How to Respond When You're Verbally Attacked at Work

Jul 11, 2012
6 Min Read

While most of us expect criticism from time to time at work, is anyone ever prepared for a verbal assault from a colleague that leaves us humiliated, angry or stunned?

It might be a snide comment about your appearance, or it might be outright yelling about your performance on a project. No matter the situation, such actions leave many people tongue-tied as they try to formulate the correct response. Should you yell back? Walk away? Report the incident to human resources or just ignore it?

First, it might be helpful to realize that you’re not the only one to be on the receiving end of uncivil behavior. Some 63% of Americans say incivility remains a “major problem,” with 71% saying that civility has dropped in recent years, finds a recent study.

A poor economy, tight job market and an increasing workload can cause many workers to snap, lashing out at colleagues to allay their own insecurities or simply as a way to release some steam. Also, while you may see your colleagues every day, they may not be personally close to you. In other words, sometimes it’s easier to be rude to the person who is an acquaintance at work rather than a valued friend or family member, so colleagues may not think twice about scolding or belittling you.

Still, you can’t let verbal attacks go unanswered. You don’t want to start a tit-for-tat situation where you heap equal measures of scorn on the person or hurl insults, but you also don’t want to set yourself up as bully bait.

Further, keep in mind that bosses hate to get in the middle of such battles, so it’s best to try and handle it on your own, if possible.

So how do you respond when you’re on the receiving end of a verbal barrage from a co-worker?

  • Walk away. If a conversation starts to get out of hand, tell the other person that you won’t be spoken to in such a way. Say you’re willing to talk later when things are calmer. When you revisit the issue, find somewhere private to have a conversation.
  • Step back. When someone is attacking you, try to step back from the situation and recognize the action isn’t about you. Something else has triggered the emotion in the other person.  You just happen to be the unlucky recipient of that emotion. Keep in mind that personal concerns – a sick family member or financial difficulties – can often be behind co-worker’s verbal explosions at work.
  • Remember to breathe. A natural reaction to a verbal assault is to tense up and begin breathing rapidly – or not at all.  Become aware of your breathing, taking air in by your mouth and expelling it through your nose. That will help you control your reactions and not behave unprofessionally even when the other person is acting like a jerk.
  • Set boundaries. If a co-worker makes a snarky comment about your private life, for example, don’t hesitate to tell the colleague such comments are inappropriate. Make sure you don’t try to tell the other person what to do, such as, “You shouldn’t talk to me that way.” (They can – and probably will – choose to ignore you.) Simply focus on what you want by saying, “I don’t like it and I want you to stop” or “I am not going to listen to this anymore. When you’re ready to discuss this professionally, I will talk to you.”

Finally, remember to be good to yourself after being on the receiving end of a verbal attack. It’s not easy to erase ugly words, no matter how tough you may believe yourself to be. Reach out to family and friends, go for a walk, play with your dog or meditate – whatever makes you feel better. Also keep in mind that even though such experiences can be painful, there are lessons to be learned. Reflect back on the situation and evaluate how you might respond better in the future or what you can learn to improve your own communication efforts.

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