Human Communication – 2

This is not something I wrote, but something I found. It definitely seemed worth sharing. I have pasted an excerpt from the original, so that if you like it you’ll go and read the original. I am familiar with this author and found her work interesting. In fact, I am reading another book of hers as I type this. I hope you find this part of the article interesting enough to go and read the original. The site I found it at is:

How Verbal Self-Defense Works


In every aspect of our lives we have to deliver or respond to negative messages at times–whether it’s giving an employee a poor appraisal or disciplining a child or defending our political or religious beliefs from attack. But these simple disagreements often degenerate unnecessarily into belligerent exchanges and pointless arguments. Some say that human beings are born to argue and that language is simply another weapon of survival. Suzette Haden Elgin heartily disagrees and in this new book shows how to disarm hostile language and radically improve communication with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. Readers will learn a variety of proven techniques for conveying negative messages in a clear and assertive manner, but without antagonistic and destructive language.

Lots of people think verbal self-defense means fighting back. Their image of verbal self-defense is a collection of killer smart cracks plus strategies for using language to wipe the floor with their opponents. It’s not an accurate image.

In this edition of How Stuff Works, I’d like to show you a different way to relate to other people, especially when you disagree. Let’s talk about it a minute.

Why Verbal Self-Defense?

It has undoubtedly happened to you. There you are, in the middle of a fierce argument with someone, and suddenly you realize that you not only don’t particularly care about the subject of the argument but you can’t understand how you got into the altercation in the first place!

This isn’t trivial. Hostile language is dangerous to your health and well-being; it’s toxic stuff. People who are frequently exposed to hostile language get sick more often, are injured more often, take longer to recover from illness and injury, and suffer more complications during recovery. As an obvious result, they tend to die sooner than those not so exposed.  What’s more, hostile language is just as dangerous to the person dishing it out (and to innocent bystanders who can’t leave the scene) as it is to the person on the receiving end.

Obviously it’s to your advantage to stay out of arguments in both your personal and your professional life, unless something truly important — something about which you care profoundly — is at stake. Even then, most of us are aware that it’s possible to have intense discussions that don’t turn into altercations. How is it, then, that intelligent people keep finding themselves involved in arguments almost by accident?

The answer is pretty simple, and it’s a relic of the days when humankind dealt with sabertooth tigers at close range on a regular basis. One of the parts of your brain (the amygdala) is on constant duty, and one of its primary tasks is to scan for danger. When it spots an incoming perception that meets its criteria for danger, it has the ability to send a message that provokes an immediate fight-or-flight reaction, and it can do that without first going through the reasoning part of your brain. It can literally short-circuit your thinking process. In the sabertooth tiger days this was a good thing. You saw something vaguely big and furry, and you either left the scene fast or threw your club. You acted first, and then you thought about it, which increased your odds of survival a good deal. This part of your brain can still be a good thing on those very rare occasions when you do face imminent life-threatening sudden peril from tornadoes or terrorists or mad gun-toters. The problem is that it’s just as likely to kick in when the only threat you face is some klutz who wants to argue about whether his computer is more powerful than your computer. If the amygdala thinks the klutz is a threat, it bypasses your reasoning brain — and shortly you’re thinking, “I don’t even CARE whether my computer has more memory than this turkey’s computer! How  the heck did I get INTO this?? And how the heck do I get OUT of it so I can get on with my day??” This can happen to anybody now and then; we all just lose it sometimes. But if it happens often, it’s a grave threat to your well-being. It’s a lot more dangerous to you than most of the risk factors you spend time and money trying to guard against. You need to know how to put an end to this nonsense.

The Basics of Verbal Self-Defense

Verbal self-defense has three basic parts:

  • understanding what’s really going on
  • listening instead of leaping to conclusions
  • knowing how to respond.

Understanding what’s really going on

First and foremost, you need to educate your amygdala. When somebody comes at you with hostile language, your amygdala typically says, “DANGER! RED ALERT!”, and off you go. You need to be able to change the criteria your amygdala has for defining a threat.

