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Kerrying On

Verbal Violence: Creating a New Normal

One day, while waiting at the airport for a flight home, I watched an older fellow tear into a gate agent for not putting him and his wife on the next plane (it had been overbooked). At first, the airline employee maintained her composure, but after being verbally attacked for what seemed like ten minutes, she began making threats of her own. Getting nowhere closer to home—but far closer to an infarction—the angry senior finally backed away. Seeing that I was watching him rather intently, he stepped toward me with a menacing look that suggested I’d be his next target.

And then I did something I didn’t plan on doing. It was if someone had run his or her arm up the back of my shirt and I was now a puppet, controlled by an unseen force. I looked the apoplectic guy in the eye and quietly said (I can’t believe I’m confessing this), “Sir, the way you just treated the gate agent was simply horrible.”

Both he and his wife were mortified by my remarks. I was mortified. But instead of turning his anger on me, as I thought he might, he turned to his wife who had been trying to drag him out of the fray for most of the interaction. Both looked ashamed as they slowly walked away. Although I’ll never know how my remarks affected him, it appeared as if I had held up a mirror and the reflection had cut him to the bone. My suspicions were confirmed by his wife’s comment as they walked away: “It’s true, dear. You are yelling at people a lot nowadays. You didn’t used to be like that. I don’t know what’s happened to you.”

I had no right to be so judgmental and intrusive but let’s set my faux pas aside and explore the process by which normal, decent, everyday people (as I’m sure this grandpa once was or mostly is) transform into forceful aggressors—or at least into people who occasionally do things they said they would never do. Beware, this transformation can happen slowly and without notice. Nobody applies for a membership into a curmudgeon club or takes a course in verbal violence. No one decides to become an attacking parent, insulting boss, or a senior citizen who verbally abuses gate agents. But somewhere between, “Please and thank you,” and “That’s just plain stupid!” we lose our path. As you might suspect, there are lots of ways we do so, but let me share my experience with a very common one as well as a few ideas for how to change.

Creating a New Normal

In the fall of 1973, while I was serving as a junior officer in the Coast Guard, a senior warrant officer (I’ll call him Burt) was assigned to a job that reported to me. He soon displayed all of the attributes of a forceful (and sometimes scary and abusive) debater within a team that was largely soft spoken and respectful. Scarcely a day passed without Burt getting into a heated argument. To quote one colleague: “Burt could turn a lullaby into a shouting match.”

One day, after I’d chatted with Burt for the umpteenth time about the evils of taking an aggressive, often hurtful style into what should be a calm discussion, he blew a gasket and slipped into full debate mode (ironic, no?). I maintained my cool for a minute or two until I eventually started firing back at him (even more ironic). The loud and fruitless argument ended poorly and Burt stomped off in a dither.

It took a few minutes for my adrenaline to dissipate but then I noticed something rather chilling. The members of my staff who had heard and seen the interaction were staring at me in disbelief—giving me the same shocked look the people at the airport had given the abusive senior citizen. Finally, one of my direct reports said, “Wow! Mr. Patterson, I never thought that you could explode like that.” It was a nice way of saying, “That was inexcusable—and please don’t ever do that to me.”

I thought about this interaction without much insight until a couple of days later when I ran into Burt as he was putting on his jacket to go home. Two things surprised me. One, Burt seemed completely unaffected by the fact that we had recently had a heated and relationship-damaging argument. He acted as if we were life-long chums. Two, he was sliding a lead pipe into his sleeve—the kind of lead pipe Colonel Mustard routinely uses to kill Miss Scarlet in the library.

Noticing me staring at his pipe, Burt explained, “It’s for fights. You need to be prepared.” He then suggested that “Betsy” (the pipe) had often saved his bacon. “What fights?” I wondered. And then it hit me. Burt was a walking time bomb. He was so spontaneously aggressive in most interactions that he caused heated debates, even fights, everywhere he went. His view, of course, was that the world was dangerous and he needed to carry a lead pipe in case a fight “broke out” somewhere.

Like Charles Shultz’ character Pigpen, who walks around causing the very cloud of dust that surrounds him (and that’s all he sees), Burt created his own cloud of forceful and violent debate. Violence was all he knew because it was all he saw. It was all he saw because wherever he went, it was what he brought out in others. Of course, since he constantly saw others acting violently, he thought everyone was violent most of the time and that made his aggressive style, if not okay, at least normal.

Burt confirmed my suspicions that he was creating a false “normal” one day when he asked, “Why are you singling me out for being too aggressive? Everyone I work with is verbally violent. Don’t you remember that time you yelled at me?”

“True,” I answered, but you’re the only person I’ve been verbally violent with in my entire career.”

“Are you saying,” Burt asked, “that I’m causing others to become argumentative?”

“To find out,” I suggested, “watch for heated arguments at work that you aren’t part of, then report back to me.” A month later, Burt reported that he had seen no verbal battles—except for his own—which had been plentiful. And then it happened. Burt began seeing himself as a causal force in his violent world rather than merely an innocent bystander. Then I asked Burt to look for what he was doing that might be causing the friction. He came back with a list that he started working on immediately.

Burt didn’t totally transform during the time we worked together, but the changes he did make only came after he realized that he had followed a dangerous path to verbal violence. First, his aggressive style often brought out the worst in others making him an active participant in creating his own unhealthy environment. Second, he had come to see the harmful reactions he routinely created as normal, even acceptable. In short, Burt saw no need to change until he realized that the world before and after he entered the scene was far more peaceful than the one he created through his own aggressive actions.

