4 therapy on the fly…

The Best Defense is a Sound Offense: Dealing with the Verbally Aggressive Person January 11, 2010


Picking up the phone at work the first thing I hear is my cousin screaming, ‘You are horrible you never pick up the phone to call me, I have needed you and you have not been there! All you do is think of yourself!’ ‘Well I don’t know what to say’, I respond shocked, ‘We have the same type of job, you know during the school season is our busiest time.’ She interrupts again,’But you could have called me! You are really selfish!’.

Your cousin is taking her anger out on you. When someone is screaming at you, all you hear is the screaming. You barely register what they are saying. What she is upset about is unclear. You are too busy trying to understand why she is screaming at you.

You are so shocked that your cousin is screaming at you that the first thing you do is get defensive. Which is often how we react when someone is attacking us. Defending ourselves does not get us anywhere. It continues an exchange that no-one benefits from and has the potential to quickly escalate into a full-blown fight. When your cousin is screaming at you it is really easy to respond by screaming back. The goal here is to stop the aggression not to continue it.

Your best defense is a sound offense. Meaning that a more useful approach is to assess and address the way she is treating you instead of defending yourself. So in the moment you need to create a pause between the time she is screaming at you and how you respond to her. In order to do this you need some time to think about how you want to respond. This is difficult to do while she is screaming at you but it can be done. It is much easier to do in the moment when you have taken the time to think about how you would like to respond in this type of situation when you are calm. Sort of a “stop, drop and roll” approach to dealing with aggression.

The first step in being offensive is to breathe. Why breathe? To stop the cycle of aggression you need to have some distance from the situation. When someone hurts our feelings or screams at us it usually elicits a stress response( fight or flight response). Our heart rate increases, eyes dilate, adrenaline shoots into our blood stream and our breathing becomes short and rapid thus signaling to our bodies that we are close to some type of trauma. This is why feel like “we are seeing red”, or feel heat shooting through our heads and our faces getting hot, begetting the term “hot head”. Elongating your breath slows your stress response which can provide you with the time and distance you need from a situation like this in order to make a calm decision about how you would like to handle it.

The second step is to decide if, how, when and where you want to have this conversation. When your cousin is screaming at you on the phone at work it is easy to forget that you do not have to speak to her. You can choose to have the conversation at another time in another place of your choice. You can point out to her the tone of the conversation and change it. Or you can decide not to have the conversation at all. When responding remember that you can be gentle and firm at the same time. You do not have to respond with anger even when you feel it. The goal is to have the conversation in a way that works for both of you.

You can say, ‘You need to stop screaming at me or I will get off the phone right now’ or ‘I am getting off the phone, I am at work and I am not going to speak to you while you are screaming at me. I will call you back when I am not at work and you are not screaming so that we can have a conversation’.

If you decide to call her back you can set some boundaries. Tell her how you felt about the previous conversation, how you will handle her being nasty or screaming if she does it again. Let her know that you want to hear what they she has to say, especially if something you have done has hurt her or made her feel angry. Let her know that you can’t hear what they are she is saying when she screams and that you will not speak with her if she is going to treat you that way. Next time when she has a problem she needs to let you know so you both can pick a time to talk about it. Attacking you is not an option.

There are some people who will continue to scream at you or berate you when they are upset. At this point you really need to consider whether this is a person you want in your life. Does this person make your life better? Easier? At the very least you cannot allow them to continue to treat you this way. The minute they begin to scream, leave the room, get off the phone. Limit the time you spend with them to time that works for you. Maybe shorter spans of time, maybe no overnights. It is unfair and unhealthy to be treated in this way for a long period of time by anyone!

When you are offensive in response to being attacked instead of being defensive you are teaching this person how you want to be treated. You are letting them know that you want to know when they are upset. If your cousin begins to trust that she can speak to you even when she is angry and upset with you this will only serve to build a stronger relationship. In this “stop, drop and roll” approach to dealing with aggression you have a plan and therefor will be less caught off guard when this happens. Lets face it. Everyone gets angry. Everyone yells sometimes. It is important for us to know how to deal with someone being aggressive towards us without becoming aggressive ourselves. That we can choose how we want to deal with the situation instead of just reacting.

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(c) Cori Grachek: May 2009

If you have any questions about therapy, are interested in therapy or just have a more private thought or question that you would like to share with me I can also be reached at .

**This is not and can never be a replacement for therapy


2 Responses to “The Best Defense is a Sound Offense: Dealing with the Verbally Aggressive Person”

  1. Christy Says:

    This is a great reminder Cori, thanks! I agree that it can be very difficult to not immediately respond defensively in these situations and I really like how you walked through some steps to get out of the moment peacefully. Thanks for the suggestions.


  2. Robyn Says:

    Thank you for sharing on how to handle a verbally aggressive person. I was brought up in a household where my mother and father would yell quite often. I was a passive child and it became normal to hear my parents yelling. Well this has effected me in many areas of my lift to this day!!! I am now aware that it is not healthy or normal to have someone yelling at me. I just never knew that I had a choice on how to deal with the aggressive person. Your advise means so easy that it never crossed my mind to handle it in a different way. I would just take the yelling and try to reason with the person. It just does not work. I understand that I need to put boundaries and show others how I want to be treated. I just had a huge awakening!!! Thank you so much.


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