In today’s world, relationships can come under pressure at any time. Whether you’re with your boss, spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, coworker or neighbor, disagreements can arise at any moment. This is especially true in times of stress.
Disagreements can easily become heated. These can cause real problems – arguments, altercations, verbal retaliation, and the silent treatment, any of which can damage your relationship. Physical abuse is a different matter that we are not discussing here. How you handle things when everyday problems arise can make a big difference in the outcome. Emotionally intelligent strategies can cool down a heated exchange before it becomes a serious problem. Here is a plan that works.
A little psychology can go a long way
When under attack, our natural response is to retaliate or retreat. Neither will get us the result we want. But understanding and applying a key fact can dramatically improve the situation.
Eminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson, PhD states something everyone needs to know:
During the past half-century social psychologists have discovered that one of the most powerful determinants of human behavior stems from our need to preserve a stable, positive self-image. We humans strive to maintain a relatively favorable view of ourselves.
This demonstrates why we must avoid embarrassing others – they need to view themselves positively to maintain self-esteem. Retaliation only brings further attacks, since one must defend their self-image. But running away from a bully is not a good idea either. It marks us as an easy target for future aggression.
Stopping a verbal attack
The key, then, to stopping verbal aggression is to use the other person’s need to maintain a positive self-image to make them stop attacking you. In Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) –Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts, Dr. Aronson and Dr. Carol Tavris state:
When you do anything that harms someone else – get them in trouble, verbally abuse them or punch them out – a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did.
So, one who says or does something nasty has to justify it in order to continue to feel good about themselves. Damaging behavior that is hard to justify often makes the offender feel what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. And according to Dr. Aronson and his coauthors, “Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.”
That’s another reason why retaliating usually doesn’t work. If you respond with a cutting remark or point out your adversary’s flaws, they will ignore their own unkind words and focus completely on what you said. Your reply will give them the justification they need. You will have let your attacker off the emotional hook. They may, in fact, come to feel that you deserved the attack and will be more inclined to target you again.
Disarming your critic
You can disarm your opponent and avoid all this by making it difficult or impossible for them to excuse their actions. How can you prevent a critic from justifying a verbal assault? Wise King Solomon revealed a very useful strategy 3,000 years ago:
If the one hating you is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For coals are what you are raking together upon his head…
Solomon here refers to ancient smelting methods. Metalworkers would place ore on the hot coals, hoping to melt the iron within. That procedure often worked. But if the iron was deep within the ore, more was needed. They would rake hot coals on top of the ore. The tremendous heat from above and below would usually melt the unyielding metal.
Similarly, responding to cutting remarks with kindness turns up the heat, making it very hard for your adversary to justify their unkind words. They will often feel mental discomfort. Their conscience may begin to bother them. They only way to get relief is to stop attacking you, soften their stance, or even apologize. Like an ancient metalworker, you will melt down their opposition. The reaction is usually automatic.
In addition, you will display real emotional strength. Bosses, coworkers, customers, lovers, friends and even bullies have to admire strength. Your insightful reaction and emotional intelligence will often fortify the relationship and gain you some well-deserved credit.
What further actions can create favorable conditions for a strong long-term relationship? The next article in this series will outline a proven strategy.
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