How To Depersonalize a Personal Attack
Your reputation is incredibly important. And you can do a few things well to maintain it. Be great at what you do. Focus on service. Be approachable. Work (and play)well with others. Build your network of support, and develop your personal relationships.
Yet when someone attacks you personally, it may feel like your reputation is on the line. Inevitably, that feeling could make you want to defend yourself. But the problem is, too much defending and you actually may look guilty of the personal accusations. There’s got to be a better way of dealing with this, and there is.
Have you ever found yourself on the receiving end of a personal attack? It’ usually happens at the end of a string of events in which the person attacking you feels angry, misunderstood and underappreciated, and associates these feelings to you. You don’t have to respond at all. You could just walk away. But sometimes, deciding to stay can have greater benefits, to you, your reputation, and to the person who is up in arms and aiming at you.
Because rightly or wrongly, once they’ve made the association, they are going to act like it’s true, accusing and insulting you, and then look for proof of their accusation in your response. So the key to dealing with this kind of behavior is to disrupt the attack and neutralize the association.
First, though, you might consider:
1. Who is this person taking shots at you? All opinions are not created equal, and if the person berating you isn’t someone you serve, need or care about very much, or if they are already held in low esteem by the witnesses to their behavior, discretion is the better part of valor, and you might want to walk away.
2. Is there anything useful in the accusation? The only value of feedback in life is if it helps you improve. It may not be constructive, but if you can find a way to make it instructive, hanging in there may be the better choice.
3. Have others come to the same conclusion about you? If you’ve heard it before, even if you hate it and don’t find it true, learning more will help you do more to prevent it from happening again than any other choice you could make. On the other hand, if this is a novel set of accusations, learning more may be a low yield goal, and hardly worth the trouble. Still, depersonalizing it before walking away will be better than leaving it on the minds of witnesses.
4. How much do you care? You can’t please all the people all the time. Turning a personal attack into feedback is a valuable choice when the attack comes from someone with whom you may need to get along in the future, or someone you serve, or work for, or who works for you.
Assuming that responding is worth it to you, there are two elegant responses to personal attacks that have the desirable result of depersonalizing and defusing. You can use either of them, or both of them, to great effect.
The first is to use a question for disrupting the pattern. For the question to be effective, you have to be heard as acknowledging the essence of the insult, while using the question to take their thoughts in an unexpected direction. In this case, that direction is back to the beginning.
Let’s say the person’s facial muscles and diaphragm contract which drives their voice up, and their intense internal emotional state causes an adrenalized rapid speech pattern. And let’s say that the accusation is that … “You’re arrogant, irresponsible and impossible to deal with!” Here’s the question.
“When did you first begin to think of me as arrogant, irresponsible and impossible to deal with?”
It’s essential that you say this directly, with a tone of curiosity. If you’re too passive, or too aggressive, you’re likely to intensify the attack. Instead, underplay their aggression assertively, and ask this open ended question as if you really want to know the answer. Then wait. Repeat the question if necessary.
By asking for the origin of the idea they hold about you, you take them in an unexpected direction. Don’t be surprised to watch them slip into a state of confusion, as they try to figure out how to respond.
Of course, the response may be another attack. “Don’t you dare try to change the subject,” or “I don’t have to answer that!” followed by a repetition of the same string of insults/accusations. Notice that a person on the attack tends to verbally divide the world into us/them or me/you, and that their words reflect this, in the liberal use of “I” and “You”.
But you don’t have to respond in kind. Instead, go into a neutral stance with your response. Remove all the us/them language, depersonalize the personal remarks, and respond as follows:
“Many people understandably find it difficult to deal with people that they think are arrogant and irresponsibile.”
Rather than defending, explaining, justifying or excusing your own behavior, you can talk about the accusation from a dissociated place. The point here isn’t to have a reasoned discussion. When people are emotional, you can’t reason with them.
Instead, the point is to disrupt the attack long enough for the person to regain some self-control. Persist in this pattern, and the person is likely to be stopped in their tracks long enough to get their ability to think back!
Once you’ve depersonalized the comments, you can go deep and find out the source material that they used to create the association. “Tell me more, I’m listening,” is a great place to start.
I’d love to hear your comments and feedback, examples and experiences!
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.