Sounding off about verbal abuse

than 5 per cent of training courses deal with verbal abuse, yet it makes up to
90 per cent of all reported incidents of violence. Walter Brennan examines the
scale of the problem

Despite including verbal abuse within the Health and Safety Executive’s definition
of workplace violence as: ‘any incident where staff are abused, threatened or
assaulted in circumstances related to their work’, the reality is that verbal
abuse continues to be disturbingly under-acknowledged, and just as poorly

In fact, there are a number of definitions of verbal abuse. Cooper et al
described it as: ‘overt or subtle verbalisations ranging from profanity and
openly hostile remarks about competency, to double edged comments, gossip and

A simple definition adopted by Cooper during training courses is: ‘Language
intended to cause distress to the target’. I emphasise the word ‘intended’ as
there are occasions and situations when people may be distressed or angry and
the consequence may well be verbal abuse, but such circumstances are often
regarded with empathy (‘I know how and why they feel this way’).2

This type of verbal abuse, referred to by Maier as ‘hot’ verbal abuse,3 can
often be dealt with through good de-escalation. It is the ‘cold’ verbal abuse
that many respondents find much more challenging, offensive or distressing.

What kind of verbal abuse do staff find most distressing?

I designed and provided a list of 15 different statements (see box, p24) and
asked participants to list the statements they found least troubling, through
to the most challenging/distressing/annoying.

In other words, the statements that made them feel compelled to take some
form of action, whether it was to walk away, retaliate physically or verbally,
or become upset.

The participants in the study comprised 80 healthcare staff, 32 call centre
staff, 24 local authority employees and 30 retail staff.

The statements used in the questionnaire were taken from anecdotal
information provided by victims who have previously been the targets of verbal

In an attempt to categorise the statements, they were grouped as:

– Inappropriate use of language: numbers 1, 2, 9 – a reasonable request but
one sullied by the use of bad or inappropriate language

– Non-personal statements: numbers 3, 5 – Criticism of a service or
organisation, rather than a person

– Patronising, arrogant to person: numbers 4, 8 – Superior approach used to
make the recipient feel inadequate and inferior

– Threatening and offensive to person: numbers 6, 7, 10,12 – Serious threat
to the personal well being of person targeted and the use of offensive and
violent language

– Unfair, erroneous statement about the person or situation: numbers 11, 13,
14, 15 – Statements are critical, abusive and factually incorrect.

It is not always possible to pigeon hole each type of verbal abuse into one
of the types listed above, but such a classification may prove useful for
further research.

Many workers who responded to the questionnaire reported that although they
didn’t feel they were in any physical danger, they experienced anxiety, an urge
to cry, a sense of freezing up and inadequacy, a desire to run away, and even
an urge to retaliate and say something just as offensive or ‘cutting’ back to
the abuser. Several victims described being tearful and unable to get the
experience out of their thoughts.

The statement the majority of women regarded as the most distressing was
number 10: ‘You f***ing b*tch/ba***rd. You deserve to be raped and killed for
what you’ve done to me’, which was described as offensive, threatening and
‘very scary’.

This statement is obviously distressing as the aggressor is using both
specific and serious threats, ‘wrapped up’ in offensive language.

The second most disturbing statement was number 12. This was the one the
majority of men found the most distressing (84.3 per cent) – not because of the
threat of violence, but because of the potential stigma of being referred to as
a paedophile. As one male retail employee stated: "The thought that I
could be labelled a paedophile in the current climate is a terrifying thought.
This scared me but also made me feel very angry that people are allowed to make
such wicked and slanderous statements free from any form of sanction."

The five statements found to be most ‘challenging’ by those who completed
the questionnaire were:

– No.10 = 48.9 per cent

– No.12 = 16.8 per cent

– No.6 = 13.1 per cent

– No.15 = 9.6 per cent

– No.11 = 3.8 per cent

– No.1 = 3 per cent

– Others = 2.8 per cent

Interestingly, when asked the source of the verbal abuse, more than a
quarter of the respondents (26 per cent) identified colleagues and/or managers
as the perpetrators. This highlights the fact that verbal abuse between staff
is a prime example of workplace bullying.

