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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

JAN 2004, SEC. II

Main Essay:

Using a workshop exercise involving harsh performance criticism as a starting point, the Stress Doc examines common reactions to a hostile attack.  Then techniques and strategies are outlined and illustrated for transforming a defensive reaction into affirming and effective response.

Disarming a Critical Aggressor:  Part I
Awareness, Assertion and Affirmation Techniques and Strategies

"Wow, did you fumble the data.  Didn't you prepare?"  And the blunt critic reeks of tonal attitude and know-it-all arrogance.  It's part of the punchline for a mind game exercise used in my "Managing Anger" and "Dealing with Difficult People" workshops.  The exercise dramatically illustrates how not to give criticism.  It also provides insight into an individual's gut reaction when taking a hostile psychic hit.  (In addition, large group discussion allows for a comparison of the various "mind play" reactions and responses among the participants.  More on this shortly.)

Setting the Scene

Let's go beyond generalities; here's a step-by-step sketch of my "Fumbled the Data" exercise:
1. Participants pair off,
2. Each person in the dyad imagines himself or herself having just given an important presentation at a division meeting,
3. Each person will be asking his partner, a colleague from another department (not a close friend, more a professional acquaintance) for feedback on this presentation: "How did it go?"
4. I now ask participants to look directly at each other, to "lock and load" eyeballs,
5. I go over again the rules of the game:  each person has given a presentation and each is looking at a colleague about to give him or her feedback (through my voice); therefore each person both gives and gets feedback in this dyadic mind game,
6. With anticipatory tension hovering and building in the room, I aggressively and condescendingly blurt out, "Wow, did you fumble the data.  Didn't you prepare?"
7. Then I immediately ask the participants, "What are you feeling or thinking right now?  Let your feedback partner know your gut reaction and then say what you'd like to say to this critical colleague."

Post-"Mind Game" Reaction Analysis

Needless to say, the room initially erupts, if only to break the tension.  But clearly, the noise and energy levels indicate more is involved.  So let's examine participants' reactions and then abstract key principles, strategies and techniques for constructively handling harshly critical if not hostile feedback.

Reactions to this provocative encounter usually fall into four categories:

1.  Aggressive-Defensive.
  As one participant spontaneously announced to her partner-antagonist:  "Oh just bite it!"  Another common rejoinder is "Screw you!" or, "If you're so smart, why didn't you do it?"  In each case the individual feels attacked (and often surprised as well), has been hurt and deals with this perceived insult or injury by lashing back -- "an eyeball for an eyeball" if you will.

2.  Diminished-Defensive.
  Another common reaction is to feel exposed; the presenter didn't do as well as he or she thought or had hoped to do.  Feelings of failure, even some sense of shame, can get stirred, especially for sensitive individuals or for those with low thresholds for the release of self-critical inner voices.  This state of self-consciousness often has the person focusing on his own deficiencies rather than the intentions, actions and immaturities of this "bad news bearer."

3.  Measured Response.
  Based on my workshop experience, only a minority of participants can honestly and effectively process their emotions - the pain, the self-consciousness, the anger, the surprise if not shock at such insensitivity, etc. - before constructively speaking up or speaking out rather than lashing out or backing down.  In our follow-up, sometimes I hear, "Can you be more specific as to what went wrong?"  Now this reply may well reflect a high level of professionalism.  But with many analytical responders I have my suspicions.  Has the recipient of this provocative feedback mostly suppressed or denied any pain, anger or shame?  I'll concede this conscious or unconscious "logical" strategy might work with an isolated aggressive confrontation.  However, this "never get angry, always try to work things out" approach may well have codependent and self-defeating potential - including an erosion of self-worth and/or learned helplessness - when confronted by a series of provocatively hostile encounters.

Of course, some professionals have survived the customer service wars and understand that a customer's crude anger and irate displacement often has little to do with the immediate object of their attack, i.e., the service representative.  These pros have built up a shield that seems to deflect a barrage without becoming callous or combative.  And with their professional poise, the emotional has been quickly transformed into the analytical or empathic:  "What seems to be the problem?" or "How can I be of help?"  My contention is that these experienced individuals are able to process quickly and to focus the charged emotions ignited by an attack into a response that is both empathic and assertive.  And when this poised response occurs even in the face of an unexpected hostile encounter, then I tip my hat to such a skillfully evolved and mature communicator.

