NUMBER 207 • 14 FEBRUARY 2003 • VERBAL MALTREATMENT
INDEX OF QUOTES
I have examined a series of common verbally communicated forms of low-level aggression —verbal abuse, teasing, cursing, gossip, and ostracism. How may such hurtful behaviors be managed, reduced, or even eliminated? The parties involved in a verbal maltreatment exchange need to overcome the following three hurdles if they are to be successful in lowering their anger arousal levels and moving on to a more constructive dialogue.
Each person must calm down and seek to reduce his or her own anger level.
Ideally, each person will take steps to help the other person calm down and reduce his or her anger level.
The two parties will engage in constructive communication about whatever issues had initially sparked the aggressive exchange.
The sections that follow detail the procedures the disputing parties can follow to accomplish these three tasks (Goldstein & Keller, 1987; Goldstein & Rosenbaum, 1982).
To start to reduce your own anger level and combat the rush of adrenaline that causes your heart to beat faster, your voice to sound louder, and your fists to clench, try the following methods.
Deep breathing. Take a few deep breaths and concentrate on your breathing.
Backward counting. Count backwards. This is a good distractor from thoughts that keep anger pumping.
Peaceful imagery. Imagine yourself relaxed at the beach, by a lake, or in some similar place on a warm and balmy day.
Other relaxers. Try any other thoughts or actions that have helped you relax in the past.
In the final analysis, whenever any of us becomes angry, it is not directly because of what anyone else does but rather because of what we say to ourselves, including how we interpret the other person’s words or actions. So after you begin calming yourself by the steps just listed, it is time to give yourself certain calming self-instructions. Try a simple "calm down," "chill out," or "relax." Perhaps you can tell yourself "I’m not going to let him get to me" or "Getting upset won’t help" or "I have a right to be annoyed, but let’s keep the lid on." Further self-direction can include benign reinterpretations of what the other person did to provoke you: "Maybe he didn’t mean to trip me. He always sits in that stretched-out way." "It’s a shame she needs to pick arguments all the time, but it’s her problem, not mine. No need for me to take this personally."
Calming the other person.
When your self-calming steps are beginning to work, it is time to do what you can to help the other person calm down. Try using as many of the following steps as you can.
Model calmness. One person’s calmness in an argument can really help calm the other person down. Use facial expression, posture, gestures, tone of voice, and words to show you are getting your anger under control.
Encourage talking. Help the other person explain why he or she is angry and what he or she hopes both of you can do to settle matters constructively.
Listen openly. As things are explained to you, pay attention, do not interrupt, face the other person, and nod your head or give other signs that he or she is getting through to you.
Show understanding. Say that you understand, that you see what the person means. Repeat in your own words the heart of what he or she said to you. Try to let the person know you understand what he or she is feeling.
Reassure the other person. Point out that nonaggressive solutions to your conflict exist and that you are willing to work toward them. Reduce your threat; inspire a bit of problem-solving optimism.
Help save face. Make it easier for the person to retreat or back off gracefully. Avoid cornering or humiliating the other person. Do not argue in front of other people. Try to compromise. Make your goal defeating the problem, not the other person.
Engaging in constructive communication.
When a reasonable level of calm has been restored between yourself and the other person, it is time to try for effective discussion of the issue(s) under contention. Good communication, of course, begins with your intentions. If your goal is to defeat the other person and win the argument, it will be difficult to reduce aggression. If your goal is to join the other person to defeat the problem—what has been called a win-win strategy—you’ve made a good start at likely aggression reduction.
How do you get ready for effective, problem-solving communication? Here are some good starting steps.
Plan on dealing with one problem at a time. Seeking to solve an argument with win-win solutions is not an easy task. Do not make matters more difficult by taking on too much at one time. If more than one problem is pressing, take them up in sequence.
Choose the right time and place. Be careful where and when you try to communicate when you are or the other person is angry. Avoid audiences; seek privacy. Also, seek times and places in which you are not likely to be interrupted (by people, television, telephone, mealtime) and will be free to finish whatever you start.
Review your plan. Try to open your mind before you open your mouth. Consider your own views and feelings as well as the other person’s. Especially, ask yourself what you can do to bring about a win-win solution to your argument. Rehearse what you and the other person may say. Imagine this conversation in several different forms and outcomes.
Now you and the other person are face to face. Effective problem solvers follow good communication rules such as these.
Define yourself Explain your views, the reasons behind them, and your proposed solutions as logically as you can. Carefully spell out anything you think might be misunderstood.
Make sense to the other person. Keep your listener constantly in mind as you talk. Encourage him or her to ask questions, to check out your meanings. Repeat yourself as much as necessary.
Focus on behavior. When you describe to the other person your view of what happened and what you would like to happen, concentrate on actual actions you each have taken or might take. Try to avoid focusing on inner qualities that cannot be seen, such as personality, beliefs, intentions, and motivations.
Reciprocate. As you describe how the other person contributed to the problem and what you think he or she can do to help solve it, be sure that you are equally clear about your part in both its cause and solution. Be specific. Avoid vague generalizations.
Redirect. Say your piece in a straightforward, nonhostile, positive manner. Avoid camouflage, editing, half-truths, or hiding what you honestly believe.
Keep the pressure low. To keep matters calm as your problem solving continues, try to listen openly to the other person, offer reassurance as needed, do not paint the other person into a corner, and show that you understand his or her position and plans. If anger and aggression return, take a temporary break and reschedule your discussion for a later time.
Be empathic. Throughout your discussion, communicate to the other person your understanding of his or her feelings. Even if your understanding is not quite accurate, your effort will be appreciated.
Avoid pitfalls. Much can go wrong when two people argue, even when they are both seeking positive solutions. There are many pitfalls to avoid: threats, commands, interruption, sarcasm, put-downs, counterattacks, insults, teasing, yelling, generalizations ("You never… ; "You always…"), not responding (silence, sulking, ignoring), speaking for the other person, kitchen-sinking (dredging up old complaints and throwing them into the discussion), and building straw men (distorting what the other person said and then responding to it as if the other, not you, actually said it).
Such rules for good problem-solving communication are easy to present but hard to follow in the heat of the battle. Nevertheless, if you wish the battle to have a non-violent, conflict-resolving outcome for both yourself and the other person, they are rules worth following.
Goldstein, A. P. (2000). Catch it Low to Prevent it High. countering Low-level verbal Abuse. Reaching Today's Youth. Vol. 4. No. 2. pp. 14-15
Goldstein, A. P. & Keller, H. (1987). Aggressive behaviour: Assessment and intervention. New York: Pergamon.
Goldstein, A. P. & Rosenbaum, R. L. (1982). Aggress-less. Englewood Cliffs, N: Prentice Hall