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Verbal Combat
by Fawn Germer

There’s an old saying, "Never get in a pissing match with a skunk." Well, there sure are a lot of skunks out there, and sometimes you don’t have a choice. How do you win when you’re being sprayed? With information, facts, and the confidence that you know what you are talking about. It takes a lot of courage to speak up. Sometimes, we wait way too long, until we are raw with anger.

One woman who has taught me how to keep my foot on the floor, rather than in my mouth is Sam Horn, the author of five books, including Tongue Fu™ and What’s Holding You Back? She is best known as the “master of martial arts for the mind and mouth.” Alas, her black belt in Tongue Fu. How do we prepare so we are not tongue tied or tongue twisted at the moment when something unfair, unkind, or inappropriate happens? I’m sick of coming up with the perfect retort once I’m heading home in my car. Here’s Horn’s theory: First, when you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. Especially, don’t say the “I” word. For example, someone says, “You women are so emotional and defensive,” and you say, “We’re not emotional and defensive.” Well, suddenly we are. Horn explains: “You can see any denial debate of an accusation will create an argument where we are going back and forth – yes you are, no I’m not, yes you are, no I’m not.” Instead of engaging, reverse the dynamic, asking: “What do you mean?” Or, “What makes you say that?” Or, “Why do you think that?” Horn says that puts the conversational ball back in their court. If their concerns are legitimate, those questions and subsequent answers will reveal the real issue. You can deal with the issue, instead of the attack. If they are just taunting you, the questions force them to explain themselves.

The Rules of Verbal Engagement
  1. Your goal is not to win. It is to create a winning climate.
  2. Win-win is always better than win-lose.
  3. Consider the end result you are after. What is the easiest way to get that result?
  4. A short-term victory will generally rear up and bite you somewhere down the line.
  5. Maybe men can get away with cursing or talking harsh, but women have to do it with great caution.
  6. If you’re going to cry, try to do it out of the sight of your detractors.
  7. If you are convinced you’ve got to vent, do it verbally. Put things in writing only when you need a written record and only when you have calmed down.
  8. Don’t feel bad if you have blundered in this department. We all have. Mustangs instinctively know how to run. Sometimes we need help with the walk.
“One of the most important things for women to understand in the business world is that verbal sparring is normal. This is how men relate. They taunt and ridicule each other. They ridicule each other and it really is a pecking order kind of thing,” Horn said. If you come back and say, “Do other people fall for this?” or, “Do other people let you talk to them like this?” it neutralizes the tension. Ronald Reagan was the master of this. When President Carter took a shot at Reagan for being against national health insurance, Reagan fired back, “There you go again.” There was absolutely no content in that crack. It was humorous, quick and biting. He blew Jimmy away and the moment was seen as a turning point in his campaign. We need to know how to protect ourselves with our words and our paperwork. Take notes in meetings, then write casual e-mails or memos reminding your boss “So glad you liked my suggestion that x, y and z…” That way you don’t have to pound your fist on the table, shouting, “This was my idea!” It’s all recorded and documented in a very subtle way. When someone else claims credit, Horn suggests you say something like, “Your memory isn’t serving you well on this,” or, “Perhaps you forgot that I was the one who introduced this suggestion at the meeting on Monday, as shown in this e-mail to Jerry.” If that’s been happening repeatedly, say, “You know, I’ve been here six months now and a number of times, I’ve seen people contribute ideas and soon after that, you are taking credit for it. You don’t pull that with me because you won’t get away with it. You don’t want to embarrass yourself by being caught in a lie.” As you debate whether to go into battle, consider the timing. Horn has a friend who’d been given several months off because she had a very difficult pregnancy and birth. Within a month of coming back, she found out her salary was substantially less than what other department heads were making. Understandably, the woman was furious, and told Horn that as soon as she went back to work, she was going to march in and demand the inequity be rectified. Obviously, the woman was right. Still, Horn cautioned her. “I said, ‘Debbie, is it good timing? It doesn’t matter if it is unfair. It’s hard, after being off for so many months, for you to march in and make a demand after they were so kind.’ I told her to wait a couple of months, then go in and see if she could get it rectified. The point is not whether you are right or wrong. The point is, are they in a receptive mood?’” Her friend waited a few months, then went in and got the problem fixed.