4.  Anxious Laughter.
  A percentage of people are not able to get into the interaction.  For them the mind game is "unrealistic" or "silly."  And while the exercise may be seen as artificial, difficulty with engagement may involve more than an inability to play an "unreal" role.  I believe the key resistance factor is the discomfort handling - expressing and receiving - the raw aggression at the heart of the exercise.  Which compels the asking of a question, no less critical for being obvious.

Dynamics of Degenerate, Disloyal or Dangerous Anger

Why are so many folks uncomfortable releasing and being on the receiving end of another person's anger?  Consider these two broad differential factors:

a) coming from a highly controlling family where a show of anger was seen as irrational, disrespectful, uncivilized or a confirmation of emotional weakness, for example, you allowed others to get to you (and your anger is labeled as "mad, bad or sad," i.e., pathetic); the parent viewed him- or herself as being self-sacrificing; children who could not appreciate all that was done for him or her (at the parent's expense, of course) were branded disloyal and ridden with guilt; to survive in this system children often had to swallow their anger and hide (and stifle if not often lose their real self) in the anxious family shadows and

b) coming from an out of control family that typically deals with stress, frustration and pain through yelling, hostile name calling or physical threats and actual violence.  Some individuals emerge from this environment ashamed of their anger viewing themselves as irrational or defective; they may fear almost any expression of intense or highly charged emotions.  Others worry that if they release even a little anger there will be an irresistible swelling of combustible emotion; they will become dangerously explosive.

Finally, it's important to note that cultural differences often come into play:  some cultures extol obedience and stoicism; emotional non-expressiveness is a sign of superiority, expected subservience and being in control.  Other cultures seem to "let it all hang out."  In my job retraining workshops, in contrast to most of the other Asian females participants, I recall how Chinese women were more comfortable expressing themselves in public, including venting their anger.  Ironically, these women said China's otherwise terribly destructive "Cultural Revolution" influenced this process of gender liberation.  Mao apparently encouraged more equality between the sexes.  (Perhaps not unlike revered Coach Lombardi's notion of equality.  As one Green Bay Packer noted, "He treated us all like dogs!")  Conversely, women from Moslem and some South American countries noted the role status and expressive privileges denied them but granted to men.  Of course, a number of American women, especially those with Southern roots, could also empathize with these latter sisters.

So let's connect this digression on anger with our "Boy did you fumble the data" mind game.  Obviously, in the face of harsh confrontation recognizing, validating and managing your own charged emotions and then expressing yourself constructively and convincingly are critical.  Channeling both anxiety and aggression often proves key in disarming an interpersonal attack.  Clearly, if throughout childhood you are strongly discouraged from exercising your assertive and expressive rights and are also prevented from flexing and testing your emotional muscles and voices, you will likely have difficulty knowing who you are and knowing how to stand up for yourself.

The Critical Engagement

Here are key communication and conflict management Skills and Strategies for Disarming a Dysfunctionally Critical Combatant:

1.  Distinguish Reaction and Response.

a. A reaction to an interpersonal attack occurs when you feel hurt or vulnerable and you don't take any time or meditation to process your emotions and pain.  You simply lash out with a counterattack, justified of course.  Or you may be stunned or wither or wriggle away under such a startling barrage.  This pattern reflects a "fight or flight" survival instinct; your mind-body engages in rapid threat vs. no threat data processing.

b. In contrast, a response involves a slower, more comprehensive and discriminating processing of interactive stimuli, that is, there is some assessment of the aversive context, of one's own level of physiological arousal and of one's memories or cognitive associations stirred.  Being responsive is also contingent on the belief in having action-oriented, problem-solving options and resources.  A response includes some recognition of your emotional needs along with some preliminary understanding or sorting of the same.  And the most mature responders work at becoming aware of the interactional context as well as being conscious of, if not sensitive to, the other's strengths and vulnerabilities.  Still, in some conflict situations, not simply empathy but "strategic empathy" is the emotionally intelligent response.

