Abuse Hides in the Dark. Turn on Your Light.

Verbal Self-Defense: What You Must Know

man speaking to a woman using the art of verbal self-defense

Stop or Slow the Escalation of Abusive Anger

Verbal abuse underlies most domestic violence, so verbal self-defense can help you when your abuser flies off the handle. Hostile language is dangerous to our health not only because of its destructive nature but because it so often abusive anger escalates into physical violence. Learning the art of verbal self-defense is learning how to create a system (in any environment) where you can diffuse hostile language as well as give yourself an opportunity to get to a safer environment.

This is not to say that this is a panacea for violent, unsafe situations! But it is an opportunity to develop a skill for self-protection during a verbal attack. The more tools we can put into our “life-skill” toolbox the stronger we become! When you are in a verbal conflict that cannot truly be avoided, these strategies may help you handle the situation efficiently, effectively, and safely. Unlike physical violence (that hurts the body) verbal attacks hurt our psyche and spirit; we must learn to avoid them (Safety Planning for Domestic Violence and Abuse Victims).

Three Steps to Successful Verbal Self-Defense

1. Understand the truth of what is really going on.

When we are verbally attacked it is common to respond in a defensive, scared, and intimidated way, especially if we do not understand what is going on. The key to understanding what’s happening at the moment is to stay detached and rational. In a split second it is possible to decide “is this about me or something else?” That’s the detachment piece. The rational piece kicks in when we realize this is “not about me” but rather the attacker’s personal issues.

Chronic verbal abusers behave the way they do for a couple of reasons:

Verbal abusers expect negative, loud responses to their attacks. They are not ready to deal with someone who can use verbal self-defense adeptly.

2. Listen instead of leaping to conclusions for a good verbal self-defense reaction.

In learning to listen and understand what another person is saying, you must find the truth in what the person said or insinuated. Listen with your full attention, with the understanding that you may not agree but in an attempt to find out if there is any truth to the statements. This is not easy to do because when most of us receive a verbal attack, we immediately react negatively and shut down. We believe there is no truth to what our attacker said and try to discredit the information without hearing all the information (leaping to conclusions).

Once we are in that place, all our active listening STOPS! What usually follows is an argument or a fight…or both!

3. Know how to respond.

We typically respond to a verbal attack in one of these three ways:

  • Attack back (How dare you say that to me!),
  • Plead (I can’t believe you’re going to start that again when you know I am getting ready for work) and
  • Debating (There are at least 3 reasons why what you are saying doesn’t make sense).

The problem with these three responses is that they all reward the verbal attacker by providing them with an immediate response and your attention. Throw emotional intensity into the mix and you have a recipe for a full-blown argument. This response only encourages the attacker to repeat this behavior.

Your response needs to show your attacker that you are not their victim. Running away and ignoring the attack won’t work. Try using a monotone almost computer tone of evenness, avoiding anything personal, and speaking in a hypothetical manner. Your body language and tone must stay as calm and neutral as possible. This technique is successful because it doesn’t give the attacker fuel to keep going.

For every verbal attack, there are as many ways to respond. Different responses have varied consequences. Emily Sullivan wrote an article for HealthyPlace.com called How To Respond To Verbal Abuse. In it, she has this to say:

7 Ways to Respond to Verbal Abuse

  1. Ignore it. Ignoring verbal abuse may seem impossible, but it can be an effective way to disarm the abuser. Verbal abusers thrive on the reactions of their victims, so if you remain indifferent, it can take the wind out of their sails.
  2. Don’t get emotional. Verbal abusers often try to provoke emotional responses from their victims, so try not to give them the satisfaction. Instead of falling apart, try to focus on how the abuser’s behavior reflects poorly on them.
  3. Set boundaries. It can be challenging to set boundaries with a verbal abuser, but it is important to teach people how to treat you. Use firm but respectful language to let the abuser know what behavior is unacceptable.
  4. Give it time. When emotions are running high, it can be difficult to have a productive conversation. Take a break to cool down before trying to address the issue.
  5. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Responding to verbal abuse with more verbal abuse will only escalate the situation. Try to remain calm and rational in your responses.
  6. Anticipate and avoid. If you can predict when an abusive situation is likely to occur, try to avoid it if possible. This may mean staying away from the abuser or finding ways to de-escalate the situation.
  7. Stand up for yourself. It is important to assert yourself and let the abuser know that their behavior is not acceptable. Use confident and assertive language to let them know that you will not tolerate verbal abuse.

These are just a few strategies for responding to verbal abuse. Remember that it is not your fault and that you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. If the abuse persists, seek help from a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional.

Verbal Self-Defense Saves Lives

What’s important to remember, is that chronic exposure to verbal abuse threatens your life and the lives around you. The verbal self-defense technique is no guarantee for anyone’s safety or a guaranteed way out of a volatile verbal attack, but it is a great alternative to attacking back, pleading, and debating – all of which could result in physical violence.

The more we empower ourselves with tools to strengthen our body, mind, and spirit, the closer we come to reaching peace in our lives.


Featured photo by Eric Ward