Suppose a two-year-old runs at you screaming “YOU BIG MEANY! I don’t LIKE you!” and starts pounding on your knees with tiny fists. Your amygdala doesn’t pay the slightest attention. You know the toddler is no threat to you, you understand what causes such episodes, and you have better sense than to get involved in a fight with the poor little kid. The key here is that you understand what’s going on, and that lets you stay detached and rational.

With verbal attackers, the problem is that we usually don’t understand what’s going on. The dominant idea about such people in our culture is that their goal in attacking you verbally is to hurt you, to cause you pain, to do you harm — and that does of course fit your amygdala’s specifications for danger. However, the idea is all wrong. It’s a myth, just as “Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you” is a myth.

Anybody can verbally attack once in a while. You’re over-tired, you’ve had a horrible day, you’re coming down with a bad cold, somebody says a few innocuous words at you, and you lose it — you go after them as if they’d approached you swinging an axe. But chronic verbal attackers — the ones that keep everybody around them in turmoil all the time, the ones that people will flee into a restroom to avoid when they see them coming down the hall — are different. Sure, they could be sadistic psychotics out to savage you, but that’s not likely (and if they are, there’ll be other clues, such as the fact that they are swinging an axe). Almost always, chronic verbal abusers behave the way they do for one of two reasons:

  1. A small percentage are simply klutzes. They’re ignorant. They know no other way to communicate with other human beings. All they need is education.
  2. As for the rest, they’re desperate for attention and they know that throwing hostile language at you will get your attention.

In both cases, once you understand what’s really going on, your reaction to such people will no longer be, “Danger! Red alert!” Your reaction will be compassion. As in “Poor thing. Desperate to communicate, and that’s the best he/she can do.” Or “Poor thing. Desperate for attention, and that’s the best he/she can do.” You still may not like the attacker and you’ll still find the attacker’s behavior unacceptable, but you won’t have any interest in arguing.

Listening instead of leaping to conclusions

Psychologist George Miller long ago said something so important that I call it Miller’s Law; he said, “In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to find out what it could be true of.” That is, when somebody says, “Hey! My toaster talks to me!”, your proper response is a neutral “Oh? What does your toaster say?” Followed by careful listening, with your full attention. You’re not accepting as true the statement that the person’s toaster talks to him or her; you’re assuming temporarily that it is true, and then you’re listening carefully to find out what the statement could be true of.

That’s not how most of us operate. Most of us use a rule that I call Miller’s Law In Reverse. We hear somebody say something that we react to negatively; we immediately assume that the utterance is false; and we stop listening because we’re busy telling ourselves what’s wrong with the person that explains why they’d say something so unacceptable to us. We leap to conclusions. We tell ourselves things like these:

  • “He’s only saying that because…. he’s uneducated/crazy/drunk/old/sadistic/showing off.”
  • “She’s only saying that because…. she’s an airhead/vicious/on drugs/totally confused/out to get me.”
  • “They’re only saying that because… I’m short/people like them have no manners/I can’t afford a decent suit/they don’t like me.”

The minute we do that, all listening stops. You can’t listen to what someone else is saying and listen to your own self-talk at the same time; it’s not neurophysiologically possible. And what happens next? A great deal of the time, a fight happens. Like this:

X: “Hey! My toaster talks to me!” YOU: “Look, I don’t have time for that kind of garbage! I’ve got work to do!” X: “And I suppose MY work isn’t as important as yours?” YOU: “I didn’t say that.” X: “Oh, yes you did!” YOU: “I did NOT! I just said…”

And so on, downhill from there.

People tell me they don’t have time to listen, they’re too busy. I can assure you, based on three decades of teaching verbal self-defense, that they spend far more time straightening out the messes that result from not listening. Give the speaker your full attention for as long as it takes to understand what’s really being said and why. Even if the speaker is a child. Perhaps especially if the speaker is a child. I once heard a mother answer a child’s “Mom, I wish I was dead” with “Were dead, dear, not was dead.” This is how we end up reading in newspapers that a child has done some terrrible thing “without warning.” This is what’s behind going home one night and finding that your spouse has left you “without warning.” There’s always a warning, but somebody has to be listening to it; otherwise, the person will give up and stop trying.

