In my office I deal with terrorists every day. Their weaponry is words. They don’t torture me but daily commit cruel verbal attacks on others.

“He won’t talk to me,” she complained. “I tell him what a lousy husband he is, how he expects me to do everything. Then he explodes and calls me a nagging bitch.”
“So you do talk—or rather fight,” I said. “You blame and insult him, and he responds by assaulting you.”

Like all terrorists, this couple sees themselves as victims. Self-pitying and self-righteous, they attack; but they never win, never manage to promote guilt and apology in their tormentor.

Anger is a reactive emotion. We react when we fail to get what we want, or get what we don’t want. If words are used as guilt-infused bullets, sooner or sometimes later a hostile counterattack will erupt.

When annoyed, without criticism or blame simply ask respectfully for what you would like. If insulted say, “I feel disrespected when you speak to me that way.” (Or as my husband Richard is fond of saying, “Thank you for insulting me. Have a nice day.”)

Do not continue to converse until anger has subsided. Only then is it possible to hold peace talks.

Named one of New York’s most popular psychotherapists by The New York Times Magazine, Sheenah Hankin, Ph.D., is codeveloper of Cognitive Appraisal Therapy and coauthor of Succeeding With Difficult Clients. She has conducted workshops throughout North America and Europe and lives with her husband in New York City. She is the author of Complete Confidence (HarperCollins, 2008).

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