Kerrying On

The Perfect Amount of Abuse

In the spring of 1964, as I approached my eighteenth birthday, my dad concocted a harebrained scheme (is there any other kind?) to help save money. His plan was to take advantage of our family’s health insurance by having me undergo medical procedures that our carrier would stop paying for—the day I turned eighteen. So, a few months before my eighteenth birthday, Dad put his plan into action. One day he dragged me into the hospital and had my tonsils removed. Two weeks later I was tested for allergies. Following that I had my nose straightened, and so forth.

In addition to providing me with “free medical care,” Dad’s demented scheme led to an experience I remember to this day. As I lay in my hospital bed sleeping off the anesthetic from my nose surgery, I was abruptly awakened by the sound of someone shouting. There, standing next to my bed, was my surgeon—madly cranking a large metal handle and screaming at a nurse.

Shortly following my surgery, the nurse—that is, the young woman who was now being shouted at—lowered my bed to a flat position. Her goal had been to make me more comfortable. When the doctor saw me lying flat on my back (a dangerous position for patients recovering from nose surgery), he verbally attacked the nurse. The scene that followed was positively jaw-dropping.

Until that moment, I’d never seen one adult shriek at another one (not even my own parents). I most certainly had never seen a doctor curse and threaten a nurse. The effect was not good. I feared that the nurse was about to have a breakdown and I felt ashamed for the shrieking surgeon. True, the doctor was watching out for me, and the nurse had, indeed, made a colossal blunder, but all I could think about in the midst of the dreadful verbal attack was that surely there had to be a way to deal with medical errors that didn’t rely on scathing threats and insults.

A decade later, when I finished graduate school and began conducting research in hospitals and other organizations, I quickly learned that the abuse my nose surgeon had so readily demonstrated back in the Sixties was still common, not only in hospitals, but just about everywhere. Crank up the pressure at work, and somebody somewhere starts verbally abusing somebody else—particularly if there’s a power difference between the conflicting parties.

For instance, yesterday I witnessed a verbal attack at a sporting event when a twenty-year-old football player zigged when he should have zagged. Unhappy with the flagrant zigging, one of the coaches grabbed the running back’s face mask and then yanked it hither and thither while yelling full volume into the player’s face. This tirade was acted out in front of thousands of fans while a massive screen above the end zone displayed every moment in living color. Later that day, during a TV interview, that same coach pointed out that the player he had yelled at needed to be reminded of what he was supposed to be doing.

“So,” the coach explained, “I gave the young man a refresher course.” Both the coach and the interviewer chuckled at the remark. I didn’t see the humor.

I am happy to report that, in recent years, healthcare employees (along with most professionals) have made tremendous progress in eliminating verbal abuse from the workplace. HR specialists have worked hard to eradicate all forms of unprofessional treatment. Unfortunately, these improvements often have been achieved with little or no help from the surrounding community. For instance, scores of politicians, celebrities, and, yes, even neighbors, disagree with each other so frequently and with such ferocity that it’s hard to hear the arguments they make over the roar of the methods they employ.

Consider the home. My son once told me that every time he and his buddies visited a certain friend up the street, the teenager’s mother (Martha), would find something to get upset about—and then she’d scream at them until they fled. This came as a surprise to me given that Martha presented such a gentle image in public. As I probed further, my son suggested that a full third of his friends’ parents, when upset, became abusive.

One day, while seated next to Martha at a little league game, the conversation turned to childrearing. Martha casually mentioned that she frequently raised her voice and, to the untrained eye, she might appear mean. However, since she was committed to disciplining her children (in an effort to keep them on the straight-and-narrow) her verbal tirades were the cure to what she called “spineless parenting.” Martha figured that strongly expressing her views (including screeching at, ridiculing, and threatening her children) was exactly what she needed to do to help restore accountability to a generation that was being coddled. From where Martha sat, delivering an occasional dose of verbal abuse was beneficial to everyone concerned.

