The Purpose of Verbal Abuse (part II)

“It is possible to say approximately the same thing in any number of different ways.”  (Renkema 1993, p.97)

Reference post: The Purpose of Verbal Abuse (part I)

The information and the methods Suzette Haden Elgin presented in her book, “You Can’t Say that to Me!”, shattered a lot of pre-conceived ideas that I had had about verbal abuse.  Throughout her book Elgin utilizes examples that show different types of verbal abuse and possible methods to help deflect the attempt.  Her examples leaned towards the overt kind of verbal abuse however, her methods, I believe, help in covert situations.  In a chart that Jessie shared in her post (Covert Narcissism) @ Releasing Jessie, the section Cognitive Ability describes the use of language in narcissists.

In my original post, I did not thank the many bloggers who have helped with identifying covert abuse and understanding the syntax behind it.  I apologise.  I owe a huge Thank You to bloggers: Polly Want a Narcissist, Caliban’s Sisters, Kara and Jessie.  Thank you very much.

Considerations for Elgin’s Methods

The methods…

  • Will NOT immediately stop future verbal abuse especially if there has been a long standing relationship of abuser and receiver, this takes time and won’t happen over night
  • Will deflect each verbal abuse attempt as it happens
  • Can help stop attracting future verbal abusers
  • Are easier to use when the intended receiver understands his/her internal emotional response to the attack and when the verbal abuse patterns have been identified within one’s environment
  • Are NOT about watching every word or a better vocabulary rather understanding how communication works and how the use of language supports or dismantles healthy interactions
  • Focus on chronic verbal abusers and NOT verbal abusers that fall into the severe category Elgin highlights: verbal abusers with deep psychological problems (disorders, etc.)

The Ideal Method

She believes that addressing the verbal abuser one to one is ideal but she thoroughly understands that verbal abuse, when it occurs, is under conditions that are not safe or appropriate.  And that even after such a discussion, it fails to stop.

The ‘when life is not ideal’ Methods

A lot of the time, situations are not ideal.  When I am verbally attacked, it is often in group settings that make it awkward to say to the person, ‘hey, can we step outside’.  Most of the time, I feel that it is about my own comfortability and the nature of the relationship that are not ideal.  Elgin presents methods for such situations.

The methods are based on the CVA’s (chronic verbal abuser) purpose – power through attention – and NOT the intended receiver’s – to alleviate the pain from the attack.   Meaning, CVAs are not interested in the response to their questions/statements only in the emotional reactions (ER: pleading – counterattacking – debating) provoked – resulting in one winner and one loser.  Methods that shift the receiver into the winner’s circle only serve to continue the verbal abuse loop.  Instead, Elgin believes that methods where there are no winners or losers are the most effective at eventually stopping the verbal abuse.  

“It is in those spots where I want to learn to behave in a way that I can walk away feeling honorable.” ~ Judy (@ The Project: Me by Judy)

I feel the same way – I want to learn how to do this.  I believe Elgin’s methods teach us to respond in a manner we value.  They, also, involve saving face of the CVA in the efforts to derail another verbal attack.  I highlight two of Elgin’s methods.

Method #1: Miller’s Law

In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of. (G. Miller 1980, p.46)

Elgin points out that the key word in this law is to assume, not accept that the other person’s words are true.  When the receiver hear’s something impossible or outrageous that he/she believes to be false, a natural tendency is to focus on the CVA’s intentions or character – for example: “she is manipulating me” or “he is being nice” or “she is lying”.  Any could be true but when the receiver jumps to the conclusion that what the CVA said is false, the receiver stops listening and responds to the conclusion about the person (he/she is lying or being nice) rather than what the receiver heard (the language).  Focusing on the conclusion usually leads to an ER and thereby, feeds the verbal abuse.

Here is a recorded transcript of a conversation between me, my husband (DH) and his father (FiL) NOT using Miller’s Law.

Covert Verbal Attack

(visit with in-laws summer 2013)

FiL: So did you buy out the stores?

Me: Um, no.

DH: Not too bad. We went to Store X and then we were going to go to Store Y to find a cookbook.

FiL: You did or you haven’t?

DH: So we didn’t buy that much. We went to Store Z to try to return, … (continues to explain our morning excursion).

