Martin Lyden, Ph.D., Director, Psychology Department Residential Division, The Center for the Disabled, Cohoes, NY
People who work with challenging persons are often the targets of verbal abuse. If staff take verbal assault too personally their job performance and peace of mind will be impaired. Three strategies for dealing with verbal abuse are presented in detail. The strategies are: focusing on acting professionally, no defense, and assertiveness.
People who work with challenging persons are sometimes the targets of verbal and physical abuse while at work. The abuse may come from a variety of sources, such as persons being served, families of persons being served, or co-workers. If the abuse results in overly upset staff emotions, then the quality of staff job performance may lessen. Additionally the happiness, peace of mind, and job satisfaction of thin-skinned staff are unstable and tenuous.
Sometimes staff cannot avoid being the targets of abuse. In such circumstances it is clearly preferable to be emotionally thick-skinned. (For arbitrary convenience the male gender will be used where a reference is singular rather than plural. The female gender could have been used with equal validity.)
Strategies for dealing with verbal nastiness
The procedures described below can be particularly useful if there is an antagonist who has repeatedly behaved, and is likely to continue behaving, in offensive ways.
Don't worry about saving face, focus on acting professionally
Two important assumptions about handling difficult interpersonal situations follow. The first assumption is that having a calm and business-like demeanor, combined with planned strategic and tactical responses, will generally yield the best result. The second is that showing strong irritation or impulsive anger and hostility usually produces an undesirable outcome.
"Always maintain your professional face; never strive to save your personal face. Your personal face is ego on your sleeve, your expression of irritation, anger, and bias" (Thompson & Jenkins, 1993, p. 213).
In order to be relatively unconcerned about losing face or being insulted in a specific situation, it helps to have an important goal as well as a strategy for reaching the goal. The goal, the strategy to achieve it, and the challenges or obstacles likely to be encountered should be thought through ahead of time. Proactivity rather than reactivity is recommended.
A person in authority who is dealing with a verbally abusive person may do well to focus on what the abusive person does rather than what he says. It may even promote compliance if the abusive person is initially permitted to verbally express himself in unpleasant and disrespectful ways. Looking at the situation from the perspective of the abusive person is useful. He is probably using an ineffective and misdirected effort to defend and prop up his shaky ego. The person in authority usually has the power to control the ultimate disposition of a situation. However, it would be counterproductive and provocative to flaunt that power or to communicate in a threatening or condescending way. Self-control is needed by the person in authority so as to avoid verbally lashing out, which might result in a dangerous loss of control by the abusive person. Communication by the person in authority includes non-verbals such as posture, facial expression, gestures, tone of voice, and voice volume. The non-verbals, as well as the content of what the person in authority communicates, need to convey calmness, assertiveness, and confidence.
In a difficult situation the person in authority needs to stay focused on his ultimate goal in the situation. It may be wise to ignore nasty comments from the abusive person and to move toward solutions to the matter at hand. The goal should include physical safety for everyone involved as well the abusive person's behavioral compliance to pre-established and basic standards, which are relevant to the situation. All words and actions by the person in authority should be geared toward achievement of the goal. For example, consider the situation of a direct care residential staff that is the target of verbal abuse (e.g., racial slurs, loud name calling) from an agitated residential client with mental retardation. The staff person could request back up assistance from peers and then have all staff and other clients in the residence temporarily leave the room where the agitated client is located. When the agitation has dissipated, staff and other clients could then return to their normal routines.
There are several mistakes to avoid. Telling the abusive person to "relax" may yield the opposite result. Putdowns threaten an abusive person's already weak ego, and are likely to inflame an already unstable situation. Behaving in an impolite, contemptuous, or angry way will usually do more harm than good. Communicating in a manner that generally annoys one's own family members will probably annoy the abusive person. It is useful for the person in authority to ask himself how he would feel in the abusive person's position. Another useful question to ask one's self is why the other person is behaving abusively.
