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Verbal Aggression: What it is and How to Respond

This discusses verbal aggression, what it is and how to respond if it happens to you.

According to Professor Richard Weaver, from Bowling Green State University, verbal aggression is “message behaviour that attacks a person’s self-concept with the purpose of delivering psychological pain.” Verbal aggression leaves deep emotional scars that sometimes never heal for the person who’s been a victim of this kind of abuse.

Consistently tolerating verbal aggression can lead to depression, isolation and a myriad of other health problems. Often the person coping with these assaults feels embarrassed, humiliated, inadequate and always fearful of their attacker.

Verbal aggression can range from teasing and profanity that is directed at a specific person to focused attacks that include screaming or yelling, name calling and sarcastic or demeaning comments. The attack is always unexpected and can happen anywhere, at anytime. Typically, the incident that has triggered the verbal assault is minor in comparison to the intensity of the attacker’s aggression.

Verbal aggression can escalate and become physical. It’s extremely important to know how to deal with it so that you can keep yourself and others safe emotionally and physically.

If a stranger becomes verbally aggressive, move away.

If you’ve accidentally bumped them or stepped in front of them for example, apologize and immediately remove yourself from the situation. You don’t know this person and are therefore completely unable to gauge any of their responses.

Never engage with a verbally aggressive person.

Under no circumstances should you challenge or confront a person while they are aggressive. You never know when your confrontation will enrage them further and possibly encourage the escalation of the situation. It’s much better to completely ignore this person and remove yourself from the situation.

Study the verbally aggressive person.

Depending on how well you know the aggressor, this might be an easy task. Observe the person and try to learn what actually triggers their verbal aggression. In the future, you can either avoid what triggers their verbal abuse or at least be better prepared to deal with it.

Try to model non-aggressive communication.

If you have to consistently interact with a verbally aggressive person, try to model non-aggressive communication and behavior. Sometimes, modelling this style of communication, coupled with ignoring the verbal aggression teaches the attacker new, less violent verbal skills.

Talk to the person when they’re calm.

When confronting a verbally aggressive person, always talk to them when they’ve calmed down and are finished raging. Specifically and unemotionally, tell the person how they behave when they are being aggressive, the impact that it has on you and that you expect it to stop. You can further explain that you are no longer willing to tolerate being verbally abused.

If nothing works and you continue to be the focus of another person’s verbal aggression, you don’t have to tolerate it. If the verbally aggressive person is a colleague, a supervisor or other authority figure can be informed of the situation. If the aggressive person is a friend or acquaintance, end the friendship. If the individual is a partner, spouse or parent, you still don’t have to put up with being verbally abused. If the verbal aggression doesn’t stop or escalates, inform your doctor, teacher or a therapist. They are all there to support and help you put an end to verbal aggression.

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  1. A.J.

    On March 20, 2009 at 2:04 pm


    Help! This article is good, but would find it extremely helpful to have several specific non-threatening examples of what I, as a sister, can say when my brother becomes angry and makes verbal attacks. We are adults and see each other every few years when we get toghether at our beautiful summer retreat that we inherited. My brother has a short temper (only directed at me) and is also quite stubborn. When once asked why he was angry with me, he left the the house and slammed the door. My elderly mother wants me to accept and ignore this for the sake of peace. I am not confrontational, but I want to say something to let it be know how hurtful these words/situaations are to me. My stomach is in knots despite the fact that my travel plans are months away. Any advise?

  2. Tammy

    On March 21, 2009 at 2:15 pm


    A.J.

    I’m not a therapist, but what you’ve described sounds very hurting and detrimental emotionally. To be honest, if it’s that bad and always directed at you, I wouldn’t be around him. If that means cancelling your vacation, then do it to keep yourself safe.

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