Deflect Verbal Intimidation

No one can take power from you unless you give it to them, but people try to get you to relinquish power through verbal intimidation. Jay Morrisey shares his anti-intimidation advice, which can easily apply if you find yourself in a contentious customer service situation.

This is when the instigator asks a question, and immediately cuts into your answer with the next question. The result of this technique is that the target does not have a chance to explain their answers at all, leaving them scared about what the next question may be… If someone tries cutting-in on your responses. Simply pause, then politely reply: I’ll answer your next question, when I’m done with this one.

AmEx used this on me back in my foolish years when I was behind on some credit card debt. The guy who called kept cutting me off and made me feel very small. I wished I had known how to slow down the line of attack at the time. What other verbal intimidation tactics have you experienced, and how do you fight back against them?

The Art of Verbal Intimidation : Learn it and fight back! [Jay Morrissey via Lifehacker]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Blueskylaw says:

    I swear the check is in the mail!!!!

  2. smitty1123 says:

    I lift weights and shave my head. That seems to work pretty well.

  3. hazeljemi says:

    This made me think of the techniques of “interviewers” on fox news, especially Bill O’Reilly.

  4. GOKOR says:

    I’ve had a customer tell me it’s my job to take shit from him. He was pissed off at something I had nothing to do with and tried laying it out on me. I was like “dude, I don’t make a lot of money working here, so please, don’t try dishing it out to me.”

    That tends to piss them off, but fuck ’em, they’re all douchebags when they come into a retail store and try acting like they’re sooo much better than the poor guy that is instructed to be nice, no matter what…and the customers know this.

  5. GOKOR says:

    @gokor: I’ve also had customers apologize for it after they realize, “you know what, he’s right, it’s not his fault.”

  6. His technique for information flood is awesome. I do that all the time. And it really DOES make people nuts.

    Another excellent technique for information flood is to put on a bubble-headed and charming expression and tell them you can’t respond to anything/sign anything/do anything until you ask your husband/father/attorney. It works better for women than for men, but if you can look vacant enough, it’ll work for anybody.

    (He points out the cutting-in technique is used a lot by lawyers, and you should refuse to move on until you’ve finished explaining your answer — let ME point out that that makes you the WORST. CLIENT. EVER. Only do that to the OTHER side’s attorney! And even then, the court might not let you.)

    Bursting into tears (not that I recommend doing it on purpose!) in the face of yelling also sometimes helps, but not in a work setting, where it just makes you look over-emotional. Helps more in a confrontational setting. Everyone in the room is suddenly on your side and the shouter looks like an enormous bully and asshole.

  7. whatNameIsLeft says:

    @gokor: I don’t think a lot of people know what its like to actually work in retail. I’ve been ripped into for just about every reason known to man and after a while I ended up saying fuck ’em too.

    If someone is going to lay into you because they are having a bad day then they shouldn’t expect much in return.

  8. zibby says:

    If this info gets out Chris Matthews is done.

  9. AndyRogers says:


    You’re right, because the other “news” networks are SOOO unbiased, right? Pfft.

  10. GOKOR says:

    @whatNameIsLeft: Exactly. I treat people based on how they treat me. If they’re cool, I’ll bend over backwards for ’em, but if they’re jerks, I’m likely to brush them off and ignore them or be completely condescending.

  11. Amelie says:

    The article was fantastic. It’s sad that so many people have to put up with this sort of abuse in the workplace.

    @AndyRogers: If you would read the article, you’d realize this has nothing to do with the political bias of a network, but with the personality style of the interviewers. But god forbid, you should actually know what you’re talking about.

  12. bentcorner says:

    @smitty1123: That was the funniest thing I’ve read in weeks.

  13. trujunglist says:

    Just get the crazy look in your eye and they’ll likely stop talking to you all together.. since you won’t be able to see it, just imagine that the person in front of you has a throat made of the tastiest cake in the world.

  14. sibertater says:

    First names. When I used to do phone customer service it was a way to bring a call back under control or keep the caller’s attention. We’re trained to respond to our names.

  15. kc2idf says:

    You can raise your voice, also. I did use this approach when trying to get a telemarketer selling timeshares to stop calling me. Don’t go over the top, but don’t be afraid to let your irritation show.

  16. @sibertater: That actually drives me CRAZY when CSRs on the phone do it. It’s so transparent, and it’s SOOOOOO disrespectful. In a business relationship where we’ve not met before, I am MS. McGee and you are Mr./Ms. Tater.

  17. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    Never underestimate the withering power of disdainful silence.