(after exactly 3 minutes of other conversation)

FiL: So what stores did you go shopping at then?

Me: Just Store X and Y and then we just stopped at Store Z and that was it.

DH: Yeah.

FiL: Do they have a Store X at the mall?

DH: Yeah.  They’ve got it all there.

FiL: So, they didn’t get you walking the rope? (referring to an amusement ride in the mall)

DH: No.

Miller’s Law-in-Reverse – So did you buy out the stores?

I heard: Did you spend a lot of money like I think you did? 

DH heard: How was the shopping and which stores did you go to in the mall?

I assumed that FiL was making a negative judgment about how we spend our money (shame) and DH assumed that his father was trying to stimulate healthy conversation (being nice) and when this was not the case, DH didn’t respond to the ‘same question’ the second time around (anger).  We were both wrong in our conclusions of his intentions because in the end, FiL was clearly not interested in our answers.

Miller’s Law, essentially, states that the responsibility of trying to understand the CVA’s intention does not fall on the receiver’s shoulders.  The only responsibility the receiver has is to hear the language and think about his/her own use of the language.  Discerning the CVA’s intention from their poor use of the language is unnecessary.  

Method #2: Baroque Boring Response (BBR)

“You’re not feeding the flames, you’re smothering them. Gently.” ~ Elgin

When I first read Elgin’s BBR method I was hesitant.  She explains the method as ignoring the bait (of the attack) and directing the attention elsewhere with a boring monologue that will transmit a message to the CVA that getting the receiver’s attention is going to be beyond boring.  Thus, making the reaction to the attack an unpleasant ordeal for the CVA.

How BBR Works

  1. Listen and Hear the language* (not focus on their intention or character – Miller’s Law)
  2. Identify the bait (aka the attack)
  3. Breathe
  4. Focus and direct the attention onto a boring tangential topic

I realized that this method has more to it than boring the CVA.  It is an opportunity to get a conversation back on a healthy track.  Effectively, the receiver deflects the original attack and propels the conversation towards a tangential topic (not necessarily boring).  This allows the CVA a respectful chance to either:

1) explain what they really meant (intentions)

2) converse healthily

3) reveal the degree of chronic verbal abuse by ending the conversation or counterattacking again

Either way, the CVA’s purpose of power through attention is not fulfilled because the receiver provided a non-ER and the attention is now on a different topic – NOT on the CVA nor the receiver.

This method, I believe, can be used in a number of situations especially in group settings.  Personally, I view BBR as Bring it Back Respectfully bringing the conversation back to a healthy purpose rather than the original one of power (win/lose) in a respectful manner.  Thereby, allowing the receiver to walk away from the conversation honorably.  

Considerations for BBR

  • Use a neutral tone without emotions, sarcasm, amusement, a smirk, etc.
  • Not be longer than needed as to punish the CVA or mimic a debate (ER)

Overt Verbal Attack

(visit with my mother December 2013 – paraphrasing)

Mother: “Do you know what you have caused by your behaviours?  You don’t know how much of what you have done to us.  What you have done to your father.  Do you know when you came then (my last visit in 2007 before going No Contact) you put him into a depression.”

Bait/Attack: You caused your father’s suffering

Emotions evoked: Guilt and shame

Default ER: “how can you say that…”

Focus on the language (neutral part, not the bait): Depression

Me: Depression is such an interesting topic these days;  I have read so many articles about it.  It is really complicated, you think, it could be solved with a pill and adjusting the right chemical balance and then, there are the medical professionals who think that therapy is a solution…”

Mother: “Oh yeah, you and your therapy, you go ahead and talk to a therapist to get all those ideas about me…”

My mother** did come back with a counterattack however, there was an interesting difference – the verbal attack switched from me as the cause of my father’s suffering to the fact that my recovery is worthless (bait) – a completely other subject.  We never entered into an emotional conversation about me as the cause of his suffering.

This first practice attempt at using BBR taught me that I really needed to keep the response short as my response was close to starting a debate.  Stopping at ‘pill’ or ‘chemical balance’ would have been sufficient.  I feel that between 1-2 sentences is enough to deflect it and leave the conversation open to the CVA or other bystanders (if in group setting) to start a discussion about depression or the use of pills in our society, etc. – topics that are healthier.

