Disarming a Critical Aggressor
Using a workshop exercise involving harsh performance criticism as a starting point, the Stress Doc examines common reactions to a hostile attack. Then techniques and strategies are outlined and illustrated for transforming a defensive reaction into affirming and effective response.
Disarming a Critical Aggressor Awareness, Assertion and Affirmation Techniques and Strategies
"Wow, did you fumble the data. Didn't you prepare?" And the blunt critic reeks of tonal attitude and know-it-all arrogance. It's part of the punchline for a mind game exercise used in my "Managing Anger" and "Dealing with Difficult People" workshops. The exercise dramatically illustrates how not to give criticism. It also provides insight into an individual's gut reaction when taking a hostile psychic hit. (In addition, large group discussion allows for a comparison of the various "mind play" reactions and responses among the participants. More on this shortly.)
Setting the Scene
Let's go beyond generalities; here's a step-by-step sketch of my "Fumbled the Data" exercise:
1. Participants pair off,
2. Each person in the dyad imagines himself or herself having just given an important presentation at a division meeting,
3. Each person will be asking his partner, a colleague from another department (not a close friend, more a professional acquaintance) for feedback on this presentation: "How did it go?"
4. I now ask participants to look directly at each other, to "lock and load" eyeballs,
5. I go over again the rules of the game: each person has given a presentation and each is looking at a colleague about to give him or her feedback (through my voice); therefore each person both gives and gets feedback in this dyadic mind game,
6. With anticipatory tension hovering and building in the room, I aggressively and condescendingly blurt out, "Wow, did you fumble the data. Didn't you prepare?"
7. Then I immediately ask the participants, "What are you feeling or thinking right now? Let your feedback partner know your gut reaction and then say what you'd like to say to this critical colleague."
Post-"Mind Game" Reaction Analysis
Needless to say, the room initially erupts, if only to break the tension. But clearly, the noise and energy levels indicate more is involved. So let's examine participants' reactions and then abstract key principles, strategies and techniques for constructively handling harshly critical if not hostile feedback.
Reactions to this provocative encounter usually fall into four categories:
1. Aggressive-Defensive. As one participant spontaneously announced to her partner-antagonist: "Oh just bite it!" Another common rejoinder is "Screw you!" or, "If you're so smart, why didn't you do it?" In each case the individual feels attacked (and often surprised as well), has been hurt and deals with this perceived insult or injury by lashing back - "an eyeball for an eyeball" if you will.
2. Diminished-Defensive. Another common reaction is to feel exposed; the presenter didn't do as well as he or she thought or had hoped to do. Feelings of failure, even some sense of shame, can get stirred, especially for sensitive individuals or for those with low thresholds for the release of self-critical inner voices. This state of self-consciousness often has the person focusing on his own deficiencies rather than the intentions, actions and immaturities of this "bad news bearer."
3. Measured Response. Based on my workshop experience, only a minority of participants can honestly and effectively process their emotions - the pain, the self-consciousness, the anger, the surprise if not shock at such insensitivity, etc. - before constructively speaking up or speaking out rather than lashing out or backing down. In our follow-up, sometimes I hear, "Can you be more specific as to what went wrong?" Now this reply may well reflect a high level of professionalism. But with many analytical responders I have my suspicions. Has the recipient of this provocative feedback mostly suppressed or denied any pain, anger or shame? I'll concede this conscious or unconscious "logical" strategy might work with an isolated aggressive confrontation. However, this "never get angry, always try to work things out" approach may well have codependent and self-defeating potential - including an erosion of self-worth and/or learned helplessness - when confronted by a series of provocatively hostile encounters.
Of course, some professionals have survived the customer service wars and understand that a customer's crude anger and irate displacement often has little to do with the immediate object of their attack, i.e., the service representative. These pros have built up a shield that seems to deflect a barrage without becoming callous or combative. And with their professional poise, the emotional has been quickly transformed into the analytical or empathic: "What seems to be the problem?" or "How can I be of help?" My contention is that these experienced individuals are able to process quickly and to focus the charged emotions ignited by an attack into a response that is both empathic and assertive. And when this poised response occurs even in the face of an unexpected hostile encounter, then I tip my hat to such a skillfully evolved and mature communicator.
