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BOOK REVIEW: The Gentle Art of Verbal Self–Defense

By Ox Drover

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense was written by Suzette Haden Elgin, an applied psycholinguist and an associate professor of linguistics at San Diego State University. Though first published in 1980, I think it is a nice, easily read and understood book detailing the “hidden” motives in some conversations with just about anyone, whether they are a psychopath or not. It teaches us easily understood ways of deciphering the unspoken messages in language and easy to remember “come backs” that are appropriate for just about any situation where there are “hidden messages” in conversation.

Ms. Elgin wrote:

For every person in this society who is suffering physical abuse, there are hundreds suffering the effects of verbal violence. For every person who just got a fist in the face, there are hundreds who just took a verbal blow to the gut. And there are major differences between these two kinds of injury.

The physical attack is at least obvious and unmistakable; when someone slugs you physically, you can call the police. The physical attack hurts horribly and leaves a mark, but is usually over fast, and the mark is evidence in your favor and against your attacker.

Verbal violence is a very different matter. Except in rare case—for example, when someone lies about you publicly before witnesses and can be charged with slander—there is no agency that you can call for help. The pain of verbal abuse goes deep into the self and festers there, but because nothing shows on the surface, it will not win you even sympathy, much less actual assistance.

Worst of all, verbal violence all too often goes unrecognized, except at a level that you cannot even understand yourself. You know you are suffering, and you vaguely know where the pain is coming from; but because the aggression is so well hidden, you are likely to blame yourself instead of the aggressor … “there must be something the matter with me.”

There probably is something the matter with you, yes. Your problem is that you are the victim of verbal violence and you don’t have the least idea how to defend yourself against it.

Ms. Elgin goes on to list four principles for verbal self defense:

  • Know that you are under attack.
  • Know what kind of attack you are facing.
  • Know how to make your defense fit the attack.
  • Know how to follow through.

She also describes the five different types of verbal stances, based on the work of therapist Virginia Satir, which were expanded by therapists John Grinder and Richard Bandler as:

  • The Placater
  • The Blamer
  • The Computer
  • The Distracter
  • The Leveler

Ms. Elgin explains very clearly the underlying meanings of our language, both spoken and unspoken, by describing the “presuppositions” in our words.

She gives the example of the statement “Even Bill could get an A in that class.” She explains that the unsaid presupposition of that statement, though totally unsaid, is that “Bill is no great shakes as a student and the class is not difficult in any way.”

Her insights into the hidden verbal abuse that is frequently hurled in our direction by others, whether psychopathic or not, is very enabling.

The author also published book called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work, though I have not read a copy of that, I noticed it on www.Amazon.com.



51 Comments on "BOOK REVIEW: The Gentle Art of Verbal Self–Defense"

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  1. icanseeclearlynow says:

    witsend says:

    “However I think in the long run what a toxic individual has that is so HARD for us “normals” to really understand is their uncanny ABILITY to initially “read” us like an open book. It is not just those things we inevidably share with them when we meet them, it is more than that. It is almost as if they can SEE within our very souls and our inner minds.”

    I think that uncanny ability to read us is related to what this book talks about. I’ve read a little bit about NLP and it’s fascinating. If you ever want to see how the ‘non-normals’ live and think, visit one of their bulletin boards. There are quite a few that you can read without joining. It is chilling. If you can get over the revulsion at some of the things they post, it can be very educational. NLP is discussed by some of the more self-aware P/S/Ns.

    My basic understanding of it, in regards to P/S/Ns is that it goes along with their lack of emotional context. They don’t feel what we feel, so they get all of their “human” information through body language and verbal language. They watch and listen. That’s how they learn to operate and manipulate. This actually leaves them with a lot more manouverablity, for lack of a better word when it comes to interpersonal relations and gives them an ADVANTAGE over normals. They are not encumbered by emotional context because words are just words to them. They don’t FEEL things when they say or hear words, the way normal people do.

    What this allows them to do is use language much more creatively to manipulate people. They can watch for patterns and see what makes people react.

    It’s the same thing they do with body language and faking emotions. They watch and mimic because that’s ALL they can do, so they become experts at it.

