Sunday, January 13, 2008

CONFLICT RESOLUTION 10 Arguments and Verbal Aggression

CONFLICT RESOLUTION 10 Arguments and Verbal Aggression

It may not come as much of a surprise to learn that some people enjoy arguments. They look forward to them and literally get health benefits from the experience. This is a fact. Others, however, do not like to argue. For these people, an argument is an unpleasant and unhealthy experience, one they often avoid if given an option. But, when arguments are unavoidable, these seemingly more passive types often resort to verbal aggression. That is, they verbally attack the other person’s character or fling about other ad hominem remarks. As researchers have determined, the argumentative trait and the verbally aggressive trait are two sides of the same coin, different aspects of the same psychological domain. So, if you had a one to ten scale, numbers one through five would be labeled argumentative (or assertive) and numbers five through ten would be labeled verbally aggressive. That is to say, the same scale measures both of these. When you’re holding your own in a coworker confrontation by defending your premises and illuminating the weaknesses of your coworker’s argument, you’re being assertive or argumentative (which lands you on the bottom end of the scale). When you’re not holding your own and resort to telling your coworker that they, in fact, are a feckless twit, a dolt, and just a pointy-headed intellectual who can’t park their bicycle straight, then you’re moving up the ten-point scale toward aggressive speech.

We all can move around this scale from time to time but usually one side dominates. If you find yourself toward the top end of the scale most of the time, that’s a sign of verbal aggressiveness. As a rule, verbal aggression serves no one. Some people say it’s good to vent anger and frustration in a verbally aggressive manner. But as it turns out, the mind is not a tea kettle. Most people don’t feel better about themselves after they’ve told someone off -they usually feel worse. Usually, the problem is not with the other person or with our principal positions for that matter. The problem is a lack of assertiveness skills. Assertiveness skills have been identified, broken down into chunks, and are relatively easy to learn.

When I was a doctoral student, I was asked to create just such a workshop for business students who lacked assertiveness skills. Most people prone to verbal aggression often feel like they are on the witness stand being interrogated and attacked by a harsh prosecutor. However, once the balance of power becomes more neutral, the anxiety and frustration associated with arguments decreases. After only an hour or two of practice, these students were feeling much more confident about their prospects when faced with an argumentative type. The good news is that many of these techniques are quite simple. They’re just some simple verbal jujitsu deflections.
We don’t need a test to determine who is argumentative and who can become verbally aggressive. This much you probably already know about yourself. So here is a simple technique you can use to help neutralize an arguer. Whenever they ask you a question, ask a question back (almost any question will do). And, DO NOT answer any more of their questions until they answer your question. Once they answer your question, then they can have their turn again. Just continue to nicely remind them that they have not addressed your question and before you continue you would like it addressed. Remember, an argumentative type will usually ignore your questions and continue to ask their own questions. They will use emotion, attitude, and bullying as a response to your simple requests for answers. Remember, you usually have no obligation to respond. After all, this is supposed to be a discussion-that is, it involves give and take. This simple “asking a question” technique alone is usually enough to back off even the most strident arguer. You don’t have to be rude, angry, or mean-just innocently curious. Try this in any setting and I’m sure you’ll notice a significant difference.

Ian Glickman, Ph.D.

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