcases your true character through and through.

    I don’t find myself in too many situations of this type, but when I do, I almost always respond with thick sarcasm. I’m not sure it’s always advisable, but it tends to work well for me.

    The best thing I could suggest is to deal with each situation as it arises. There is no clear cut answer for dealing with things. Certainly the ideas pertaining to the “hook” and “implication” are real and applicable in most situations, but just how you walk the line is up to you. Think before you respond, though, otherwise you will get yourself into trouble!

  • Dan Schafer

    Definitely a problem occurring in your typical office setting. Like high-school you have your bullies, and those bullied. As advised ignoring the situation or the hook, and dealing with the implication is probably the most mature and professional route to take in the idea of a workplace setting.
    Great advice!

  • Ivan

    Verbal attacks are so common and yet rarely somebody speaks about them, let alone gives some actionable clues how to handle them. Ignoring the hook is a good trick.

  • Louisa

    Wow, I’ve never seen it broken down in this way before and it’s actually really helpful thank you. I’m one of those left stuttering by this kind of attack and then I think of some great comeback hours later only to kick myself. I can’t believe that some people can be this calculating! At least this time maybe i’ll have a better chance of controlling my outrage and actually stick up for myself for once.

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