Verbal Shock & Awe: Holding Your Own Against Linguistic Ninjas is All About Disrupting Their Timing
On my side table at the office is a copy of “Principles,” a book of aphorisms and ideas, by the founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, Ray Dalio.
Here, right now, I would like to look at the notion of Verbal Shock and Awe, a bombastic form of Word Blitzkrieg, that Dalio describes. We see the practitioners of this dark art, the Linguistic Ninjas, everywhere: the guy pushing Three Card Monte on Westminster Bridge during a Christmas Eve stroll through London and the man at the Audi service center pushing the Clorox “virus treatment” for your interior when you just need a new battery for the key fob.
We see it in sales, in Court, and in conference rooms and offices everywhere. It is perhaps no surprise to us that bunko artists and con men (and women) ply this trade. But why would Dalio, a billionaire hedge fund manager, memorialize this notion as a principle to be considered and about which one should be concerned?
Certainly, the very smart people of the business, finance and legal worlds would never succumb to such petty chicanery? Certainly, we all are confident enough in our own erudition, intuition and judgment that we would not be unwitting victims of this auditory assault upon our sense and senses?
And yet, we are often no wiser than the unwitting mark who loses a ten spot to the sidewalk grifter.
Dalio suggests that “fast talking can be especially effective when it is used against people worried about appearing stupid.” He notes that it is important to “[r]ecognize that it is your responsibility to make sense of things and don’t move on until you do. If you’re feeling pressured, say something like, ‘Sorry for being stupid, but I’m going to need to slow you down so I can make sense of what you’re saying.’” Dalio recommends that one “[t]hen ask your questions. All of them.”
Of course Dalio is correct. Perhaps the most effective means of blunting an occurrence of Word Blitzkrieg is to attempt slowing things down and to NOT be concerned about appearing to not be up to speed or the task. But for me, as a litigator and a professional who must deal with all types of people both inside and outside of the law, this answer is incomplete and not always an option. Moreover, there are many Linguistic Ninjas who are already aware of this Dalioist counter-measure and have a toolkit prepared to meet it.
The most adept of these communication chiselers know that a proven defense against them is to reduce pace. When faced with an attempt to slow down the frenetic rhythm of conversation, they will often just speed up more, and ignore or roll over the attempted slow down. Another rhetorical maneuver of theirs is to seemingly engage the slow down momentarily. But this is where caution is needed. This engagement is rarely genuine.
When faced with the engagement, they will often use the pause to pivot quickly to a new or ancillary topic to evade the issue or matter in question. From there, the fusillade of words recommences and it is often even more difficult to return back to the original disputed item than it was before.
A secondary tactic of the oral grifter is to turn the request for slowness into its own substantive issue upon which to attack. Here, the defensive counter-measure of asking to slow things down so that one can “understand” what is being said — which was intended as a shield — gets turned around and used as a sword by the ninja.
The admission of the need for slowness and understanding, the claimed “stupidity” that Dalio suggests, then allows the Verbal Ninja to attack one’s competence, intellect and ability. It is here one may then hear: “See! You just don’t get it… I can try to explain it to you, but…”
The false claim of “stupidity” as a tactic to disrupt the attacker thus fails. While Dalio is correct that one should not fear being seen as “stupid” — the aggressive ninja knows that many others do not operate this way. As such, it is often risky to take the Dalio approach where the ninja will use the feigned ignorance as another cudgel with which he or she can bludgeon.
So, what is one to do? To be sure, Dalio’s prescription can be effective in many settings. But when working with very skilled practitioners of verbal hijinks, it is my considered belief that only two distinct but related counter-measures can succeed. These measures ultimately seek to do what Dalio suggests, and therefore are not at cross purposes to his approach, but are supplemental to it.
First, one can simply accept that this is a tactic and choose to ignore it. One can refuse to engage with it. One can sometimes let the verbal pugilist throw every jab and undercut he or she can. One can let them rail on and carry on and wear themselves out listening to the mellifluous sound of their own voices. Then, in certain circumstances, one can systematically dismantle their points in the manner deemed effective for the opponent of the attack. Perhaps one need not even do this on the spot. Maybe it is best to let the attack and assault simmer down, and address the matter later in writing or a secondary session. Perhaps it will be best to avoid the ninja and canvass and caucus with others in smaller groups or settings — if there are multiple people involved.
