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Avoiding Personal Attacks

“You’re wrong,” she said in a strong commanding voice.

I immediately sat up in my chair thinking, “That’s not the way to question another person’s comment.” I was in the audience at a meeting. The panel’s discussion had suddenly veered away from the topic and into that murky water where people take offense at what is said or even the way it is said.

One of the people on the panel had made a proposal and supported it with some information. After a brief discussion between panel members, the “You’re wrong” comment rang out. It was a showstopper for me, and I suspect for the others in the audience and on the panel because it immediately moved the discussion away from the facts and into a direct attack. It made me uncomfortable, and I wondered how it made the person who was the target of the comment feel.

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Managing disagreement can be difficult, but it can be handled better when both parties to a disagreement avoid comments that are personal in nature, such as:

 “I can’t believe you think that…”

 “That doesn’t matter…”

 “You’re wrong…”

 “Where on earth did you get your facts…”

Not only are the words problematic, the way they’re spoken—the tone of voice—can turn a discussion ugly quickly.

When faced with comments or tone that are personal in nature or disrespectful, what can you do?

Most importantly, don’t reply in kind. When “You’re wrong” rang out, the object of the comment reiterated his original points. The discussion then ended without resolution and the meeting moved on to other topics.

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Remain calm. Anger begets more anger. Often by remaining calm the agitated person cools off as well, and may even acknowledge his or her loss of temper.

Keep your focus on the facts. Just the facts, not opinions.

Disengage if necessary. Rather than continue a discussion with someone who is agitated and making personal attacks, the best thing to do is to defer the discussion to later. The key is to make your disengagement a statement, not a question. The question would sound like this, “Ron, could we talk about this later?” Now, you’ve ceded control of the situation to the other person. The statement would sound like this: “Ron, I think we should talk about this later. I’ll call you to set up a time.” There’s no overt reference to the other person’s anger as the reason, just a statement of fact that you are disengaging and will follow up later.

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People will disagree and need to come to a resolution of their disagreement. That resolution will come much easier when both people involved are focused on the issue at hand rather than trying to prevail by attacking each other.

If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.

Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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