Fight or flight: How do you react to an attack?

In this article, we’re looking at the way we react when we feel that, for whatever reason, we’re being verbally attacked. Even though someone delivering an attack may not realize that their verbal approach is perceived as being tyrannical or abusive, the discomfort their remarks create can lead to various sorts of outcomes. Indeed in addition to our instinctual fight or flight response, there are several other reactions that we may have learnt, in dealing with situations that appear to be threatening. Here are some visual representations of how we may react that are valid for both physical and verbal attacks:


Figure 1.1 – Counter-attack (fight response)

Counter-attack or sharp retaliation is a very common reaction to an attack, yet it is the main contributing factor to a highly-charged emotional escalation in an exchange.


Figure 1.2 – Run away (flight response)

Motivations for fleeing an attack vary from confusion to fear, and even rage. Physical displacement is rarely the initial reaction to a verbal attack, but may arise as a strategy once other reactions have been used unsuccessfully. It is more common to react with an internal form of escape, or to ‘drift off’.


Figure 1.3 – Do nothing (freeze response)

The response of being stunned is rather common in hierarchical situations, but often leads to a build-up of tension. It may be an intentional reaction and get rationalized as ‘patience’ or ‘tolerance’; or an unintentional one, for example when someone becomes speechless, not knowing what to do. Either way it can chronically lead to passive aggressiveness, which may in turn lead to a ‘volcanic explosion’. The explosion may either be directed at someone unrelated to the exchange or at the attacker. Either way, it will commonly be deemed inappropriate or considered irrational and/or exaggerated.


Figure 1.4 – Justify (opposition response)

The natural reaction to many accusations can be to justify one’s self, and although this defense may often have the intention of balancing an exchange, it tends to be badly-timed during a conflictual situation, where the attacker has rarely the intention of receiving information.


Figure 1.5 – Divert attention (distract response)

Distraction can be quite an effective technique, and can temporarily defuse an attack. Nevertheless, it may easily backfire when the attacker realizes the intention to ‘pull the wool over his eyes’.


Figure 1.6 Ai-ki (balancing energy)

The Ai-ki response is one that aims for a positive emotional result. One of the side-effects is that it gives the attacker an opportunity to learn how to treat the practitioner.

You may already have guessed that no single reaction is appropriate in every context, but reading through the descriptions above may give you some clarity as to how you have reacted to different verbal attacks in the past. The first of the three steps in Verbal Aikido opens the door to your capacity to consciously choose the most appropriate reaction depending on the situation. This can be done by developing the awareness of the space between a stimulus and your response to it.


Illustrations by Nabil “L’Illustrateur” (after Martin Whitmore’s illustrations in The Usual Error by P. & K. Smith., with permission).

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