The Secret to Handling Personal Attacks

business man criticizing a female colleague who appears defensiveAll that “nip it in the bud and listening” stuff is fine and good with reasonable people willing to cooperate, one of my readers told me. But what do you do if someone lobs a personal attack at you?

Click here if the personal attacks are regular and abusive to see resources at the bottom of this post.

Depending on your temperament, your natural human tendency is to fight or flee–counter-attack or withdraw. Unfortunately, neither of these strategies help you make progress on your goals in the immediate situation, nor put you in a strong position in the long-term.

It’s hard not to take personal attacks personally. It’s especially hard when it pushes a button in an already sensitive area, or reminds you of old humiliations from childhood.

Maybe it will help you to know that personal attacks are rarely about you, the target of the attack. They are about the attacker. Some people, as sometimes seen in public policy disputes or business negotiations, use intimidation tactics to win a point. For others, you happen to symbolize someone or something they are already unhappy about. Some thrive on drama and chaos and create it wherever they go, and some don’t know any better. They may not have learned ways to handle their feelings and frustrations. They may be in the grip of drugs, alcohol, or their own unresolved childhood traumas.

Whatever the reason for the attack, you don’t deserve to be treated that way. While you can’t change the other person, you can change the dynamic of the immediate situation in which the attack occurred.

Here’s the secret:

The most effective response to a personal attack is counter-intuitive: ignore the substance of the personal attack and re-focus the conversation on the specific issue at hand.

This changes the dance and puts you in the lead. Let me give you an example.

Some years ago I had a client who regularly criticized and attacked others’ abilities and intelligence. One of my first assignments was to draft a presentation for him based upon a general list of bullet points. Lacking details, I knew the first attempt would not be right. Rather than focusing on specifics, he threw up his hands and told me the whole thing was crap and we’d have to start all over.

When he paused, I asked him to look at the power point slides with me, and began to re-order them into the sequence that made more sense to him, checking for his concurrence along the way. We then looked at the content of a few specific slides and made changes to those. He left that meeting satisfied.

I left that meeting relieved, and with more insights on how to work with him in the future. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t enjoy being harangued and was glad when that assignment ended. However, by not losing my cool or just giving in to him, I met several key goals:
1. I kept the revision task relatively small and manageable.
2. I earned his respect, and retained a lucrative contract.
3. I preserved my self-respect.
4. I leveraged my insights about him to create a working relationship that diminished his attacks during future projects. They were neither as numerous, nor as vociferous as that first time.

You’re probably thinking, sure easy for you to do. You’re a trained mediator. Fair enough. But remember, you can learn the same skills and techniques as me. 

raked sand and pebbles as metaphor for calmingApply calming techniques

The personal attack is like a punch to your gut. It hurts. You’re probably in shock if it was unexpected. You may feel angry.

Don’t lose your cool during the meeting as a defensive reaction to the attack. If you do, s/he’s got you. You’ll have lost your power, and possibly the respect of others in the room.

Instead, pause. Take a few deep breaths, from down in your diaphragm.

Imagine yourself wearing a Teflon jacket and watching those nasty words run off and hit SPLAT on the floor.


Practice transition phrases to help you re-focus on the issue(s):business woman listening to someone outside the frame of photo

• Let me see if I understand your concern about (whatever the substantive issue is)…
• I can see this has been frustrating for you, how about if we look at (the issue) from this angle? Offer a different way to consider the problem.
• It looks like you have different information/a different set of facts/a different set of assumptions. These are the ones I’m working from…
• I hear how important this (name an aspect related to the issue) is to you. It is to me as well…
• I can see your point, and (not but) I also see the need for (name a specific need related to the situation).
• Let’s look more closely at the proposals on the table. What specifically doesn’t work for you?

Avoid using inflammatory words like: anger, mad, attack. Instead use softer de-escalation words like: upset, frustrating, concern. Use ‘and’ rather than ‘but’ because it is additive—their concern or idea plus yours. Using ‘but,’ erases their point and then they won’t hear you.

Afterward: lick your wounds, vent with people you trust, write down how you felt in a journal, or whatever else works to help you process your feelings and reactions.

If necessary, set boundaries:
Not everyone will follow your lead right away. Some people may escalate the attack, or go into a rage. In that case, you need ways to defuse the attack and protect yourself.

Speak slowly and calmly. Suggest a break or re-schedule to another day. Say, “I’d like for us to try to solve this problem, but I can’t work when you’re shouting at me.” Leave the room. Collect yourself. If it helps, speak with someone you trust to calm yourself, and prepare strategies for moving forward on the issues without re-escalating.

Protect yourself if this is repetitive and abusive behavior:
You have a right to work, volunteer and live in an environment free of abuse. Find ways to protect yourself long-term. Seek out help. Educate yourself. Start with the following online resources:

Workplace Bullying provides information, training and consulting on this issue for individuals and organizations.

The HelpGuide provides comprehensive information on domestic abuse and includes numbers to call for help.

Daily Strength offers free anonymous online support from people who’ve been there.