So, if you’re struggling with how relationships or conversations are being handled in your life, one first step toward change can be taking a good look around and questioning your own “normal.” It can be intimidating to review our own part in the problems we’re experiencing, but trust me, it sure beats carrying around a lead pipe.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

23 thoughts on “Verbal Violence: Creating a New Normal”

  1. Dear God! They let that man be in charge of young Coast Guardsmen? I sure hope that he realized his anger problem and got help with it.

    I don’t have those problems, but I will look around for how my “Pigpen’s dirt” impacts others.

  2. As always, helpful and insightful. My own version of the pigpen analogy is: People whose trip down the ‘river of life’ is always full of rapids never realize they can take the boat out of the water and go around – even when the rapids might be fatal – because they have always survived (and maybe thrived through!) the rapids in the past.

    1. HAHA! I thought for sure after reading the title it was going to be about today’s political atmosphere creating a new normal for the rest of us!

  3. Excellent! Excellent! Helpful on so many levels. You gave us tools for dealing with our own personal dust clouds and also how to reach in and perhaps help someone else recognize and deal with theirs. I would have given up on “Burt” and you did not. And Burt benefited.

    Too often we back away from unpleasant people and they are left caught in a trap that they could actually escape with a little help from outside.

  4. Wow. If we each truly lived the lesson in this post, we would create heaven here on earth. Thank you for writing this post.

  5. I really loved this letter. I have a training for parents and teens called Bully Proofing You. It is about belief in self and reaction to what others do. This is great and I will share it with my tribe. You can’t control others but you can control yourself.

  6. The first anecdote reminded me of my grandmother’s brother. In senior citizens, sudden changes in personality toward greater aggression might be a sign of dementia, or maybe even a mini stroke that can cause changes in personality. My grandmother’s brother became uncharacteristically violent with my grandfather once, in the year before he (the brother) died. It was extremely out of character (all her family were the kindest, calmest people I’ve ever met), and pretty obviously he was developing dementia before he died. My grandfather wasn’t seriously hurt, but my grandmother’s brother had to be restrained. If someone is being aggressive who has never been aggressive before, the personality change could be a symptom of an underlying condition, and the person should be encouraged to seek medical attention.

    1. I’ve had the same question as of late. That’s why I feel a bit ashamed for having confronted the fellow.

  7. I like the reference to pigpen and I have to think about what lead pipe I unknowingly carry on a “bad day”. Goodbye Betsy.

  8. I love your articles and typically agree with you. There is one statement in this article, though, where we disagree, “I had no right to be so judgmental and intrusive….” This entire article is about judging when verbal violence takes place and what to do about it. You did have the right to judge, as we all do, whether certain behaviors are acceptable in our society. Should we be intrusive? I would suspect that if something bad were happening to a loved one, we would all be grateful if a perfect stranger stepped in to protect them, i.e., to be intrusive. Thank you for exercising your right to judge wrongdoing and to correct the problem.

  9. I really enjoy reading your columns. I’ve witnessed many of these verbal attacks, and sadly to say, been part of a few as well. One thing that I took to heart years ago was the lyrics of a song by Michael Jackson – Man in the Mirror. It contains some advice we should all take to heart: ”…I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways…if you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change…”

  10. Thank you Mr. Patterson for this article. I always enjoy reading what you write. I have a Pigpen in my life…my husband. He is a very talkative man and engages people everywhere he goes. Generally, he can have a good conversation; although, he usually talks to long, annoying others so that they want to move on before he does. That’s not really my point, but just some of the back story.

    The main point is that my husband often brings up topics that are serious hot buttons for others (politics, religion, family divisions, etc.). He believes he’s right on every topic and others just need to understand where they are wrong. This often translates to conversations in our own home with me and our children. This is where he erupts often, yells louder than everyone else, and tells us all how wrong we are. Any time someone tries to hold him accountable (probably not in a crucial conversation kind of way, but more of a “I just got hit up side the head with a lead pipe” kind of way) he turns it around to something one of us is doing to cause his behavior.

    This cycle has been going on for 15 years now. My children and I have no idea how to approach him in a manor that can initiate change. Would love any advice you can give.

  11. I’ve worked as a leadership coach to several people who sound a great deal like your husband. After lots of attempts to provide helpful coaching, I stumbled on the following formula. First, we come to an agreement that the person being coached could improve. Second, we agree that it doesn’t call for a new personality or character infusion. The problems stem from a few unfortunate behaviors, not ingrained traits that can’t be altered. Then we pick a couple to improve. Next, we look at simple replacement behaviors. I contract to watch for the old unhealthy behaviors, and (when appropriate and we’re alone) I stop him on the spot with a simple signal, he takes a breath and replaces the old with the new. The idea is to make it simple behavior based and not complicated and hopeless trait based. We do this sort of playfully. I also point out that the ineffective behaviors are typically an extension of his strengths. He wants the right decision or action and stands up for it–unfortunately with a bit too much force. So we’re working on harnessing his strengths, not fixing his flaws.

  12. Loved the article but Pigpen did not create the dirt cloud that surrounded him. He could clean up and then “whoosh” – the dirt was attracted to him like a magnet. Luckily his friends accepted him flaws and all. Just had to defend this underdog character as underdogs are my favorite. 🙂

  13. Mr. Patterson,

    In your article, you stated, “I had no right to be so judgmental and intrusive…” but I would like to respectfully disagree.
    It is my belief that when you see an injustice taking place, one in which you are able to confront and possibly curtail, it is your duty to do so.

    At any rate, I’m proud of you for your intrusive comment, which was delivered in a manner that struck this man right between the eyes. And the way in which they came to you were nothing short of inspired.

    God bless,
    Lindsay

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