It won't work with everyone, but then there's always Plan B.
Verbal abuse is a way of attacking or negatively defining another person using words—or silence—as a weapon. It can take a variety of forms ranging from loud rants to passive-aggressive remarks. Common forms of verbal abuse include withholding information or purposely failing to share thoughts and feelings; countering the victim's memories, thoughts and feelings; blaming the victim for things that are outside his or her control; calling the victim names or using hurtful and defining labels such as liar, child, and opportunist.
Berit Brogaard, D.M.Sci., Ph.D., is a Professor and the Director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami. Her educational background includes a medical degree in neuroscience and a doctorate in philosophy. Her areas of research include perception, synesthesia, blindsight, consciousness, neuro-psychiatry and emotions. Brit has written over 100 peer-reviewed articles, some three hundred popular articles on neuroscience and health issues and three books: Transient Truths (Oxford), On Romantic Love (2015) and The Superhuman Mind (2015). She is currently finishing a third book with Oxford entitled Seeing and Saying.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Verbal abuse often occurs within the boundaries of romantic relationships, friendships, and parent-child relationships. But it can also occur between colleagues, distant family members, and acquaintances. Even strangers can engage in verbally abusive behavior.
Verbal abuse is a subcategory of emotional or psychological abuse. Examples of non-verbal emotional abuse include non-verbal devaluations such as staring at a person; eye rolling and door slamming; gossiping about the victim; talking about the victim behind his or her back; and using power to one's own benefit.
Verbal and emotional abuse is never justified.
If a person feels slighted or unfairly treated, he or she should not resort to verbal abuse—or other forms of abuse—but calmly explain how the other person's behavior made him or her feel, and then attempt to resolve the conflict and future reiterations using effective communication skills. Non-verbal emotional abuse can be harder to spot and harder to stop than verbal abuse, especially because the former tends to be more hidden and subtle, and is often not executed in the open or even in the presence of the victim. Stopping non-verbal emotional abuse requires skills different from those used to put an end to explicit verbal abuse.
The most instinctive way to respond to a verbal abuser is to attempt to reason with him or her. When a person negatively defines you as a liar or child, your natural reaction is to attempt to convince the abuser why their labels are mistaken. In doing so, you're expecting the abuser to be a normal adversary, someone who will listen to reasons and arguments. But the fact is that you cannot reason with a verbal abuser.
The only effective way to put an end to verbal abuse is to call out the abuser each time they strike. If someone blames you for something you have no control over, you need to ignore the actual content of what's been said, identify the type of abuse employed, name it, and calmly ask the abuser to stop it (Evans, 2009).
Let's say that your friend blames you for leaving too late and ending up in unexpected traffic. Instead of attempting to convince your friend that you could not have anticipated the unexpected traffic, it's more effective to firmly state, "Stop blaming me for something I have no control over."
Or let's say that someone is using a label such as "child" or "liar" to define you. Trying to convince them that you are not a child or a liar is not going to have any effect. Firmly stating, "Stop using negative labels to define me," or simply, "Stop the name-calling," is more powerful.
There will inevitably be situations in which calling out the abuser will be unsuccessful. If this calm approach does not work, the only meaningful response to verbal abuse is to physically remove yourself from the situation. For example, if someone is yelling at you and your calm statements have no effect, the only reasonable reaction to the abuse is to leave the room or the premises.
By refusing to engage with the verbal abuser and refraining from trying to reason and argue with them, you are showing the abuser that he or she is not acting rationally, and that you are not going to put up with the behavior. Some abusers will learn to change their behavior through repeated exposure to this approach; others will not. If you are repeatedly exposed to verbal abuse from a partner, friend, colleague, or family member, it may be necessary to temporarily or permanently end the relationship.
Ending a relationship with a verbal abuser is not easy to do, especially if you are financially dependent on the abuser, if you have children with the individual, or if the abuser is a colleague, family member, or friend who is part of your larger social network. In such situations, the only way to avoid the abuse—or at least minimize its damaging effects—is to limit contact with the abuser, reduce encounters with him or her, or only interact with the individual in public, or when surrounded by non-abusive people.