4. Anxious Laughter. A percentage of people are not able to get into the interaction. For them the mind game is "unrealistic" or "silly." And while the exercise may be seen as artificial, difficulty with engagement may involve more than an inability to play an "unreal" role. I believe the key resistance factor is the discomfort handling - expressing and receiving - the raw aggression at the heart of the exercise. Which compels the asking of a question, no less critical for being obvious.
Dynamics of Degenerate, Disloyal or Dangerous Anger
Why are so many folks uncomfortable releasing and being on the receiving end of another person's anger? Consider these two broad differential factors:
a) coming from a highly controlling family where a show of anger was seen as irrational, disrespectful, uncivilized or a confirmation of emotional weakness, for example, you allowed others to get to you (and your anger is labeled as "mad, bad or sad," i.e., pathetic); the parent viewed him- or herself as being self-sacrificing; children who could not appreciate all that was done for him or her (at the parent's expense, of course) were branded disloyal and ridden with guilt; to survive in this system children often had to swallow their anger and hide (and stifle if not often lose their real self) in the anxious family shadows and
b) coming from an out of control family that typically deals with stress, frustration and pain through yelling, hostile name calling or physical threats and actual violence. Some individuals emerge from this environment ashamed of their anger viewing themselves as irrational or defective; they may fear almost any expression of intense or highly charged emotions. Others worry that if they release even a little anger there will be an irresistible swelling of combustible emotion; they will become dangerously explosive.
Finally, it's important to note that cultural differences often come into play: some cultures extol obedience and stoicism; emotional non-expressiveness is a sign of superiority, expected subservience and being in control. Other cultures seem to "let it all hang out." In my job retraining workshops, in contrast to most of the other Asian females participants, I recall how Chinese women were more comfortable expressing themselves in public, including venting their anger. Ironically, these women said China's otherwise terribly destructive "Cultural Revolution" influenced this process of gender liberation. Mao apparently encouraged more equality between the sexes. (Perhaps not unlike revered Coach Lombardi's notion of equality. As one Green Bay packer noted, "He treated us all like dogs!") Conversely, women from Moslem and some South American countries noted the role status and expressive privileges denied them but granted to men. Of course, a number of American women, especially those with Southern roots, could also empathize with these latter sisters.
So let's connect this digression on anger with our "Boy did you fumble the data" mind game. Obviously, in the face of harsh confrontation recognizing, validating and managing your own charged emotions and then expressing yourself constructively and convincingly are critical. Channeling both anxiety and aggression often proves key in disarming an interpersonal attack. Clearly, if throughout childhood you are strongly discouraged from exercising your assertive and expressive rights and are also prevented from flexing and testing your emotional muscles and voices, you will likely have difficulty knowing who you are and knowing how to stand up for yourself.
The Critical Engagement
Here are the key communication and conflict management Skills and Strategies for Disarming a Dysfunctionally Critical Combatant:
1. Distinguish Reaction and Response.
a. A reaction to an interpersonal attack occurs when you feel hurt or vulnerable and you don't take any time or meditation to process your emotions and pain. You simply lash out with a counterattack, justified of course. Or you may be stunned or wither or wriggle away under such a startling barrage. This pattern reflects a "fight or flight" survival instinct; your mind-body engages in rapid threat vs. no threat data processing.
b. In contrast, a response involves a slower, more comprehensive and discriminating processing of interactive stimuli, that is, there is some assessment of the aversive context, of one's own level of physiological arousal and of one's memories or cognitive associations stirred. Being responsive is also contingent on the belief in having action-oriented, problem-solving options and resources. A response includes some recognition of your emotional needs along with some preliminary understanding or sorting of the same. And the most mature responders work at becoming aware of the interactional context (for all parties) as well as being conscious of, if not sensitive to, the other's strengths and vulnerabilities. Still, in some conflict situations, not simply empathy but "strategic empathy" is the emotionally intelligent response.