To summarize, as a responder you are not just operating from "threat or no threat."  You are taking some responsibility for your emotional reaction by tempering reflex action with some cognition of self, other and communicational context.  This processing enables you to channel verbal and nonverbal communication into a response that is both constructive and reflects your integrity.

In light of our exercise, consider these different mind game replies:

  "You're an a-hole!"  Or, after being attacked, at times your counter takes the form of a thinly disguised question, e.g., "What the hell is wrong with you!" or "Why are you acting like such a jerk?"  While there may be some attempt not to be totally reflexive, these are mostly "knee jerk" reactions.

  "Hey, I don't like feeling that I'm being attacked.  Can you lower the tone (or the volume)?"  Or this contrasting approach: "Let's try this again, and this time be more specific and professional!"  Or if you are in fine form, perhaps this quip:  "Let's see if you can convince me that 'constructive criticism' is not an oxymoron."

A Case Example and a Key Differential

Of course, some folks have difficulty with this distinction.  After a workshop at a family resort, a participant (who was a trial judge) mentioned having to deal daily with aggressive attorneys.  He shared having liked how I defused a potential power struggle with a "Type A" antagonist.  (Is there truth to the rumor that the "A" in Type A stands for attorney?)  The workshop story:  A number of years back, a woman who owned her own word processing business had processed some of my documents. An error in formatting had occurred and, in a decidedly critical manner, she accused me of not knowing how to give instructions.  Likely there was a mutual misunderstanding.  In the face of this hostile fire, I was able to center myself and firmly reply:  "I'm not so sure," (thereby allowing both sides some face-saving).  However, I also raised my right hand slightly, palm open, and thereby gave an obvious message:  "Enough of this all knowing hostility."

Clearly, I had taken some responsibility for our misunderstanding but would not accept total blame, nor would I accept being attacked.  This tactical communication allowed and encouraged my antagonist to lower her blaming stance.  She also acknowledged some responsibility, albeit with a lingering attitude:  "Well if there's a problem in communication it takes two."  My immediate reply:  "This I can live with."  I wasn't trying to win, to prove I was right and she was wrong.  Also, another conscious goal was to maintain a working relationship.  Still, there is a bottom-line moral:  Attitude I can live with, hostile attack or abuse is not acceptable.  (Hey, if I had to stop talking to all the egos in DC with attitude, I might as well join a monastery.)

Alas, for some folks and certain encounters, foregoing a reaction and going with a response is a real trial!  Getting back to our judicial authority, while being impressed with my reply in the heat of battle, the judge decided it needed some modification.  His envisioned courtroom counter:  "I'm not so sure…you a-hole!"   (We'll soon clarify blaming "you" messages [reaction] vs. affirming "I" messages [response].)

Another important differential between  "reaction" and "response" is that the latter reveals a communicator who is not afraid or ashamed to acknowledge experiencing some pain or vulnerability.  A responder doesn't have to cover a psychic insult or injury with aggressive or passive-aggressive wounded pride.  (A classic example of a passive-aggressive and ego-protective mannerism is the provocative reaction of "whatever," with rolling eyes or arched eyebrows.") 

And finally, responding also involves the capacity for discrimination and connection in the areas of self-awareness and responsibility.  (Look for an illustrative encounter in Section 4.)

2.  Distinguish Evoke and Provoke.
  When you are hit by a toxic message, not surprisingly, you often feel pain.  In this upset state, both your logical and psychological processing may falter.  One sign of vulnerability and excess subjectivity is the following reaction, whether overt or just a gnawing rumination:  "You made me upset" or "You hurt me."  And now you are in a victim mode, often giving Mr. or Ms. Aggressor too much power and too much responsibility.

In addition, you are missing an important distinction between "evoke" and "provoke."  When confronted by a verbal attack painful feelings may well be stirred or evoked.  However, unless the aggressor has hit you on the head with a bat (ouch!) this antagonist alone hasn't made you feel terrible or humiliated.  If verbal criticism has you that upset, then other factors are likely influencing the degree of experienced pain.  (While names may hurt, they can't break your psychic bones unless they are already fairly brittle.)