What should we do when we’re in a meeting, we put an idea out there and it is ignored, then ten minutes later some guy voices the same idea, and suddenly the men in the room think it is the most brilliant thing they have ever heard in their lives? “Well, if it’s innocent, or it’s the first time he’s done it, it’s small stuff,” Horn said. “But, if it is intentional and persistent, and say your idea is going to be a big revenue producing project, it’s not only smart for you to speak up, but it is absolutely necessary.” She’d use his name and actually interrupt the conversation by saying, “Joe, before we go any further, let’s clarify something. I’m glad you are excited about this, when I brought this up about 10 minutes ago, it’s exactly what I meant. I’m glad you like it too. It looks like you have some good suggestions on how we can carry this out. ” Do it before he gets any steam with the idea. It’s a subtle and assertive way to reclaim your idea, Horn said. Plus, you aren’t accusing the idea thief of anything.
  • Do your homework
    Don’t fight with emotion. Fight with information. Almost every successful woman who I have asked about dealing with detractors, hecklers, enemies and critics has told me that information is, perhaps, the most mighty weapon that we’ve all got at our disposal. “Whatever you do, don’t lose your head,” said television anchorwoman and former prosecutor Nancy Grace. “Strategize your argument. When you engage, engage with information. Don’t let emotions clog your logic. When I’d prepare my case, I’d immediately prepare for their case, so I knew what to expect.

    If you are going into battle, prepare for battle. The only way to do that is with facts and effort. “Work like hell,” Grace said. “Enjoy the knowledge. I recall sitting in the law library on Saturday, Sunday, and holidays. I’d look out the window and see people having a wonderful weekend, but in my mind’s eye, I would imagine the defense attorney playing golf or going to the movie or having a beer. I would just lick my chops. I knew they were out somewhere with no idea that I was working on it. It takes an incredible amount of time and thinking and planning and plotting, but it is worth it.

    Grace said she never lets the other side know when it has landed a blow. “I would keep a stone face when it happened. I learned that in court. Why would I want a jury to know that I just got a kick in the pants? It would make their victory sweeter if they knew. Plus, you keep the other side at a disadvantage when they are not quite sure they’ve won on something.

    Interior Secretary Gale Norton stays her course and deals with detractors by being analytical and steadfast, spending time figuring out what position is right for her. Once she’s convinced she’s right, she stands firm. “It comes from doing all my homework and making sure I've really convinced myself of a position. The people on the other side frequently haven't thought it through as strongly as I have,” she said. “When I am under attack in a situation where I feel I have done the right thing and I have taken the right position, it doesn’t bother me. I probably should be more bothered by it, but I really feel the confidence from knowing we’ve done the best we can. We’ve done our homework.

    There are hundreds of questions you can ask yourself, and remember: Making sure you have the information you need doesn’t mean you have permission to stall taking action until you have unearthed every single detail. There are always more details. Just know your facts. Be ready for everything. You don’t have to bore people with your homework, either. Information is the ammo in your arsenal.

  • Watch for Red Flags
    Why do people lie, manipulate, undermine and stab others in the back? Because they can. If you think it’s time for a moment of truth and confront someone, be realistic. Do you really expect a backstabber to suddenly develop a conscience and tell you everything? When someone is trying to do something underhanded, it is unlikely he or she is going to stop everything and confess the minute you become suspicious – at least, not without a little help. Let me dig into my arsenal of tools from my years as an investigative reporter and tell you a little about being effective in the middle of confrontation. First, people often lie through omission and/or embellishment. Think of how many times you've asked someone a question only to get an answer to exactly what you've asked, and nothing more. The person knows full well what you are after, but he or she doesn't have to volunteer anything. Remember Bill Clinton in his grand jury testimony? If the President of the United States can hide the truth by arguing the meaning of the word “is,” then imagine what the people around you can do. Teenagers will do it every time. “Did you sneak out in the car after we went to bed?” you might ask.You’ll get a straight answer of “no,” because the kid had the nerve to steal off with your car while you were still awake!

    Watch out for certain red-flag words and phrases that will alert you to a liar almost every time. .When you start hearing someone say, “Trust me,” “To be 100 percent honest,” “Believe me,” and “Honestly,” listen very, very closely. Red flags! If you hear things like, "Not that I can remember," "To the best of my knowledge," "Why would I …" "Do you think I'm so stupid that I would…" pay especially close attention. All of those phrases are designed to throw you off, but when you “get” the drill, you can be even more effective. If a question is answered with another question, take note because the person may be deciding whether to lie or tell the truth, or debating how big of a lie to tell. When those tricks don’t work, he or she might try a memory lapse, and try to throw you off with a simple, “Not that I can think of” or, “To the best of my knowledge.” What do you do when that happens? “Well, I think you need to try a little harder,” or, “That technique doesn’t work with me.

