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The Hidden Opportunity in Being Verbally Attacked

Years ago a candidate for California Superintendant of Schools repeatedly insinuated that his opponent was lying on her business tax returns and had an affair with a student intern. His charges were immediately disputed by her accountant, the student and several co-workers at her firm.

Not surprisingly, the attacks generated considerable interest in their first televised public debate that provided an unexpected akaido-style lesson for anyone who gets publically attacked.  The debate was moderated by three seasoned reporters who sat at a table in front of the studio audience, facing the candidates who stood on stage behind podiums about ten feet apart.

When the first reporter asked the candidates about their budget priorities, if elected, the critical candidate answered first, emphatically reiterating that he would be transparent and accountable, unlike his opponent, when spending public monies and then repeated his two charges against her, with the TV camera coming in for a close-up of him as he concluded, then swiftly swinging over for a tight reaction shot of his opponent.

Instead of looking upset, she had a mild smile on her face and began by praising him for placing a high priority on public accountability, but she didn’t stop there. She went on to laud him for one of the educational reforms he’d advocated, with which she agreed – all while walking over to stand within two feet of him, alternatively facing the reporters and her opponent.

He looked flummoxed. Because of their close proximity, the camera could easily cover both faces — and did. She went on to say she presumed, because he was so conscientious about transparency, that it was the press of his campaign schedule that had prevented him from reviewing the records she’d sent to him in response to “the issues” he’d raised about her. She then walked calmly back to her podium, with the camera following her, then swinging around to pan across the smiling audience.

When you throw mud you get dirty ~ Adlai Stephenson

As you might anticipate, this videoed interchange became the most viewed and discussed part of the debate.

Let’s delve into the anatomy of what happened and how you can turn false or simply heated attacks against you into opportunities to shine—especially in contrast to your attacker.

This phenomenon is akin to product positioning in advertising. In situations where your critic acts badly towards you, provide a side-by-side comparison. Start with your authentic praise of some aspect of their past actions, followed by your vividly specific characterization of your main differentiating benefit stands in sharp contrast to their behavior and attributes.

Warning: When under attack our first instinct is to flee or retaliate, leading to the possibility that oour behavior will also look unbecoming too.

Still many seasoned politicos say negative campaigning and ads, for example, are effective in attracting votes so they are forced to run them. Some are sleazy and real nasty.

Yet, some researchers disagree with this conventional wisdom, and their findings lend support to the notion of genuinely praising an action or admirable character trait of someone right after they have behaved badly towards you or someone else.

Here’s some recent reinforcement for you to praise the part in someone you genuinely admire — especially when you are tempted, in a heated situation, to “go negative.”

In discussing David Meyer’s book, Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, Gretchen Rubin writes in The Happiness Project, of this rule of human behavior, it “gave me another reason to stop being so critical.”  She adds, “Inspontaneous trait transference,’ people spontaneously and unintentionally associate what you say about the qualities of other people with the qualities of you yourself. So if I tell Jean that Pat is arrogant or stupid, unconsciously Jean will associate that quality with me. On the other hand, if I say that Pat is brilliant or hilarious, I’ll be linked to those qualities.”

“Ever wondered why people want to kill the messenger who brings bad news? Blame it on trait transference. Conversely, by specifically and vividly praising others’ actions that you admire, you’ll build your own reputation as well as theirs.

Here’s what also happens.

Whatever behavior you most remark upon in someone else is the trait that person is most likely to exhibit when around you.

We tend to act out the behavior that people have shown they expect to see in us, for good and for bad.

Compliment your husband on his planning that weekend trip (never mind that it is only the second time he has done so in years) and he is more likely to plan more.  If he does something that peeves you and you remain silent, rather than commenting, then those irritating behaviors are most likely to dissipate, rather than increase.

Talking or acting against a behavior is akin to underlining a sentence on the page.

You give the thought more energy and memorability. “Underlining” the actions of another with your reactions motivates that person to react to you.    That deepens the rut in the memory road for both of you.  It reinforces a behavioral script you meant to erase.

Such action evokes the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Amy Sutherland wrote about a variation of this effect in her New York Times article, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage. “ For weeks her article remained the most popular one the newspaper ran, then resulted in a book deal for her.  In conducting research for her book, Kicked Bitten and Scratched, she sat watching exotic animals trainers work with wild birds, dolphins – and Shamu.

A light bulb went on her mind.  Why not try the same successful animal training techniques on her husband?

Wrote Sutherland, “I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.”

She began what trainers callapproximations,” “rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior.” (Parents and teachers have been taught to use it with kids, others to overcome phobias — and one person even suggests it for shaping behavior in church.)

Even more startling, perhaps, two studies conducted at the University of Wisconsin seven years ago found that when women spoke generally and positively about a trait that their husbands had not exhibited, at least recently (“Thank you for being so thought as I go through this stressful time at work”) the husbands began exhibiting caring behavior, often using the words she used in praising him.

“Honey, want to talk about your day and let go of some of that stress?”

Here’s the funny thing.

Even though most of us human beings long to be understood and loved for who we are we instinctively put up barriers.  We praise and give others what we like in ourselves and would like to be given. That’s the Golden Rule, after all.  Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  Yet the devil’s in the details – because other people are not you.