Two to Tango

Both Miller’s Law and BBR work well together.  Miller’s Law is remembering that the receiver is only responsible for 50% of the conversation – listen and hear and his/her own use of the language – and not the other 50% – discerning the CVA’s intentions.  This allows time and energy to construct a BBR response if needed.  

Covert Verbal Attack

(visit with my father-in-law December 2013)

FiL: “So, did you guys go broke when you checked out of the hotel?”

Bait: You spent a lot of money on a hotel (judgement).

Emotions evoked: Anger and shame

Default ER: “No, we didn’t, it was reasonable this time of year.” (JADE)

Focus on the language (neutral part, not the bait): Hotel

Me: “Yes, we did.”

FiL stopped and never brought the subject up again for the rest of the day.  Although I didn’t fulfill his purpose, I shifted the attention to me.  Next time, I would like to try a BBR like: I believe so because hotels these days are driven to find different revenue streams to make up for the competition from TripAdvisor.

Elgin’s Key Messages

There were many key take aways in her book.  One being that Elgin taught me that there is always another way to say something.  Whether it is the language I use to communicate or the one I hear, I can now ask myself:

Is there another way to say it?

As the quote at the beginning of this post suggests – Indeed, there is.

The other key take away is that our speech patterns are subconscious.  A CVA knows that there is another way to say it but choses verbal abuse instead – not at a conscious level.  Consciously becoming aware of speech patterns helps in choosing other ways to communicate.  Because verbal abuse is unhealthy for both the receiver and the abuser.  When I listened to the tape-recorded conversations with my in-laws I wasn’t surprised by what they said, I was surprised by what I said.

“If I know somebody well, in ten minutes…I could perhaps say to them things so cruel, so destructive, that they would never forget them for the rest of their life.  But could I in ten minutes say things so beautiful, so creative, that they would never forget them?” (Bishop Kallistos Ware, quoted in “Image and Likeness,” p. 66.)

Further Reading & References

Elgin, Suzette Haden, Ph.D.: An Overview of The GAVSD System (summary of Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense methods)

Elgin, Suzette Haden, Ph.D. You Can’t Say That to Me! John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1995

Renkema, J. Discourse Studies: An Introductory Textbook. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1993. (quoted by Elgin, You Can’t Say That to Me!)

“Image and Likeness.” (Interview with Bishop Kallistos Ware.) Parabola, Spring 1985, pp. 62-71. (quoted by Elgin, You Can’t Say That to Me!)


*Here, language refers to hearing the words spoken, inflection, decibel, etc. rather than the meaning of the elements combined (syntax vs semantics).   

**My mother, I believe, falls into the severe category of verbal abusers.  Limiting contact with her is the right solution for me and using these techniques are helpful when I do have to deal with her (for seeing my father). 

26 thoughts on “The Purpose of Verbal Abuse (part II)

  1. This is fascinating. Saving to read again. This grabbed me:

    Considerations for BBR:
    Use a neutral tone without emotions, sarcasm, amusement, a smirk, etc.
    Not be longer than needed as to punish the CVA or mimic a debate (ER)

    I immediately recognized my prayer for a sense of humor, which allows me to diffuse the hurt. I don’t use the humor on the CVA, largely because they don’t “get it.” It helps me to not take the criticism personally.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. It’s so helpful to have something so clear cut to practice. ((TR))


    • Humor is wasted on the CVAs in my FOO too. The environment in rarely filled with smiles or laughter (not at someone’s suffering). I know what you mean about looking at it from a humorous standpoint. It helps me when what they are truly saying is hurtful.

      No problem. I found the book helpful for that reason – some practical methods. ((Judy))


  2. Wow, this is fascinating. I’m glad you used examples from your own life to illustrate because it really made the methods make more sense. I definitely would like to test this out in situations when I feel myself getting squirrelly from trying to respond to the attackers underlying purpose. I’m not sure I could use it with my mother, though, because she’s so nuts and irrational (but thinks she’s the only rational person). Of course, I play my part I letting the emotions get to me, although most of the time it’s all internal reaction. I would like to be able to do as Judy said, to walk away feeling honorable. I usually just feel wretched.