To summarize, as a responder you are not just operating from "threat or no threat." You are taking some responsibility for your emotional reaction by tempering reflex action with some cognition of self, some recognition of other and of the communicational context. This processing enables you to channel verbal and nonverbal communication into a response that is constructive and that also reflects your integrity.
In light of our exercise, consider these different mind game replies:
Reaction: "You're an a-hole!" Or, after being attacked, at times your counter takes the form of a thinly disguised question, e.g., "What the hell is wrong with you!" or "Why are you acting like such a jerk?" While there may be some attempt not to be totally reflexive, these are mostly "knee jerk" reactions.
Response: "Hey, I don't like being attacked. Tone down" (or "Back off"). Or this contrasting approach: "Let's try this again, and this time be more specific and professional!" Or if you are in fine form, perhaps this quip: "Let's see if you can convince me that 'constructive criticism' is not an oxymoron."
A Case Example and a Key Differential
Of course, some folks have difficulty with this reaction vs. response distinction. After a workshop at a family resort, a participant (who was a trial judge) mentioned having to deal daily with aggressive attorneys. He shared having liked how I defused a potential power struggle with a "Type A" antagonist. (Is there truth to the rumor that the "A" in Type A stands for attorney?) The workshop story: A number of years back, a woman who owned her own word processing business had processed some of my documents. An error in formatting had occurred and, in a decidedly critical manner, she accused me of not knowing how to give instructions. Likely there was a mutual misunderstanding. In the face of this hostile fire, I was able to center myself and firmly reply: "I'm not so sure," (thereby allowing both sides some face-saving). However, I also raised my right hand slightly, palm open, and thereby gave an obvious message (and it wasn't "Talk to the hand"): "Enough of this hostile blaming."
Clearly, I had taken some responsibility for our misunderstanding but would not accept total blame, nor would I accept being attacked. This tactical communication allowed and encouraged my antagonist to lower her belligerent stance. She also acknowledged some responsibility, albeit with a lingering attitude: "Well if there's a problem in communication it takes two." My immediate reply: "This I can live with." I wasn't trying to win, to prove I was right and she was wrong. Also, another conscious goal was to maintain a working relationship. Still, there is a bottom-line moral: Attitude I can live with, hostile attack or abuse is not acceptable. (Hey, if I had to stop talking to all the egos in DC with attitude, I might as well join a monastery.)
Alas, for some folks and certain encounters, foregoing a reaction and going with a response is a real trial! Getting back to our judicial authority, while being impressed with my reply in the heat of battle, the judge decided it needed some modification. His envisioned courtroom counter: "I'm not so sure…you a-hole!" (We'll soon clarify blaming "you" messages [reaction] vs. affirming "I" messages [response].)
Another important differential between "reaction" and "response" is that the latter reveals a communicator who is not afraid or ashamed to acknowledge experiencing some pain or vulnerability. A responder doesn't have to cover a psychic insult or injury with aggressive or passive-aggressive wounded pride. (A classic example of a passive-aggressive and ego-protective mannerism is the provocative reaction of "whatever," with rolling eyes or arched eyebrows.")
And finally, responding also involves the capacity for discrimination and connection in the areas of self-awareness and responsibility. (Look for an illustrative encounter in Section 4.)
2. Distinguish Evoke and Provoke. When you are hit by a toxic message, not surprisingly, you often feel pain. In this upset state, both your logical and psychological processing may falter. One sign of vulnerability and excess subjectivity is the following reaction, whether overt or just a gnawing rumination: "You made me upset" or "You hurt me." And now you are in a victim mode, often giving Mr. or Ms. Aggressor too much power and too much responsibility.