Knowing how to respond

Our culture teaches three standard ways to respond to a verbal attack:

  1. Attacking back – “How DARE you say that to me!”
  2. Pleading – “I can’t BELIEVE you’re going to start that again when you KNOW how much work I have to do today!”
  3. Debating – “There are three reasons why what you say is ridiculous. First…”

All three are strategic errors, because all three reward the attacker by providing your immediate full attention, often with an emotional reaction thrown in that increases the intensity of that attention. All you do when you use those three traditional responses is encourage the attacker to do it again. After all, it worked.

What you need is a response that doesn’t do this. You need a response that lets the attacker know you won’t serve as willing victim. Fleeing the scene won’t do it; fleeing makes it obvious to attackers that they “got to you”; they’ll be eager to try again. Silently ignoring attackers won’t serve either; in our culture, silence is punishment, and is just another kind of counterattack. Like fleeing, it says, “You got to me. You can push my buttons.”

The verbal self-defense system that I teach includes an array of techniques too large to fit in this brief article. But I can give you two examples here (and you can find more information in my books or at my verbal self-defense Web site, Your goal is to respond to hostile language in a way that doesn’t set you up as a victim, doesn’t reward the attacker, doesn’t require you to sacrifice your principles or dignity, and causes no loss of face on either side. For instance….

Again, the site I found it at is:


Human Communications – 1

“You are a pessimist. I don’t like pessimists.”

Whoa! Here I am, having a down day. Working to turn my day around, and cheer myself up, and you hit me with this. I feel I have just been judged, convicted, and condemned by you. You have placed me under a label, one that you tell me you dislike. I am expected to respond now . . . how?

I could ask you what gave you that idea, but I hesitate. Already, you are in a negative frame of mind. Your frame of mind, and my being uncertain about what just happened, could too easily become an argument best avoided.

I could just walk away, I’ve done it before, but I have to work with you. By saying the words to me you just did, you have mentally attached a label to me that will from this time forward affect how you will treat me, how you will react towards me. If I just walk away now that would be like allowing your assumptions, admitting you are right, and saying I am allowing you to treat me in a negative manner.

I could allow myself to get upset, start an argument with you by choice, say something along the lines of, “I am not! where do you get off, thinking you can just pass judgement on another person and labelling people like that?” But it would create tensions, stresses, angst, and waste energy that both of us could put to much, much better use.

So, I choose my response. I look you straight in the eye, cock my head to one side, bat my eyes and smile as I say in a silly-little-girl voice, “Aw, gee, you say the SWEETEST things!” Then I turn away as nonchalantly as possible, and walk blithely away, with hopes that my response had diffused the situation.

I wonder why it was so important, at that precise moment in time, for you to say precisely what you did, the way you did. Perhaps it was nothing to do with me, but was instead your own demons rearing their ugly little heads, in which case I truly hope you can overcome those personal deamons and learn to not take out your life on other people that don’t deserve it.

On the other hand, perhaps while I was dealing with the slush my less-sunny-than-usual-moment had created, while I was working to remember butterflies and sunshine and optimism again on a raincloud kind of day, something in how I had expressed myself had come across in a way that shed a light more negatively than I would want my words to. If such was the case, it’s a pity that your response had not been instead with something along the lines of, “Wow! when you said (insert my words here) it came across in a way that seemed rather pessimistic, and I’d wondered if that had been your intent?” We could have discussed what had been said, what might have been said, and both of us could have learned more efective means by which we could communicate.

If you had said something like, “When I heard you say (insert my words here), it came across as rather pessimistic, and I wondered if you had realized that was how it sounded?” and create a fantastic learning moment for us both, as we would discover more intricacies of verbal communications.

Sadly, instead, you choose words that appear to be labelling me, and let me know that now that you have labelled me thus, you dislike me in the same manner that you dislike any other member of the group you have mentally placed me in.

Humans are considered to be above animals in part because of our ability to communicate intricately on multiple levels. You could have risen to the moment and we could together have explored our humanity, glorified in our intelligence. Instead, you chose derogatory comments intended to belittle another person.