Sunday, June 14, 2009
How to Counter a Verbal Attack Disguised as a Compliment
The previous two posts have described some tactics for dealing with verbal attacks (based on the writings of Suzette Elgin), some blatant, some not so apparent. Most verbal attacks contain a statement designed to sucker you into a lengthy defense of yourself or your actions (the bait), but they also contain a “presupposition”, which is an indirect challenge. You should never respond to the bait. Instead, address the presupposition. In the last post, I gave an example of a verbal attack that appeared to be a complement.
Mary’s supervisor is describing her work to her colleagues and to his superiors:
“Well, Mary’s work is APPARENTLY highly regarded by our clients; I’m not sure why exactly, but I guess it’s true.”
I asked in the previous post: What is the bait? What is the presupposition? What would you say in response, if you were Mary?
The attack is evident by the emphasis on the word "APPARENTLY" and in the off-hand remark, "I'm not sure why exactly, but I guess it's true." The bait can be restated as, “the clients mistakenly think that Mary’s work is good, but it is not”.
You might be tempted to respond (in a very insulted tone of voice), “My work is excellent and is always completed on time and in full!! That’s what impresses the clients.”
If you respond this way, you will look defensive and people will wonder why you are so upset. Your supervisor will likely smirk and say that he only meant to compliment you on your work and doesn’t understand why you are “so sensitive” or are “over-reacting” to an innocuous comment. He may go on to apologize to everyone for your outburst. You, in the meantime, will be looking for a hole to crawl into. He may later confide to his superiors that despite your apparent good work, your emotional instability makes you a bad risk to put in charge of projects or to deal directly with clients. This scenario is not what you want, no matter how tempting it is to defend your abilities.
What should you do instead? Identify the presupposition and respond only to that. The presupposition is that your supervisor does not have any evidence that your work is highly regarded by clients. Your response should be:
“When did you begin thinking that my work is not highly regarded by clients?” Say this in a neutral, non-confrontational tone.
This response 1) does not lead you into an undignified defense of your abilities or accomplishments, 2) puts your attacker on the defensive (where he belongs), and 3) tells your attacker that you recognize the attack for what it is and are not going to play his game.
Your surprising response will very likely discombobulate your attacker (especially if he is accustomed to getting a defensive reaction). He will likely sputter a bit, but eventually will have to admit that your work is indeed excellent and the clients are very right to acknowledge you. There's not much else he can say.
For more examples, see the previous two posts.