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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™


FEB 2004, Sec. II


The Stress Doc continues with techniques and strategies for disarming and even positively engaging a harsh critic.  Key areas include:  a) affirming metacommunication, b) exposing overt or covert agendas, c) strategic retreating and d) some artful verbal and nonverbal skills and strategies.  Dare to affirm your integrity!

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

Using a workshop exercise involving harsh performance criticism as a starting point, Part I examined common reactions (as opposed to affirming responses) to a hostile attack.  (Stress Doc Newsletter, JAN04, Sec. II.)  Techniques and strategies were outlined and illustrated for transforming a defensive reaction into affirming and effective response.  Using quotes and case vignettes, three vital and oppositional concepts were related:  "reaction vs. response," "evoke vs. provoke" and replacing blaming "You" messages with affirming "I"s.  And finally, skills and strategies were illustrated for transforming reactive, righteous and responsibility-shifting messages with aware, affirming and assertive responses.  Let's continue with the final four disarming methods:

4.  Learn to Metacommunicate.  A critical advantage of checking in emotionally and acknowledging your psychological state while affirming your boundary needs is that now you are in a position to constructively "metacommunicate."  In our ongoing mind game scenario with a provocative communicator, to metacommunicate means commenting upon, critiquing and/or confronting an antagonist's dysfunctional specifics and style.  An aggressor's words, tone, voice level, body language, facial expressions and any other nonverbal messages are the raw material and target for your purposeful rejoinder.  Constructive "I" message metacommunication not only can set limits on a hurtful exchange, but it also helps you focus on the primary issue.

First Things First

Here's a key conflict management point when confronted by harsh and hurtful criticism:

When a person is being decidedly hostile or abusive, if at all possible, do not respond initially to the content level of his or her harangue.  The first order of business is to identify and/or confront the decidedly dysfunctional nature of your aggressor's communicational style and strategy.

Of course, this will be challenging as an aggressor's strategy often is to heighten your self-consciousness, to stir feelings of doubt or guilt, to raise his or her self-esteem at your expense, to have you cede your identity or power so he or she can feel superior and/or more in control. And the challenge is magnified when interacting with a significant other.  (I suppose if you are a witness in a trial and are being grilled by a hostile attorney, you may not be able to metacommunicate.  Based on personal experience as an expert witness, the challenge is to hold your ground, to hold onto your truth using "I" messages, even when feeling threatened or manipulated.  You may not have the option of metacommunicating when confronted by a grandstanding or "Rambo" lawyer.  Obviously, this will take practice.)


In the heat of a hostile exchange, a clear and strong "I" message response reasserts a functional reality:  right now your behavior or alleged performance quality is not the pressing issue; the first order of business must be decidedly dampening if not snuffing out another's aggressive firestorm.  Remember, do not impulsively justify your attitude and actions.  With a hostile and judgmental manner, an aggressor has forfeited his or her right to direct and control the opening sequence of your exchange.  Ultimately, he or she will have to show a willingness to be a more appropriate communication "player."  (Now I can hear voices saying, "Doc you are living in a fantasy world.  If you stand up for yourself in most work settings you're butt is canned."  My reply:  Surprisingly, constructively standing up for yourself often generates respect.  However, if you are facing a frequent regimen of hostility or harassment from, for example, a supervisor and management, HR or the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) counselor won't or can't set limits on this aggressor, then you either get one of those Rambette lawyers or you need to wisely move on from this toxic scenario.)

I Metacommunicate Therefore I Am

With this key, "first things first" caveat in mind, here are some self-affirming "I" metacommunications that proceed from confrontation and limit setting to non-defensive clarification and constructive engagement.  So keep your "'I' on the Prize."

a. Quickly Set Limits.

**  "I don't appreciate your harsh and judgmental tone.  I'm open to feedback but not an attack."

b. Confront the Critical Communicator and Clarify the Communication.

**  "I don't hear well when someone's yelling (or attacking).  I can listen when the other person is talking."  (Using third person may also help your antagonist to hear and consider your counter message.)

c.  Provide Feedback and Discussion Standards.

After setting limits and confronting the inappropriate delivery, take some control of the dynamics psychological and then engage the logical realm.

**  "Let's hold off being so judgmental; maybe we can discuss this in a professional manner."  (Obviously implying its absence.) Or,

** "I find your comments not just harsh, but of little value (or insufficient or unacceptable) as feedback; they are much too general and global.  Instead of personality attacks, I respond better to examples and feedback that is descriptive."

Here are some other follow-up comments after your initial critique:

--  "Let's clarify your opinion.  What are your specific observations and recommendations?"

--  "What exactly didn't you like or agree with?"  Can you describe what had you uncomfortable?"  (Notice the use of "had you" instead of "made you" uncomfortable.  Again, this choice of language means not accepting blame for "provoking" your antagonist.)