In addition, you are missing an important distinction between "evoke" and "provoke." When confronted by a verbal attack painful feelings may well be stirred or evoked. However, unless the aggressor has hit you on the head with a bat (ouch!) this antagonist alone hasn't made you feel terrible or humiliated. If verbal criticism has you that upset, then other factors are likely influencing the degree of experienced pain. (While names may hurt, they can't break your psychic bones unless they are already fairly brittle.)
A powerful factor, of course, is past emotional, verbal and/or physical abuse. Certainly, as a child others could readily make you upset - "mad, scared or bad": a rejecting or abandoning parent or significant relative, an intimidating teacher or supervisor or a taunting peer group. And many folks have unresolved trauma from the prolonged tension with a hostile partner in the context of a dysfunctional relationship. With unresolved, lurking emotions in the shadows, when faced with a harsh encounter, many adults will regress to state of child-like reactivity. Some will feel victimized while others will justify an impulsive and aggressive counterattack with the self-righteous belief or declaration that they have been provoked.
Parallel Distinctions and Connections
Let's further clarify the notion of being attacked and feeling hurt in this "evoke-provoke" arena. In contrast to blaming another's harsh criticism for making you feel terrible (a definite reaction), with awareness and self-integrity you can respond with, "I'm upset right now" or "I'm angry" or "I feel liked I'm being dumped on. I don't like it and won't accept it!" Notice how it's hard to come off sounding (or, perhaps, even feeling) like a victim when you counter with a self-affirming (even when self-revealing) message.
Are you sensing the parallel connections among our "r & r" components?
a) reaction - provoke - "You" message
b) response - evoke - "I" message
When you react impulsively, an external force or factor has pushed you or made you strike out. A lack of cognitive-emotive-expressive muscles is rarely seen as the problem. Not surprisingly, a blaming "you" message is rarely far behind, such as "You made me" or "It's your fault." Conversely, when you sort out feelings and/or sources of stress or pain and you take responsibility for the nature of your response (with a self-affirming "I" message) an aggressor often appears less threatening or intimidating. He or she is being taken off the symbolic "authority" pedestal.
Of course you can also internalize pain and implode in neurotic fashion. Consider my lyrics from "The Self-Righteous Rap":
Now are you a martyr in self-imposed prison?
Denying your needs becomes heaven's vision.
When you've been hurt you just quietly pray
But wish you could scream go ahead make my day. (Pow. Pow!)
Onward with our examination of the domain of differential messaging and developing a skillset for feeling more powerful in the face of conflict and for seeming less like a pawn or like a furious man or woman scorned.
3. Replace Blaming "You" Messages with Affirming "I"s. As you've seen, blaming "You" messages turn over to the aggressor the cause of and responsibility for your psychic pain. This exaggerates your perception of an attacker's power and his or her "victor" status, while often evoking a sense of "victim" humiliation. Or if the attack is ongoing and not effectively countered, eventually helplessness and/or a sense of incompetence may set in.
Of course, there are times when a so-called righteous victim, feeling "dissed," lashes out with hostile sarcasm, an entitled rant or with explosive rage. These displays of fireworks are not simply righteous retribution; they often are attempts to disguise narcissistic injury or to, ironically, provide diversionary cover for feelings of being out of control. Conversely, a common reaction to attack is a wounded retreat accompanied by feelings or defeat, exposure and/or inadequacy.
However, an honest and strategic use of affirming "I" messages can short-circuit this psychological and interpersonal downward - erosive or explosive - spiral. One option is to firmly and clearly state your thoughts and feelings, to declare what you are experiencing without directly assigning blame:
a) "I feel attacked and I'm starting to get angry"
b) "I don't like being addressed in this manner"
Asserting your psychic and/or physical boundary is also vital:
c) "I will not accept feedback that I believe is given in a hostile manner"
Or there are those four powerful words that often have relevance for a multitude of sins, especially when delivered with unflinching conviction:
d) "That is not okay! (Of course, resisting the "you" message tagline, "you bozo!")