  18. hazeljemi says:

    I didn’t say anything about bias in the news. I just meant these tactics reminded me of some of the hosts on Fox news, specifically Bill O’Reilly. Chris Matthews is another great example. So, I agree that hosts on shows on other cable news networks employ the exact same methods of verbal intimidation.

    The interviews are more like interrogations. It’s somewhat disappointing that the guests who go on these shows have to submit to being berated on the air

  19. vdragonmpc says:

    I second Speedwell… The worst arguement ender is no responce but a powerful Glare. No one can overtake that one if done correctly.

  20. whatNameIsLeft says:

    @speedwell: Ohhh thats a good one I had forgotten about. When trying to get something out of someone and the budge just a little don’t say anything. Try to hold the silence longer than is natural/comfortable. It usually gets them to move a bit more. (just don’t try to be creepy)

  21. lockdog says:

    Since becoming a parent I’ve discovered the awesome power of my “Dad voice.” It’s effective at dealing with annoying CSRs and salesmen and especially great for making other people’s children behave, and often puts the parents of said children in line too. I sell architectural salvage. My store is safe, but the presence of rusty nails, broken glass and old lead based paint doesn’t make it kid friendly. So I’ll never understand why some people let their kids run around completely unsupervised. Use Dad voice once on the kids, then a second time on their parents, and the third time to politely and firmly and publicly announce their departure. I almost always advocate for the customer on Consumerist, I’ll bend over backwards for them, but safety is where I draw the line.

  22. Sam says:

    My dad is an attorney, and he has a similar technique that he has crafted through his years in courtrooms. The beauty of this, though, is that it can be used in all different sorts of situations. If someone interrupts him, he will start over at the beginning of whatever he was saying. It may take the interrupter a few times to realize that Dad isn’t going to stop repeating himself, but they always do. (This is always devastating in arguments at home as well.)

  23. Maulleigh says:

    Ugh. I just had to quit a job cuz the guy in charge was a verbal bully of the first order. My answer to all my problems is flight. One of these days I’ll learn to fight. But I know that a tiger doesn’t change its stripes and there are so many more jobs out there why stick with the dbags?

  24. Maulleigh says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: Either defer to the male in your life or start crying?! Eyebrows! Get thee to [] STAT!!

  25. Parting says:

    I just give a smiling ”look of death”. There’s something in my eyes, that the @ss always shuts up. I guess a fake smile, combined with angry eyes, creeps people out.

  26. Parting says:

    @smitty1123: I wish that would work for me :)

  27. @Maulleigh: No, no, no, those are just ways to deal with the overaggressive who won’t back off after normal human tactics. :) Mostly when people get all asstastic at us, Mr. McGee wants ME to take over because I’m just much meaner and more assertive. But when I’m solo and some jackass is pressuring me, a bubble-headed, “I have to ask my husband” is always a quick ticket out of the pressure — because my husband isn’t there and they can pressure all they want, but I’m going to keep insisting I can’t make a decision (and it’s fun to watch them squirm). It doesn’t work for men as well as women (because folks are just less willing to accept men as requiring “permission”), but it works.

    As for the crying, when you can’t help it, it frequently works in your favor anyway. As I said, not that I recommend it as a tactic on PURPOSE, but if you DO start crying in a confrontational situation that isn’t work-related, it almost always goes in your favor. Which is really more to say don’t feel BAD about crying if someone gets all up in your face and starts screaming at you; I really don’t think one should do it on purpose.

    Personally I mostly use either the “curiosity” tactic where you make them explain everything to you, or a tactic where you make them your friend (this also tends to work better for women than for men). And the “I’m really calm, why are you so upset?” tactic.

  28. @Maulleigh: PS – you must be newish here. Eyebrows is mean. :) (Unless telephone CSRs yell at her, in which case Eyebrows inexplicably falls to pieces.)

  29. @Maulleigh: I guess I should add that “I have to ask my wife” DOES work, but it works in different categories of consumer goods — for men it works better with housewares, furniture, and clothing. Salespeople are TOTALLY willing to believe men can’t dress themselves without female approval. For women, it’s easiest to get away with with car stuff, hardware, and electronics.

  30. RvLeshrac says:

    Now, how do I get rid of the asshole customer who won’t shut up long enough to get a response?

    Dealing with a CSR who is actively attempting to be an ass is one thing. If you’re in the CSR’s shoes, however, and you have a customer who is being an ass, you have to stand there and take it.

    A female CSR at my workplace was attempting to help some guy with a problem, and he was screaming at her the entire time. An off-duty manager came in for something completely unrelated, saw the commotion, walked over, and, as politely and loudly as possible, told the man to shut up and stop yelling at the CSR, and perhaps we would be able to handle whatever his problem was. When confronted by someone his own size, the man decided to shut up for a few minutes, and we solved his problem without further incident.

