5 Ways to Stop Verbal Abuse

There are times when it is quite appropriate to stop listening.  When the Other is out of control and launching into all out verbal abuse, listening needs to stop.  You need ways to manage verbal abuse.  It is unacceptable to be subject to ridicule or name-calling or personally targeted swearing, false accusations, sarcasm or physical intimidation. If you feel that it is bluster or just an over the top expression of frustration that is not personally directed, then ignore it and focus on the matter that is upsetting the Other.  But if it becomes sheer personal attack then draw the line.  It is not ok to listen to abuse.

All easy to say, right, but this can be tough to do if you don’t feel strong or are not confident that you have the support of management or your peers or if you are pretty intimidated by the situation or there is a history of this behaviour that has eroded your self esteem or you fear it may reach to violence or if you have actually made a mistake.  It can be tough to stand up to them if they have authority or power of any type over you.  Nevertheless, abuse is not acceptable.  The earlier you stand up to it, the better.  The more often it happens, the more likely it is to keep on happening and to escalate, because you set a norm of tolerating it.  Draw the line on bad behaviour and do it as soon as it happens.  The sooner it is confronted, the easier it is to do so.  It is not ok and it’s your responsibility to say that it is not ok.

Don’t argue back and trade threat and abuse – it will be painful.  The situation will escalate and you will both be out of control.  Keep the high ground, keep good behaviour.  If you are starting to engage in uncontrolled behaviour yourself, walk away to talk another day.

Remember too that anger is their expression of fear that some need of theirs will not be satisfied. If you can understand what their fear/threat driver is, acknowledge it, help them, then you might work with a problem in a constructive way and create a workable relationship. If you are willing.  If you are in a situation of unequal power or where you fear reprisal or payback, then thinking a bit about the best approach is smart.  There sadly really are places where rational, professional, accountable behaviours are not welcomed.  Be prepared and test with small steps.  If you need to build your assertiveness, then practice skills of self-assurance in softer easier circumstances first, so you have the confidence to stand in an attack situation and see it through to a better end.

Here are some things to consider as tactics when you need to stop listening to bad behaviour.

1. Acknowledge emotion, draw the line and work to the issue

Name the emotion that you recognise – even as you feel your own response to them.  When you have a person who is clearly very upset then it is important to acknowledge that expression of emotion.  This often is a way of taking the steam out of things, because they need their strong feelings to be acknowledged.

Draw the line on abuse or bad language or physical threat – whatever is unacceptable to you.  Avoid being a mirror – that means, don’t do what they are doing.  It’s sure to be unhelpful.  It may take some personal control or practice in a new strategy.  But hold it together.  Don’t go there.

Focus on their issue, the problem, or on what they think is the problem.  Sometimes it is just a matter of sharing information, clarifying expectations, giving them options.  Sometimes they really do have a good reason to be upset – they really do need help to solve a problem.  Do what you can to focus on the source of their problem.  Find more information, look into things for them, offer answers or problem-solve.

I can see you are furious, Andrea but abusing me is not going to solve the problem. What has happened?”

“Carlos, I can see there’s a problem.  Swearing at me like this is not acceptable.  Let’s talk about what will fix this.”

2. Apologise

If you have made a mistake, if you have done something that has hurt or affected the Other, then apologise.  This is a highly effective way to take the steam out of strong emotion if you really have caused a problem, or inadvertently created an impact on someone. Acknowledging your error and seeking to address a problem is the right thing to do.   The bottom line is that every one makes mistakes.

It’s not necessary to apologise if there is nothing done that is wrong or actually caused a problem. Apologising by habit, as a way to make the abuse go away, is something to avoid if you have not actually created the problem yourself. Some people want to blame others for situations that they have created themselves.  This needs attention to the causes of the problem, rather than an apology.

Sometimes there are legal issues at stake – admissions are not well regarded by lawyers, for example.  But I know of situations where this has still been managed with an apology: “Our lawyers tell us that we must not make admissions and are not directly responsible, but you are our community and we feel responsible to you so we will do everything we can to help you with the consequences of this situation.”  And they got on with fixing problems and building relationship.

