Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Will Never Hurt Me

We’ve all found ourselves facing someone who is unjustifiably critical of us or our actions. For example, you are called into your advisor’s/boss’s office, and he proceeds to criticize your work habits. This comes as a complete shock to you because you work really, really hard, putting in many more hours than other people in the lab and generally do an excellent job. He finally says, “If you REALLY want to get your degree (keep your job, etc.), YOU would get to WORK on time.”

What is your response? Go ahead and take a few minutes to think of your answer….

I can almost guarantee that you went for the “bait”. You would launch into a defense of your occasional lateness or whatever it is you are being accused of. You huffily reply that you are sometimes late coming in because of traffic, sick children, etc., but that you also frequently work overtime during lengthy lab analyses or fieldwork. He comes back at you saying that your overtime does not compensate for chronic lateness. You continue to defend your actions, ad infinitum.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that what happened was a Verbal Attack (VA). How do you know this? According to Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin, a VA is characterized by two features. The first is the structure of the statement. It is composed of two parts: the bait, which is the obvious attack, and the “presupposition”, which is the less obvious attack. In the above example, the “bait” is the charge that you do not get to work on time. The “presupposition” is that you do not want to get your degree (keep your job, get a promotion, etc.). The other cardinal feature of a VA is the word emphasis. The emphasis on certain words (REALLY, YOU, WORK) alerts you to an abnormal intonation.

A VA often takes the form: If you REALLY wanted to__________, you would ____________.

If you REALLY want to keep your job, YOU would WORK harder.

If you REALLY cared about your office mates, YOU would not talk LOUDLY on the phone.

If you REALLY intend to finish your DEGREE on time, YOU would have completed your ANALYSES by now.

Without this anomalous word emphasis or without the bait-presupposition sentence structure, the statement may not be an attack, but an expression of concern. The person delivering this statement in a calm, non-judgmental manner may be trying to point out a problem s/he sees in your performance. If delivered with the anomalous intonation, it may be a VA. If your advisor/boss is typically a reasonable person who has always looked out for your interests, then such a VA might simply mean they are having a bad day or are under some undue pressure. On the other hand, if your supervisor is routinely critical of you without substantive justification, then such a statement is very likely a VA. There are also people who routinely use VAs to control and manipulate others, especially subordinates, and you may run into them occasionally.

Your gut will immediately tell you if you are under attack. And your first inclination will be to go for the bait.

So how do you deflect such an attack? The answer is, avoid going for the bait. Instead, you say something like, “When did you start thinking that I did not want to finish my degree (get a promotion, etc.)?” The phrasing is important. By starting with “when”, you presuppose only that the other person at some point started thinking that you don’t care (it’s neutral and reflects what they just said to you).

If you instead respond with “Why do you think…” or “What makes you think…”, then your question presupposes that your supervisor has a reason for thinking that what you just said is true and that you want them to tell you what that reason is. If you hand your attacker this invitation, you can be certain that they will take it and gleefully respond, “Waltzing in here late every day tells me YOU DON’T CARE about your DEGREE!!”

By instead asking, “When did you start thinking that I don’t care about…?”, short-circuits the entire attack. According to Dr. Elgin, it will likely result in one of two outcomes. Your attacker may be so discombobulated that you did not go for the bait, they give up the attack entirely. The other likely response is to give a specific example of your lateness, to which you will have a much better chance of responding (by explaining, for example, that you came in at 9 am on Tuesday because you stopped at the campus science supply store to pick up something that your advisor/boss ordered for the lab). In which case, you will have set yourself up for an immediate apology, sheepishly delivered by your attacker.

An even better response is to say, “Of course I care about my thesis (job, promotion, etc.).” and then quickly change the subject by asking your supervisor’s opinion about something or saying that you thought of a really great idea while driving to work. You do this quickly without pausing between sentences and without making eye contact with your attacker. If they persist in the attack, then go to your “When did you start thinking…” question.

What do these responses do? First, they tell your attacker that you are ignoring their “bait” (this is always a surprise, especially for people who routinely use this method of attack to control others). Second, you respond directly to the real attack instead of letting it pass unchallenged (also a big surprise). Third, you send them a clear message not to try that again with you; that you won’t play that game. Most importantly, they allow you to deal with the attack without wasting your time and energy in an endless argument that might escalate into a name-calling, nasty exchange.

If your supervisor is normally a decent human being and is just having a bad day, you want to defuse the situation as quickly as possible, allow him/her to save face, and preserve your good working relationship. If your attacker does this routinely to you and others, creating a toxic workplace, you can use this approach to derail their bad behavior while preserving your dignity.

To those bullies who use such verbal attacks to intimidate others: STOP it. We’re ON to you.


Anonymous said...

I don't like that this post ostensibly about deflecting unreasonable assumptions includes some unreasonable assumptions of its own. I don't think in real life these situations can be divided so neatly into just two categories: "if the concern is reasonable it will be expressed calmly and without VA markers" and "if it is not expressed calmly or contains VA markers it's not a reasonable concern." Those don't exhaust the possibilities. A supervisor can have what is a very reasonable concern about objectively problematic behavior, and yet express it in VA form. We shouldn't let ourselves off the hook from taking criticism seriously just because it may be expressed in a rather in appropriate way, but should be willing to be honest with ourselves and the possibility of a need for change in our behavior even if the other person clearly has problems of their own.

DrDoyenne said...

Thanks for your comment.