    • I’d be curious to see how it works for you. Yeah, the methods are limited depending on the type of verbal abuser. I know what you mean about your mother. It was evident she was going to come back with an attack after each deflection. I hope that Elgin’s methods will give us that ability as Judy stated. I think her methods come from that viewpoint. xx


  3. This is an interesting post and I think I’m going to have to come back to it and reread it, as some of the method went over my head. I can understand the fundamentals of what they are saying, but I’m struggling thinking how I would apply it myself. I do appreciate you examples as they seem to help me understand it a bit better. What do you think you could’ve said in the situation with the shops? Can you imagine how you could’ve handled that differently?

    I do think focusing on “intent” is something many ACoNs are well trained in. I used to be so good at “picking up the bait” that I rarely needed anything to “fill in the blanks” of what someone was saying. It was one of the things I really had to work on, to not rise to bait. To respond only to what was said. Kara and I have discussed this many times and she’s helped me to work through it. It also helped to learn to control my immediate emotional reactions (my amygdala hijack too) so I could stop and think about what the words said instead of responding emotionally immediately. I almost had to completely “retrain” myself in how I dealt with the Ns in my life and it’s been hard work. I’m still working at it. MIL seems to get the most rises out of me because I always feel like I’m on the defensive with her. She’s so subtle at putting me on the defensive thought that others often don’t see what she has done (even DH says things like “why do you think she was directing that at you) and so I just look reactive and angry.


    • Unfortunately both Elgin and Braiker (manipulation) books don’t focus on this very important aspect of understanding our internal emotional response. The information and knowledge Kara provided are a crucial step into handle any type of unhealthy communication. They tended to focus on tools. Many tools that were difficult to understand because of the use of overt dialogues that clearly showed the abuse. The understanding of the subtly and covertness I have to thank you and other bloggers in helping me and I realised that I had not thanked them in the post – will correct it above in post.

      I am at the beginning stages of ‘retraining’ my brain and it is very hard work, finding it immensely challenging. I face the most difficulties with my in-laws as well. And it is interesting what your DH asks those questions. I feel DH has done the same too. What I realised is that DH delays his emotional reaction. He thinks they are ‘being nice’ but later when he realises he wasn’t being heard he gets angry – but at a later stage in the conversation that was originally related to what was first said. We go around in loops when, in fact, maybe we were reacting similarly but in different ways, if that makes sense? I think I look reactive because of challenging what FiL says that DH thinks ‘looks’ like a conversation starter (in his viewpoint or concluding he is drawing).

      And the fact that we look reactive made me begin to think that sometimes the verbal abuse is closer to manipulation (something CZ said in her case study post). When the CVA wants a specific reaction rather than any type of ER. If they want the receiver to become angry or defensive – that is very specific. I was wondering this with my FiL because his questions ‘did you go buy out the stores’ or ‘did you go broke’ only have ONE answer – NO. So I am ‘manipulated’ into answering No and then defending it because there is only one answer to it.

      Oh, to answer your question – for all his questions where the answer is only ‘NO’ – I will answer ‘I believe so’. In the case of the question with the shops I want to try: I believe so because the mall has added a number of new stores to help stimulate business and local economy.


      • Thanks for the reply, I think that helped clarify things for me. I do think MIL is looking to make me angry a lot. She’s meaning to hurt my feelings or make me look “less than”. It is interesting that DH asks me those questions. He tends to think I’m being oversensitive. And sometimes, I can see how he’d see that (I got really upset because she was taken food of my kids’ plate one time without asking and “redistributing it”. This is a huge pet peeve of mine with her. She said, in response, and “directed” at my son, “We SHARE in this family, don’t we DS”. DH thought I was over reacting and that the response is not directed at me. However, I asked him WHO he thought it was directed at – it was not my son – and he couldn’t answer. I am trying to teach him that people don’t say things for “no purpose”.) Other times though, her comments are antagonistic and he still thinks I’m over reacting (She told me my forehead was “broad” – which I don’t see has a compliment – and she told me my new infant had her MIL’s “unfortunate nose”.) I do NOT see how telling someone their infant has imperfections would not be insulting. And there is not other way to take “unfortunate” but as insulting (not me, to my son, and to her MIL).
        Anyway, I’m going to look into all of this more. Thanks for the post.


