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Use the verbal "cutting strike" to neutralize a psychological attack

In a physical attack, we use an angled strike to deflect or nullify the attacker’s punch or kick. This keeps the attacker from striking our body. We also tune into our own body to make sure it is structurally stable and not leaning off-balance. We make sure that the attacker’s strike does not make contact with our body.

We do something similar when dealing with verbal attacks. First, we tune into our body. we notice whether we are sitting or standing in a relaxed and balanced manner. We notice whether we are breathing in a relaxed manner.

By tuning into our body and feelings, we create a space between the time the attacker’s words are heard and when we respond. We need that “space” in order to avoid reacting in an automatic or knee-jerk fashion. The attacker is relying on us to react in a predictable manner. We need to give ourselves psychic space in which to consider how we want to respond.

Our goal is to say or do something that “comes at the attacker from a different angle.”

What does this mean? It means that we say something that does not directly try to defend or explain ourselves. Instead, we notify the attacker directly or indirectly that we are not taking his words to heart. We may ask a question in order to draw him out more, for instance, “Gee, you have a lot of intensity in what you said. Is there more you want to say?”

It is this response that is the equivalent of the cutting strike in a physical encounter. We say something that engages the attacker, but not in the ways he or she is expecting. Now, the attacker is faced with something unexpected and has to respond. Our mind is now “ahead of the attacker’s mind” in that we acted and he or she has to figure out a new response. We can relax more because we see the attacker having to do new work. The tempo of the interaction has just changed. Now we are relaxed and the attacker is having to figure out what to do next. We have thrown the attacker off of his or her rhythm and game plan.

We have just created more “space.” By creating that “space,” we have nurtured ourself and broken any pattern where we feel compelled to feel a certain way. We have demonstrated to ourself that we have the power to remain safe. This sense of being in control of our own psychic space enhances our self-esteem (because we feel empowered to take care of ourself.) Instead of feeling off-balance emotionally, and not in control of the tempo of interaction, we watch calmly, ready to deal with whatever comes next. Once we see that “our mind is ahead of the attacker’s mind,” we see that the attacker is not all powerful. We sense that we have ways of acting that preserve our psychic integrity, just like a fighter preserves her or his structural integrity in a physical fight. Instead of feeling put upon, we feel empowered.

Photo by Kristina Flour on

For more related to this topic, read Neutralizing Psychological Attacks.

About the author: Michael Burkart has spent over 40 years training daily in Chinese martial arts. He uses these principles in his organizational consulting practice & social justice work. He is an Alliance of Kailo Mentoring Group and leads a regular workshop for KMG on Neutralizing Psychological Attacks.

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