It helps to know what words and behaviors have often caused one to become angry and confused (Horn, 1996). Examples of hot buttons for people include being: the target of racial or ethnic slurs, spoken to sarcastically, yelled at loudly, called vulgar and insulting names, criticized regarding one's intelligence or appearance, etc.. With this knowledge one can plan ahead by developing effective responses for future challenges. If a difficult situation has not been anticipated and prepared for, one will be at risk of reacting in an impulsive and inflammatory way when the situation occurs. Learn how to respond with humor instead of shock when a tactless or nasty comment is made. Making fun of one's self, or acknowledging the truth of a criticism, will usually yield a better outcome than acting offended would. Through regular mental rehearsal of effective responses to the pushing of hot buttons the person in authority will be more likely to respond well.
A powerful and frequently effective approach that can help an abusive person to become calmer is for the person in authority to show empathy. Empathy can be shown by calmly and compassionately stating how the other person seems to be feeling (e.g., "You seem very frustrated", "If I was in your situation I would feel the same way you do"). One develops empathy by mentally putting himself in the other's position. Empathy dissolves tension (Thompson & Jenkins, 1993). Responding with empathy can avoid an escalation of anger. By realizing that the abusive person has a legitimate reason to be upset, even if it is not evident, the person in authority will be more disposed to show empathy. Empathy can also help both the person in authority and the abusive person to be less upset and happier.
Sometimes the best defense is no defense
There is no commandment that says, "Thou shall always be assertive". A person who is the target of another's nastiness will sometimes be better off making no response other than diverting attention elsewhere. It is often wise to not give much attention to unpleasant individuals. Unpleasant people are attracted to those who pay attention to them and take them seriously. It can be effective to physically distance from someone who is making unkind comments. A fire goes out when there is no more wood to burn. Also, someone who spends time near a fire is more likely to get burned than someone who stays completely away from, or minimizes time close to, the fire.
It is wise to be selective about when and with whom to do battle. Some people who treat others unkindly are very skilled and experienced in conflict; and their egos feed off putting others down. Most others are no match for them in the type of conflict they provoke. What could be gained by challenging someone who is an expert in demeaning others?
Many unpleasant people are unwilling to listen and be understanding. With such a person it is often best to say nothing, rather than getting caught up in a heated exchange that accomplishes nothing constructive. Remain as uninvolved as possible when faced with rudeness from strangers or casual acquaintances. Let nasty people take their nastiness somewhere else. A hostile person usually does not understand others. He is often impatient, egotistic, humorless, touchy, inconsiderate, uncompromising, self-defeating, unstable, and uncompassionate.
If an abusive person presents an insult, but the target person does not react or feel insulted, then the target person has not experienced an insult. A person assigns meaning to his experiences, thereby constructing his reality. By perceiving nastiness as insignificant, one makes it insignificant. The reverse can also be true. One can elevate minor slights into tormenting experiences!
While in a faculty lounge, an academician was publicly called a "pretentious phony" by an emotionally disturbed colleague. The target of this insult acted as though he had not heard it; and soon left the room to pursue his normal activities. Internally the target person critically examined the nasty statement and concluded that it had partial validity (which it does for most people); however he decided to make no change since his level of "pretentious phoniness" was serving him well and harming no one. Additionally he decided that he did not need or want his inner reality to coincide with his disturbed colleague's inner reality.
Avoidance of someone who has often been verbally nasty will reduce the number of verbal slings and arrows to be coped with. Even if total avoidance is not possible, partial avoidance may be practical. If physical avoidance cannot be utilized, perhaps emotional or social avoidance is feasible.
A person who handles complaint calls for the postal service said that if a caller is abusive she states that she will not talk to someone who speaks abusively and she then terminates the phone conversation.
A staff member who is assigned to work with an abusive individual cannot avoid the individual. When staff are required to be around someone who has often engaged in verbal abuse, there may be actions, which can lessen or minimize the nastiness. For example if the abuse is reinforced by upset staff reactions, then calm and business-like staff responses may decrease the abuse.
Stand up and speak out
There are circumstances when responding assertively helps one to be thick-skinned. Assertiveness is associated with self-confidence. Lack of assertiveness is a common cause of feelings of inadequacy in many people.