While I agree with you that we should take criticism seriously, I disagree that any supervisor is ever justified in expressing a criticism in the form of a verbal attack (VA). If a supervisor has a legitimate concern about an employee’s performance, it needs to be conveyed in a calm, respectful, and non-confrontational manner.

Moreover, I did not say that if a concern “contains VA markers it’s not a reasonable concern”. I said that if it is delivered with the anomalous intonation, it MAY be a VA. I went on to say that the person might simply be having a bad day (especially if their intonation was out of character from their normal behavior), in which case it might not be a VA but a valid criticism of performance. In other words, we need to take a number of factors into consideration to recognize a VA.

In any case, the suggested approach to handling a suspected VA was not proposed as an excuse for someone to avoid facing up to their responsibilities or limitations. It was proposed instead as a way to defuse, rather than escalate a potential confrontation, especially if the other person has an obvious problem expressing their criticism appropriately.

But my post was really about how to handle people who deliberately and routinely use verbal attacks to manipulate or intimidate others. Such people are not offering constructive criticism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your quick reply. You say you disagree with me, but I did not state what you disagree with (that a supervisor is justified in expressing a criticism in the form of a verbal attack). I simply said that it sometimes happens that a valid criticism is expressed in an inappropriate way. I did *not* say it was okay that that happens, just that it can and sometimes does happen. So in responding to such things when they happen to us I think we need to be aware of and take into consideration that the criticism may be valid, even if it is being expressed badly. In other words, separate out our evaluation of the delivery from our evaluation of the content. I don't think your article separates these two things sufficiently. It seems to assume that if the delivery is inappropriate then that is all that matters. The reason I say this is because one of your recommended responses - the one that seems to be your preferred one - is to simply brush off the critique and change the subject. The other suggested response ("when did I...") does a much better job of providing a way to simultaneously short circuit the attacking manner of expression and address the actual issue, but your examples of it are all examples where the content is baseless. Combined with your other recommended response it creates a cumulative impression on your reader that you believe that badly expressed criticisms are always baseless and to be shrugged off. I think your response to my comment does clarify things nicely (except for where you misconstrue my words to create disagreement that doesn't exist), thank you for that. But the article itself is far from clear and does read as an "excuse for someone to avoid facing up to their responsibilities or limitations" if the criticism is expressed in a way that contains VA markers.

Anonymous said...

My first response to your reply has not posted and it's been longer than it took the first one to post, so I am guessing it got marked as spam and am trying again with a shorter version:
Dr Doyenne, thank you for your quick response to my comment and for your further explanations. They do help to make clearer what you meant in the article. However, you have misconstrued my comment, creating a disagreement that does not exist. I did not state that "any supervisor is ever justified in expressing a criticism in the form of a verbal attack." I simply stated that it can _happen_ (and it sometimes does happen). Just because something can and does happen does not mean it's justified. But justified or not, we have to be able to identify such situations correctly and distinguish them from similar instances where both the content is baseless and the format is regrettable. If one encounters a regrettable VA formatted criticism that does have an objective basis in reality, it requires a different response than described in the article, which entails shrugging off the content and defusing the delivery. We can't (or shouldn't!) just shrug off content that's actually right on the mark, just because the delivery is problematic. Defusing the confrontational tone is of course still a laudable goal, but how to do that simultaneously with taking responsibility for one's own shortcomings would be a very good thing to address. Maybe in a followup article?

DrDoyenne said...

Anonymous, I did not see your comments until today as I was busy and not able to check my blog. I’m posting both of your comments.

Yes, you are correct that I did not fully explore in the original post other variations that one might encounter in real life. I focused on verbal attacks—not to ignore other situations— but because the strategy (bait vs. presupposition) I was illustrating was designed to address verbal attacks of the type I described. To illustrate how this particular strategy might work, I used several hypothetical examples. Also, verbal attacks designed to intimidate or manipulate are the most difficult to handle, which is another reason I spent more time on it. Other situations, such as a poorly worded criticism, don’t necessarily require a strategic response, which is why I did not elaborate on them. If a criticism is valid, then the best response is to quickly accept it and ignore that it was badly expressed.

I suppose one could argue that a valid criticism delivered in an inappropriate manner is in fact a type of verbal attack and should be handled the same way. The immediate goal would be to turn the conversation so that things are discussed rationally and without hyperbole. By asking questions in a non-confrontational manner (as for a verbal attack), this may help defuse the situation and at the same time elicit more specific information about the criticism (and whether it is valid or not). Does such an approach avoid admitting that the criticism is valid or is a means to ignore one’s shortcomings? No. The goal is to defuse a volatile situation and get at the truth.

Igor Jese said...

Great post, as is the book by Dr.Elgin. Couple of years ago I barely managed to found an old copy (I mostly listen to my books, and this one is, well, old) and it was well worth it. And so far, this has been the only meaningful book on the subject (at least that I could put my hands on).

While ignoring the bait is definitely the key, deflecting the presupposition is not (in my humble opinion) the single valid option you have. Sometimes you intentionally force the attacker into confrontation (about the presupposition, not about the bait), so this is also a legit strategy.

Similarly, at times you find yourself in a situation where damage control seems like a best option. I.E. ignoring both the bait AND the presupposition but nevertheless revealing the presupposition to everyone.

Still, I wish I understood all this decades sooner. It's amazing how often verbal attacks happen to everyone vs how little majority of the people understands what's happening. Not to mention knowing what to do about it.

Thanks for the great article! Keep up the good work.