Deciding how to respond when you’re verbally attacked can make the difference between a constructive discussion and a conflict with unsuspected repercussions. Of course, offensive comments, hurtful words, and malicious criticism are never welcome, but if you simply react by being driven by your impulses, instead of acting smartly, aggressiveness is likely to escalate and burn down the bridges of understanding.
What to do? What to say? Is it better to be silent or to respond? Psychologists agree: when you are verbally attacked you need to defend yourself. Words can hurt and cause great discomfort, so you should not allow others to insult, humiliate, yell or trample you. However, defending yourself does not mean sinking into the mud of anger. There are answers that are much more intelligent, assertive and, above all, that protect your mental balance.
How to respond when you are attacked without losing control?
They say that one day Cato the Younger, a Stoic philosopher and Roman politician, was defending a case when his adversary Lentulus spat in his face. Undeterred, Cato said, “I would swear to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth.”
This historical quote shows the enormous difference between a person who allows himself to be carried away by the anger of others and an intelligent person who maintains control of the situation, resolving the conflict in his or her favor with serenity and even a dose of humor. To respond like Cato, you need to follow these three steps:
1. Control the first impulse by breathing and counting to ten before responding
When you feel attacked, your first impulse is to defend yourself and fight back. It is normal. However, it is usually not the most sensible and intelligent solution. Therefore, if you want to respond when you are attacked instead of just reacting, you need to learn to manage those first emotions.
When you are verbally attacked, your brain perceives those words as a threat, so it sets off all the alarms. The first few seconds are key to preventing an emotional hijacking and losing control, so that you end up saying or doing things that you later regret.
Breathing deeply is an effective strategy to calm your emotions. Breathing is like a “handbrake” that slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure, signaling to our brain that everything is under control. Therefore, before responding when you are attacked, it is essential that you compose yourself by breathing and counting to 10.
2. Create a protective shield by marking a psychological distance
Emotions are contagious, especially in stressful situations. We unconsciously capture the emotions of those around us because they serve as alarm signals that something is wrong. In fact, different studies have shown that we are capable of perceiving the smell of anxiety and stress from other people, which influences our behavior without realizing it.
Therefore, in a racy discussion, it is easy for us to get angry or frustrated from our interlocutor. Assuming a psychological distance will allow us to create a protective shield so as not to fall into the networks of other people’s emotions. It will help us to think that it is not a personal attack or to be aware that the person who has attacked us has a hostility problem.
3. Take back control of the situation
If when you are verbally attacked you respond with equanimity, you will be in control of the situation. Use a firm tone of voice but don’t get too excited. Be careful not to fall for insults and disqualifications because that way you are giving control to the other person. Remember that whoever loses their mind also loses control.
Instead, use short, concise sentences. In moments of anger, short and direct sentences to the point are more effective and easier to understand, as well as avoiding misinterpretations. Interspersing a compliment or positive words can also help calm things down.
In many cases it is useful to try to understand why that person is attacking you, so you can investigate their motives. You can ask: What is the problem specifically? What has bothered you? o Why do you think that? You may find that it is all due to a misunderstanding or that you can clarify the situation without raising your tone.
In any case, if you realize that your interlocutor is too excited to be able to maintain a minimally constructive dialogue, it is usually best to interrupt the conversation and tell him or her that until he or she calms down, you are not going to continue listening. If the person does not give in, it is better that you ignore him or her and walk away, to resume the conversation another time.
Haegler, K. et. Al. (2010) No fear no risk! Human risk behavior is affected by chemosensory anxiety signals. Neuropsychologia; 48(13): 3901-3908.
Prehn-Kristensen, A., et. Al. (2009) Induction of Empathy by the Smell of Anxiety. PLoS ONE; 4 (6).