I want to review a very useful book today. It’s called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work. To my great fortune, I was turned onto the works of author Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D about five years ago by a close friend. This is one of Elgin’s greatest works, and should be included among the greatest contributions to the healthy workplace movement.
Elgin, a linguist, goes into great detail about the ways in which language can be strategically employed to both undermine and enhance the mission and culture of the workplace. She begins by examining the power of language and the importance of “cleaning up” the “language environment” in our workplaces, and goes on to explore the concepts of semantic features (the unique impact on different individuals of specific word choices) and recognizing and responding to what she calls Verbal Attack Patterns (VATs).
The most powerful chapter in the book is titled “Malpractice of the Mouth.” In this chapter, we are introduced to the importance of recognizing “verbal violence” and the responsibility we have to recognize and neutralize verbal violence whenever it surfaces in the workplace, especially if we find ourselves the target. The overarching goal in verbal self defense is to navigate the hostile mode of workplace aggressors towards the mode of “Leveling”. In Elgin’s description, Levelers are people who are straightforward and sincere, even if this sometimes involves a critique of the performance or views of a colleague.
The mode of Leveling does not involve aggression -especially covert aggression- and is the preferred communication mode for those who wish to make the workplace more productive and harmonious. Covert aggression, on the other hand, is the preferred mode of those who wish to “get under the skin” and undermine the confidence of their colleagues. In situations involving covertly aggressive verbal attacks, Elgin offers a way out. First, she instructs the reader in how to recognize the tactic of hiding “buried presuppositions” in verbal attacks. A crass example of this can be seen in the following sentence:
“When did you stop starving your parakeets?”
Three “facts” are presupposed in the previous sentence. 1. You have parakeets. 2. You began starving those parakeets at one point in time; 3. You ended the practice of starving the parakeets at another point in time.
If in fact you own parakeets (but have never starved them in the first place), according to Elgin’s strategies for verbal self defense, you will need to respond to the most important presupposition (that you began starving your parakeets) in order to neutralize the attack. She offers several strategies for accomplishing this task in ways that preserve the dignity of both the “verbal attacker” and the target.
I will be presenting hypothetical scenarios in future posts, in which I will explore the various strategies for handling covert aggression in workplaces, social communities, and group projects.
I want to end the post with a final thought.
It only takes a one or two individuals to compromise the mission of an entire organization, and this compromise is almost always built upon the consistent use of covertly aggressive tactics. Most of us care about the work we do, and it would be wise for us to hold these individuals in check. Whether we name the tactics workplace bullying, covert aggression, manipulation, or verbal violence, we need to learn to recognize them and de-fang them if we hope to do great work in a mission-driven atmosphere.
This excellent book will go a long way in that endeavor.