How to Respond to a Verbal Smackdown at Work

Not responding to a verbal attack at work can have serious consequences for your career, but there are ways to develop your ability to fire back with professionalism.

One of the most frustrating things to happen at work is to get into a verbal tussle with someone and suddenly be unable to respond with anything beyond “Oh, yeah?”

Once you’ve sunk to defending yourself on the level of an 8-year-old, you know that you’ve lost status with anyone who witnesses your humiliation, from your manager to the summer intern.

Of course, it’s not always an all-out argument that can leave you tongue-tied and humiliated. In a meeting you may get a verbal smackdown from a colleague who doesn’t like your idea. Or, a team mate may make snide comments about your work that isn’t exactly insulting – but you know a rude comment when you hear one.

In all these case, it’s critical that you find a way to respond appropriately – and immediately – or you’ll just become the easy target of such smackdowns in the future. The result is an experience that is not only socially painful, but one that is physically painful as well.

Specifically, researchers at UCLA found that after placing test subjects in an MRI scanner, their brains showed the same reaction to social rejection as those undergoing physical pain.

If you’d like to avoid the unpleasant experience of coming out on the losing end of a verbal smackdown, then you’ve got to hone your ability to respond to difficult conversations.

In her book, “Comebacks at Work,” author Kathleen Kelley Reardon preaches that practice makes a difference. In other words, if you don’t want to be left sputtering the next time you are confronted or insulted at work, then you need to prepare.

She advises that overcoming “brain freeze” means that you’ve got to retrain your brain to see such situations as opportunities or challenges instead of feeling trapped. Once you understand that it’s a habit you can break, then you know you can change and won’t always be a victim of someone else’s sharp tongue.

One method she teaches for finding the right comeback is learning to use metaphors. This is especially valuable if the other person is insulting you with their own metaphor.

For example, if someone says that “you’re really at sea on this one” you can respond with: “Beats being landlocked all your life.”

Or, if you’re young and someone says, “You’re a babe in the woods,” you can counter with “I thought out of the mouths of babes come words of wisdom.”

“It’s a touché of sorts and if said with the right inflection and nonverbal expression – perhaps a slight smile – it can be disarming,” Reardon contends.

She also provides many feedbacks to memorize so that the next time someone delivers you a verbal smackdown, you have something to immediately say until you can decide what more you want to verbalize.

Here are some comebacks. Which do you think are the most appropriate?

  1. “Is that the best you’ve got?” (before moving on)
  2. “I see you’re pulling out all the stops here – using your best stuff.”
  3. “Were you making a point or simply trying to amuse yourself at my expense?”
  4. “If I seem perplexed, that’s because I’m thinking about giving you the benefit of the doubt.”
  5. “If you think that was funny, you need a new gig.”
  6. “I’m going to step over here and pretend this didn’t happen. Care to join me?”
  7. “There are times when silence is the only option. This is one of them.”
  8. “I’m not sure that you really said what I heard you say.”
  9. “Give me a moment while I reconstruct what you just said into something tolerable (more enlightened, civilized, intelligent perceptive, sensitive, etc.)”
  10. “My brain is on pause at the moment, which is serving both of us quite nicely.”
  11. “Let me just say how little I have to say in response to that.”
  12.  “Of all the things I thought you might say, that was certainly not one of them.” (Or, “Of all the things I knew you might say, that was certainly one of them,” letting this person know how predictable he or she is.)
  13. “If I said what I’m thinking, we’d both be out of time.”
  14. “I’ve known you too long to believe you intended to insult me.”
  15. I know – you restate what you just said and I won’t say what I just thought.”
  16. “I could use some help interpreting what you just said.”
  17. “I’m sure you won’t mind waiting while I give more thought to what I’m about to say than you just did.”
  18. “This seems a good time to take a break – to reflect on what we’re trying to achieve.”

Remember, in order for you to call these to mind when you need them under moments of stress, you must practice them as you would when learning a foreign language.

How have you responded when you’re on the receiving end of a verbal smackdown?

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Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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  • Kate Hutchinson

    While the urge to have a “comeback” is completely understandable, I don’t advocate for it in the workplace. (And I say this as someone who has lain awake at 2 am, crafting the best verbal parry to something said to me the previous morning.)

    I much prefer actually calling people out on rude behavior. If you make it clear that you don’t “play the game,” people are less likely to use snarky cut downs in the first place. Instead of “Is that the best you’ve got?” I’d go with direct, clear language like, “That was rude.” It doesn’t engage, it shuts the person down, and it sets a clear boundary that you don’t tolerate that kind of verbal abuse.

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