Q: We live in an age in which using toxic verbiage against others has almost become the norm. How can we help clients deal with these kinds of situations in the moment?
A: I love this question because, as a culture, we seem ready to take on the problem of children being bullied, but all of us get bullied at times. That said, we need to understand the distinction between bullying verbiage and a physical assault that requires legal action. Verbal bullying involves one person trying to establish dominance over another with hostile words and repetition. It can happen between strangers or spouses or siblings or friends, in families or workplaces or grocery-store parking lots. The permutations are endless, as are the psychological effects.
The advice most commonly given to children who experience this kind of bullying on the playground is “just ignore it.” But this doesn’t usually work. Why? Bullies are pursuers. When verbal attacks are met with silence, aggressors will pursue harder to get a reaction, and a pursuing–distancing dance ensues.
In contrast to what we tell children, most adults are encouraged to assert themselves when they’re mistreated. On a social-justice level, this is incredibly important. But in the moment, between individuals, it doesn’t always work. Helen, for example, spent weeks in therapy learning how to deliver the perfect “I” message when her husband made demeaning comments. The night before her next session, she mustered her courage and told him, “I feel heartbroken when you say I never get anything right.” His shocking reply, “I don’t care how you feel,” only revealed the depths of the chasm she’d been trying to navigate.
So if neither overlooking hurtful remarks nor expressing feelings and desires does little to change a bullying dynamic, what are our clients to do?
Enter the Other Instinct
Fight and flight are well-known animal instincts, but a third survival strategy is highlighted by affective neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp: seeking. While all animals search for food and shelter, humans are also on the hunt for understanding and meaning. If we can tap into this instinct, we can change adrenaline-laced fight-or-flight reactions into dopamine-driven curiosity, which produces focused calm. How? In responding to verbal attempts to create a power imbalance, we need a language that unbalances and disarms, at least in the moment.
Going back to our example of young Helen, she might’ve responded to her husband’s hostile remark with a question: “When did you stop caring about my feelings?” This may seem like a strange strategy, but questions can be hypnotic, sending people on a focused inward search, one that slows mental processes.
She also might’ve mused, “You care about music, teaching, and politics. I wonder how I got left out of the mix.” This would’ve subtly affirmed her husband’s ability to care, even if he denied being concerned about her feelings. The point isn’t to magically elicit an empathic response from him; rather, these responses are conversation stoppers, in which the offended party has the last word. At the very least, they could help Helen create a bit of breathing room and feel more empowered while she wrestles with the likelihood that her marriage might not be salvageable.
But asking questions and affirming are only the first two verbal volleys. Adding active listening and hidden hints gives people an arsenal of responses that can begin to diminish the downward spiral of verbal bullying. These four responses are based on the works of Murry Bowen and Milton Erickson, and the philosophy of Taoism. Too bad Helen didn’t have them at the ready.
Flash Forward 30 Years . . .
Fortunately, Helen now has a sense of new alternatives. She’s switched careers from elementary education to psychotherapy. She’s happily remarried to another man, Troy—and she’s compiled some key verbal volleys to help her if ever someone makes her feel powerless again.
Given that it’s an election year, Helen asks Troy if he’d like to join her and a friend on a seven-hour road trip to meet their candidate of choice. Troy replies, “No! I’m not going, and neither are you!”
With a baffled expression, Helen simply says, “I’m not?” She walks to the computer room and makes motel reservations for her and her friend, returning to inform him of the arrangements for the following day.
Atypical of gentle Troy, he immediately counters, “Are you having a psychotic break?!”
Two thoughts cross Helen’s mind: At least he’s picked up some clinical terms in the 15 years we’ve been married and This is what Murry Bowen said would happen when one person in the family begins to individuate. She calmly responds, “It’s always possible that I’ve lost my mind, but that usually only happens when I’ve gone a few days without sleep. Thanks for being concerned.”
Hours pass. An agitated Troy takes another stab at thwarting Helen’s journey. “I’ll be very angry if you go,” he tells her.
Mustering her counseling repertoire, Helen responds, “Of course you’ll be angry; you worry about my driving. How sweet.”
As Helen, suitcase in hand, is taking her leave, Troy makes a last-ditch effort. “It’s just not right that you’re going!”
Turning to face him, Helen smiles, “Maybe it’s not right that I’m going, but you’ll be left with a big life insurance policy. If I die, you’ll be a wealthy man.” With that unexpected response, she shoots out the door to meet her friend.
Let’s pause for a moment to put Helen’s rejoinders under the microscope. We’ve already covered her first two. “I’m not?” is a question that doesn’t give Troy room to respond. “It’s always possible that I’ve lost my mind” affirms his attempt at diagnosis by agreeing with him in theory, possible being the operative word. Her follow-up, “but that usually only happens when I’ve gone a few days without sleep,” is tricky. Did you catch the power word in that phrase? But is well known by English majors and hypnotists to make everything that comes before it null and void. Helen finishes with an affirmation and a hint of empathy: “Thanks for being concerned.”
When Troy challenges her again, she validates his anger and reframes it as a more vulnerable emotion: “You worry about my driving.” Validating and naming hidden emotions are key components of active listening. (Helen is also a student of Milton Erickson.) When Troy expresses a moral imperative, “It’s not right that you’re going,” she paces her reply using his words, “maybe ‘it’s not right,’” and leads with an enticing tangent, “but you’ll be left with,” transporting Troy to an unexpected La La Land to ponder his financial upgrade.