A Stress Doc Encounter
Which brings me to an interpersonal conflict vignette that posits a genuine and risky "I" message counter strategy: can one be self-affirming and assertive by honestly admitting pain, that is, by acknowledging that the other has some power? For many, wounded pride and a "damned if I'll let you win" (which means I'm a loser) shame-driven, rigidly competitive mindset would make such a response unthinkable. However, let's see how I paradoxically used openness ultimately to set limits and to affirm my boundary. Here's the condensed version.
During a workshop, a female accounting supervisor at a social service agency had been singled out for some criticism by a male casework supervisor. (Sufficient discussion and closure had not been achieved.) At the follow-up meeting I attempted to reengage the parties to see if there were any hurt feelings or unresolved issues. The male supervisor acknowledged his prior, overly blaming stance. The female supervisor seemed to brush off curtly my attempt at further processing. She mostly wanted to express her frustration at the perceived lack of cooperation from other supervisors.
After awhile, we took a break. The accounting supervisor was at the water fountain. I approached aware that some folks don't like to bring up sensitive issues in a group setting. I tactfully asked if she had any thoughts or feelings from the aforementioned encounter (and subsequent brief discussion) that she might want to share. She gave me a glaring look and then practically spit out: "Boy, you sure know how to talk things to death!"
Without warning, I had taken a blaming "You" message punch in the psychic gut, if not below the belt. After recoiling and catching my breath, I managed to say: "In addition to wanting to check in with you, I'm aware of your concerns about cooperation with peers. And how important communication can be…"
Before I could finish she tried cutting me off with a provocative, passive aggressive parting shot: "Whatever."
The Critical Moment
Hey, you can hit me once, and I may still try for some rational engagement; but you hit me twice and I'm ready to fight. No longer shocked by her hostile style, I could feel my aggressive juices starting to flow, if not to boil. I mean, in this situation what would you really like to say? For me, the "b"-word comes to mind: "You witch!" (I was always better at rhyming than spelling.) Somehow my higher power descended and I forcefully declared: "That hurts. I feel like I've been stabbed in the back."
This woman, who was pretty introvertish (an accountant remember), and not very assertive (or empathic), didn't connect her dart-throwing tendencies when feeling threatened with her difficulties with peers. Ironically, she saw herself as more passive and put upon, if not a "victim." She was in denial about her seemingly quiet yet intimidating presence.
While I confronted her with the real possibility that her cutting messages left people on edge, before completing the confrontation, I managed somehow to give her a stroke: "I don't think you realize how powerful you can be as a communicator." This was a wise move. By both confronting her "back stabbing" while providing some salve with this "positive" ego stroke, I allowed her to save some face. I finally got her attention. She was ready to hear my strong hunch that there was a real connection between her communication style and her colleagues' lack of cooperation. And in fact, she was a much more involved and constructive participant for the remainder of the session.
Final message and moral: In a forceful or dramatic fashion ("I feel like I've been stabbed in the back") you can admit the pain of an attack ("That hurts") without projecting a so-called weakness, whether in the antagonist's mind or in your own. You have not compromised your self; you have not diminished an ability to confront and potentially resolve conflict. In fact, as you've just seen, "I" message acknowledgement lays the groundwork for a more specific and strategic response that provides both affirming protection and the disarming of an aggressor's style and tactics.
4. Learn to Metacommunicate. A critical advantage of checking in emotionally and acknowledging your psychological state while affirming your boundary needs is that now you are in a position to constructively "metacommunicate." In our ongoing mind game scenario with a provocative communicator, to metacommunicate means commenting upon, critiquing and/or confronting an antagonist's dysfunctional specifics and style. An aggressor's words, tone, voice level, body language, facial expressions and any other nonverbal messages are the raw material and target for your purposeful rejoinder. Constructive "I" message metacommunication not only can set limits on a hurtful exchange, but it also helps you focus on the primary issue.
First Things First
Here's a key conflict management point when confronted by harsh and hurtful criticism:
When a person is being decidedly hostile or abusive, if at all possible, do not respond initially to the content level of his or her harangue. The first order of business is to identify and/or confront the decidedly dysfunctional nature of your aggressor's communicational style and strategy.
