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
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
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
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
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
Here are some other follow-up comments after your initial critique:
-- "Let's clarify your opinion. What are your specific observations and
-- "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
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
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
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
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)
6) acknowledge, if not have empathy for, your antagonist's position, predicament
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
-- "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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 email@example.com or call
(c) Mark Gorkin 2004
Shrink Rap Productions