What to Say When Confronted by a Verbal Bully

Verbal Bullying- What’s The Correct Response?

Wish You Had Said Something, Almost Anything?

Have you ever walked away from a verbal conflict and kicked yourself for not having a quick retort? Have you ever promised yourself that you would never let that happen again, only it does happen again, and again? If so, you know that helpless feeling of freezing when attacked. Well, take comfort, your “freeze” response is not uncommon. In fact, it makes sense.

The Biology of Conflict

When humans and animals feel threatened we respond with anxiety and defense: we freeze or flee, or we fight. These reactions are instinctual and immediate. The reaction you have to someone you work with who is verbally attacking you is exactly the same as one you would have on the Serengeti when facing a lion: freeze, flee or fight. Though you may not be in physical danger, your brain sees little difference between a verbal attack from someone at work and a lion who is about to pounce. In order to manage these physiological responses in a physical attack and remain in control you take physical self-defense training. The training creates “muscle memory” so that you can respond in the most effective way possible.”

Verbal Bullying Requires Verbal Self-Defense Strategies

Similarly, to manage the physiological responses in a verbal attack, or verbal bullying, you must train yourself in verbal self-defense. This also creates “muscle memory” so you can interrupt your natural physiological reaction and respond in way that interrupts or disarms the attack. The training builds your confidence so you can handle the lions at work. Are You Ready for some Verbal Self Defense training? Here’s some comments and questions to use when you feel attacked. They are designed to help you do something other than freeze, flee or fight. They are designed to create “brain muscle memory”. They will build your confidence when dealing with verbal bullying.

Verbal Bullying And Verbal Self Defense Responses

Note: These comments and questions are open-ended and designed to be non-judgmental. It does not make sense to exacerbate a verbal conflict, so use discretion.

    • Excuse me? Let me make sure I understand your point.
    • Can you repeat that? I’m not sure I understand the relationship between what we’re discussing and your comment.
    • Is that what you believe to be true?
      • What if the circumstances are different from what you believe?
      • Would you be willing to consider a different point of view?
      • What just happened here?
      • May I ask you a question?
        • What do you think was just said here?
        • What if what was said just now wasn’t intended the way you think?
        • We were just discussing (insert topic of the moment) but we seem to be on another topic now. What just happened?
        • We seem to be off-topic; I suggest we return to the agenda.

Note: You have the right to leave any situation where you feel threatened. If you can, you might be able to say the following before you “flee”: •I’ll return to discuss this matter after I have had a chance to digest what you are saying.

Your Turn

I am sure you can think of other open-ended questions for your particular situation. Just be sure the questions are not threatening or judgmental. You want to gather information, not exacerbate the situation. Remember: verbal self-defense is for shielding yourself, not for attacking others. The better prepared your organization is to handle conflict, the better you will all handle intense emotions, and the more options you will have as a whole. For more information and help with what to say when you don’t know what to say, contact Kathleen Bartle.