    In your conversation, you may see tactics people use to minimize what happened. For example, someone who has embezzled money might say he just “borrowed” it. A husband who has cheated by doing everything but intercourse may be able to convince you that it isn’t nearly what you think. Companies are masters of saying they are “expanding” or “repackaging” when they are really cutting services. Liars often have a story ready, just in case -- and if it sounds rehearsed, it probably is. Or, he or she may concoct something in the moment. Let’s say an employee is being wooed by an arch competitor who could gain valuable information by hiring her away. You ask if she’s interviewed over there.“What?” she says. That buys her a little time. Or, “I couldn’t hear you.” Then, she might say, “Why would I do that?” or, “Do you think I would do that?” Stalling. You’ll get the same thing from teenagers.

    Physical cues or “body language” are important, but only when they are used in combination. Just because someone’s eye contact is lousy, it doesn’t mean they are guilty. But, if you ask a tough question and he or she loses the eye contact, crosses arms and takes a defensive-looking posture, something might be going on. If you are trying to use this as a measure of truth telling, just be alert to what changes, in what combination, and when it happens.

    Finally, listen to your gut. You should not have to convince yourself to believe something that just doesn't seem right. Someone protesting too much is sending up red flags. If it seems all too urgent that you believe or disbelieve something, start to question why.

  • Is silence the high road (off the cliff)?
    Let’s take a minute to consider your option of staying out of the battle and doing nothing. That might be the best approach if the stakes are small or you aren’t invested in the issue, and us mustangs have always got to be sure we aren’t making more trouble for ourselves by fighting on every issue – especially when it comes to personal attack. When something significant has happened and you remain silent, know what you are doing. Silence suggests the bad behavior was okay. Constant confrontation suggests you are a little crazed. I once had a co-worker really stick it to me by blabbing things I’d told her in confidence. She told everybody. My employees, my peers – even my bosses. I never once confronted her on what she’d done and, for almost two years, I tried to avoid her. I’d seethe whenever she’d walk by, but I never said a word because I knew whatever I said would have been blabbed, too.

    What I didn’t understand then, which I sure get now, is that we shouldn’t avoid confrontation because we are afraid it will lead to others talking about us behind our backs. If it’s gotten this far, they’re probably already talking behind our backs. I now have a method of confronting backstabbers that says I don’t condone the bad behavior, makes it clear I want it stopped, and doesn’t give the person much grist for gossip. What I say is this: “I know what you did/said, and I want you to stop.” The person then acts all shocked and begs, “What? What! What did I do/say?” To which I say, “I’m not going to engage with you on this, but you know.” Then, I walk away as they are still saying, “Wait! I don’t know! What do you think I did?” It’s just beautiful.

    The “I’m not going to engage” tactic works with emotional situations and intellectual arguments. I’ve heard many people lament that they aren’t verbally quick enough to win an argument. I know what they mean. If I can think for a bit and write everything down, I can generally out-argue anybody. But, on the spot? Forget it. Well, there are certainly times when all you need to say is, “Look, I’m not going to engage with you on this.” They’ll try again, and you just repeat, “I’m not going to get into this with you.” Then, walk away. I used to work with an arrogant, opinionated editorial writer who could verbally out-argue me on anything, in part because he knew his facts and in part because he always got very loud and seemed so certain. I couldn’t stand talking to him. Finally, I said, “Sorry, John. I’m not going to engage with you on this.” I think he took it as a sign that I didn’t consider him worthy of my attention, which was okay with me. It made him crazy. “Why not!” he said, as he leapt out from behind his desk. “John, I’m not going to engage with you on this…” I used to routinely lose arguments with the guy. After that, I never lost another. At first, I’d just repeat my line. After a couple of weeks, he knew not to even try.

    Okay, consider yourself briefed. Know that, a) You’ll find yourself in a few intense situations and b) You’ll get through them. It takes a long time to feel comfortable in this part of the mustang arena, but be tough, be clever and don’t let your emotions push you off the cliff.

  • When all else fails in verbal combat
    • Rely on old high school debate tricks.
    • When you want to gain ground incrementally, you can say, “Don’t you agree that…”
    • If the other person makes a good point that you don’t wish to address, just say, “THAT’S not the point. THIS is the point,” and reframe the discussion to what you want to talk about.
    • Watch talk TV on cable some night. Those blowhards do that all the time. Don’t let anyone tell you what the point is. But, you can sure try to tell them!
    • Finally, there is another theory that, if you repeat yourself enough times with great conviction, you’ll win your argument. The more you repeat it, the more they will get it. Just say the same thing over and over again. When you encounter opposition, just start with a “Yes, but…” and repeat yourself one more time
Copyright Fawn Germer. All Rights Reserved.

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