Consider, instead a Golden Golden Rule: Do unto others as they would have done unto them. Praise the parts of others they most like in themselves and support them in the ways that most matter to them.


They will go out of their way to compliment and support you. Rarely will they also follow the Golden Golden Rule back with you however.

That’s not instinctual.

Yet their well-intended positive energy towards you is more likely to bring out the happier, higher-performing side in both of you over time.

Simple put, people like people who like them.

And, as you build trust with that person, you can bring up the Golden Golden Rule and describe the traits (temperament and talents) you most like and value in yourself.

Ask for that person’s support in exhibiting those traits. Describe the kind of verbal and behavioral support that you find most helpful and gratifying.

Now that step represents a golden, golden oppportunity for you both to support and enjoy each other more over time.  I’m not promising that this will be a smooth path towards mutual understanding and appreciation.

Yet it seems to be easier and more authentic and rewarding than any other alternative I’ve found thus far.  This approach can reduce the misunderstandings that lead to resentment and reaction against others.

It enables you to bring out others’ best side so they can see and support yours. That’s no small achievement, even if it happens just some of the time.   Consider it one more step towards your Learned Optimism and to Stumbling on Happiness.

And, since opportunity is often inconvenient, why not try one of these approaches at your first opportunity — with the next person you encounter —  and tell us what happens?

Categories: behavior, Book, Choice, Likeability and tagged , , , , , .
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  1. Wayfarer doug
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Holy Amazing-ness
    ‘Let’s talk it Over’ re: Widening the applicaton of these inights operationalized at scale …
    i can see aseries of Community Town Halls in the salon series we call “Social Emergence Cafes” on this theme & practices…
    In Thanks an ‘In Alliance for the Cause(s)

  2. Posted December 29, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    It takes a lot to respond positively to any negative feedback. I probably would have froze if that happened to me!

  3. Posted December 29, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed this, Kare. My goodness, you must read 24 x 7. I’ve also heard “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.” called the Platinum rule.

    I hope you’re having an enjoyable holiday break, um, reading! 😉

  4. Posted January 2, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    A variation of the “By Comparison Cue” I described in this post was how Romney’s campaign is position the candidate relative to Gingrich, according to Ronald Reagan’s speech writer, now Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan
    “Newt Gingrich in the end will likely prove to be a gift to Mitt Romney. He was a heavyweight. This isn’t Herman Cain, this is a guy everyone on the ground in every primary state knows and has seen on TV and remembers from the past. But his emergence scared a lot of people—”Not him!’—and made some of them think, ‘OK, I guess I better get off the sidelines and make a decision. Compared to Newt, Romney looks pretty reasonable.”

    Mr. Gingrich took some of the sting out of Romney-as-flip-flopper because he is a flip flopper too. He also, for a few weeks there, made Mr. Romney look like he might be over. He made Mr. Romney fight for it, not against an unknown businessman but against a serious political figure whose face and persona said: “I mean business.” In the end it will turn out he was a gift to the Romney campaign, a foe big enough that when you beat him it means something. “

  5. Posted January 2, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this terrific post, Kare — and for the “spot on” postscript from Peggy Noonan.

    Have you seen Professor John Kotter’s book on “saving your good idea from getting shot down”? The attack-response strategy Kotter prescribes is a useful complement to what you’ve written here. (If you’re interested, you might want to read my review of “Buy-In” at )

  6. Posted January 3, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    From your post I gather that Kotter’s book covers ways to respond to a public attack or disagreement with an idea you propose, using an aikido approach — as you mentioned “direct (but non-confrontational) ” — by first understanding the kind of “public persona” that person is adopting. I will look at the book to understand further. From the description of the book on Amazon, this sentence was helpful for me: “By “inviting in the lions” to critique your idea–and being prepared for them–you’ll capture busy people’s attention, help them grasp your proposal’s value, and secure their commitment to implementing the solution. ” I look forward to understand the specifics the co-authors advocate. And than you for passing along the recommendation and the link to your site for other ideas, especially for those involved in public affairs and PR consulting.

    For readers here to glean other ideas on how to attract attention for your idea, see my Harvard Business Review blog post where several of the 170+ comments add further tips on the topic

  7. Posted January 6, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink


    loved this article. here are 2 of the frames/contexts i have for taking in others criticize me or something i’m connected with is this: 1. there’s probably something they are detecting in me that they don’t like in themselves. 2. Oh, so that’s how i used to make people feel when i criticized them. Yikes!

    PS: caught a typo: Warning: When under attack our first instinct is to flee or retaliate, leading to the possibility that oour behavior will also look unbecoming too.

  8. Posted January 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Kare, sorry about MY typo “karen”, in last post. pretty instant karma, wouldn’t you say?

  9. Posted January 6, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Oh it happens all the time and I like your characterization of it Camille — i was almost tempted to try another version of the spelling of your name yet such “humor” does not always translate well in text, eh?
    Thanks for the insight comment

  10. Posted April 19, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    What a great piece, Karé. So much to work with. Thanks!

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