BOOK REVIEW: The Gentle Art of Verbal Self–Defense

By Ox Drover

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense was written by Suzette Haden Elgin, an applied psycholinguist and an associate professor of linguistics at San Diego State University. Though first published in 1980, I think it is a nice, easily read and understood book detailing the “hidden” motives in some conversations with just about anyone, whether they are a psychopath or not. It teaches us easily understood ways of deciphering the unspoken messages in language and easy to remember “come backs” that are appropriate for just about any situation where there are “hidden messages” in conversation.

Ms. Elgin wrote:

For every person in this society who is suffering physical abuse, there are hundreds suffering the effects of verbal violence. For every person who just got a fist in the face, there are hundreds who just took a verbal blow to the gut. And there are major differences between these two kinds of injury.

The physical attack is at least obvious and unmistakable; when someone slugs you physically, you can call the police. The physical attack hurts horribly and leaves a mark, but is usually over fast, and the mark is evidence in your favor and against your attacker.

Verbal violence is a very different matter. Except in rare case—for example, when someone lies about you publicly before witnesses and can be charged with slander—there is no agency that you can call for help. The pain of verbal abuse goes deep into the self and festers there, but because nothing shows on the surface, it will not win you even sympathy, much less actual assistance.

Worst of all, verbal violence all too often goes unrecognized, except at a level that you cannot even understand yourself. You know you are suffering, and you vaguely know where the pain is coming from; but because the aggression is so well hidden, you are likely to blame yourself instead of the aggressor ”¦ “there must be something the matter with me.”

There probably is something the matter with you, yes. Your problem is that you are the victim of verbal violence and you don’t have the least idea how to defend yourself against it.

Ms. Elgin goes on to list four principles for verbal self defense:

  • Know that you are under attack.
  • Know what kind of attack you are facing.
  • Know how to make your defense fit the attack.
  • Know how to follow through.

She also describes the five different types of verbal stances, based on the work of therapist Virginia Satir, which were expanded by therapists John Grinder and Richard Bandler as:

  • The Placater
  • The Blamer
  • The Computer
  • The Distracter
  • The Leveler

Ms. Elgin explains very clearly the underlying meanings of our language, both spoken and unspoken, by describing the “presuppositions” in our words.

She gives the example of the statement “Even Bill could get an A in that class.” She explains that the unsaid presupposition of that statement, though totally unsaid, is that “Bill is no great shakes as a student and the class is not difficult in any way.”

Her insights into the hidden verbal abuse that is frequently hurled in our direction by others, whether psychopathic or not, is very enabling.

The author also published book called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work, though I have not read a copy of that, I noticed it on

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dear libelle:

she knows how much lighting a candle would mean to me, and that’s why she used it. she hasn’t turned that into something negative – it still means a lot to me, so thank you and not to worry, okay?

this mail is from october. I have changed my email since then; she can’t get to me.

‘Sometimes we have to ruminate a lot to make the huge chunks swallowable’ this does seem like the process to me.

thank you for writing to me. i don’t see myself a s doing better yet, but ii will come. well, maybe i do – in as much as i am willing to be a bit more open here, which equals less paranoia on part.

all the best libelle,
thanks again.

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