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). 

The Purpose of Verbal Abuse (part I)

Verbal abuse can be many things, it can be obvious – yelling, name-calling, criticizing, threatening – or it can be hidden behind “being helpful” or “joking”.  All abuse leaves behind scars – visible or not.

“Sometimes, child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.”ANAR

The verbal abuse of my childhood have become the negative tapes I play in my head as an adult.  Continuing to believe that words do NOT hurt and that the problem lies solely with the person in pain is valiantly negated by applied psycholinguistic expert, Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.

I recently read one of her books on verbal abuse and another on manipulation as the two are often linked:

Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.: “You Can’t Say That to Me!” (verbal abuse)

Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D.: “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?” (manipulation)

Both books focus on the mechanics of verbal abuse and manipulation and offer a practical guide to dealing with both.  There is little to no focus on dealing with the emotions (guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, etc.) evoked by VAM and how that plays into deciding the right solution for the reader.  However, both authors recognize that the advice is limited when dealing with verbal abusers* and/or manipulators with genuine psychological problems.  They yield to the fact that the solution may be to withdraw from the relationship.

Overall, I found their information helpful for improving my communication and dealing with difficult people in general, not only narcissists.  The book by Elgin came to me at the right point in this journey and I thank Kitty for the recommendation.  Here is what I learned (part 1) and the methods Elgin discusses in her book (part 2).

The Purpose of Verbal Abuse and Manipulation (VAM)

The purpose of verbal abuse and manipulation is NOT to cause pain.

The purpose of the response to VAM is to alleviate pain.

VAM are not designed to hurt.  They are about:


Elgin and Braiker taught me that understanding these opposing purposes is key to dealing with verbal abuse and/or manipulation.

In verbal abuse, the purpose is to demonstrate power by attracting and holding the attention of the person being spoken to (receiver) and then provoking an emotional reaction (ER) that validates their power.  In manipulation, the purpose is to feel powerful (superior) and control what you do for them – a certain task (“work”) or a specific response.  The control over the receiver does two things: 1) provides a feeling of being in control and 2) further validates the manipulator’s power.

None of these purposes are a part of healthy conversations/interactions.  In healthy conversations, the purpose is to inform, share, comfort, pass the time, etc.  And in healthy interactions, the purpose is to be considerate of both parties (boundaries) in an open, honest manner.  

Elgin on Verbal Abuse (VA)

Elgin highlights the fact that VA can look and sound like healthy conversations especially if the verbal abuser is skilled.  But the crucial difference remains: chronic verbal abusers** are only interested in serving their purpose.  

The opposing purposes between the chronic verbal abuser (CVA) and the intended receiver ultimately reveals that:

The verbal abuser is NOT interested in the response to a question or statement.  

When dealing with someone who chronically verbally abuses, Elgin claims that the common methods we use are not effective.  The following are legitimate methods in human communication but when it involves chronic verbal abuse, they become ineffective:

  1. Pleading: asking them to stop in an emotional and serious way
  2. Counterattacking: responding in an abusive manner which includes using verbal abuse, leaving the room*** or ignoring the attack
  3. Debating: reasoning with them using logic, evidence, facts, etc. (I include JADE – justify, argue, defend, explain)

All of these fulfill the CVA’s purpose: to keep the attention on them and to provoke an emotional reaction (ER) demonstrating their power.  I was surprised to learn that all these reactions are satisfactory to the CVA.  The most desirable being pleading and to a lesser degree the subsequent ones but ALL feed verbal abuse.  As long as we respond in a way that serves their purpose, the CVA will come back for more.

Personally, I found this list to be helpful in two ways: 1) What to Stop Doing with CVAs and 2) Signs of Potential Chronic Abuse.  How a person responds to any of the above behaviors could be telling of the degree of chronic abuse one is dealing with.  If one pleaded, a non-CVA would stop.  If one counterattacked, a non-CVA would take notice that the conversation ceased.  If one debated, a non-CVA would continue the debate and it would develop into a healthy conversation about an idea/concept.

Sticks and Stones do Hurt, as do the Words we Blurt

When I thought about my FOO and in-laws while reading this book, I began to notice how language is used in my environment.  The way I learned to speak came from my FOO together with culture and my environment.  It is something I had never thought of until I was faced with my own misery.

By the end of the book I realized that how my FOO/in-laws and I use language is unhealthy and the definition of verbal abuse could be expanded to:

any manner in which the language (word choice, inflection, decibel, etc.) is used that does NOT serve to engage the other in a healthy conversation or interaction

Example of word choice misuse that does not engage in healthy conversations are mentioned at PWN (post: Negative Control and the Narcissist’s Use of It).

It is often word choices and small variations in the language that skilled CVAs use.  In the follow-up post I will discuss the methods that Elgin recommends.


Further Reading 

Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D: Frequently Asked Questions about Verbal Abuse and Verbal Self-Defense

Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D: How Verbal Defense Works (article summarizing key principles from book)

*Elgin does address the fact there are different types of verbal abusers – ones that are not aware of the language they use to the other extreme where there are deep psychological problems (disorders,etc.)

**The term verbal abuser is used to refer to a person who frequently and consistently uses verbal abuse to communicate – the chronic abuser.

***The response is not referring to estrangement or low contact or no contact.