  4. Thank you for the book recommendation and for your wonderful posts on Elgin’s Verbal Abuse. The Boring Baroque Response comes naturally to me—who’d a thunk it would be a valid way to skirt abuse. Why I remember back when I was thirteen years old or maybe it was twelve? Let me ask my daughter but I do remember we were living in Montana at the time or maybe it was Idaho. Could have been Arizona. Was that in 1973 or was it 1981? I’ll ask my daughter but anyway, it was snowing that day and….

    This type of Verbal Abuse is exactly spot on so perfectly what I needed to be studying! I have been so unfortunate as to experience direct verbal abuse–the kind that’s unmistakably cruel and hurtful. Elgin’s approach to verbal abuse is the type of language we deal with every day of our lives—especially with narcissistic people who make a person feel as though we’re constantly under attack. So we react because the emotional cue is to protect/defend ourselves. I am loving your recent articles and discussions!

    I noticed with a particular person that I always felt “needled” after talking with her. The way her sentences are formulated is exactly what Elgin is talking about! What’s useful for me right now is NOT reacting to her ‘verbal assault’ because when you’re around someone like that, their language eventually wears down your defenses. But you can’t say ‘why’ they Got To You exactly. I know this book will help with “in person” relationships and online, too. Seriously TR, thank you so much!


    • You’re welcome. I’m glad the book is useful. That is so cool that it comes naturally. LOL (to your example).

      So true, to protect/defend is a natural response. That natural response gets abused by narcissists. That natural response gets triggered so often in unhealthy relationships and often why it wears us down.

      She does a good job of showing how stress in words, word choice, placating, etc. all play into the language as abuse and puts us under attack. At one point she said even the words ‘I love you’ could be said abusively. Indeed, it can be hard to pin point the abuse in the language – some are skilled masters at hiding it in ‘normal’ language. Thanks for your comment. xx TR


  5. Hi TR,
    Thank you for sharing this. It is one of those post I will be coming back for reference. Subtle patterns of abuse in language are very hard to identify, sometimes the only clue being how you feel afterwards, just like CZ said (feeling “needled”, what a good way of putting it). Or because there is something in the question that irks you. I think there’s another aspect to this that we have not discussed before. CZ’s latest post about the difference between trolls and bullies made me think of this. It sounds to me that your MiL likes to asks questions in a way that gets a raise out of people, whether he’s doing this consciously or unconsciously, I don’t know, it could also be that that way of asking about things is the way he was brought up on and it’s been passed in his families for generations without no one questioning it.
    I have met people who constantly like to “provoke” people. It is often presented as a harmless thing but I think it’s anything but. (“Windup merchants” they’re called here) The thing is that if you do get to do it back to them, they don’t like it at all. That says something. That they think it’s ok to do something to people that they don’t like when it’s being done to them reveals a lot about their character. That maybe they have a sadistic streak since they enjoy winding people up and making them uncomfortable.
    Knowing if they’re provoking us on purpose or not might make a difference on how we deal with them, but ultimately our purpose should be to protect ourselves. The suggestions you offer here will be very useful in that regard. I loved the BBR (Bringing it Back Respectfully) idea.
    Kara xxoo


    • Hi Kara,
      No problem. The subtle patterns are hard to identify and without you and others I would not have been able to figure it out. I think, as you said, the only evidence is how we feel in the end. It would seem these innocuous questions would not be abuse but in the end they are. Day in day out (and on the phone) being asked questions where he clearly doesn’t want to know the answer is abuse.

      We learn to a certain extent how to communicate from our FOO and his FOO was not healthy either. DH doesn’t ask questions like him, which is interesting – otherwise I don’t think we would be together. 😉

      I can see how certain personalities enjoy the painful emotions evoked in others. Elgin does discuss this in her book briefly. It could be that some verbal abusers are sadists as well. She focuses on the part of what you highlight protecting ourselves and tools to do so. The BBR tool is helpful with the in-laws for the mere fact that it happens with a group of people and his questions don’t initially seem abusive. The perfect crime!

      Thanks for the comment.

      Hugs, TR


      • Oooh, yes, the term “windup merchants” that is a good term. Fitting. My FiL does not take kindly to any sort of ‘slight’. He even can’t take it if you say “I like Stephen Kind novels” (and one doesn’t know he doesn’t), if there is any slight, criticism or anything he comes with an attack. That is a good point you bring up, the fact they don’t like it back, only the pain they cause in others.


