At a workshop many years ago, I learned a communication technique that felt like a gimmick. The object was to respond to someone who was insulting you by agreeing with them. It was important to sound sincere, not sarcastic. No — it was important to be sincere and find a way to agree with some part of the insult that your tormentor was throwing at you.
I wasn’t sure about this technique, but I persuaded a client to try it out.
The woman, I’ll call her Lisa, was telling me of repeated insults she received whenever she visited her friend for the weekend in Pennsylvania. She’d bring her aged dog, Scout, with her because he wasn’t healthy or young enough to be left in anyone else’s care.
As soon as Lisa walked through the door of her friend’s house, her friend’s husband, Steve, would tell her, “Are you bringing that mangy dog here again? What a hopeless piece of garbage he is.”
“Don’t insult my dog,” Lisa would say. “I love him. You’re so mean.”
Lisa tried yelling at Steve, insulting him back, crying, and telling him calmly that he hurt her whenever he said mean things about Scout. Nothing worked. At each visit the verbal cruelty got worse and Steve came up with new insults.
“He smells, he’s disgusting to look at, he’s pathetic. You ought to just put him out of his misery and shoot the damn dog,” Steve would say.
Since Lisa insisted on continuing these visits, I instructed her in the technique of agreeing with Steve in a serious manner.
“The next time Steve tells you to shoot your dog, say ‘You’re right. Scout is pathetic and useless. Thanks for finally convincing me about what I need to do. But I don’t have the heart to kill him myself. Can you take him out back and shoot him for me now?'”
I suggested that Lisa give this speech and then hand Steve the leash.
Lisa’s mouth dropped open. “I can’t say those things!” she yelled. “That’s terrible!”
“It’s only terrible if you think Steve might actually take the dog out and shoot him,” I reasoned. “Is there any chance of that?”
“No, of course not,” Lisa said. “He’s not crazy. He says those things to get to me. But I can’t insult my dog that way. It’s disrespectful to Scout.”
“Scout won’t understand your words,” I said. “If you want to win this game Steve is playing, then try something new.”
Lisa left my office shaking her head sadly and saying she couldn’t do what I was proposing.
The next time I saw her, Lisa walked into my office beaming. “I did it,” she announced with a grin.
“I told Steve exactly what you taught me to say.”
I smiled. “And?”
Lisa said, “He was stunned into silence. Then he gave me a disgusted look and walked away. He didn’t say anything more about my dog and I don’t think he ever will again. It felt great!”
“Game over,” I said. “You win.”