Sunday, June 14, 2009

More on Verbal Self-Defense

Imagine you are in a meeting among colleagues, post-docs, support staff, and clients. You are part of a group who has received a $1.2 million grant from BP (British Petroleum) to do environmental impact assessments at some of their drill sites. You have just given an overview of your research project (to assess the effects of oil exploration activities on wetlands in Kookamoonga, BP’s newest drill site). When you finish and look to the group for some positive feedback, a senior male scientist (known for being loud and opinionated) states that:

“The research proposed by Mary involves a large amount of fieldwork in a VERY remote location, and in my opinion is too difficult for a woman to lead or conduct. I think it would be best assigned to Bob (his protege') to head up; maybe Mary can be responsible for the sample processing and data analysis back here at BIU.”

What do you do?

If you read the previous post, you will have an idea of what not to do. Verbal attacks almost always contain a statement (the bait), which is designed to sucker you into a pointless argument and make you look ridiculous and weak. Under no circumstances should you fall for the bait and try to respond as in the following:

“What! I can do fieldwork just as well as a man.”

“What has being a woman have to do with anything?”

“I’m perfectly capable of leading this expedition to Kookamoonga! No way am I staying behind as a lab tech or a desk jockey.”

If you respond this way, you will walk right into the attacker’s trap. You will then get embroiled in an undignified verbal battle with this bigot—in front of everyone.

Verbal attacks such as this are designed to enrage you and put you into a defensive position. As Dr. Suzette Elgin explains in several of her books on verbal tactics, the verbal attack also contains a “presupposition”, an indirect attack (sometimes very innocuous). It is the presupposition that you should address in your response.

In this case, being female, your leadership ability, and your role in the larger project have been attacked. What is the presupposition here? It can be stated as, “Women are inferior and second-rate scientists (and poor leaders).” You should respond directly to this presupposition:

“The idea that women are somehow inferior scientists and poor leaders, especially in our field, is quite outdated---so I am astonished to hear it from you, Dr. Blowhard.”

Alternatively, you can say:

“The idea that women scientists are somehow inferior and poor leaders is quite outdated—I am sorry to hear that you feel that way.” If you can say this in a tone that conveys pity for the attacker’s apparent lack of modern thinking, all the better.

Then immediately begin reiterating the major points in your plan to carry out your project in Kookamoonga (important point: avoid making eye contact with Dr. Blowhard or any other member who may agree with him while you are restating your points). If you are interrupted by Dr. Blowhard, state again that, “you are sorry he feels that way” and continue with your description (again avoiding eye contact).

The above tactic can be applied to innumerable situations. Be aware that not all verbal attacks will be as blatant as in this example. Some will appear as off-hand remarks. For example, your supervisor is describing your work to your colleagues or 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.”

This is a verbal attack disguised as a compliment. If you are Mary, you may or may not be present to defend yourself. If you did hear this, how would you respond? What is the bait? What is the presupposition? What should you say in response?

The answers will be in the next post.

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