  6. Igm U beed ti neniruze this marvelous post!

    Recently I was under extreme attack by a pack of jackals. I was called a ‘puss-filled, vindicive ‘meanie’. that last word made me laugh, but the attack was vicious and supported by a group of ADULT women. I wish I had this blog post to refer to before it happened. They wanted blood, and they wanted a reaction. It’s very hard not to jump into this mix when you are being attacked by people who don’t even know you, just following the psychopathic leader (s). My husband wanted to respond and I didn’t allow that. It would just have made things worse because they weren’t looking for sense or truth or reason. Some times you can’t impress a mob with anything.
    But! This entry is so good, TR, I am going to print it out and read it tonight. Your mother sounds like mine. We are always the blame for what happens to other people. Boy! Do we have power! LOL!

    Hugs, Lady Nyo


    • Hi LN,
      Indeed, that was a terrible experience and difficult to go through. Direct attacks and smear campaigns and bullying and mob mentality are signs of a lot more going on. It is hard to control our emotions when attacked. I find it really hard to do so too. I know the overt attacks from my mother I do not always handle them the best. When she would out right blame me I would jump in with more counterattacks. You know what, she loved it. The attention and power over me was feeding her. When I think on those times, I could see her smiles and her enjoyment from it. Online trolls and bullies who are sadists are doing the same thing without the face to face accountability and they have a lot more ‘Keyboard Courage’ (borrowed from Ruth) in expressing their feelings/thoughts without first thinking.

      What you went through, I can understand the decision you made to get out. I feel the same way when it comes to situations so severe like that, that the decision is sometimes to walk away. We have to choose what is right for each of us.

      Hugs, TR


      • Oh! Keyboard Courage! That’s Wonderful! and that is exactly what it is…and its limits! Sadism is so much a foundation of this stuff, and I think in general we don’t think of sadism because we think it is just the historic de Sade stuff…It’s something that is deeply entrenched in bullies, narcissists. This post was so good, TR! Thanks! LN


  7. Pingback: Verbal abuse… | The Project: Me by Judy

  8. I’ve come back to this again….and will again and again. I think we ACONs can never get enough instruction on how to react to verbal abuse. And this article (entry) triggered (in a good way…sorta) a lot of memories about verbal abuse from so many different people…and strangers, too. I wish I had some snappy comebacks in many cases because they got away with things from a woman who was powerless at that time. But! May they rot in Hell. We learn and they just simmer in their own cruelties. Hopefully.

    However, we do get sensitive, or actually perhaps we get numb. And we simmer in anger because we haven’t developed the tools to address this crap from others. I have a mother at 94 that I have to stay away from. She’s toxic, poison. Anything that say to her, even “hello”, evokes rage and insults. I have come to realize that some people are just….’around the bend’ and she certainly is. It’s not demensia, it’s pathological narcissism and probably worse …if anything can get worse than that. Verbal sadism is thrown in there for good, too. Well, the rest of the world generally are not psychopathic (mostly) but intermittently verbally cruel. I can remember incidents when I said something cruel, and it weighs heavily on my mind. I have not forgotten these things. But I think that is because we ACONs generally develop sympathetic feelers for this cruelty and we don’t like it done to ourselves, but we don’t like doing it to others because we feel very deeply…and know…the demeaning results.

    And excellent article, TR, and the comments are insightful and push this along.
    Hugs, Lady Nyo


    • Hi LN,
      Yes, that is so true. There are not instructions on how to speak dysfunctionality. We learn how to speak from our environment. I think we say a lot of stuff sometimes because it is said that way and accepted and we often don’t realise what the ‘meaning’ is behind it.

      I understand about your mother responding to Hello like that. My mother is similar. I start to speak and she comes at me with insults and blaming me for stuff. The walking on eggshells, waiting to see if her rage would come up, that was difficult to live with. The fact that your mother is still at it at 94 is shocking, her rage fuels her it seems?

      I hear ya. My communication patterns have been hard to break.

      Thank you for your comment and adding your insight. Hugs, TR


  9. Pingback: Dealing with a Frenemy or Narcissistic Friend | In Bad Company


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