Who’s Been Jerking You Around?
Do your conversations with “Person X” leave you feeling as though your head has been trapped in the “Spin” cycle of your washing machine? Are you too busy trying to keep track of the rapid-fire changes and 180-degree turnarounds to even think of a coherent response? Or maybe whenever you try to have a pleasant exchange with Person X, you find yourself frantically backpedaling to re-do that last thing you said because now they are insisting they said something entirely different and they are… mad. At you. Again. Confused? If not, you will be, because you’ve just entered the arena with a master of verbal whiplash. You will not win. And it will not be pretty.
Example of Verbal Whiplash
I recently had such an exchange with a man I met online. I thought we’d get along well because we were both writers – at least, his screen name and profile strongly suggested he was one. So, my messages focused on “writing.” We discussed it quite pleasantly for a while, then things derailed suddenly:
Me: (going on about how I love writing and how great it is that anyone can become a writer/author).
Him: “Kind of snob about the work, i will admit. Lots of folks talk about [writing] and seem to think that amateur [writing] is the same as the professional world, it's not and I find that interesting.”
Me: I'm aware that professional [writing] and amateur [writing] are two different worlds.
Him: “…the truth of the matter is anyone can say they are a [writer] and there is no real way to say no, you're not. I just read a long stream on facebook by some “writers” who feel the need to justify and tell the world how hard it is and how much work goes into it. I never hear doctors say that because we all know how much work goes into being a doctor and not everyone can do it. But, people are part time “writers” which means … anyone can do it.
Me: None of that is meant to demean anything professionals do, nor imply that you are not a consummate, hard-working artist who brings decades of skill and devotion to your work. Obviously, not anyone could do what you do.
Him: No, I meant what I said, anyone can do it. I started [writing] and then trained and became a professional. We all start somewhere. Anyone can be a [writer]. I am also curious that, without knowing me or even reading my work, you assume that not anyone could do what I do.
Me: (What the heck just happened)??
The conversation got even less civil – at least until I changed the subject to chinchillas, and home brewing.
What just happened here?
Verbal whiplash takes its target by surprise because she doesn’t expect it. It often happens after the target lets his guard down and engages in what seems to be a normal, rational conversation. Then, BAM. Person X will say something exactly the opposite of what she said five minutes earlier. Then, she will insist she said/meant something completely different, and get offended at you for responding to the first thing. Why would anyone do this? Simple: it’s a power play – one that disarms you, leaves you looking and feeling confused (and maybe stupid), and reinforces the abuser’s superior position. So, how do you avoid getting flogged when the verbal whiplash artist is playing her game?
Rules of Disengagement
Whiplash often comes at high speed; abusers don’t give you time to take mental notes and compare their statements. If you can, slow the conversation down enough to figure out what’s going on. If you think whiplash is happening, your best response is to end the discussion and get out of there: “Gee, that was fun, but I’ve got to get my infected toe cleaned out. Catch you later!”
If you’re stuck, follow the rules of disengagement. Refuse to let the abuser suck you in. Don’t try to reiterate their original position; the abuser will just insist that’s not what he said or meant, or that you got it wrong (again). Don’t try to backpedal and fix your response (as I did in the above example); that will just give the whiplasher more ammunition (the “No, I meant what I said, anyone can do it” line). If you’re a captive audience (maybe the whiplasher is your boss), try to have witnesses around, take notes, or give them a neutral response like: “Oh. Thanks for clarifying that.” Even better: “Ah. I see.”
If the whiplasher demands you explain, clarify, or respond in detail, disengage again by using neutral responses, changing the topic, or saying, “I don’t feel like arguing/having a discussion/continuing this conversation.” Wash, rinse, repeat until they leave you alone and go in search of more satisfying targets.