Working Wounded: Verbal Abuse

April 28, 2006 — -- DEAR WOUNDED: There is a person at work who is incredibly abusive to me. I've tried everything and nothing seems to work.

ANSWER: When I read your e-mail I thought of Bob Ward, an old elementary school classmate. Bob was the master of the mirror. When someone insulted him, Bob would say, "Mirror, you're the (and then he repeated whatever they'd just called him)."

OK, maybe this is not the most creative or mature approach. But believe it or not, there is something that can be said for simply holding up a mirror to an abusive person. I've listed a few other strategies below. For more, check out "You Can't Talk to Me That Way!" by Arthur Bell (Career, 2005).

Can you repeat it? Have you ever said something and only realized it was dumb when someone repeated it back to you? Maybe it is my Jersey upbringing, but I've done this more times than I care to remember. One great way to neutralize an abusive person is to simply mirror the abusive behavior back to him or her. It's not foolproof, but it's one tool to carry in your toolbox.

Can you bring along a witness? It's not easy to always travel with a posse at work, but it's worth a try if your nemesis is someone you don't see daily. Having a witness can calm the situation down.

Can you get someone on your side? If you know that you will be dealing with an abusive person, it's a good idea to enlist support.Three places to start -- Human Resources, your boss or your union. All can provide advice and possible ammunition for dealing with an abusive co-worker (although probably not the kind of ammunition that you'd prefer). It's usually better if the key players know of a potential problem in advance rather than after the fact.

Can you take charge? Sometimes you can take charge of the conversation. Start talking about your past challenges and suggest a way to address each other in the future that can avoid past problems. One possibility, try, "Since we've had some problems talking in the past, how about if we try to do more of our communications through e-mail for a while. Maybe this will create a more constructive dialogue between us."

Can you walk away? Sometimes a person is just beyond reasoning. This may not always be an option, but sometimes it is the only way to deal with someone who only has bile for you.

Can you really walk away? I don't believe that a paycheck is worth the kind of abuse that people have detailed to me through the years. It just isn't. I do maintain that there are sane bosses and sane companies out there. It's your job to find 'em.

If only more organizations held up a mirror to the abusers in their midst, we could all experience a saner workplace.

We'd like to hear your strategy for dealing with abuse at work. I'll give an autographed copy of "Working Wounded: Advice that adds insight to injury" (Warner, 2000) to the best submission. Send your entry, name and address via: or via e-mail: Entries must be received by Wednesday, May 3.

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How do you approach a challenging goal at work?

Winning Strategy

Our winning strategy for dealing with a challenging goal comes from S.R. in Los Angeles:

"A difficult goal? My approach is to have it come from the team. People will always complain when someone from the outside lays an ambitious goal on their backs. But when it comes from them, well, they'll practically kill themselves to make it happen if it's their idea. Sure it takes some planting seeds, planning. But it is all well worth the effort, at least in my experience."

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From: Dale Carnegie

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, speaker and internationally syndicated columnist. His newest best-seller, "Gray Matters: The Workplace Survival Guide" (Wiley, 2004), is a business comic book that trades cynicism for solutions. Ask Bob a question: or publishes a new Working Wounded column every Friday.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.