I bet at some point, you’ve been verbally attacked. It could be something a colleague or family member says. It might happen during one of your countless online meetings. Or it might not be a word at all, just a judgmental raise of an eyebrow that says it all. You want to snap something back, but what? You are at a complete loss for words, stumped, and tongue-tied. You morph into a statue.

Maybe an hour or a day later, you think of the perfect response. Oh, it’s so witty, classy and cleverly worded. You whip yourself for being stymied at the time of the affront.  “Why”, you ask yourself, “does my brain dry up and wit fail when I need them the most”?

Science has the answer.

Dr. John Leach is one of the world’s leading experts on survival psychology. He teaches at Lancaster University in the UK and has coined a phrase called, “Incredulity Response”.  This is when you simply don’t believe what you’re seeing or hearing. You tell yourself, “This really isn’t happening”, and you continue to go about your own business. You pretend everything is OK and don’t respond to the “danger”.

In scientific terms, this incredulity response normally applies to people’s responses in times of physical disasters – fires, floods, robberies, traffic accidents. You’re motionless.  You can’t think straight. You have brain freeze.

Although Dr. Leach was studying physical attacks and responses, I believe there is also value in applying this scientific principle to how you communicate, and more specifically, how you respond–or don’t–when you feel verbally attacked.

In times of danger, it’s normal to freeze

Dr. Leach says that in times of danger, it’s normal to freeze to some extent. What’s important is the speed with which you recover from it. He says that in the face of a serious physical threat, someone may offer to make you a cup of tea, or get you a blanket. He suggests that it’s far better to do it yourself because going through the motions prompts your brain to function to coordinate movements.  He explains that once your brain gets going with a routine task, it kick starts the rest of the brain and ups your chances of being able to respond with a clear mind.

Let’s apply that technique to communications when you feel attacked and tongue-tied.

Here’s the “ABC” rules that will help shift your brain and mindset from paralysis to action:

  1.     A-ADJUST your thinking to a routine task or observation. Just for a moment, think of something routine, ordinary and neutral. It could be objectively noticing the tone of your assailant’s voice. Maybe you focus on what he’s wearing.  Perhaps it’s daisies in a field or recounting the alphabet. Whatever it is, make sure it’s neutral, unemotional observation, and second nature to you.
  2.     B-BREATHE.  When you’re faced with a threat, even a verbal one, a natural response is to hold your breath. You might not even realize you’re doing it. Take a moment, a few seconds to focus on your breathing — and make sure you are. Not only does this give you a point of focus, it physically prepares you to think clearly. All that oxygen you’re introducing to your brain will nourish and ready it to respond.
  3.     C-CHANGE YOUR POSITION. Shift your physical position. Be aware of body language and consciously move into a receptive, open stance. Relax your palms (you might, unknowingly, be clenching your hands into fists). Point your toes of at least one foot toward the person (it’s an instinct to turn away from those you want to avoid, so move toward him or her to connect instead). Assume eye contact without staring — if you stare, it appears as aggressive.

Let science do the work for you.

Next time when you believe you’re being verbally beaten up or attacked, feel tongue-tied, and you just can’t believe what you’re seeing and hearing, let science kick in to shake off this “incredulity response”.  No need to stand there as a victim and be abused. With these techniques, you’ll untie your tongue, thaw your frozen brain, and be in a far better position to respond.  

© 2012-2021 Marion Grobb Finkelstein

©2021 Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Until next time, here’s to …
Better communication, Better business, Better life,
Marion Grobb Finkelstein
Keynote Speaker / Corporate Trainer / Author
Sign up for  “Marion’s Communication Tips” at www.MarionSpeaks.com

Post your comments and reactions below. There are no right or wrong responses, just honest, respectful ones. I’d love to hear your opinion. What about this article resonated with YOU?

Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Marion Grobb Finkelstein helps leaders use their natural communication strengths to build resilient teams that talk.


  • Shelley says:

    Good article. Never thought of relating the science to this.

    A suggestion for consideration: How about a follow-up on the how to say it so as not to escalate or some other related topic(s)? Felt like this was unfinished.

    • Shelley, thx for your feedback and suggestion for a future article. I’m always interested in what interests you. Knowing the right words to say can certainly be a challenge, so yes, definitely worth an article. Stay tuned …

  • Mark Larose says:

    I have read MarionSpeaks articles for a number of years and always look forward to the wisdom each article imparts. Techniques for tongue-tied talkers is a case in point. As a general comment, I like the way she can take a complex issue, extract the key concerns and then provide the reader with simple to understand approaches to deal with the problem. This may sound easy to do yet I know that only consummate professionals can do this on a regular basis. In the communication world, Marion is one of these professionals.

    • Mark, thx for your encouraging feedback. It’s clear that you’re good at communicating too. You’ve honed in on a technique so important to #leaders … to take a complex subject and present it in bitesize, relevant pieces so the recipients can use the info and move it to action. Thx for taking the time to post your comments. Much appreciated.

    • Mark, it brings me great joy to know that my articles are helpful. I also appreciate that you recognize my attempt to break down complicated communication challenges into bite-size, digestible pieces. The very fact that you recognize this and are able to enunciate it to me speaks of your communication skills. Always great to hear from you.

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