Triggers of verbal abuse

Verbal abuse occurs for many reasons, ranging from frustration over a
perceived failure of a service or long waiting times, through to situations
where it is used to cause emotional or psychological distress to the target.

Other triggers may be:

– Distress

– Anger

– Confusion

– Alcohol/ drugs

– Perceived injustice

– Poor communication skills

– Means of domination

– ‘Because they can’

– Mental health problem

– Us

Why is verbal abuse distressing?

Verbal abuse is psychologically damaging because it can be used to
deliberately cause insult and ‘hurt’ to the target.

The impact of verbal abuse can prove to be psychologically damaging and is
capable of producing symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Such symptoms may include anxiety, depression, psychosomatic disorders and
avoidance behaviours, which are just a few of the symptoms reported by victims
of verbal abuse.

Other reported consequences included ‘acute embarrassment’, and the ‘desire
to smash a chair over their head’.

Lenehan and Turner said that employees who had been victims of violence
expressed such symptoms as crying spells, feelings of unworthiness, lack of
direction and motivation, fatigue, irritability, and sleep and eating

The role of the manager

Verbal abuse can be extremely distressing for the victims, and employers are
increasingly being exposed through civil actions for failing to address this major
threat to their staff’s mental health.

Violence became a serious health and safety issue as a result of the
Reporting of Injuries Dangerous Disease Occurrence Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR),
which came into effect on the 1 April 1996. However, as mentioned above, the
definition of violence includes verbal abuse, and therefore employers must put
systems in place to reduce the risk of violence. To achieve this, staff must be
provided with training to develop the skills needed to cope with verbal abuse.

The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act emphasises a requirement for
employers to provide a ‘safe working environment’.5 The need to ensure mental
health is protected and promoted is becoming increasingly crucial.

The 1998 Human Rights Act (Article 3) identifies the right of individuals to
be free from torture and inhumane treatment.6 It can be argued that verbal
abuse can be psychologically tortuous, not to mention inhumane, if left

Reports of incidents of verbal abuse must be recorded and taken just as
seriously as acts of physical violence.

What the individual can do

How do you respond to verbal abuse? Do you just ignore it? Don’t take it
personally? Laugh, apologise, cry or retaliate? The fact is, we can respond to
verbal abuse with any of the above. But one of the most important elements of
managing people and situations is to ‘know yourself’.

Situations can vary in terms of how they are perceived and responded to, so
staff must be able to ask themselves: ‘How do I feel today?’. They should also
consider how they come across, and whether they are saying one thing while
their body language is saying something else.


Self-talk is a concept developed to help people cope in stressful

Imagine you are walking into a situation you feel frightened about – for
example, an interview. We often tell ourselves it is scary, and wonder whether
we will be able to cope. Then we may say to ourselves: ‘Behave yourself, it’s
only an interview’, which has a steadying effect on us.

This is how we use self-talk. It is designed to reduce your anxiety, anger,
distress and it is done by ourselves.

So imagine you are listening to someone shouting down the phone at you,
calling you an idiot and threatening to sue you and so forth. You may want to
scream back: ‘Drop dead!’. This is a natural response to what is often an
unfair attack. But next time, stop for a second and start telling yourself:
‘I’m not stupid, I’m an excellent adviser. I’m very good at my job. I will not
become angry and I will not become upset. I will manage this situation

Putting it into perspective

Think about the worst experience you have had in your life. Then give it a
score, 100 being the highest. Then attach a score to the verbal abuse you have
just experienced. How does it compare?

Hopefully, it should be insignificant in comparison, and this should enable
us to keep the issue in perspective.

This in no way attempts to trivialise or detract from the seriousness of
verbal abuse, but it is another way of helping you to stay mentally well, and
not become distressed by verbal abuse.

Cognitive restructuring

This is designed to make us aware of the role ‘cognitions’ (thoughts, ideas)
and emotions play in worsening and maintaining stress. Novaco postulated the theory
that not all events are intrinsically provoking7 – often, it is the way in
which the situation is interpreted.

Cognitive restructuring allows us to reframe a statement or a situation – in
other words, to see it from a different perspective. Maybe rather than
thinking, ‘He’s just a foul-mouthed pig’, try thinking: ‘Is there a reason why
he’s saying what he’s saying?’