Now you are starting to hit the offensive serving back into the aggressor's court.  Let's extend this tactic.

d.  Reverse the Feedback Process.  Consider these replies:

**  "You seem rather sure of your judgment.  How would you have handed the presentation?  What would you have done differently?"  (Don't be deferential but also be careful not to use a hostile tone or provocative body language

Of course, one is seriously tempted to spit back the venom:

** "If you're so smart Mr. Bluster, why don't you just do it next time instead of grandstanding."

Alas, this is a defensive-hostile retort.  While it momentarily feels good, if your goal is to be powerful and professional and if it's in your interest to preserve a working relationship, then an effective response needs to trump an impulsive "you" reaction.

5.  Does the Critic Have an Agenda?  The beauty of metacommunication is
that it removes you from the reflexive mode of self-justification.  As we've seen, your first responsibility (notice the existence of "response" in responsibility) is to protect your boundaries and integrity by refocusing the communication process.  The area for immediate engagement is an aggressor's dysfunctional communication.

Once taking yourself out of the hot seat, or removing yourself from your antagonist's line of fire, it's easier to more coolly reflect on other issues.  One worth considering, if not overtly exploring, is whether he or she has an agenda?  Is the individual neutral or objective regarding you and your presentation?  The reactive attitude and level of aggression suggest an answer of "No!"

Sometimes you can deflect this agenda-based intimidation with a bit of psychological judo:  "Do I detect some jealousy?"  This question is raised less to analyze the other's motivation at this heated moment, but more for slowing down an attack.  It also puts the proverbial monkey back where it belongs.

In general, my preference, at least in the heat of battle, is to:
1) confront and stop the aggressive spewing,
2) if necessary, acknowledge the effects of the inappropriate attack (for example, if you need to state your anger or hurt in order to get beyond initial "toxic shock"),
3) clarify the inappropriate or ineffective nature of your antagonist's criticism, while still conveying interest in professional feedback,
4) see if you can now elicit a productive exchange, at least about the communication style, if not the charged content,
5) acknowledge and/or express appreciation for valid concerns and/or appropriately communicated criticism (even if not totally logical or objective) and
6) acknowledge, if not have empathy for, your antagonist's position, predicament and pain.

While egos are hot, hold off speculating about or exploring overt or underlying motivation.  However, returning to agenda or motivation issues is always an option.  Which brings us to another tactical principle.

6.  Take a Time Out.  When dealing with an aggressor, there are a number of scenarios where and when calling time out or taking a tactical retreat is advised.  Let's examine three:

a. Facing an Incorrigible Antagonist.  When your attempt (or your reasonable number of attempts) both to set "response"-able limits on hurting and harassing behavior and to engage in constructive dialogue is met with such attacking if not abusive rejoinders as:

1) "Obviously you can't take a little criticism"
2) "You are just too sensitive"
3) "If you can't take the heat, better get out of the spotlight"
4) "I don't really care what you think" or "You're not paid to think"


then another strategy needs to be employed.  Consider these replies:

1) "Clearly, we are not able to discuss this in a professional manner."  Here you are taking the "we" high road and not overtly pointing a blaming "you" finger.  (Be vigilant, though, that your middle finger does not start twitching uncontrollably.)  "I don't want to be part of this negative game playing.  I think I (or we) need a time out."  Or,

2) I'm willing to set up a time for a more productive exchange tomorrow if it can occur without personality attacks, demeaning tones and a more specific discussion of the issues.  (Again, while not resorting to a blaming "you," your message makes clear whose communication style and substance is not "professional" or who is impeding a constructive dialogue.)

b. Knowing You Are Not at Your Best.  Sometimes you need to retreat or not be dragged into a confrontation as you are exhausted or overstressed.

** "I've had a full day.  I'm not ready to respond right now to this aggressive encounter." (However, providing some time frame for your response or for scheduling a meeting is
required.  And sometimes, you may want a third party in any meeting with this aggressor depending on the power/status differential and your vulnerability.)

Or you still may be in "toxic shock" from the insensitive if not cruel venom that has suddenly or unexpectedly spewed from your attacker's lips and body language.

-- "Frankly, I'm shocked (or quite surprised; "I'm really disappointed" is on the cutting edge) by the harsh (or unprofessional nature) of your feedback.  I need time to think about my response."