    If he’d shut his mouth earlier, the CSR may have been able to solve his problem twice as fast.

    If the CSR had taken the same tactic as the manager, she would likely have been fired.

    Several months later, we had a long line. Someone in the line picked up his cellphone and called the store, asked for a manager, and began berating the mgmt about the backed-up line. As the manager was walking to the front, the guy in line decided to hang up on him in the middle of a sentence – when asked why he hung up, the man’s response was to complain to corporate, who promptly censured the ‘offending’ manager.

    Situations like this, in addition to the response from corporate fools, are why those of us in customer service don’t give a rat’s ass about most of you.

    When you’re polite, state your problem, and wait for a response, you’re FAR more likely to get a good, timely resolution to your problem. There’s a time and place for being irate, and the FIRST STEP toward customer service is NOT it. We don’t care how long you spent on the phone with X, Y, or Z. X, Y, and Z aren’t related to the person in front of you.

    If you’ve been shuffled around on the phone, that’s a slightly different story – the person on the phone should be advised of every previous step in your path toward them. Unless you’re obviously being stonewalled, though, you still need to remain polite and calm until the need arises.

    Most importantly, you need to recognize the difference between “verbal intimidation” and “answers you don’t like.” If I tell you that your washer/dryer/laptop/stove/car/whatever is broken and must be repaired, the answer is NOT GOING TO CHANGE. It will be broken the first time you ask about it, and it will be broken the 5th time you ask about it. The ONLY difference is that I’m going to be willing to do what I can to help you the first time you ask, and I’m going to be extremely pissed and wishing you dead the fifth time you ask.

  31. Me. says:

    I worked at a check cashing store and I swear it was the best education in dealing with crazy, irrate people.

    But I’d have to say that my best experience in thise type of arguements involved my future step-mother in my face screaming, “YOU SAID I WAS A GOLD-DIGGER!!!” to which I calmly responded, “No… I didn’t say you were a gold digger. But I did express concern that you’ve never held a real job.” Oh boy, that took 100% of her power away fast! Oh, by the way, I was 19 and she was 38.

  32. upokyin says:

    Is this post meant to be a counterpoint to the one from a few weeks ago that told us how to steamroll over low-level customer service reps?

  33. I think I need this for all the jerks that come through my line when I cashier (thankfully not very often :P)

  34. Ghede says:

    A good technique is a long pause before you answer their question. That way if they cut you off, it seems funny, not intimidating. If they don’t cut you off and just ask another question, they won’t get any answers until they shut up.

  35. @RvLeshrac: “Situations like this, in addition to the response from corporate fools, are why those of us in customer service don’t give a rat’s ass about most of you.”

    Yes, but if CSRs are pre-emptively not caring about customers and ready to treat them badly because they’ve suffered some bad customers in the past, what incentive do customers have to treat CSRs well, especially given that they ALSO have suffered bad CSRs in the past?

    I’m so tired of this logic. “Some of you are nasty to CSRs, so I’m going to be nasty to all of you. Tit for tat.” Except you’re getting PAID to be polite and professional, and I don’t appreciate being a well-behaved customer and treated like shit because SOME customers are nasty to you.

  36. CurbRunner says:

    These verbal intimidation techniques are used on FOX News channel by the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly on guests that they have on their shows. Especially the constant interruption of the guest’s comments. It’s a coward’s way of not being able to confront the truth while trying to hold onto an alleged position of power.

  37. CSR says:

    Heh. Amen to that! I’ve used that on both sides–as a customer and as a customer service rep. I have a three times rule at work–I’ll try to answer your question three times. If you interrupt me again, I stay silent. Almost always I get a hostile, “Hello! Are you still there?!?”. At which point I calmly inform them that I was just waiting for them to finish what they were saying, because I didn’t want to be rude and interrupt them. Most of the time, they at least let me finish my answers after that.

  38. gfinakoma says:

    @Eyebrows McGee:

  39. JackieJoy says:

    Funny, customers try to use this on me all the time, where I, as a manager, always politely listen to them and wait for them to finish their foamy-mouthed ranting before speaking.

  40. RvLeshrac says:

    @Eyebrows McGee:

    No, the situation needs to be handled accordingly. CSR being an ass? Be an ass back. Don’t simply walk into the situation being an ass, though. And don’t assume that the CSR is being an ass simply because they can’t change the world to fit your demands.

    The problem is that the VAST MAJORITY of customers act like they own the person in front of them simply because they spent $5 in the store. Why? Because the corporate hacks while bend over backwards for someone who is being an ass.