How to Survive a Verbal Attack

I was in line one day at the airport when a woman arrived late and wasn’t permitted to board. She screamed obscenities at the West Jet representative, startling everyone within earshot. It’s rare to see this kind of verbal attack in public and between strangers; it usually happens at home and with people we love.

Emotional Flooding

Emotional flooding is a term used by John Gottman to describe when emotions overpower a person’s ability to reason. When a person is angry or upset, their heart rate increases. In studies, Gottman found that if the heart rate goes over 85 beats a minute, the person doesn’t hear accurately and doesn’t think or behave rationally.

Some people shut down and refuse to talk when they are flooded. Others may lash out. If someone lashes out at you, you might also become emotionally flooded.

Gottman found couple’s who become emotionally flooded during arguments have a higher rate of divorce than those who argue without becoming flooded.

Flooding Can Happen in Any Relationship

Flooding can occur in any relationship although it’s more common among couples and between parents and children. It’s not always the child flooding the parent; sometimes the parent’s emotional outburst floods the child. This is particularly true between parents and adolescents.

The 20-Second Rule

Years ago I took a workshop from the Crisis Prevention Institute on non-violent crisis intervention. I learned that when a person has an emotional outburst, it usually only lasts 20 seconds. However, if we say anything, it can trigger another outburst and turn what would have been a 20-second outburst into an all out war.

The goal is to stay quiet and calm during the outburst and not engage in any discussion until both of your heart rates have returned to normal.

6 Steps to Dealing with an Emotionally Flooded Person

  • Validate emotions when the person first starts to escalate. Often showing concern and listening is enough to bring the person back down. Validating doesn’t mean agreeing with them, it means acknowledging their feelings and appreciating their perspective, even if it’s different from your own.
  • Give the person space. Don’t corner the person, touch the person, or prevent the person from leaving. An emotionally flooded person can become physical if he or she feels threatened.
  • Set boundaries if attempts to de-escalate fail. The boundary may be as simple as, “Let’s talk about this when I’ve had time to think about it more,” or as forceful as, “I think it’s time to leave.” If you have any concerns for your physical safety, call the police. While it’s important not to over or under-react, your safety and the safety of others is the priority.
  • Say nothing during and right after the attack. Your silence speaks volumes and keeps the focus on them. If you say nothing, they have nothing to respond to. Anything you say will be used to hook you into an argument.
  • Remove yourself  from the situation. The person needs time to calm down, and you might too.
  • Discuss what happened. It’s important to talk about what happened when both of you are calm. Talking about it restores your dignity and repairs the relationship. Tell the person how you felt and what you expect from them in the future. Be brief and stick to the facts. Don’t moralize or shame as you’ll risk starting another escalation (refer to DEAR MAN skills). Accept an apology if offered, but don’t try to force one.

Key Points To Remember

  • Stay mindful and calm.
  • Don’t retaliate; it takes the focus off their behaviour and puts it on both of your behaviour.
  • Just because you set boundaries, it doesn’t mean they’ll be respected. Accept that ultimately you have no control over how the other person behaves.
  • Your physical and emotional safety is your responsibility. Continuously trying to force someone to behave, think, or feel the way you want them to is demeaning to both of you. If you are not being treated the way you want and the other person isn’t willing or able to change, decide if this relationship is worth it. If it is, or it’s a relationship you cannot avoid, you may need additional strategies to cope.
  • If there is any risk of physical abuse, seek help from an agency that deals with abuse and put a safety plan in place.

Intensity Matters

Gottman’s research found that fighting doesn’t mean a couple is unhappy. Many couples fight often and are very happy; others never fight and are unhappy. What does affect a relationship is the intensity of the fight, whether there’s loss of control, and whether the couple makes-up effectively afterwards.

Raising your voice during a discussion does not mean you are emotionally flooded. It may simply mean you feel passionately about what you are saying or that you’re frustrated. Not every angry person is emotionally flooded.

Flooding is about being overwhelmed with your emotions to the point where you stop being reasonable and you say and do things you later regret.

If you are a sensitive person, you may get emotionally flooded simply because someone is angry with you. Your emotional reaction is not evidence that the person is mistreating or abusing you. Pay attention to the intensity and the content of what is said and whether the person is irrational and out of control.

If you become flooded, ask for what you need. Maybe you need a break or just for them to lower their voice. Keep it focused on what you need, and not what you think the other person is doing wrong.

What to Do if You Are Flooded

Whether you respond to flooding by shutting down or verbally lashing out, you need to take a break as soon as you start to get  frustrated.

It’s okay to take a time out, but let the other person know what you are doing and that you will finish the discussion when you are calm. Agree to check back in an hour.

Storming out without saying anything may harm the relationship. The other person might see it as a sign you don’t care. Remember, the other person may be flooded too; don’t expect them to be patient with you.

Do not drink or use drugs to calm yourself down; talk yourself down instead. Do deep breathing to help your heart rate return to normal. For deep breathing exercises, check out the post on Give Your Mind a Needed Break.

Focus on returning to rational thought by distancing yourself from your emotions using observing and describing skills. For more information on observing and describing, check out the post on A Mindfulness Lesson.

After You Have Verbally Attacked Someone

If you have lashed out, attempt to repair the relationship by accepting responsibility and apologizing. Ultimately you are responsible for your behaviour, so don’t try to blame the other person.

Work on a plan for recognizing and de-escalating yourself in the future and share it with the other person. Explain how you are going to behave the next time you start to get flooded. Learn about regulating emotions by reading further posts and additional resources.

It’s normal and understandable to be affected by another person’s behaviour. Regardless, we are all responsible for our own actions.

It’s hard to control ourselves once we get emotionally flooded. The best approach is to learn strategies to prevent emotional flooding from happening in the first place.

DBT Skill:

Validation is critical to deepening our relationships and building trust with others. We all want to be understood and to know that others care about how we feel. Just listening and showing genuine interest is all that’s needed. In order to really hear another person, we must manage our own emotions and suspend judgment so we don’t take things personally and trigger emotional flooding in ourselves.

Validation Means:

  • Finding the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective,
  • Acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviours have causes and are therefore understandable,
  • Not necessarily agreeing with the other person,
  • Not validating what is actually invalid. Don’t agree the sky is green when you know the sky is blue. Try instead to understand why the person sees the sky as green.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
James Baldwin
If you have an experience you’d like to share, add a comment at the bottom of the page. I’d love to hear from you.

Related posts:

Additional Resources

Gottman Counselling Blog for Couples

Verbal Escalation Continuum

Steps for Taking a Time Out

Emotional Flooding

Author: Jenny

I am a counsellor at Walmsley Counselling Agency in Prince George, BC. I have a Master’s Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.