In any of these overextended situations, you are likely not in a position to defend yourself without becoming defensive or offensive.  Retreating doesn't necessarily equate with defeat or giving up.  It often involves replenishment and rejuvenation, and a readiness to return to the fray (without seriously frayed nerves).

c. Clarifying Understanding and Options.  A strategic time out allows you to reflect on the initial exchange -- to consider any grains or even granules of wheat from the coarse feedback chaff.   Stepping back also allows for resolving unfinished business.  For example, many folks kick themselves for not coming up with that perfect comeback that would undress an arrogant emperor in the heat of battle.  My advice:  don't beat yourself up.  It's not a big deal and, likely, not a lost opportunity.  You'll come back and nail this jerk tomorrow!  Just kidding…sort of.  With your highly motivated, battle-induced state, now well past any point of shock, you're cognitive processing can be uncommonly sharp and to the point.  Now you are better prepared to advance with determination your position and to reach constructive closure:  a) whether setting limits on or positively influencing your antagonist's attitude and actions or b) being able to "let go" and put this individual's maturity and motivation in proper (dysfunctional) perspective.  Patience and self-affirming responses are their own reward.

7.  Verbal and Nonverbal Mix of Communication Strategies.  This final section is a blend of the old and the new, verbal and nonverbal, and the spontaneous and preplanned

a.  Dramatic Verbal Technique and Imagery.  Do you recall how I confronted the hostile supervisor-accountant with:  "That hurts.  I feel like I've been stabbed in the back."  Other vital expressions for slowing down a pushy, judgmental and impatient Type A individual include "being steamrolled" or attacked by a "charging rhino."  (And you might want to remind your antagonist how blind rhinos are.)

Another technique involves drawing outrageous pictures of your antagonist.  This will readily provide visual metaphors that may be useful in confronting an aggressor (and draw out some righteous rage).  For example, in my speaking programs and workshops, I organize participants in small teams, asking them to identify sources of stress and conflict in their work environments.  And then they have to come up with a group picture that captures these stress factors (including "stress carriers").  Not surprisingly, I see many bosses depicted as devils. 

Yet, when this devil has oversized ears and a floppy tail, at least for a moment he or she no longer seems so fearsome.  (Not unlike seeing the initial, post-capture pictures of Saddam Hussein who looked more like a disoriented street person than an all-powerful tyrant.)

By delivering effective and vivid verbal and visual imagery with its purposeful exaggeration, you have a better chance of exposing the behavior, calling any bluff and getting the attention of an aggressive antagonist.

b.  Dramatic Nonverbal Technique and Verbal Follow-up.  A friend who works in the criminal justice system shared a disarming technique.  In the face of a verbal bombardment, he jumps back slightly as if he had been pushed.  During this movement he maintains eye contact with the aggressor.  Next he assumes a ready and open physical and communicational position; hands by his side, palms facing his antagonist.  This professional's unexpected response invariably proves startling and often slows down the aggressive charge.  Sudden and surprising movement becomes an effective psychological judo technique.  In response to this brief dramatic enactment, sometimes an individual may even realize his inappropriate level of aggression.

And my friend may often follow-up his physical posturing with calm and direct questioning:  "Is there a problem?" or "How may I help you."  For me, his recoiling movement minimizes the potentially toxic effects of the antagonist's initial barrage.  This professional is clearly not a passive recipient.  Having been pro-active it's easier to be genuinely receptive.  In realms verbal and nonverbal, he is both battle ready and willing to engage in peaceful negotiations.

Here's a final nonverbal technique:  by lowering your voice with an antagonist to just above a whisper this too may have a surprising and disarming, if not calming, effect.  The calm use of assertive words and a relaxed body posture has you coming across as confident and in control.  The person needs to refocus to hear your words.  Ironically, less may be more.

Closing Summary

Whew!  We have definitely covered a wide 4 "C"-ing expanse -- issues and skills involving criticism and conflict, communication and collaboration.  Imagine, almost all of these ideas and strategies generated or inspired by one workshop "mind game" -  "Wow, did you fumble the data!"  Also illustrated was participants' array of reactions or responses (much rarer) to harsh criticism.  Differential family and cultural factors related to control issues were found to influence an individual's degree of comfort and assertiveness or threat and defensive reactivity in an angry exchange. And finally seven key skills and strategies for preserving one's boundary
and integrity while constructively engaging a dysfunctional combatant have been explored and illustrated in depth.  Our "magnificent seven":
1. Distinguish Reaction and Response
2. Distinguish Evoke and Provoke
3. Replace Blaming "You" Messages with Affirming "I"s
4. Learn to Metacommunicate
5. Does the Critic Have an Agenda?
6. Take a Time Out
7. Verbal and Nonverbal Mix of Communication Strategies.

These conflict engagement concepts and techniques will help you disarm an aggressive antagonist without having to shoot reactively from the lip.  And by adding these positively powerful -- subtle and dramatic -- techniques and tips to your communicational tool kit you will also be…Practicing Safe Stress


Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, training consultant, psychotherapist, syndicated writer, and upcoming 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.  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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