Notes on Verbal Judo

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George Thompson was a PhD-wielding, blackbelt-wearing, college professor turned cop turned “Verbal Judo” instructor who sadly, passed away in 2011. I read the first half of his book (chapters one through twelve) in one sitting. It was full of actionable advice for dealing with difficult situations, and Thompson sprinkled it with funny anecdotes that made the lessons stick. The second half of the book wasn’t nearly as interesting to me. I might have to re-read those chapters a year from now, after I’ve practiced the lessons in the earlier chapters.

  1. The ultimate goal is to move a disagreeable person to the point of voluntary compliance
  2. Let insults roll off you. Do not defend, do not counterattack. Just laugh it off. An attack only carries the weight you allow it to.
  3. There are three major types of people
    1. Nice people, who will do what you ask them to
    2. Difficult people, who will keep asking “why?” — you want to tell them how it benefits them
    3. Whimps, who dislike authority but don’t have the guts to confront it, who will gossip and plot revenge in the shadows — call them out, force them to either make a point in public or stop.
  4. Eleven things to avoid saying
    1. “Come here!” — the other person will hear “go away”. Instead say “can I chat with you?”
    2. “You wouldn’t understand” — it sounds like an insult. Instead say “I hope I can explain this.
    3. “Because those are the rules” — it makes you a mindless enforcer. Instead, explain how the rules, in context, lead to everyone’s well-being.
    4. “It’s none of your business” — it makes the other person feel like an outsider. Instead, say “I don’t feel comfortable revealing that”.
    5. “What do you want me to do about it?” — you’re evading responsibility. Instead, explain that you want to help, but can’t, and direct them to someone who can.
    6. “Calm down” — it’ll just make people more upset. Instead, ask them what’s wrong. They’re upset about something and want to talk.
    7. “What’s your problem?” — puts the other person on the defensive. Instead, say “what’s the matter? how can I help?”
    8. “You never/You always” — avoid absolute generalizations as they’re usually lies. Instead, explain that “when you do X, I feel Y”.
    9. “Don’t make me repeat myself” — it forces you to act in the future and puts the person on the defensive. Instead, say “it’s important that you understand this, so listen carefully”.
    10. “I’m doing this for your own good” — it’s condescending and turns your listener into a cynic. Instead, offer concrete examples of the good you’re trying to achieve.
    11. “Be reasonable!” — you’re calling the other person unreasonable, and inviting more conflict. Instead, be reasonable with them. Summarize their position in their own words, and use that to help them think logically and less destructively.
  5. If someone has been emotionally hijacked, help them postpone action until they’re stable again: “give it 24 hours, and we’ll talk again.” Don’t say “don’t do that”, or try to reason them out of doing something.
  6. Deflect, don’t block, verbal attacks. Use “strip phrases”. When someone insults you, thank them, and then pivot and say what you need to get your job done.
  7. If you need to interrupt someone, paraphrase them.
  8. The Five-Step Hard Style
    1. Ask
    2. Set context (in response to “why?”)
    3. Present options in the person’s best interest
    4. Ask if any cooperation is possible
    5. Act
  9. Name the type of people who you struggle to deal with, and you won’t be as easily hijacked the next time you deal with then.
  10. Listening is actually the job of the speaker. You have to communicate in a way that your audience will respond well to.
  11. Words account for less than 10% of what you’re communicating. Your tone of voice and other nonverbal cues are far more important.
  12. Verbal Judo is also useful at home, and in the workplace.
  13. If you need to give criticism, give it first, then praise. Reversing the order makes the praise seem insincere.
  14. Be specific with your praise. Don’t just say “good job on that”, go into detail.