How to disarm your adversary

October 18, 2018

When we perceive that we’re being verbally attacked, the natural reaction for most people is to respond in kind. However, there is a different way to proceed that often proves to be more successful.

Recall the last time you got into a scuffle with somebody. Perhaps it occurred in the hallways of your medical facility. Maybe it was with a difficult patient or at home with your spouse or significant other. 

When we perceive that we’re being verbally attacked, the natural reaction for most people is to respond in kind. And we can generate all kinds of justifications as to why we should respond with equal, if not superior, vigor. However, there is a different way to proceed that often proves to be more successful.

  • Pause when someone is angry with you rather than responding quickly. By pausing, you’re able to make observations that you might otherwise miss if you simply jump into the fray. 
  • Let the other party’s anger dissipate by letting them have their say, without your rebuttal. If you do not escalate a testy situation, you might find that a considerable amount of the anger other people might direct towards you disappears as a result of you gently handling the situation. Many people will apologize to you later for losing their tempers or overstepping their boundaries. 
  • Save your response for later. It’s important to recognize that if you respond in anger you are not likely to offer your most appropriate response, given the situation. Hans Selye, MD, PhD, a pioneer in human psychology, once observed that when you’re under considerable stress, such as being verbally attacked, you will make the wrong decision.

If you’ve ever watched, Crimson Tide (1995) starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, you might recall a compelling scene. There is an ultra-tense moment on a submarine where the commanding officer, Gene Hackman, and his second-in-command, Denzel Washington, have diametrically opposed views on whether or not to launch a nuclear missile strike on Russia, as a result of a partially transmitted message that they received. Hackman strikes Washington on the jaw twice in succession. 

What makes this scene especially compelling is that Washington’s character is considerably younger, stronger, and more physically fit. It would be a piece of cake for him to take out Hackman with one punch. He certainly would be justified, but he does not raise a finger. Instead, he touches his jaw with his right hand, as if he’s surveying the damage and perhaps relieving some of the pain. Then carefully looks at his attacker with almost curious detachment. 

Washington is surveying the situation. He is pausing, reflecting, and assessing the encounters – which has tremendous ramifications for all of humankind. Only three minutes are left for the decision to launch a missile or not. Both men are awaiting critical information, that they hope will arrive momentarily.

Washington’s ability to survey the situation rather than strike back is the bellwether of a future top commander. As the movie ends, Hackman has chosen to retire, and has vigorously suggested to the Navy headquarters that Washington be immediately promoted to top rank.

For us, in our everyday trials and tribulations, if we are predisposed to justifiably “strike back” at provocation, we can certainly rationalize that our actions were appropriate. However, if we can reflect on the situation before we act, it’s likely that we’ll do far better in the long run.