Helen has used four simple strategies to handle her husband’s power plays:
- Affirm: agree in fact or theory, admit, appreciate, and admire
- Ask questions: genuine or hidden “I wonder” questions
- Listen actively: echo, rephrase, empathize (name feelings and desires), validate (“It makes sense that you feel . . . because . . .”), and sympathize
- Hints and humor: embedded suggestion, utilization, paired opposites, power words (try, but, dare), non sequiturs, and unexpected connections (humor)
These linguistic maneuvers may sound too advanced for your average client to come up with on the spot, so you can start people with some simple one-liners:
- Affirm: “Thank you! You’re a good . . . who worries that . . .” (This one is from Murry Bowen himself, 1978.)
- Ask questions: “I wonder why you’re asking me that.” (Technically, this is a hidden question for a soft touch.) Is that so? (Credit the Zen Master Hakuin with this one.)
- Listen actively: “It sounds like you have issues to express. You’re saying . . .” (an echo with a softer tone).
- Hints and humor: “It’s good that you’re . . . because it’s hard to . . .”
In addition to wondering if your clients could execute such wordplays, you may have concerns that you’re teaching them to be manipulative. Aren’t we supposed to promote understanding and being direct and authentic? Of course we are! But sometimes it’s not safe to be compassionate, forthright, and open. Plus, we often manipulate others without realizing it. For instance, if you tell your child he’s lazy, he may take slacking on as a career path; however, saying, “You’re so industrious. I don’t know why you haven’t begun to start your chores” plants a different seed in his mind, with a compliment and an embedded suggestion.
Of course, we should always be mindful that verbal bullying can signal real danger when it’s a pattern, especially when perpetuated by people with a history of violence, or whose bark can be followed by a bite. In such cases, maintain eye contact and head nods to show you’re listening, and withdraw as soon as possible. If your client’s self-worth has been worn away in a war of attrition, that person will need confidence-boosting sessions before acquiring the self-efficacy to unbalance, disarm, and contain oral offenses. If sexist, racist, or other prejudiced comments are made in a school, workplace, or business, please help your clients understand options for action!
Practice, Practice, Practice
When confronting the kind of verbal bullying that seems to be infiltrating more and more interactions these days, here are a couple of examples that are not in the usual therapeutic playbook.
Your teenage client tells you someone said to her, “Everyone thinks you’re a whore.” A range of conventional interventions might help this client understand the interpersonal dynamics driving this insult, but you could also offer her some one-liners to help her disarm the insult in the moment. “Thank you.” “Is that so?” “Are you trying to save me?” “It’s good you believe what everyone says, because it’s hard to seek the truth.” This last response uses the formula of taking what someone’s doing (believing everyone) and following it with a hint (seek the truth). Or you could add an element of surprise and suggest she say, “Were you elected by everyone to be the messenger, or did you volunteer?”
Consider a couple of quick notes. Try is a power word that blocks action: “Are you trying to save me?” implies that it’s not happening. Daring people to do something promotes new behavior: “It’s hard to seek the truth.” Multiple-choice questions create confusion: “Were you elected, or did you volunteer?” Left-brain verbal centers turn into scrambled eggs, and our teenage target can make a graceful exit.
Behind the Scenes
Are these responses simply verbal shenanigans, or are they backed by hard science? It’s well known that flight and flight are driven by adrenaline. The harder question is what neurochemical underlies that third survival strategy of seeking. Curiosity, motivation, and energy are powered by dopamine. In fact, adrenaline and dopamine have opposite effects: one takes blood out of the forebrain and shoots it to the arms and legs for fighting and fleeing, and the other brings blood back to the forebrain for focus and attention.
When Helen rhetorically asks Troy, “I’m not?” she’s not only thwarting him with a question, but pondering for herself, How could I not be going? I own a car. I’ve driven longer than seven hours before. I have enough money. And instead of defensively explaining this to Troy, she stays in seeking mode and looks for motel reservations. In other words, it’s possible she’s powered in this moment by dopamine rather than adrenaline.
Some people express concern that these responses sound sarcastic. I’m not sure what neurochemical drives sarcasm. But if you can say, “Only a true friend would have enough courage to tell me I’m a whore,” with an oxytocin (bonding hormone) smile, you’ll strip the bitterness from sharp, bullying words. Oxytocin is also known as the antistress hormone because both it and angst-inducing cortisol are produced in the hypothalamus, and one can be used to derail the other. According to Steven Porges’s Polyvagal Theory, when people build a wave of oxytocin, they’re using their social engagement system to down-regulate fight-or-flight mobilization.
With dopamine for motivation and oxytocin for caring, playful endorphin responses won’t be far behind. When Helen reminds Troy of the life-insurance policy and our savvy teen asks her name-caller if she volunteered or was nominated, left-brain verbal centers become confused, and a door is opened for new ideas: benefits of lengthy car trip or disadvantages of spreading rumors.
Make no mistake: I’m not proposing that any one-liner can be a full-fledged therapeutic approach to complex couples issues or abusive power imbalances. Affirming others, asking questions, actively listening, and hints and humor simply offer a path less traveled in some situations, allowing people to take the high road when others have lost their way.
Illustration © iStock/alashi
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