Much has been published about assertiveness. It is useful to assume that assertiveness, which involves particular attitudes and communication skills, can be learned. Like many other learned skills, such as playing a musical instrument, repeated practice of assertiveness can produce increasingly effective outcomes. One of the most important outcomes is being more thick-skinned.
There are situations where a passive response may encourage the abusive person to act out more. Additionally, acting like a doormat can be a recipe for depression and dislike of self.
It is important to note that, in the face of another's abusiveness, skillful use of assertiveness or of any method for being more thick-skinned does not guarantee that the abusive person's behavior will improve. A person can only control his own response to an abusive person, but it is not always possible to control the behavior of the abusive person.
A selection of some useful assertiveness concepts and techniques are described below. The techniques that follow can be used face-to-face, but also can be adapted to other means of communication (e.g., phone, letter, email).
Timing and context are important aspects of assertive communication. If an abusive person is very upset, it may be wise to wait until they have calmed down before communicating with him. Also it is preferable to be assertive in ways that avoid or minimize loss of face for the abusive person (e.g., talking to the person privately rather than in front of others).
Technique 1: Describe, express, request, outcome (DERO)
The DERO technique can be used when another has behaved in an abusive or offensive manner, and remaining silent would reward the abuse and leave the target person taking it personally.
In the first step the target person calmly decides how to objectively and accurately describe the abusive behavior - this is the "D" of DERO. The description, which will be stated to the abusive person, needs to be very accurate and free of exaggeration (e.g., "You just called me a jerk."). Mistakes to avoid include over generalizing (e.g., using words like "always" or "never"), using ambiguous words (e.g., "insulting"), and statements about the person thoughts or motivations (e.g., "You try to put yourself up by putting others down"). A useful standard is to consider whether a group of intelligent observers, who witnessed the abusive behavior, would all agree with the description.
Next the target person needs to identify his emotional reaction to the abusive behavior. A simple and straightforward way to express that emotional reaction should be formulated (e.g., "I feel frustrated when you act like this.") - this is the "E" of DERO. In this step avoid extremeness (e.g., "I can't stand you"), being too global (e.g., "You are no good"), denial (e.g., "I feel nothing"), and harsh negativity (e.g., "I am fighting mad.").
In the "R' of DERO the target person presents a clear behavioral request to the abusive person (e.g., "I'd like you to speak to me politely and without name calling."). Some "do not's" here include asking for too much (e.g., "get psychiatric help"), lack of clarity (e.g., "behave better"), and rudeness (e.g., "just shut up").
The last segment of the DERO response, the "O", is a statement of the outcome that can be expected if the target person complies (e.g., "I will treat you respectfully if you do what I asked"). Some pitfalls to steer clear of in the outcome statement are being unreasonable punitive (e.g., "If you don't do what I ask, I'll never talk to you again."), failing to sufficiently reward compliance ("I will be happier."), and vagueness ("Things will be better.").
In order to use the DERO technique it is necessary to compose a script before speaking. If time allows, the script can even be written out before it is presented orally to the abusive person (Bower & Bower, 1976). In many situations time constraints require that the script preparation has to be done mentally.
An effective manner for the target person to use in speaking to the abusive person has the following characteristics: calmness, confidence, maintaining eye contact, being on the same level as the abusive person (i.e., standing or sitting), using a moderate and audible voice volume, and avoidance of angry-looking gestures or facial expressions.
Technique 2: Stick to your guns
In this method, the target person persistently states his position (e.g., "I do not want to do that.") in the face of repeated prods (e.g., "What are you afraid of? You don't have to always follow the rules.") by the manipulative person (Smith, 1975). This can be very useful. It is necessary for the target person to repeat his position as many times as it takes, until the manipulative person quits. As long as the target person has one more "no" than the manipulative person has "yeses", the target person will prevail. The bottom line is "do not give in"!
If the target person repeats the same, or a similar, statement of contrary position in response to every manipulative push it will eventually wear down the manipulative person. During this process it is important for the target person to remain calm, and to avoid showing anger or irritation. The target person should be prepared for the manipulative person to use a sarcastic tone and to make insulting statements (e.g., "Do you want people to think you are a chicken?", "It's stupid to refuse.", "Are you going to keep saying the same thing over and over?").
