The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense: Summary

the gentle art of self defense book cover

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense teaches readers words, techniques, and mindsets to defend themselves against aggressive communicators and verbal bullies.

Bullet Summary

  • Don’t react emotionally: that’s what the verbal attacker wants
  • Agree with them when they use general presuppositions
  • There are many kinds of attacks, but once you know how to answer a few, you can answer all of them

Full Summary

About The Author: Suzette Elgin was an American linguist and science fiction author. She also authored non-fiction books and products, focusing on communication and verbal self-defense.

Principles of Verbal Self-Defense

These are the overarching principles you need to learn for effective verbal self-defense:

#1. Know You’re Under Attack

Many people don’t know when they are being victimized and instead, blame themselves for being too sensitive.

This is because the attacker often is not physically threatening or because he uses double-binding techniques.
This is an example of a double-binding technique:

Verbal manipulator: It’s not your fault if you don’t have any sense of humor, I would be the same in your situation

Now if you get snippy and angry, you do validate his statement.

How do you know when you’re under a verbal attack?
Simple: listen to how you feel.

#2. Know What Kind of Attack You’re Facing

This requires some experience and knowledge of the different types of verbal attacks.

#3. Fit Your Defense to The Attack

This requires some experience, knowledge, and training in verbal self-defense.

#4. Know How to Follow Through

This is about actually putting the strategy to work.
Some people know what they should do, but they don’t do it.

Instead, they plunge head-on with their feelings and overreact, while some others do nothing and let the bullies run them over.

Verbal Attackers Want to Get Your Reaction

Suzette Elgin says that verbal attackers get a kick out of getting a reaction out of you.

Sometimes it’s power-hungry men who are addicted to the sense of power that comes from stirring people’s emotions.

Ben Shapiro uses the “get under your skin” technique:

Ben Shapiro is a great case study to learn verbal bullying techniques.

Types of People Acting & Reacting to Verbal Bullying

People fall into different categories during verbal attacks, including:

Blamer: they use words such as “always”, “never”, and “everybody”. They accuse, sometimes talk louder, and wiggle their fingers.
They look confident, domineering, and powerful. But it’s because they’re insecure that they feel they need to use that aggressive style.

Placator: they use words and body language that express a desperate desire to please.
This is typical nice guy syndrome.

Computer: neutral. They don’t use “you” or “I” and speak in instructions.

Distracting: they switch from one mode to the other

Respond in Same Sensory Modes

You should answer the attack using the same sensory mode as the attacker (ie.: sight, hearing, feeling).

Agree to Defuse The Attack

When the attacker uses general language, such as “everybody knows that X is done that way” or “anyone who cared about the budget would not throw money around”.

And you reply:

You: You’re absolutely right


You: That’s true indeed

That takes the wind out of the attackers’ sails.

Rules of Engagement

Whenever you are attacked:

  1. Ignore the bait
  2. Respond to the presupposed attack
  3. Send the message you’re not playing their game

The “Even You” Attack

Example of an “even” attack:

Verbal Bully: Even a woman can understand that

Everything coming after “even” here is supposedly inferior. Taking the bait here would mean replying “listen, I can understand here as good as any man on this team”.

A few good replies:

You: The idea that women are somewhat inferior has been put to rest since a long time, but I’m really astonished of hearing it from you


You: When did you feel I wasn’t meeting your standards

Avoid “why” or “what makes you think” because you give the attacker a chance to keep attacking.

Never Give an Order

… If you can send the message in any other way.
This is the same principle as in Never Split The Difference, and it’s based on the idea that people don’t like being told what to do.

Smart Use of Proposition

If you must ask a silly question, don’t say:

I know this is a silly question and I’m sorry I need ask it, but what did we decide on…

But say:

I know this is a silly question and I’m sorry I need ask it, what did we decide on…

Might seem a small change without the “but”, but it makes a big difference.

the gentle art of self defense book cover

Real-Life Applications

Don’t Take Ownership of The Offense
Same as in Verbal Judo, one of the core principles of verbal self-defense is that you should avoid putting your ego on the line. Refuse to take ownership of the offense.
Lots of verbal attackers take pleasure in getting under your skin: it makes them feel powerful. Don’t give them that satisfaction.
Note: however, you must respond to direct public offenses or you look weak.


Time Has Passed
There are cassettes being sold of “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense”. And they go at 89 Dollars. That’s a sign that the book has been around for a while.

Examples Are Less Culturally Relevant
Some of the verbal abuse made fun of women, saying things such as “even a woman would know how to do that”.
Today that stuff would get the bully in trouble very quickly.

The book strays from its original goal of teaching people how to verbally defend themselves.


Some Good Wisdom
Some of the recommendations are very good and I took away some good wisdom.


The Gentle Art of Self-Defense is a good book, but it wasn’t “biting” enough for me.
It lets the attackers too easily off the hook in my opinion.

Yes, many times you don’t want to react, and almost never you want to overreact. But sometimes you must push back because the attacker is trying to shame you, dominate you, or use you for social climbing.

In those cases, you must go on the offensive. And the book doesn’t deal with those situations.
For more advanced techniques, browse this website.

Checkout the best communication skills books or get the book on Amazon

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