Of course, this will be challenging as an aggressor's strategy often is to heighten your self-consciousness, to stir feelings of doubt or guilt, to raise his or her self-esteem at your expense, to have you cede your identity or power so he or she can feel superior and/or more in control. And the challenge is magnified when interacting with a significant other. (I suppose if you are a witness in a trial and are being grilled by a hostile attorney, you may not be able to metacommunicate. Based on personal experience as an expert witness, the challenge is to hold your ground, to hold onto your truth using "I" messages, even when feeling threatened or manipulated. You may not have the option of metacommunicating when confronted by a grandstanding or "Rambo" lawyer. Obviously, this will take practice.)
In the heat of a hostile exchange, a clear and strong "I" message response reasserts a functional reality: right now your behavior or alleged performance quality is not the pressing issue; the first order of business must be decidedly dampening if not snuffing out another's aggressive firestorm. Remember, do not impulsively justify your attitude and actions. With a hostile and judgmental manner, an aggressor has forfeited his or her right to direct and control the opening sequence of your exchange. Ultimately, he or she will have to show a willingness to be a more appropriate communication "player." (Now I can hear voices saying, "Doc you are living in a fantasy world. If you stand up for yourself in most work settings you're butt is canned." My reply: Surprisingly, constructively standing up for yourself often generates respect. However, if you are facing a frequent regimen of hostility or harassment from, for example, a supervisor and management, HR or the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) counselor won't or can't set limits on this aggressor, then you either get one of those Rambette lawyers or you need to wisely move on from this toxic scenario.)
I Metacommunicate Therefore I Am
With this key, "first things first" caveat in mind, here are some self-affirming "I" metacommunications that proceed from confrontation and limit setting to non-defensive clarification and constructive engagement. So keep your "'I' on the Prize."
a. Quickly Set Limits.
** "I don't appreciate your harsh and judgmental tone. I'm open to feedback but not an attack."
b. Confront the Critical Communicator and Clarify the Communication.
** "I don't hear well when someone's yelling (or attacking). I can listen when the other person is talking." (Using third person may also help your antagonist to hear and consider your counter message.)
c. Provide Feedback and Discussion Standards.
After setting limits and confronting the inappropriate delivery, take some control of the dynamics psychological and then engage the logical realm.
** "Let's hold off being so judgmental; maybe we can discuss this in a professional manner." (Obviously implying its absence.) Or,
** "I find your comments not just harsh, but of little value (or insufficient or unacceptable) as feedback; they are much too general and global. Instead of personality attacks, I respond better to examples and feedback that is descriptive."
Here are some other follow-up comments after your initial critique:
- "Let's clarify your opinion. What are your specific observations and recommendations?"
- "What exactly didn't you like or agree with?" Can you describe what had you uncomfortable?" (Notice the use of "had you" instead of "made you" uncomfortable. Again, this choice of language means not accepting blame for "provoking" your antagonist.)
Now you are starting to hit the offensive serving back into the aggressor's court. Let's extend this tactic.
d. Reverse the Feedback Process. Consider these replies:
** "You seem rather sure of your judgment. How would you have handed the presentation? What would you have done differently?" (Don't be deferential but also be careful not to use a hostile tone or provocative body language
Of course, one is seriously tempted to spit back the venom:
** "If you're so smart Mr. Bluster, why don't you just do it next time instead of grandstanding."
Alas, this is a defensive-hostile retort. While it momentarily feels good, if your goal is to be powerful and professional and if it's in your interest to preserve a working relationship, then an effective response needs to trump an impulsive "you" reaction.
5. Does the Critic Have an Agenda? The beauty of metacommunication is that it removes you from the reflexive mode of self-justification. As we've seen, your first responsibility (notice the existence of "response" in responsibility) is to protect your boundaries and integrity by refocusing the communication process. The area for immediate engagement is an aggressor's dysfunctional communication.
