Fight, flight or… something else?

How do you react when you feel that, for whatever reason, you’re being verbally attacked? The discomfort created, whether deliberately or not, can trigger a variety of reactions. The following graphics illustrate the most common ways we react to both physical and verbal attacks.


Counter-attack or retaliation is a common “fight” reaction to an attack. When we ping-pong the energy being sent in our direction, it contributes greatly to the exchange escalating. A: “You’re always doing that!” B: “You can talk!”. Bruises for all involved ensue, generally emotional, but this reaction is the number one reason a verbal exchange can escalate to a physical one.



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”. In cases where there is an ongoing relationship, it can be an effective short-term tactic, but leads to an emotional build-up if used regularly.


Do nothing 

The “freeze response”, i.e. being stunned or silent, is frequent in hierarchical situations, and also leads to a build-up of internal tension. Whether intentional (rationalized as patience, tolerance, etc.) or unintentional (becoming speechless), this reaction can lead to passive aggressiveness. and/or “volcanic explosions”. Such outbursts often get triggered by events unrelated to the exchange and are considered inappropriate, irrational or exaggerated, leading to further frustation.



A natural reaction to an accusation can be to justify one’s self. Although this defense may have the intention of balancing an exchange, it usually creates an escalation. Expressing one’s position in a conflictual situation needs to be timed appropriately i.e. when an opening has been created. Even legitimate justification poses resistance to an attack where the accuser rarely has the intention of receiving information.


Divert attention

Distraction can be quite effective in the short-term, as it can temporarily defuse an attack. Nevertheless, this strategy easily backfires when the attacker realizes the intention to dupe, downplay or avoid dealing with the topic.


Ai-ki (balancing energy)

The Ai-ki response is one that aims for a positive emotional result for all involved. It requires adpoting a centered position with appropriate distance, and the intention to accompany the attacker towards a relationship-enhancing direction. This posture enables potential conflicts to be defused and diverging points of view to be explored in a conversational mode.

You may recognize some or all of the above reactions to the verbal attacks you’ve experienced. The practice of developping each of the three steps in Verbal Aikido opens the door to your capacity to consciously choose the most appropriate reaction to a given 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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Suggest a verbal attack on our Online Virtual Tatami (sparring area)  to find out the Verbal Aikido response…