    NLP, from the little I know of it was discovered because some therapists knew intuitively how to change the way they communicate to patients to engender trust. In this case it was using it for beneficial means.

    P/S/Ns on the other hand, learn it instinctively as a survival mechanism and then use it to get what they want.

    They “read” us alright. But they don’t always read everything correctly. What they do “get” is if we will make a good target when we respond as one.

    I really want to read this book. I think it would help a great deal in seeing just how language can be used to hook us.

    I just want to give a few examples that I’ve noticed in my own life that I think fit in with this:

    Things said to me this week:

    1) I was standing in the kitchen cooking dinner and someone else was laying down on the couch watching tv. That someone else says to me, “The dog wants out.” They are closer to the door and just lying there. I’m busy. I walked over and let the dog out. What just happened there? I was manipulated. Yeah the dogs wants out. So what? Why didn’t they get up and let it out? Also, the direct way of asking would have been, “Can you let the dog out, please?” I responded as a submissive people pleaser.

    2.) I’m at the dinner table and someone says, “Salt and pepper.” and someone else just picked up the salt and pepper shaker and passed it to him. Hmmm. That was indirect once again and people pleasing. He should have said “Can you pass me the salt and pepper, please.” Responding to a command like that sends a message: Your wish is my command.

    3.) I’m in the bathroom doing my hair, someone else walks in and says, “I gotta pee”. I leave the washroom and stand outside and “WOOOOM!!!!” it hits me while I’m standing there. What the heck did I just do???? Geez I really am one of those people that if someone says “JUMP!” I say “How high.”

    Soooooo…yeah….that person came out of the washroom and my heart was pounding because now I was really annoyed at myself, but I say as calmly as possible, “The next time you want something from me, please be more direct. If you want me to leave the washroom, the polite way would be to ask.” They got all huffy and offended and actually claimed they said, “Can I pee?” uhmmm ok deja vu…here we go with the rearranging of facts. I said “No. You did not say that.” Then they got really angry and told me I was being rude and it turned into a “Yes I did.” “No. You didn’t.” to which I had ABSOLUTELY NO DESIRE to get into that kind of idiotic pointless argument.

    I think my point in giving those examples is how subtely we can be “had” and how once we stop doing it we have to be prepared for those that are used to us being patsies will not like it.

    Too bad. So sad. The buck stops here.



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  2. pollyannanomore says:

    Icanseeclearly – yes I recognised those patterns towards the end too. He would come in after work and go straight to the computer. The pattern was I would always have to ask what he wanted for dinner – always the same answer too “I don’t know” so then I would spend half an hour going through options. I would then have to cook it while he sat – if I asked for any help he would sulk and claim he didn’t know what to do. Always the same routine – so some nights I changed the pattern and went to my computer when he went to his 🙂

    You are dead right that if you confront them on it you only make a rod for your own back – no contact is the only way to go – it literally saves our sanity!



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  3. Rosa says:

    SPN’s are masters at mirroring and reading us, and copying our behavior.

    But, they cannot do it 24/7.
    If you are around them enough, sooner or later they will slip up and say something bizarre, callous, or uncouth, revealing their true nature.
    And, you will be sitting there thinking, “HUH??? Did I hear that correctly?”

    The problem is that we usually just brush these types of RED FLAGS aside, and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
    We tend to “fill in the blanks” for disordered individuals.



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  4. one_step_at_a_time says:

    one of the slip up patterns I see now is that the spath KNEW a WHOLE LOT ABOUT OTHER’S EXPLOITIVE BEHAVIOUR.

    this was supposed to be an innocent and guilless person – and slowly but surely she would make these remarks about others and their exploitative behavior in this flat voice – a voice unlike her usual voice. and this was significant cause her usual voice was pretending to be male – so she dropped the ball on a couple of counts.

    one of the RED FLAGS that was on a HUGE pole was her (calling me as ‘his sister’ after he died) telling me that (after 4 or so calls) she ‘loved me’. She was sooo used to saying that to me as ‘him” that it just rolled off her tongue. I don’t think it was calculated at all. In my mind i heard the word, ‘bingo’. I knew that things were rotten in denmark, but this took it to a whole NEW level.