Once taking yourself out of the hot seat, or removing yourself from your antagonist's line of fire, it's easier to more coolly reflect on other issues. One worth considering, if not overtly exploring, is whether he or she has an agenda? Is the individual neutral or objective regarding you and your presentation? The reactive attitude and level of aggression suggest an answer of "No!"
Sometimes you can deflect this agenda-based intimidation with a bit of psychological judo: "Do I detect some jealousy?" This question is raised less to analyze the other's motivation at this heated moment, but more for slowing down an attack. It also puts the proverbial monkey back where it belongs.
In general, my preference, at least in the heat of battle, is to:
1) confront and stop the aggressive spewing,
2) if necessary, acknowledge the effects of the inappropriate attack (for example, if you need to state your anger or hurt in order to get beyond initial "toxic shock"),
3) clarify the inappropriate or ineffective nature of your antagonist's criticism, while still conveying interest in professional feedback,
4) see if you can now elicit a productive exchange, at least about the communication style, if not the charged content,
5) acknowledge and/or express appreciation for valid concerns and/or appropriately communicated criticism (even if not totally logical or objective) and
6) acknowledge, if not have empathy for, your antagonist's position, predicament and pain.
While egos are hot, hold off speculating about or exploring overt or underlying motivation. However, returning to agenda or motivation issues is always an option. Which brings us to another tactical principle.
6. Take a Time Out. When dealing with an aggressor, there are a number of scenarios where and when calling time out or taking a tactical retreat is advised. Let's examine three:
a. Facing an Incorrigible Antagonist. When your attempt (or your reasonable number of attempts) both to set "response"-able limits on hurting and harassing behavior and to engage in constructive dialogue is met with such attacking if not abusive rejoinders as:
1) "Obviously you can't take a little criticism"
2) "You are just too sensitive"
3) "If you can't take the heat, better get out of the spotlight"
4) "I don't really care what you think" or "You're not paid to think"
then another strategy needs to be employed. Consider these replies:
1) "Clearly, we are not able to discuss this in a professional manner." Here you are taking the "we" high road and not overtly pointing a blaming "you" finger. (Be vigilant, though, that your middle finger does not start twitching uncontrollably.) "I don't want to be part of this negative game playing. I think I (or we) need a time out." Or,
2) I'm willing to set up a time for a more productive exchange tomorrow if it can occur without personality attacks, demeaning tones and a more specific discussion of the issues. (Again, while not resorting to a blaming "you," your message makes clear whose communication style and substance is not "professional" or who is impeding a constructive dialogue.)
b. Knowing You Are Not at Your Best. Sometimes you need to retreat or not be dragged into a confrontation as you are exhausted or overstressed.
** "I've had a full day. I'm not ready to respond right now to this aggressive encounter." (However, providing some time frame for your response or for scheduling a meeting is required. And sometimes, you may want a third party in any meeting with this aggressor depending on the power/status differential and your vulnerability.)
Or you still may be in "toxic shock" from the insensitive if not cruel venom that has suddenly or unexpectedly spewed from your attacker's lips and body language.
- "Frankly, I'm shocked (or quite surprised; "I'm really disappointed" is on the cutting edge) by the harsh (or unprofessional nature) of your feedback. I need time to think about my response."
In any of these overextended situations, you are likely not in a position to defend yourself without becoming defensive or offensive. Retreating doesn't necessarily equate with defeat or giving up. It often involves replenishment and rejuvenation, and a readiness to return to the fray (without seriously frayed nerves).
c. Clarifying Understanding and Options. A strategic time out allows you to reflect on the initial exchange - to consider any grains or even granules of wheat from the coarse feedback chaff. Stepping back also allows for resolving unfinished business. For example, many folks kick themselves for not coming up with that perfect comeback that would undress an arrogant emperor in the heat of battle. My advice: don't beat yourself up. It's not a big deal and, likely, not a lost opportunity. You'll come back and nail this jerk tomorrow! Just kidding…sort of. With your highly motivated, battle-induced state, now well past any point of shock, you're cognitive processing can be uncommonly sharp and to the point. Now you are better prepared to advance with determination your position and to reach constructive closure: a) whether setting limits on or positively influencing your antagonist's attitude and actions or b) being able to "let go" and put this individual's maturity and motivation in proper (dysfunctional) perspective. Patience and self-affirming responses are their own reward.
