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.