How to respond to verbal attacks

You are not responsible for what another person says. That’s just something they are doing. So you are not responsible for correcting the truth or accuracy of what they say, or convincing them of their error. In fact, if their statements have nothing to do with what to do or not to do, or how to solve a problem, there is no need to be concerned at all about the truth of their remarks.

Ask yourself -- does that person believe what they say, or was that just a harassing remark? If I respond to their statement, is there any chance they would say, “I see your point. I was wrong about that.” If you believe the answer is “No,” then there is no reason to waste your breath trying to correct a false statement, especially if it was an accusation, and especially if you think the accuser does not really believe it.

If you have been verbally attacked, is that person playing your prosecutor, judge and jury? If that is the case, is there any chance that any one of those roles would rule in your favor? If no, then why defend yourself? Why assume that your words would make any difference? Are they really your prosecutor, judge, or jury?

And why assume that their words make any difference in whatever is the reality? Don't be lured into butting heads, especially if that has been the pattern in the past. If your response has been to be devastated, now that you see through the game, there is no reason to be destroyed by their words.

If the person is playing a head game, then they expect you to defend yourself, to correct the record (as if their abusive words are actually the record) or to counter attack. You need not do any of those things.

If the person's accusation is correct, or partly correct, then rather than justify a problematic past action, try to turn that to a change in the future. If there would still be a good reason for that past action, try to work out a way that reason would no longer require that it be repeated.

If your past behavior was simply wrongful, then apologize and ask what would they expect in the future. Do not automatically expect them to accept your apology, or to expect you to keep a promise if a past act was egregious or repeated. Otherwise, refer to "Fighting Fair" under "More," above. Criticism becomes abusive when it is simply used as a weapon and has no purpose of improving the future.

There is no need to take nonsense remarks personally. She or he is just making sounds. Their meaning need not be taken seriously, though that person's motivation for saying them should. Do you want their game to be successful? ("Successful" means that you feel bad.)

So, if you are not going to argue about every point, what do you do instead? For one thing, if this is about behavior, such as “You always...” or “You never...” or “Yesterday you did...” then try to turn the discussion from “You are a bad person” to behavior, and how to solve a problem.

Ignore the “You are a bad person” aspect, and just move to what to do about it. Forget about correcting the truth of the statement, such as whether you really never do this or that. (See "Fighting Fair" on the "More" menu.)

If the discussion can not be turned to behavior and problem solving and the future, then try to ignore the insults as if they are just background noise. (Do this only if the other person would not resort to violence)

Rather than responding defensively to every claim that is made, substitute answers like, “I see.” or “I didn’t know you felt that way.” “I didn’t realize that.” “That’s interesting,” "I hear you," or, “Thank you for sharing that with me.” (Even if you don't mean that.)

If the person is still going on, then begin agreeing with everything he says (though of course you don't mean it.) "Well, that's because you're a lot smarter than me." "Yes, I'm rotten to the core." "I know, I'm the scum of the earth." "Well, inferior people do inferior things." Sometimes when you make clear what the person is implying, they will deny they meant that, and then they stop.

To avoid getting sucked in to the game, try to imagine the person as a radio sitting on a table and playing. It’s just sound coming out of it, and nothing more.

Remember, in a game of tennis, the game can’t continue unless you bat the ball back. If you don’t send it back, then the game is over.

See the book "Games People Play" by Eric Berne. Read the games "Courtroom" "Uproar," and "If it Weren't For You."

Sometimes when I'm talking to kids, I tell them about "pushing buttons." When you approach a Coke machine, it has buttons reading "Sprite, Orange, Pepsi, Mountain Dew" and so on. You pick a button and push it, and you get a Sprite if you chose that, and so on.

I tell the kids that the kid who is insulting you is just looking for your buttons to push. He calls you fat, and then looks to see if it worked. If not, he says something about your mama. If you blow up, you let him know he found a button. Then he knows he can use that next time. You become his Coke machine, and now he knows where your buttons are.

If you blow up, you're letting him control you. And think about it-- he doesn't even know your mama. He just made something up to see if he can agitate you. Don't help him to control you like that.