Handling verbally abusive people

On Facebook, I was recently asked the question how to deal with verbally abusive people. To me, there are a number of strategies which can help you.

Problems do not wait for you to be ready for them. They happen when they happen. The same is true of people. Most people do not check in with you to see when you are ready to be attacked by them, those who will abuse you verbally or criticise you in a horrible way will do so when they feel like it.

It is because of this, that you need to be able to stay in control of your feelings and make the smartest choice when responding to them. The answer starts with where you place your focus. The most important thing you can do when handling a difficult person being difficult is to ask yourself ‘What do I want with respect to this person?’.

Often times, we go into a narrative inside our head that is an emotional reaction to what is happening to us by them. We feel affected by them and want to ‘get them back’ or ‘give into them’. Instead by placing your focus on what you want, you get to turn the tide and change how you are feeling and therefore responding.

Once you focus on what you want, next you need to ask yourself ‘What do I need to do to change things with them?’ This means that you need to figure out how to calm the other person down, for example, or stand up for yourself or walk away. Basically, you are making the decision based upon what you need to do instead of basing it on your feelings. I often find it is especially useful to give yourself permission to process the event emotionally at a later point after you have successfully dealt with the other person.

It is essential that you ask these two questions whenever the shit hits the fan because they will keep your mind on track and ensure that you are doing the most useful behaviours at the time when you need to be acting smart. The alternative to this is allowing your actions to be determined by feelings which are, themselves, determined by other people or outside forces.

When it comes to handling people who are verbally abusive, once you are thinking straight, you have a number of options:

  1. Your first option is to use humour to diffuse the situation. Being able to laugh at yourself is an effective way to take the energy away from the other person.
  2. You can agree with the other person and calm them down. By agreeing you take their energy away from them.
  3. You can walk away.
  4. You can stand up for yourself and explain to them that they cannot speak to you like this.
  5. You can contact someone who has the ability to stop their behaviour.
  6. You can try and understand where they are coming from but call them out on how they are expressing their words.

These are just some options that you can use when people verbally abuse you. The reality is that when you are deciding which one is the best to use, it depends on the context and the goal you want to achieve. The two things that are rarely the best idea are being defensive or offensive back.

Handling verbally abusive people requires the ability to stay practical and make good decisions. By asking the right kind of questions to start with and then following through with one of your options, you are very likely to deal with the situation in such a way that you will be proud of later on.


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