A powerful factor, of course, is past emotional, verbal and/or physical abuse.  Certainly, as a child others could readily make you upset -- "mad, scared or bad":  a rejecting or abandoning parent or significant relative, an intimidating teacher or a taunting peer group.  And many folks have unresolved trauma from the prolonged tension with a hostile partner in the context of a dysfunctional relationship.  With lurking emotions in the shadows, when faced with a harsh encounter, many adults will regress to state of child-like reactivity.  Some will feel victimized, while others will justify an impulsive and aggressive counterattack with the self-righteous belief or declaration that they have been provoked.

Parallel Distinctions and Connections

Let's further clarify the notion of being attacked and feeling hurt in this "evoke-provoke" arena.  In contrast to blaming another's harsh criticism for making you feel terrible (a definite reaction), with awareness and self-integrity you can respond with, "I'm upset right now" or "I'm angry" or "I feel liked I'm being dumped on.  I don't like it and won't accept it!"  Notice how it's hard to come off sounding (or, perhaps, even feeling) like a victim when you counter with a self-affirming (even when self-revealing) message.

Are you sensing the parallel connections among our "r & r" components?

a) reaction - provoke - "You" message
b) response - evoke - "I" message

When you react impulsively, an external force or factor has pushed you or made you strike out.  A lack of cognitive-emotive muscle is rarely seen as the problem.  Not surprisingly, a blaming "you" message is rarely far behind, such as "You made me" or "It's your fault."  Conversely, when you sort out feelings and/or sources of stress or pain and you take responsibility for the nature of your response (with a self-affirming "I" message) an aggressor often appears less threatening or intimidating.  He or she is being taken off the symbolic "authority" pedestal.

Of course you can also internalize pain and implode in neurotic fashion.  Consider my lyrics from "The Self-Righteous Rap":

Now are you a martyr in self-imposed prison?
Denying your needs becomes heaven's vision.
When you've been hurt you just quietly pray
But wish you could scream go ahead make my day.  (Pow.  Pow!)

Onward with our examination of the domain of differential messaging and developing a skillset for feeling more powerful in the face of conflict and for seeming less like a pawn or like a furious man or woman scorned.

3.  Replace Blaming "You" Messages with Affirming "I"s.
  As you've seen, blaming "You" messages turn over the cause of and responsibility for psychic pain to the aggressor.  This exaggerates your perception of an attacker's power and his or her "victor" status, while often evoking a sense of "victim" humiliation.   Or if the attack is ongoing and not effectively countered, eventually helplessness and/or a sense of incompetence may set in.

Of course, there are times when a so-called righteous victim, feeling "dissed," lashes out with hostile sarcasm, an entitled rant or with explosive rage.  These displays of fireworks are not simply righteous retribution; they often are attempts to disguise narcissistic injury or to, ironically, provide diversionary cover for feelings of being out of control.  Conversely, a common reaction to attack is a wounded retreat accompanied by feelings or defeat, exposure and/or inadequacy.

However, an honest and strategic use of affirming "I" messages can short-circuit this psychological and interpersonal downward - erosive or explosive - spiral.  One option is to firmly and clearly state your thoughts and feelings, to declare what you are experiencing without directly assigning blame:

a) "I feel attacked and I'm starting to get angry"
b) "I don't like being addressed in this manner"

Asserting your psychic and/or physical boundary is also vital:

c) "I won't accept feedback given in a hostile manner"

Or there are those four powerful words that often have relevance for a multitude of sins, especially when delivered with unflinching conviction:

d) "That is not okay!  (Of course, resisting the "you" message tagline, "you bozo!")

A Stress Doc Encounter

Which brings me to an interpersonal conflict vignette that posits a genuine and risky "I" message counter strategy:  can one be self-affirming and assertive by honestly admitting pain, that is, by acknowledging that the other has some power?  For many, wounded pride and a "damned if I'll let you win" (which means I'm a loser) shame-driven, rigidly competitive mindset would make such a response unthinkable.  However, let's see how I paradoxically used openness ultimately to set limits and to affirm my boundary.  Here's the condensed version.