7. Verbal and Nonverbal Mix of Communication Strategies. This final section is a blend of the old and the new, verbal and nonverbal, and the spontaneous and preplanned
a. Dramatic Verbal Technique and Imagery. Do you recall how I confronted the hostile supervisor-accountant with: "That hurts. I feel like I've been stabbed in the back." Other vital expressions for slowing down a pushy, judgmental and impatient Type A individual include "being steamrolled" or attacked by a "charging rhino." (And you might want to remind your antagonist how blind rhinos are.)
Another technique involves drawing outrageous pictures of your antagonist. This will readily provide visual metaphors that may be useful in confronting an aggressor (and draw out some righteous rage). For example, in my speaking programs and workshops, I organize participants in small teams, asking them to identify sources of stress and conflict in their work environments. And then they have to come up with a group picture that captures these stress factors (including "stress carriers"). Not surprisingly, I see many bosses depicted as devils.
Yet, when this devil has oversized ears and a floppy tail, at least for a moment he or she no longer seems so fearsome. (Not unlike seeing the initial, post-capture pictures of Saddam Hussein who looked more like a disoriented street person than an all-powerful tyrant.)
By delivering effective and vivid verbal and visual imagery with its purposeful exaggeration, you have a better chance of exposing the behavior, calling any bluff and getting the attention of an aggressive antagonist.
b. Dramatic Nonverbal Technique and Verbal Follow-up. A friend who works in the criminal justice system shared a disarming technique. In the face of a verbal bombardment, he jumps back slightly as if he had been pushed. During this movement he maintains eye contact with the aggressor. Next he assumes a ready and open physical and communicational position; hands by his side, palms facing his antagonist. This professional's unexpected response invariably proves startling and often slows down the aggressive charge. Sudden and surprising movement becomes an effective psychological judo technique. In response to this brief dramatic enactment, sometimes an individual may even realize his inappropriate level of aggression.
And my friend may often follow-up his physical posturing with calm and direct questioning: "Is there a problem?" or "How may I help you." For me, his recoiling movement minimizes the potentially toxic effects of the antagonist's initial barrage. This professional is clearly not a passive recipient. Having been pro-active it's easier to be genuinely receptive. In realms verbal and nonverbal, he is both battle ready and willing to engage in peaceful negotiations.
Here's a final nonverbal technique: by lowering your voice with an antagonist to just above a whisper this too may have a surprising and disarming, if not calming, effect. The calm use of assertive words and a relaxed body posture has you coming across as confident and in control. The person needs to refocus to hear your words. Ironically, less may be more.
Whew! We have definitely covered a wide 4 "C"-ing expanse - issues and skills involving criticism and conflict, communication and collaboration. Imagine, almost all of these ideas and strategies generated or inspired by one workshop "mind game" - "Wow, did you fumble the data!" Also illustrated was participants' array of reactions or responses (much rarer) to harsh criticism. Differential family and cultural factors related to control issues were found to influence an individual's degree of comfort and assertiveness or threat and defensive reactivity in an angry exchange. And finally seven key skills and strategies for preserving one's boundary and integrity while constructively engaging a dysfunctional combatant have been explored and illustrated in depth. Our "magnificent seven":
1. Distinguish Reaction and Response
2. Distinguish Evoke and Provoke
3. Replace Blaming "You" Messages with Affirming "I"s
4. Learn to Metacommunicate
5. Does the Critic Have an Agenda?
6. Take a Time Out
7. Verbal and Nonverbal Mix of Communication Strategies
These conflict engagement concepts and techniques will help you disarm an aggressive antagonist without having to shoot reactively from the lip. And by adding these positively powerful - subtle and dramatic - techniques and tips to your communicational tool kit you will also be…Practicing Safe Stress!