In the game of social hierarchy, the ones who rise to Alpha positions are the ones who can best understand and lead other individuals and groups. It is usually the outcome of conflicts that cements peoples' positions in the hierarchy, so strong verbal skills are important.
VERBAL JUDO turns the force of attackers against themselves, as opposed to attacking back. You'll need it most for nondisposable relationships like family, bosses, colleagues, etc.
This post is an introduction to the concepts of Verbal Judo, and how to apply it in situations that can make or break your position in a given group's pecking order. For those who have wondered, "How can I become more Alpha, without becoming that asshole? this might be part of the answer. Verbal Judo has some elements in common with persuasion, but unlike persuasion, ideally seeks a state of mutual equilibrium rather than dominance or complete position conversion.
Verbal Judo Theory
Communication has many layers. Whether it's a shit test like "You always want sex!" or a Mother-in-law who whines, "You never visit!", there is more to the message than just the words, or even the body language.
Status of each participant Communication can happen within a dominant/submissive frame, such as parent/child, boss/employee, officer/enlistee etc, or within a nominally equal frame, such as co-workers, colleagues, siblings, some couples, etc. Healthy unequal power dynamic relationships include Captain/First Mate model relationships, Management/employees, and military ranks. Unhealthy ones include a mother-in-law who treats you and your wife like children, a coercive "friend," and an insubordinate employee or soldier. Trying to outright flip a relationship of unequals may result in resistance and a needlessly costly battle. Though it might seem counterintuitive to the aspiring Alpha, sometimes the best social option is to approach these situations more from a position of nominal equals.
Mode of communication Linguistics professor Virginia Satir identified five major communication styles: Blamer, Placater, Computer, Distractor, and Leveler. Recognizing the type an adversary is using allows you to calibrate your response accordingly. For example, if your boss is in blaming mode and you really need to level with him to resolve the problem, you might have to respond in placater or computer mode until he calms down enough to speak level, as closer to nominal equals. Also, consider the loop of two Placaters trying to decide where to go for lunch, or the chaos of an office full of female Distractors tasked with working together on an important project.
Tone and inflection The same words can have different meanings or intensity when uttered with lazy passivity or stern aggression. Verbal Judo seldom recommends being the loudest or more aggressive voice. Try this: the more loud and agitated the other party becomes, the softer and calmer you become. This REALLY pisses angry people off, where a yelling match would actually satisfy them.
Body Language This is an important communication channel worthy of its own post. Body language is usually involuntary, and when there is a discrepancy between a person's words and their body language, the body language is usually correct. Assuming a nominally equal body language can prevent or help break an unproductive pattern of dominance/submission. Examples at the personal level include rising to shake someone's hand eye-to-eye, and on the international level holding meetings at a round table to eliminate implied superiority of any individual. Judo suggests that bending to or pivoting away from these power plays is often a better option than attempting to assume the dominant role, which frankly isn't always ours to grab in every situation.
Presuppostions A seemingly simple sentence can have a freight of presuppositions loaded into it. These might be the dogma of political parties, feminism, even a dash of Disney storylines. Manipulative people effortlessly dish out communication loaded with presuppositions which are veiled attacks, and if you take the bait and respond to the presupposition, you've gone into their frame and lost the debate in the eyes of everyone present, sometimes not even realizing the extent of what happened. These presuppositions tend to fall into a few common patterns that are easy to learn to recognize and maneuver correctly.
Patterns of attack
Common attack patterns include, "Even YOU should...", "A person who...", and "If you REALLY..." Let's consider the above example, an LTR arguing, "You ALWAYS want sex!" This seemingly simple statement is actually loaded with presuppositions.
- 1 You never want anything else BESIDES sex from me
- 2 There is an amount of sex that is too much at present and you're over that arbitrary line
- 3 It is somehow wrong of you to want sex from me too often
- 4 You should feel bad that you want too much sex from me.
- 5 I feel bad/threatened/etc about this situation
The average person is liable to viscerally respond to the attack and shaming of presuppostion #3/4, and proceed to argue against #1, citing examples of other things they've done as a couple as she shoots them each down, because he failed to address #5. Or, he might passively agree and reduce his demands for sex, worsening the relationship problem in the process.
Assuming this is a baseless shit or comfort test (as opposed to a legitimate complaint), the better Verbal Judo response would be to recognize and NOT accept/display any of the presumed shame of #3/4, or step onto the treadmill of arguing 1/2. Rather, figure out a way to address #5 from within YOUR frame, without falling 100% into hers. Rather than attack back, one could agree she sounds upset about it and solicit a solution as the first move, agree and amplify (carefully), agree and deflect (You BET I love sex with you, but you're not getting any until we [do something she wants but was NOT expecting]). Proficiency at Verbal Judo comes from not only recognizing veiled attacks by their patterns and understanding the nested presuppostions, but responding to them in a way that plays out and exhausts the strength of the attack, rather than clashing with it head-on with certain escalation and collateral damage.
Useful skills for Verbal Judo
Assertiveness Instead of the usual pattern of being passive OR aggressive, an assertive person states his own position while accounting for and respecting the position and interests of the other party. Rather than seeing every human transaction as a zero-sum game where one must lose for another to win, assertiveness seeks win-win situations, which in the long term, can confer higher and more stable social status than aggressive self-interest.
Situational awareness Just as fighting martial arts teach the importance of being aware of your surroundings, Verbal Judo is enhanced by being able to quickly and accurately spot and understand the power structures in a given social situation or landscape. Be observant, and always strive to improve at reading individuals and groups.
Command Voice Like that of a commanding officer. Firm, solid, makes people MOVE without delay or debate. Also, the sense to know when to use this, which is almost never. Much of its power in civilian social life is in the surprise factor.
Stoic, unflappable frame. Don't let others affect your mood or emotions, especially noticibly! Manipulative people tend to be excellent at spotting subtle cues that they're affecting your frame; if you cut off this feedback entirely, it frustrates their efforts.
Fogging This is the technique of nominally agreeing with accusations made against you in an argument, rather than fighting them. The effect is like swinging fists into fog and never making solid contact, which can exhaust and de-escalate an argument. Using the Mother-In-Law example from above:
"You never visit." Now that you mention it, we haven't gotten out there much this year.
"It's like you don't even care about me!" I can see how that might leave you feeling neglected.
Your intended adversary will expend all of their energy and expunge their frustration while you noncommitally agree with them, leaving their argument flattened, their concerns voiced, and the door now open to discuss the matter in terms of your mutual interests, and for you to draw the situation all the way back into your frame without resistance or rancor.
Conclusion Verbal Judo helps establish and maintain a better place in the social pecking order without relegating either party to the extremes of passive and aggressive.
Usually an Alpha is the oak, but when circumstances dictate he bend like a reed, Verbal Judo helps maintain frame even with openly manipulative people.
Communication has many levels besides the verbal.
Parse the presuppositions out of arguments; if you mistakenly respond to one of these, you'll lose.
To learn more I strongly recommend the early editions of The gentle art of verbal self-defense by neurolinguist Suzette Elgin. (Like Dale Carnegie's work, there are myriad later editions of this work, some of which are cheap bastardizations for a more general readership. The original goes into deeper technical detail at a slight expense of readability.) This book lays out and dissects the eight most common verbal attack patterns, as well as presuppositions and the perils of responding to the incorrect ones.