During a workshop, a female accounting supervisor at a social service agency had been singled out for some criticism by a male casework supervisor.  (Sufficient discussion and closure had not been achieved.)  At the follow-up meeting I attempted to reengage the parties to see if there were any hurt feelings or unresolved issues.  The male supervisor acknowledged his prior, overly blaming stance.  The female supervisor seemed to brush off curtly my attempt at further processing.  She mostly wanted to express her frustration at the perceived lack of cooperation from other supervisors.

After awhile, we took a break.  The accounting supervisor was at the water fountain.  I approached aware that some folks don't like to bring up sensitive issues in a group setting.  I tactfully asked if she had any thoughts or feelings from the aforementioned encounter (and subsequent brief discussion) that she might want to share.  She gave me a glaring look and then practically spit out:  "Boy, you sure know how to talk things to death!"

Without warning, I had taken a blaming "You" message punch in the psychic gut, if not below the belt.  After recoiling and catching my breath, I managed to say:  "In addition to wanting to check in with you, I'm aware of your concerns about cooperation with peers.  And how important communication can be…"

Before I could finish she tried cutting me off with a provocative, passive aggressive parting shot:  "Whatever."

The Critical Moment

Hey, you can hit me once, and I may still try for some rational engagement; but you hit me twice and I'm ready to fight.  No longer shocked by her hostile style, I could feel my aggressive juices starting to flow, if not to boil.  I mean, in this situation what would you really like to say?  For me the "b'-word comes to mind:  "You witch!"  (I was always better at rhyming than spelling.)

Somehow my higher power descended and I forcefully declared:  "That hurts.  I feel like I've been stabbed in the back."

This woman, who was pretty introvertish (an accountant remember), and not very assertive (or empathic), didn't connect her dart-throwing tendencies when feeling threatened with her difficulties with peers.  Ironically, she saw herself as more passive and put upon, if not a "victim."  She was in denial about her seemingly quiet yet intimidating presence.

While I confronted her with the real possibility that her cutting messages left people on edge, before completing the confrontation, I managed somehow to give her a stroke:  "I don't think you realize how powerful you can be as a communicator."  This was a wise move.  By both confronting her "back stabbing" while providing some salve with this "positive" ego stroke, I allowed her to save some face.  I finally got her attention.  She was ready to hear my strong hunch that there was a real connection between her communication style and her colleagues' lack of cooperation.  And in fact, she was a much more involved and constructive participant for the remainder of the session.

Final message and moral
:  In a forceful or dramatic fashion ("I feel like I've been stabbed in the back") you can admit the pain of an attack ("That hurts") without projecting a so-called weakness, whether in the antagonist's mind or in your own.  You have not compromised your self; you have not diminished an ability to confront and potentially resolve conflict.  In fact, as you've just seen, "I" message acknowledgement lays the groundwork for a more specific and strategic response that provides both affirming protection and the disarming of an aggressor's style and tactics.

Closing Summary

This first of a two-part series has examined the impact of a "mind game" involving the delivery of a harshly critical and judgmental message.  Various defensive reactions and a mature response were noted.  Using quotes and case vignettes, three vital and oppositional concepts were related:  "reaction vs. response," "evoke vs. provoke" and "I vs. you messages."  And finally, skills and strategies were illustrated for transforming reactive, righteous and responsibility-shifting messages with aware, affirming and assertive responses.

Part II will continue with this list of concepts, skills and strategic responses.  The final four:
a) Learn to Metacommunicate
b) Does the Critic Have an Agenda?
c) Take a Time Out and
d) Verbal and Nonverbal Mix of Communication Strategies

Clearly, these are concepts and approaches for setting effective limits, acknowledging one's integrity and affirming one's boundaries.  These are also tools and techniques to help you...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a keynote and international/Celebrity Cruise Lines motivational speaker, training consultant, psychotherapist, syndicated writer, and author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression.  Mark, recently interviewed by BBC Radio, has a multi-award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as workplace resource in a National Public Radio feature.  As AOL's "Online Psychohumorist," ™ Mark runs his weekly Shrink Rap and Group Chat.  Finally, Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource.  Email for his monthly newsletter recently showcased on List-a-Day.com.For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2004

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