Use “meta-communication” to interrupt and defuse a verbal attack

You don’t need to be a communication specialist to use meta-communication, in fact, you probably do it all the time without even noticing! Meta-communication, to put it simply, is communicating about the communication. For example, if I say “I’m trying to explain to you what this is…”, I describe the intention of my communication – and if I elongate the word “trying” with inflection, a meta-communicative interpretation could be that I am expressing exasperation, etc. Can you see how the communication itself is the subject being communicated about?

This week’s blog concerns how you can defuse attacks by a) recognizing the type of attack and b) formulating your observation in a non-aggressive Irimi. There are, of course, many other ways meta-communication (or ‘meta-com’) can be used in handling verbal attacks which are covered in Volume 2 of the Verbal Aikido book series, due out this year!

In the meantime, here are some examples of the meta-communication that you may have used in the past:Image1

“It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it!”
“I’m only joking.”
“What are you insinuating?”
“Stop making fun of me!”
“You don’t look like you’re listening to me!”

The meta-com we use in Verbal Aikido, however, has the intention of accompanying your attacker to the point of destabilization, enabling you to set up an Ai-ki move to rebalance. One way to develop this quickly is to be aware of the different sorts of verbal attacks that exist and then ‘call’ the specific attack as it manifests. These examples may make it clearer:

1. B: “I know it was you who took my sandwich!”
A: “Would that be an accusation, or something else?”

2. B: “You stupid idiot!”
A: “So we’re going in the direction of insults, or a different one?”

For any newcomers to Verbal Aikido, please note that this (Irimi) move is step two in the Aikidoist’s response and creates an opening. You may want to check out the Inner Smile or the Three Steps to get an overview of how to manage a verbal attack fully. In any case, you may observe above that the Aikidoist:

  • Does not take the attack personally,
  • Proposes a non-accusatory meta-com interpretation,
  • Enables a momentary destabilization by not responding with justification or counter-attack (see How we respond to verbal attacks)

Of course, this move may not stop the attack, but with a follow-up such as “[…] Should we continue this together?” you will see the majority of your attackers back down, or reduce their level of aggressiveness at the very least.

Always remember the important role that your intonation, inflexion and body language have in your communication and in the success of your exchanges, these are also part of your meta-com.  

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Use “meta-communication” to interrupt and defuse a verbal attack