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Verbal Attack Patterns

Furniture World Magazine


Verbal attack patterns can lead to unwanted disagreements which are like a "fire in a wooden barn filled with hay!"

In his bestseller, "You Can Negotiate Anything," Herb Cohen, once called by some the world's best negotiator, has a chapter entitled "Winning at all costs... Soviet Style." There he states that some people gauge success by how many others they can outdistance within life's many competitions, and that they interpret such struggles "to mean that all life is a constant battle of winning and losing." In 1980, the date his book was published, Herb Cohen believed that the Soviet style of negotiating personified the essence of what was termed then and still is, namely, the Win-Lose philosophy of negotiating, a philosophy that continues to taint many of us to some degree or other.

Linked to the philosophy of Win-Lose is what one author calls Verbal Attack Patterns. In her book, "How to Disagree without Being Disagreeable," Suzette Haden Elgin devotes a full chapter to the subject of verbal attack patterns (VAP's). The thesis of that chapter is that everybody has been subjected to VAP's at home, in school, and wherever else one interacts verbally with others. As a result of being subjected to those patterns, everyone grows up with the unconscious habit of using these patterns to settle one's differences. Dr. Elgin holds that it is only by becoming aware of our VAP's and then by developing new patterns to replace them that we can better learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

One of these patterns consists of taking an event in someone's life and using that event to make a general accusing statement. For example, someone drops something and we immediately go into one of our VAP's by saying, "You're clumsy" or someone fails at something and we immediately tag that person with the judgment, "You're a failure," or someone has lied once to us and instead of confronting them with the words, "You lied to me," we take an unwarranted leap and say "You're a liar."

Now you might be thinking at this point, "Big deal! What's the difference?" The difference is substantial. At least Zig Ziglar seems to understand the difference, if we are to judge from a statement of his in one of his video presentations: "Failure is an event; it is not a person." A manager who, for example, turns to one of her salespeople because he failed to make quota might fall into one of the VAPs. This would happen if she were to make the kind of statement that some managers tend to make, for example, by telling that salesperson he is a failure. The salesperson who hears himself called a failure is likely to believe that his manager is out to fix the blame rather than to fix the problem, despite what the manager's intent might be. We know that perception is considered reality. Experienced managers know that a worker's perception often counts more than a manager's intent.

Regarding VAP's, Dr. Elgin points out they are the most likely to get us in trouble when our impulse is to reject or disagree. She states that it is such impulses that lead us into what she terms "no holds-barred disagreements" which she likens to "a fire in a wooden barn filled with dry hay." It is because of such impulses, she continues, that most of us will continue to fall into VAP's unless we can be taught the skills needed to avoid them. It is that very fact--that most of us are not taught the skills to avoid VAP's--that she finds tragic, especially since the skills are not difficult to learn. It's a matter of taking the time to learn the most common VAP's and then taking the steps to avoid them.

Dr. Elgin then moves on to discuss a type of VAP by which we make use of hypothetical statements to attack someone. For example, we turn to an acquaintance and say the following: "If you really cared about your health, you wouldn't eat so much." First, Dr. Elgin points out that all such hypothetical statements have two parts. The first part contains the obvious bait: "You wouldn't eat so much." The second part contains the unwarranted attack with its implied message, "You evidently don't care about your health."

Let's apply this to an example closer to home. Let's say you are a manager talking to one of your salespeople who barely made quota over a long period of time. You attack her as follows: "If you really cared about your job, you wouldn't be barely making quota. The bait is, "You wouldn't be barely making quota." The hypothetical part, "If you really cared about your job," contains the implied attack, "Your don't really care about your job."

It is at this point that I'd like to add my own analysis of why the recipient of such hypothetical statements perceive them as personal attacks. In her chapter on VAP's entitled "Managing the English Verbal Attack Patterns," Dr. Elgin discusses the importance of tone and stress in hypothetical attack patterns. While I agree with her that tone and stress play an important role, I believe that such hypothetical statements often end up being perceived as VAP's irrespective of the tone and stress with which they are stated. In other words even when stated in an un-provocative tone and stress, they are nevertheless perceived as offensive by the recipient. Why so? Because they are the kind of NON SEQUITURS or illogical statements which all of us can see through as personal attacks even when we do not have the faintest knowledge of formal logic.

In the hypothetical statement having to do with someone's excessive eating, our only valid conclusion should be that overeating normally leads to obesity. To conclude that it necessarily points to not caring about one's health is simply not valid. Other factors may be the cause, physical, psychological, or both. It would be like concluding that an excessive eater has a weak will. Weak as to what? That same excessive eater may be very strong willed in other areas, such as the fields of music and science and foreign languages, and other fields of endeavor.

In the example having to do with the salesperson who barely makes quota from month to month the same is equally true. There may be other causes of weak performance like lack of training, family problems, and a host of other causes.

One more observation. We should point out that the "bait," as Dr. Elgin calls it, is always in the factual part of the hypothesis, something she omitted to mention. In other words, the attack, which is falsely implied in the hypothesis, joined to the factual part, produces what we euphemistically call a half-truth. Practically speaking all half-truths are untruths, much like the bedding term semi-flex boxspring, is an untruth. Those bedding manufacturers who offer them to the consumer know that they don't flex at all, whatever their other virtues may be.

The ancient writers were well aware of the force of half-truths. So were some of the more modern dictatorial propagandists. They understood that the best lies are always a combination of truth and fiction. In Book Two of his national epic poem, the Aeneid, the Roman Virgil described how the Greek Sinon used half-truths to persuade the Trojans to allow the wooden horse into the city. The story Sinon told to explain why the Greeks had left that monstrous wooden horse on the beach is a rhetorical masterpiece on the art of deception, as he wove together truth and fiction warp and woof. In Book Four, Virgil describes how Lady Gossip (the word for gossip was feminine in Latin) uses the same technique to spread her dirt: TAM FICTI PRAVIQUE TENAX QUAM NUNTIA VERI, which I translate as follows: "As tenacious in her wicked lies as she is in the truth she announces." Virgil was merely following the restrictions of the Latin language as to the gender of words. He certainly knew that the art of lying and spreading gossip was not restricted to women. Sinon, after all, was a man.

I am especially conscious of this type of hypothetical verbal attack pattern because shamefully I remember making use of it while I was shopping with my fishing partner, Al, long since departed. At that time I made a disparaging remark about an obese woman I happened to catch sight of in a shopping center. Al was a truck driver; I was a teacher working on my doctor's degree.

"Do you know her?" he asked. Startled, I replied that I didn't. "Then what gives you the right to say anything bad about her?" I immediately knew that I had no such right. With the greatest embarrassment I admitted that I was wrong.

I shall forever be indebted to Al who set me straight by not hesitating to tell me what many others might have hesitated to. Over the years I've learned to be more tolerant of other people's problems having to do with such things as overeating and drinking. Besides, I now realize how easy we all find it to give up someone else's weaknesses.

All of us can profit from Dr. Elgin's chapter on VAP's whether we are store owners, managers, salespeople, reps, buyers or whatever else may be our role. Life is so much more enjoyable when we know how not to fall into those terrible VAP's. Learning how to avoid them is an important step in learning how to disagree without being disagreeable and how to avoid making unwarranted judgments.


Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.