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How to Respond to Rude or Verbally Aggressive People

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“Hey idiot, what are you doing reading a book?” A classmate asked my 9 year-old son as he ran by on the playground.  It had been my son’s first day at a new school, he didn’t know anyone, so he took a book out to recess.  “I didn’t even know what to say,” my son reported.

Sometimes, people say rude or hurtful things to adults or adolescents as well.  Occasionally, they are back-handed compliments, like “That sweater is cute and hides your baby weight well,” or “”You were so fun today! It’s too bad you usually are so serious.”  With these types of interactions, we may not even catch the rudeness until later.  Or if we are alerted to the snarky message, it feels like there is no effective way to address it.

At other times, people may behave in ways that are overtly aggressive or rude.   These situations can happen in conflictual divorces, stressful work situations, or with people who are prone to struggles with others.  A co-worker may accuse you of not pulling your weight, or an ex-partner may try to start an argument.

Additionally, given our culture’s reliance on technology, people act aggressively by text or e-mail.  These types of situations are more common because the instigator does not have the constraints of the live interaction.  They may not fully understand how much their words or actions hurt.  It is also much easier to type or text a hurtful comment without thinking through the ramifications of those actions.

If you are like me, when someone behaves with aggression or rudeness, it doesn’t take much to get flummoxed, shocked, hurt or surprised.  Oftentimes, I freeze (usually with my mouth open), sorting through what someone said, and the person has already moved on or even left.   It can be hard to know what to say.

Here are some helpful suggestions for responding to conflictual, aggressive, or rude comments from people

Two girls sitting by lake

Give yourself time to respond

Taking time to respond doesn’t mean you’re weak. In fact, it can help you decide how to respond.  When you are ready, you can respond in a thoughtful, and self-confident way.  If it helps fill in an awkward pause, you can sing a tune in your head or count to ten.

Ask yourself if you need to reply

There are times when it is better to let things go and not respond.  Some people feed off conflict.  If you try to defend yourself, apologize, or explain things, it may just get worse.  You could set yourself some rules.  For example, if the angry or aggressive comment is about an appointment, a grade, a deadline, or a decision that you need to make, find a way to respond.  However, if the comment is making fun of you, accuses you of something that you “always or never” do, or reports that no one likes you, you may find that it is not worthy of a response.  This suggestion is particularly relevant for texts, e-mails, or voicemails.  You may find that the best response is no response.

If you have to respond, use the BIFF method

You can refer to the link above for more details, but basically the BIFF method consists of:

  • Brief– just a few words
  • Informative– what you want to say in a neutral way
  • Friendly– use manners
  • Firm– be clear.

So for example, in a work or parenting situations, an angry person may someone says, “Why did you do that?  You never listen to me, and you are irresponsible.  You never ask me what I think, and now you did it wrong.”  A BIFF response may be, “Thanks for bring that to my attention.  It is good to know that you want to be included in making decisions and want things to go well.  I’ll let you know if there are some opportunities for collaboration in the future.  Enjoy your afternoon.”  Rather than arguing whether you involve the person in decisions, you maintain a posture of respect, and stay firm and friendly with your limits or boundaries.

There is no guarantee that the person will respond kindly in return, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you did your best not to escalate the conflict further.  You will also have the peace of mind that you treated yourself and the other person with respect.

In second example, if your friend says, “Those pants look great on you. They are a nice fit for your extra pounds,” respond by saying, “Thanks.  I’m glad you like these pants, but the comment about my weight hurts.” Rather than by returning the insult, providing friendly and firm feedback can be a helpful process.

In a third example, a student or colleague may say something like, “Hey computer-brain, come over here and help us figure this out.”  A BIFF response may be, “Thanks for the compliment.  I do like computers.  However, I’m in the middle of something.  Please talk to your team leader/teacher/computer support person.  Take care!”

There is no guarantee that the person will respond kindly in return, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you did your best not to escalate the conflict further.  You will also have the peace of mind that you treated yourself and the other person with respect.

Peace Fingers Sign

Don’t be afraid to practice or ask for help

If you are being bullied at school or in the workplace, it is always important to consult a support person for assistance.  This could be a trusted teacher or colleague.  It could also be a counselor or HR person.  It can be helpful to talk through the BIFF process and role-play.  Oftentimes, it takes practice and feedback to fully develop a new skill, particularly if you are going to use it in a new situation.  Likewise, a psychotherapist or counselor can also work with you on these types of skills and how to address these types of situations.  We are here to help.


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