Many times, avoidance of direct engagement with the ninja and the persuasion of others can operate as a work around. This deflection is itself really about gaining the gift of time, and is a form of slow playing. It cannot always work, but often it can. One can often credibly claim that there has been so much delivered that was delivered so fast, that it is necessary to take time to deal with it. However, there are many other times where immediate engagement is required; and, therefore a secondary approach is needed.
Where the avoidance tactic is not feasible, the second counter-measure is active escalation. Here, one uses the Word Blitzkrieg against the Verbal Ninja. It can begin with rapid fire peppering of questions: “Why is that so?” “Where was that stated?” “How do you know that?” “When did that occur?” “Who said that?” — one must commence and maintain a steady barrage of disruptive questions of the “Who/What/When/Where/Why/How” variety that at least equals the pace of the fast talker.
If, as and when the fast talker becomes disrupted and asks to slow matters down, or pleads to have a moment to answer, then the battle (but not the war) is temporarily won. Speed has been used effectively to create time and space. Moreover, if the ninja foot faults and attacks the speed or pace of the counter questions, an opportunity arises to directly expose the tactic that was being used and has now been turned against the assailant. It is, in my experience, very effective to directly call out the tactic — particularly where a third party arbiter (like a Judge or colleague) is present. The ninja cannot sustain the pace in the face of it being shown for what it is.
In addition to the disruptive insertion of “5W/H” questions to alter pace, another related approach within the escalation tactic is to inject ancillary or additional matters in a concussive fashion to derail the verbal attack. For example, the ninja is blathering on about one thing or another, and the opponent can state: “this ignores the REAL issue, which is X” or “this ignores the impact on Y” or “that may be true, but Z will never permit for that.” Whatever X, Y and Z are don’t really matter so much, they are merely useful rhetorical foils with which to confound and temporarily confuse the attacker. The end point of these escalation tactics is to do what Dalio suggests, slow things down. Sometimes, as suggested above, you have to speed things up to slow them down.
Escalation ultimately permits rapidity, volume and pace to throttle forward until either a slow down occurs or there is chaos. There is a certain point at which high volume and high speed begin to degrade. Sadly, with a Verbal Ninja, pushing the communicative engagement to a max out level is often the only viable approach. One must be comfortable that the speed tactic is just that, a tactic. It is not substantive. Many people fear escalation because, as Dalio suggests, we fear seeming “stupid.” Because we fear that, we hesitate and double clutch and second guess our ability to carry off the same kind of “hurry up offense” that is involved in Word Blitzkrieg.
In basketball, controlling the pace of the game is critical. There are many ways to make the game slower and one can much more readily make a fast offense get slower than one can make a slow offense get faster.
Unlike basketball, however, the rhetorical engagement does not involve one side having the ball until the other side gets it. One cannot always avoid being forced into fast breaks and one should not fear them. In such circumstances, it may be necessary to play faster than one is comfortable, in order to slow things down to where one is at ease.
The critical point, by my lights, is that we truly embrace and understand fully this: the speed demon is not smarter than you or I because he or she is fast. The fact that an “offense” is being run at the pace it is is itself a signal to you, or should be, that there is a weakness and vulnerability to be explored. The grifters, chiselers and mountebanks of this world rely on speed to effectuate a scam. Similarly, bullies rely on force. Both are attempting to use a tactic to obtain a result, whether that is $20, submission to control, elimination of disagreement, or the instilling of fear. A genuine and skilled disputant in conversation or court does not NEED the masking veil of speed and force. Only a poseur does.
So, acquaint yourself with the varied ways of the Verbal Ninja and be prepared to meet him or her on the field of battle. An argument, like a golf swing and good brisket, is best when done low and slow. When you can’t operate in that way, get skilled at taking the fast break. It will often be the thing that brings you back to equilibrium.