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It comes out of the blue—a catty remark, a veiled put-down, a blatant backstab. So, what's the best defense against wolves in sheep's clothing?
Near the top of my list of annoyances—right there under people who leave really long voice mails but don't give a callback number—is a mega-peeve: Engaging in catfights. I don't even like to think about them, so please allow me to boil my last near-rumble-in-the-ring down to short scenes. First: I find myself utterly bored, so I start a book club with friends. After three sessions of patchy participation, I throw out provocative questions just to crank up the debate. A week later, reports hit the girl-gossip chain that I'm a know-it-all who should be "dethroned." I realize whose campaign this is (she and I have history) and chuck it in the bin marked: Ignore This. Until the meeting when, as I'm exiting my living room to refill the bowl of stale popcorn, Suspect Number One says (she thinks out of earshot), "Yes, please go—we could use one less smart-ass in the world." I turn back and am greeted by silence and a row of red faces. Later—remember, I'll do anything to ward off a Thrilla in Manila—I corner the attacker with a kill-'em-with-kindness question: "Is my sense right that there's an issue between us?" After 23 seconds of squirming, she comes close to an apology. She never shows up in the club—or my life—again.

An attack by any other name would smell as putrid: a backstab, a dis, a verbal snipe, an outright attempt by an enemy to remove your head. Whatever its label, the aim is quick and dirty; you look down to discover a slow leak of blood forming a red pool at your feet. You may know the assailant well. You may not. She could be a longtime pal who is suddenly threatened by your recent weight loss, a colleague who is sure you've duped her out of a lucrative promotion, or a parent who is envious of how well your hubby communicates with you (who wouldn't be jealous of that?). The insults can be forthright or veiled: an eye roll when your head is turned, a "joke" that bites you in the butt, a word of humiliation in front of your boss. You know, you know: It's not personal—it's the attacker's problem. But understanding that your foe never made therapy her priority doesn't mean you shouldn't draw up a plan of defense, and fast.

Next: What's driving all that hostility?
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First, though, a peek under the hood: What drives this kind of hostility? And what makes it escalate? Aaron Beck, MD, a psychiatrist and the author of Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, believes that people who are prone to attacking others—whether verbally or physically—regard life as a battle, often as a result of overcontrolling parents or other authority figures. They're continually mobilized to fight because of a pattern of perceiving belligerence in others' behavior, Beck writes. In essence, the antagonist concludes that everyone is seeking to oust or joust her—which is why she jumps for another's jugular before this "enemy" can take her down.

Jay Carter, the author of Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them Without Stooping to Their Level, calls such attacks invalidations—a term he uses to describe any attempt to injure. "The invalidator has to control you because she sees you as superior," Carter says. "If someone is invalidating you, she has probably been invalidated in the past." About 1 percent of invalidators are complete psychopaths who might eventually resort to a violent rampage, he says, but far more typical is the person who uses verbal attacks to score ego points.

Let's say you have a pal who has seen you through weddings and divorces, Birkenstocks and Manolo Blahniks. For years, you've been trying to start a home business that finally jolts off the ground. She seems thrilled. Actually, she seems overly impressed: At every gathering, she feels compelled to announce you as "my friend, the brilliant entrepreneur" while slapping you on the back a tad too hard. You force a grin and thank her. A year later, as your venture continues to crank, you notice her daily phone calls drop to once a month—so you get in her face about it. "With your new business," she stammers, "I figure you're too busy to talk." You assure her you're not. You even hit the speed dial more often yourself, but when you get her on the line, she seems brusque and offers subtle criticism of your business. You finally point this out, and she retorts, "Everyone knows you've always been so full of yourself." Splat.

Carter explains this shot in the forehead is your friend's way of leveling the power in the friendship. Never mind her own remarkable career; you now have something she's craved since the day she became a single mother—a flexible schedule and more face time with the kids. Her bullet of choice: an unfair judgment meant to knock you back down to size. In doing this, she attacks your self-esteem instead of addressing what's really bothering her—or going after what she wants.

Carter says put-downs also come in the form of:
  • Cutting off communication (a friend asks how you're doing but interrupts before you can say)
  • Manipulation (a colleague "forgets" to inform you of an important new policy)
  • Rude comments that mask feelings the attacker is afraid to own ("After the meeting yesterday, everyone was saying how unprepared you sounded")

The smartest approach is to bring the conflict out into the open.

Next: How to confront the problem
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"A sniper can't snipe if there's nowhere to hide," says Rick Brinkman, the co-author of Dealing with People You Can't Stand. "Since her limited power is derived from covert activity, once you've exposed her position, that position becomes useless." To do that, you have to cart out the big hammer that most women hope to leave in their toolbox: confrontation. Yet according to Brinkman, the head-to-head doesn't have to get nasty and can be accomplished with one of three approaches:

  • Stop, look and backtrack ("Did you just call me stupid?")
  • Ask "searchlight" questions ("When you say x, what are you really trying to say?")
  • Go on grievance patrol (by requesting a private meeting with anyone who might be harboring a grudge). "If the grievance is just," says Brinkman, "acknowledge its validity and admit to a mistake." Then say something like "If you ever have a problem with me again, I encourage you to come and talk."

Carter agrees that it's best to take the attacker to the side: "People who embarrass you in front of a group use the group for their power." When you go one-on-one, "the person learns to have respect for you because she knows you'll confront her." He suggests that after you corner the antagonist, you say, "Do that to me again and I will have a little surprise for you." If she ignores your warning and tries it once more, greet her with: "There you go again trying to embarrass me in front of everyone. Can't you think of a more professional way to handle yourself?"

Next: Learn how to defend yourself from the attack
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A few more powerful moves from Carter:
  • The stare-down (by looking directly at the attacker while she's in action, "you show her you know exactly what she's doing")
  • The question "Can you run that by me again?" ("Usually, the little coward won't repeat the insult")
  • The mirror (when a friend says "I don't think you like me anymore," respond with "Do you like me?")

Be wary of the person who fills you in on gossip that's circulating about you, supposedly as a favor: "Sometimes informants are snipers in disguise," Brinkman says. He suggests saying to the bearer of bad news, "Does so-and-so know you're telling me this? Let's go talk to her." If you discover that the bullet might have been fired by someone you've trusted, Brinkman advises you to be straightforward: "Did you say this about me?" If she answers your question with "Who told you that?" say, "That's not the question. Did you say it?" If the person denies it, just let it go and sweetly thank her for discussing it with you. You've done what you came to do: put her on notice. Brinkman says creating this kind of discomfort is the goal. If you do it every time the assailant moves in for an attack, she'll have to keep adjusting her stance—and that means she'll likely lower her weapon and begin searching for less problematic prey.

Verbal assaults are so hurtful because they make you feel helpless. They're random. You can't always decode your attacker's hostility. Someone could hit you next Tuesday or next year—you can't know. What you can know is that at the first sign of warfare, you'll be ready with your own bold plan of homeland defense.

How to Crack the Conflict Code
5 steps to make a fight with your partner work
How and when to say the hard things
The art of making a molehill out of a mountain


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