Where there really is a problem or a mistake or something has happened that ideally should not – then an apology is a quick and easy way to stop escalation.   A genuine apology is often a game changer in a relationship, in a good way.

3. Call it out

Naming bad behaviour is sometimes necessary.  It needs some confidence and a firm voice to call a halt to their manner and action by naming it.  It’s harder if there is a power difference but it is possible.  If you are seated, stand up but stay calm.  Find words to acknowledge they are angry and describe what is happening.  This is another form of acknowledgement of their strong expression but it is also a way of drawing attention to shameful or unacceptable action.  Bring the focus to the problem as best you can.  What information is necessary to understand the source of the problem.

“I can see you are very angry but accusing me of actions and intentions that are completely false is not on.  I am willing to hear what’s going on here but not if it continues as torrents of abuse.”

“Anita, all I can hear is sarcasm and personal attack.  It is not helpful to me hearing anything important you want to say. What is the problem?”

Use their name – this is a powerful way of holding space.  State their bad behaviour in a neutral way, in a third party way.  That means, avoiding using “you” and “your”.

This behaviour – not your behaviour.  The abuse – not your abuse. This bad language – not your bad language.  This aggressive attitude – not your aggressive attitude.

“Excuse me Aidah, this behaviour is out of line and the abuse needs to end now. Tell me what the problem is.”

“Eric, sneering at me in asides like that is avoiding tackling the issue, which I am happy to discuss.  I have good reasons for my choices and I’m happy to share them.”

4. Walk away 

When the conflict intensity is too high for you to feel you can manage it or they are so out of control that they can’t put it together in a sane or professional manner, then walk away.  If you feel that you are not in a strong place to put any of these responses together, walk away.  If you feel that violence is a risk – walk away. All parties need time to get control and don’t have to put up with demeaning or hostile behaviour.

If you need to walk away, that’s ok as a short term tool – but do your best to find an effective strategy for getting back to a solid conversation, even if with a third party as helper or mediator.  Be aware that walking away is an avoidance strategy and should be a temporary response only.  The issues at the heart of the anger and abuse will need to be addressed in one way or another – if they are ignored or left festering, the consequences will escalate. It will happen again. Make a time or a process to come back to this problem.  This takes courage but no one should have to live in a situation of constant abuse – it is so damaging and so unacceptable that solutions or other options must be found.  Get help.  Tell someone who can intervene.  Or get out. You are worth more.

“Maya, I don’t like what’s happening here and I am getting very angry/upset. I don’t want to regret anything. I need time out to come back to this later.” {physically leave}

“This behaviour is completely out of line and is not on.” {physically leave}

“I am doing my best to meet your expectations and I am willing to learn new things.  I am not going to be personally attacked without any proper responsibility to fix this problem. Please talk to me when you can do that.” {physically leave}.

5. Get help

These suggestions are based on the assumption that most people are operating in some form of decent and accountable environment.  This isn’t always the case – situations are much harder to manage where there is a culture of allowing or tolerating bad behaviour from particular people. If there are strong power differences and a culture of empowering hostility then a change of culture is required and that isn’t going to happen fast, easy or alone.   Find other mechanisms to bring this unproductive and socially damaging action to account.  This type of abuse cannot be dealt with through good communication skills because it is not about a bad moment or misunderstandings or miscommunication. It is about respect and the fact that there is none of it.  If there is not an environment that sets a standard for respectful relationship, it’s going to be tough to shift the norms.  If there is no support for change and conflict resolution efforts are undermined by a culture of everyday bullying, with mental mean-ness and actual violence – then get out of there, my friend.  Stand in the fire if you can take the communication in a useful direction, but if there is no constructive conversation happening, not wearing regular abuse anymore, is a good call.  Go to a manager, a union, a help-line, a teacher, a parent or the police.  It is not ok to be constantly wearing abuse.

Saleena Ham