    I had thought that this boy wasn’t what he said he was, and that his bf was a whack job, but the SISTER actually gave it some validation. She spoke about ordinary day to day and offered up details immediately,etc.

    BUT it was the ‘you can come live with us’ line that started me going hmmm. See, ‘he’ was going to buy some property and we were going to live communally. And she carried on this story, more or less unchanged, as the sister. Thinking that I would fall for this story again. and THIS tripped her up. I wasn’t just in love with the story (which reflected a lot of my idealized wishes for life), I loved HIM.

    Once I started pushing back against the evolving story I got some very interesting email from her, which i never responded to. I was overwrought about it. What if she WAS for real and here I was not responding to a grieving sister! (responding to a grieving boy is what started this whole thing) But I knew it was all too whacked so I stayed away.

    This is part of one of those emails in repsonse to my request for an address and phone number – this sock puppet used religion A LOT. There is another one from her that she wrote the day after ‘he rose from the dead’, the one that threatens me. it’s BIG into the religious blackmail.

    “What could be sadder for a person who had been invisible most of his to be accused of being nonexistent? It made him cry that day we sewed. We were sewing a shirt for that woman YYYY, the very woman who has relentlessly abused and accused. A woman who wants to know everything, who claims what she does not have access to is a lie, and yet the same woman who gives up no information about herself. That double standard sickened me. I tried to explain to him he had no obligation. I’m sure it was a struggle for him to overcome his submissive nature to do what he did to try to retain control of his own on-line destiny.

    I know it was a struggle because it is for me. I sit here typing, wondering why I care that people I don’t know won’t acknowledge me as a hard working, loving woman with blood in my veins and tears in my eyes because I won’t divulge personal information my husband has forbade me to give. It’s not a comfortable place, but it’s my lot, and I will live with it.

    I just did not want to not answer at all because I didn’t want to give you any sense that your stand scared me off. It’s not that. I am who I am, and I’m sitting here, typing, and realising that along with all the good and beautiful XXXX was, he took a lot of potentially good and beautiful with him too.

    I lit a candle for you & XXXX at Sunday’s Mass. Father CCCC come up from FFFF and he and Father SSSS who was at school with us, gave homily on the loss this place has suffered. Three times they pointed a fairly sharp finger at the congregation who did nothing to the positive in it over the years. They kept the harping to a minimum though and it was lovely. As were they.

    I want to stand for myself. To type my full name, date of birth, where I live, how anyone could come to me at any time but I cannot because this information does not belong to me alone.

    Therefore I must remain a figment, a deception, a lie because I cannot comply with the wishes of…….who? You? Someone my tortured brother took to? It’s amusing that that fact, the fact troubled XXX took to you, validates you more for me than seeing you come up on Google. Warm words versus cold type.”

    Was I going to repsond to this double speak? HELL NO.

    one step



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  5. libelle says:

    Dear One-step, you sound far better, the story now seems clear to me and “makes sense”. Sounds like a very horrible play that has been played on you.

    I am so glad you can sort it all out and you seem to do a lot better than in your first e-mails. Sometimes we have to ruminate a lot to make the huge chunks swallowable, so we can digest them, and we are later able to keep the good things and let go the “s***ty” parts and see where to put the “s***t” as manure so it might be good for something.

    Sorry if “to light a candle for you” might have been a trigger for you as I mentioned this in a earlier post to you.

    Best is to stay NC (= not even open the mail but delete/discard it unopened at once). Can you block out the mails?



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  6. one_step_at_a_time says:

    dear libelle:

    she knows how much lighting a candle would mean to me, and that’s why she used it. she hasn’t turned that into something negative – it still means a lot to me, so thank you and not to worry, okay?

    this mail is from october. I have changed my email since then; she can’t get to me.

    ‘Sometimes we have to ruminate a lot to make the huge chunks swallowable’ this does seem like the process to me.

    thank you for writing to me. i don’t see myself a s doing better yet, but ii will come. well, maybe i do – in as much as i am willing to be a bit more open here, which equals less paranoia on part.

    all the best libelle,
    thanks again.

    one step



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