In addition to being more thick-skinned, there are other possible benefits of sticking to one's guns. For example, the target person may want a particular compromise, a tangible item, or an end to the manipulative behavior.
Technique 3: Dispute inaccurate and unfair criticisms
A person who is a passive and non-protesting target of repeated excessive or inaccurate criticism will probably take the criticisms personally, and may even experience low-grade long-term depression. In contrast, a thick-skinned person will protest the pattern of pattern of unfairness.
A daughter in her fifties had repeatedly felt hurt by decades of
criticisms from her mother. The daughter had usually suffered in silence; and had not complained because she did not want to hurt her mother's
feelings. As a result of chronically reacting in a thin-skinned manner the
daughter had painful feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. However,
with the help of therapy, there came a time when the daughter spoke up and
disputed her mother's inaccurate and critical comments. On one occasion the
mother was making demeaning comments about her adult daughter's intelligence and education. In response the daughter calmly labeled her mother's comments as unfair and inaccurate; and she cited her educational and professional accomplishments as evidence to dispute the mother's criticisms. The shocked mother lamely defended herself by saying that she was only joking. Fortunately the daughter not only did not feel concerned that she had hurt her mother's feelings, but she experienced a sense of empowerment and an increase in self confidence.
A variation on the DERO technique, described earlier, can be utilized in such situations. It can be labeled DED, which stands for describe-express-dispute. In the example above, the daughter could have said to her mother: "Just now, and on many occasions throughout my life, you have told me how I have been a failure (describe). I find it depressing to repeatedly hear unfair put-downs from you (express). You said that I barely made it through high school majoring in shop. In fact I earned a high school Regents diploma, finished college with a degree in Fine Arts, and then obtained an RN through nursing school"(dispute).
Technique 4: Protest physical violence and emotional outbursts
The DERO technique, described earlier, can be utilized in dealing with physical violence and emotional outbursts. One advantage of using the DERO technique is that it fosters a calm and focused problem-solving mode. Three of the most efficacious and essential elements of the DERO technique are: 1. using an observer perspective to objectively evaluate the situation, 2. the calm manner of presentation, and 3. the proposal of specific alternate ways for the abusive person to behave.
Technique 5: Agree with some accurate elements of hostile criticism
Firstly, it is important to distinguish what aspects of criticism are valid from those which are invalid. Valid criticism contains accurate information that is verifiable (e.g., "You did not wash the dishes after lunch."). If a videotape of the behavior being criticized was shown to a panel of independent and wise observers, a valid criticism is one for which there would be consensus agreement by the panel. In contrast, invalid criticism would not yield consensus agreement by the panel (e.g., a tone of voice, or explicit words, indicating that "You were wrong to not wash the dishes after lunch.").
In agreeing with some accurate elements of hostile criticism the target person avoids defensiveness, denial, and counter-criticism of the critic. The target person comfortably states some aspect of the hostile criticism that he agrees with. If the critic says "It was stupid of you to not wash the dishes after lunch" the target person could look the critic in the eye and calmly respond "It is true that I did not wash the dishes after lunch". Responding through agreement can take some of the wind out of the critic's sails.
Subsequent to Senator Joseph Lieberman's public criticism of President Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky as immoral, President Clinton stated to the media that Senator Lieberman's comments were correct. Bill Clinton, who may be a model of thick-skinnedness, effectively defused that situation by agreeing with what was true in the criticism.
Repeated practice of agreeing with what is true in the critic's comments, can help to desensitize a person to criticism from others.
Bower, S. . & Bower, G. (1976). Asserting yourself. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publ. Co.
Horn, S. (1996). Tongue fu! How to deflect, disarm, and defuse any verbal conflict. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.
Smith, M. (1975). When I say no I feel guilty. New York: Bantam Books.
Thompson, G. & Jenkins, J. (1993). Verbal judo, the gentle art of persuasion.
New York: William Morrow.
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