How to Turn Insult to Dialogue

Every leader needs to learn skills for turning insult into dialogue.

Public Insult Endangers All, Not Just the Targets

I'll never forget the moment in the first twenty minutes of a weekend workshop when, as a young conflict resolution trainer, a stranger told me in front of a roomful of people that she didn't think I had any business being there.  It was too blunt and cutting to ignore.  Lucky for me I had enough mediation and facilitation experience to have a reliable instinct to fall back on. 

When caught off guard by an unexpected comment you can't ignore, pull an unexpected move yourself by inviting more.  In a firm voice that I hoped wasn't quaking, I replied, "Could you say more about that?"  She did, and soon the room was full of hands of others eager to come my rescue.   Surviving that moment strengthened my credibility for the rest of the workshop.

Insult has become a daily aspect of life.  It's hard to read the newspaper or view screens without encountering it.   This is bad, not just for us, but for our future and our children's future. 

InsultFingerPublic insult damages more than its target. It erodes community by implanting destructive messages in all who witness it, eg:

  • Human interaction is a battlefield;
  • Being vicious, heartless, and cruel is acceptable in order to win;
  • Feelings of others and values of trust, good relationships, tolerance, and dialogue simply don't matter.

When insult is allowed to have the last word, when it succeeds in silencing or humiliating people, those messages are planted like seeds. Eventually the seeds become norms and people begin acting on them on a broad scale.  Then violence is just a stone's throw away.  No group or society should tolerate leaders who make insults a frequent part of their public presence.  Those that do will soon find that the destructive messages described above will soon come to describe the behaviors of many in the group.

Respond to Insult without Being Insulting

Among the many things we can do to prevent this is learning, modeling, and teaching the art of responding constructively to insult, without using insult ourselves.  

Don't fight fire with fire.  Fight fire with water.

Steve Jobs' Skillful Response to Public Insult

In a 3 minute video clip in 1997, Steve Jobs offers one of the best examples of defusing insult I've seen. He had just returned from a humiliating absence at Apple where he had been forced out ten years earlier.  In a conference someone tells Jobs it's clear he often doesn't know what he's talking about.  The speaker continues with a hostile question and adds a zinger at the end:  "And when you're finished with that, perhaps you can tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years."

In an insightful analysis of Job's response, Justin Bariso nails why it was effective:

  • He pauses, for a full 10 seconds, contemplating his response.  A pause not only gives time to control anger and prepare a thoughtful response, it sends a deeper message:  Let's listen and think; let's engage the issues, not just jump into combat.
  • He acknowledges elements of truth in the challenger's point.   
  • He then reframes the discussion to the big picture, where there is more common ground.   The user had challenged Job's work on a particular software.  Rather than respond directly and defensively, Jobs reframes the discussion to the issues and strategies that led to the development of that software.
  • He displays vulnerability, admitting that he has made mistakes.

That's high skill in communication on display there.  You probably can't match Job's grasp of the issues in his field.  But you can learn from his response. to insult.

Mastering the thoughtful pause is a great place to start.  What's to lose?  At the very least you gain time to formulate an answer you won't regret later.

Studies have shown (eg: Daniel O’Keefe, Communication Yearbook 22, 1999, pp. 209-249) that speakers who, in a balanced way, present both sides of an issue before asserting their own views are more persuasive than speakers who present only one side.  Pausing gives space to review the other side, in addition to the emotional timeout it obviously gives.   Jobs recognized an element of truth in his challenger's question and came up with a response that turned the challenge into a conversation.

In the language of conflict styles, this is opting for a Cooperating response (committed both to self and the relationship) in a setting where a Directing response (committed to self but not to the relationship) would have been easy but polarizing.

I'll add from my own efforts at this:   1) The best replies often occur to me about twenty minutes too late to be of value!  2) Like any skill, the ability to reply to insult without adding to it grows with practice. 3) Conflict style awareness helps.  If you learn to consciously choose your conflict style responses, you've already learned the hardest point of all this - making a conscious choice rather than merely reacting!