by Achim Nowak

3 Examples of Verbal Violence You MUST Avoid.

October 2, 2020

Trainwreck. Debacle. Shitshow. 

Just a few of the monikers journalists used to describe last week’s US Presidential debate. Even the most ardent members of the President’s inner circle, the very individuals who prepped him for the event, said he came out “too hot.”

Too hot?

If you behaved as the US President did in your place of work, you would be fired. If you were the CEO of a corporation, the Board of Directors would unceremoniously get rid of you.

Sure, it was bullying behavior. But I urge you to consider this lens: You and I witnessed a lesson in verbal and psychological violence.

The notion of verbal violence first entered my consciousness when I read the classic book “Crucial Conversations.” Authors Patterson, Grenny, MCMillan and Switzler state that when we feel unsafe or under stress, many of us unwittingly or intentionally resort to silent or violent behavior.

You may think to yourself, well I would never behave as crassly as the President did. That may be true. But you and I are equally capable of such verbal violence. I have engaged in perhaps less glaring versions of the President’s behavior. In case you still think, no, not me, allow me to list the 3 most common examples of verbal violence. I will also describe the subtext that animates these behaviors. The subtext is usually hidden, even to ourselves.

If we are at all interested in creating a space for the safe expression of ideas and emotions, these are behaviors we must avoid. If we desire a vibrant collaborative team culture, these are behaviors we must avoid.

And yes, we have all behaved in this manner.

1. Controlling

We actively seek to dominate a conversation by going on and on. We don’t pause by giving others a chance to jump in. We speak in absolutes. We resort to black-and-white thinking. I know I’m right so implicitly everyone else is wrong.

We cut others off before they have finished speaking, especially when they disagree with our perspective. We’re inclined to raise our voice and be forceful when we cut them off. And we make sure we have the last word at all times, even when others are already done with the conversation.

Subtext: Don’t even think that I will, for a moment, entertain a different sort of perspective. Don’t have the audacity to challenge me or confront me. Who do you think you are, you little twerp?

2. Labeling

We dismiss others by actively devaluing what they have to say. We publicly define another person’s perspective as being of lesser value and, by doing so, imply that the person as a whole is of lesser value. We may publicly mock or belittle the other person. Even when our labeling is more subtle, it ultimately is a public dismissal. It is our explicit attempt to silence individuals and exclude them from a crucial conversation.

  • You’ve only been here for 6 months. You don’t really understand the culture around here yet.
  • You’re an engineer. I’m not sure you fully appreciate the complexity of what we do in the sales organization. 
  • Your comments at our last meeting missed the mark. And here you are, out of touch again.

Subtext:  I’m an insider. You’re an outsider. You have not earned the right to challenge us insiders, and it will be a long time before I will grant you insider status.

3. Attacking

We aggressively defend our conversational turf. Because we feel threatened, we go on the attack. This attack becomes very personal. There is nothing subtle about this attack. It is labeling on steroids. The ultimate goal of the attack is to make the other person suffer, shame him publicly or damage her reputation.

  • Antonio’s ideas always come out of left field. Why the heck should anyone listen to him? He’s constantly trying to draw attention to himself!
  • Michelle, you think you’re such hot shit. And yet you constantly bring in these half-assed Powerpoint presentations that are, quite frankly, boring as hell. No wonder no one takes you seriously.
  • You're a loser. You missed your targets again, and you never take responsibility for anything. Get outta here.

Subtext:  I won’t let idiots like these people stand in the way of my great ideas. I can’t believe I have to work with these stupid people. And I am the only one with integrity and courage to point this out to everyone else.

Not pretty. Everyone of us has engaged in variations of this behavior. Even if we haven’t actively uttered these exact words, we have indulged in verbally violent thinking If I could just get this little nitwit to shut the heck up. 

It is self-evident why verbal violence doesn't advance a conversation. What does?

Deepak Chopra's little bedside book, The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success, is one of my favorite leadership books of all time. I urge you to read it. In yesterday's New York Times, Nicole Pajer shared 9 concrete tips from Deepak Chopra on how to stop a conversation from getting "too hot" and escalating to verbal violence ("How To Have a Disagreement Like an Adult," Pajer/NYT Styles Section/10.04.20). Here is just one of the many nuggets of wisdom from the article. When you are confronted with verbal violence, choose to respond as follows:

I'd like to hear your point of view. I also acknowledge that you are personally insulting me right now. I don't give permission to myself to be insulted. So thank you for insulting me. But now let's declare our values and our action plan for those values and get the personalities out of the way altogether.

Does this sound a little "too textbook" to you? Well, don't say it exactly as written by Mr. Chopra. Put it in your own words. I trust the intent of Chopra's wording is clear: Don't meet verbal violence with verbal violence. Be self-aware. Stay vigilant. Decide to speak up without retaliation.

Choose verbal non-violence. Moment-by-moment. Choose it.

It's actually not that difficult.

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