Or ‘I can feel myself welling up inside. I’m going to cry’. This can be
replaced with: ‘I can manage this situation. I can stay in control and I will
manage this situation better’.


Using mantras is an effective way of focusing upon one element or factor,
because they are used to meditate and can be used for relaxation.

Mantras enables us to develop ‘fire walls’ – help to make us less vulnerable
to abuse and possibly retaliating by saying something that can inflame the
situation or result in us being disciplined, or even worse, sacked.

Think of a mantra, a word or a couple of words that you can recite over and
over in your mind to help alleviate the situation.


There are a number of techniques you can use to help deal with verbal abuse.
These are summarised below.

– Assess what the person is saying

– Support yourself with self-talk. Say to yourself: ‘I’m ok, just try to

– Mantra: ‘Safe and sound, safe and sound’

– Reassure yourself by thinking: ‘I’ll be alright. I can manage this and I
will manage this’

– Tell yourself that when this is over, you can reward yourself with a treat
for using positive self-talk

– Tell the aggressor you want them to stop talking to you in such a way

– If you can, ask the person why they feel they can talk to you in this way

– Try to view the verbal abuse as being an expression of the offending
person’s underlying problem

– Try to keep to your party line – repeat what you are trying to say and
keep going

– If you are struggling to cope, don’t be afraid of walking away or putting
the telephone down

– If the person is a colleague, say: ‘I’m not prepared to listen to this
because it is a health and safety issue’.


1. Cooper, A; Saxe-Braithwaite, M; & Anthony, R (1996), Verbal abuse of
hospital staff, The Canadian Nurse, 92(6), 31-4

2. Brennan W (2001), Dealing with Verbal abuse, Emergency Nurse, Vol.9 No.5

3. Maier G (1996), Managing threatening behaviour. The role of talk down and
talk up, Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, 34, 6, 25-30

4. Lenehan GP; Turner J (1984), Treatment of staff victims of violence. In
Turner J (ed) Violence in a Medical Care Setting: A Survival Guide, Maryland,

5. Health and Safety At Work etc Act (1974), London, HMSO

6. Human Rights Act 1998

7. Novaco R (1978), Anger and coping with stress. In Foreyt JP and Rathzen
DP (eds), Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, New York, Plenum Press

Script for verbal abuse

Consider the impact of each of these statements and score them
according to this scale:

1. No impact at all – negligible, it is not a problem

2. Slightly irritating – You may feel the need to respond to
that statement

3. Irritating – You feel you must challenge or respond to the

4. Offensive – You are offended/angered by the statement and
want to retaliate verbally

5. Distressing – You find the statement so distressing, you
find it impossible to respond in a rational manner

After you have scored the statements
below, think about a response and write one beneath each statement

1. ‘Excuse me sweetheart, could you please f**king well tell me
how long you are going to f**king well be?’

2. ‘You don’t ‘alf sound sexy, I wouldn’t mind taking you out.’

3. ‘This place is a joke, the service is a disgrace, you don’t
give a damn about people. It’s gone right downhill.’

4. ‘Listen to me you stupid woman/boy. I’m trying to explain
the problem.’

5. ‘This is the fifth time I’ve called you today, and haven’t
spoken to the same person twice. It’s a waste of time.’

6. ‘If you speak to me like that one more time, I’ll come over
there and rip your f**king head off.’

7. ‘How dare you speak to me like that. You’re a liar. A cheap
liar, nothing else.’

8. ‘Listen, if you had a brain you wouldn’t be doing this job,
so just do as you’re told.’

9. ‘Put me on to the sl*g/w**ker I was talking to before,

10. ‘You f**king b**ch/ba**ard. You deserve to be raped and
killed for what you’ve done to me.’

11. ‘Sl*t, sl*t, sl*g, tramp, sl*t.’

12. ‘You w**ker, you f**king paedophile. I will kill you.’

13. ‘Tell me, what’s it like being a moron earning a pittance?’

14. ‘No wonder your partner is screwing around, you’re useless.’

15. ‘My (close relative) is dying, it should be you.’

Brennan is a training consultant specialising in conflict. He runs a course
called ‘Sticks and Stones – dealing with verbal abuse in the workplace’,

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