I guess I see it differently. After decades of interviewing employees about what they most and least admire in their leaders (and coworkers), I’ve learned that the answer generally centers on the topic of verbal abuse. Individuals who shout, threaten, demean, insult, and curse others aren’t admired. They may be feared, or even loathed, but they’re never admired. “Country club” bosses who don’t step up to problems for fear of being accused of being hardnosed or controlling aren’t respected either. They’re criticized for showing no moxie and allowing problems to fester. Who’s left? Individuals who step up to problems and manage to keep their emotions in check (even when they strongly disagree) and who do so in a respectful fashion—these are the people who are regularly singled out as the best person to work for, and with.

You have to be impressed by individuals who routinely take part in highly charged conversations and yet still find a way to remain on topic and respectful. It’s not easy. Homes don’t come staffed with HR departments. The human brain offers no help whatsoever. When facing a perceived threat, the amygdala actually sounds a warning to fight or take flight. A lot of good that does. Perhaps worst of all, we find ourselves surrounded by scores of abusive role models. It’s difficult to conclude that verbally abusing others is abnormal or even unacceptable—given that accomplished citizens, influential leaders, lauded politicians, and Hollywood celebrities verbally attack each other at every turn. Congratulations to individuals who do find ways to remain respectful—even when under fire.

Finally, some advice to those of you who are struggling to find the right approach to take when dealing with individuals you believe might actually need a bit of verbal abuse. Perhaps their misstep was egregious, or they only respond to threats, or they show no remorse. Regardless of why you believe verbal abuse is called for, when considering how much to deliver, consider also this guideline: verbally abuse others exactly as much as you personally like to be abused. It’s the perfect amount.

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at


Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

6 thoughts on “The Perfect Amount of Abuse”

  1. Thank you so much for this timely article. I am a health care professional who is undergoing random verbal abuse by a colleague. Although I know this occurs and has forever on some levels across professions it always amazes me that professions whose underlying professional creed is suppose to be caring.

    I especially liked your thought at the end regarding how one would like to be treated regarding abuse.

    Thank you

  2. I appreciate Kerry’s focus on verbal abuse but I couldn’t help thinking how unfortunate it is that we have to even discuss something so apparently wrong. We should be focusing on at how to improve on communication skills that are already good. It’s analogous to solving problems of infidelity when we should be improving an already loving relationship. Admitting that verbal abuse is always wrong, the next question is “Why?” Again, drawing an analogy to porn addiction where the primary motivators are often loneliness, insecurity, anger, resentment and the like, why do people verbally abuse? Do they just lack skills? Or is the verbal abuse a symptom of more fundamental needs and character flaws? Understanding a person’s fundamental needs might allow one to better influence positive change in their lives beyond just telling them that verbal abuse is bad.

  3. I would modify only one element of this blog post – I would not encourage individuals to “verbally abuse” others as much as they like to be abused as there are many individuals who seem to relish heated, abusive tirades. In fact, there are individuals who self-abuse in varied ways and I would not want to encourage them to abuse me with either the frequency or ferocity they may bring to their own self-abuse.

  4. According to the Leadership Circle’s research, 2/3 of people are
    reactive, or just like “Martha” and the other’s mentioned above.

    However, we employ people like this is in supervisory positions. When that happens WE need to lead up and say things like “Martha, I feel offended when you say that my reports are late in front of John and Eve. So offended that I it’s hard to hear you. Can we have our next counseling session in your office with the door closed?”

    You even schedule meetings with the Martha’s of this world. You will develop a better relationship with her.

  5. You’d be surprised when you treat the “Marthas of the world” with kindness and respect; you can turn things around in the relationship. I had a very difficult co-worker who suddenly was given authority to make decisions on permits which I’d been formerly entrusted. Now every permit needed his Ok before progressing. It seemed like we were disagreeing and butting heads at every juncture. I decided to start agreeing with him whenever I possibly could,(mutual purpose) and the tension diminished. I knew his wife was having a difficult pregnancy, and had two preschoolers at home, so I gave him a small self-care gift to give her. I told funny stories about my kids at the age of his kids. Within weeks, there was a thaw in the relationship, and there has been a vast improvement towards mutual respect. The catalyst was my attitude–to refuse to be adversarial and respond with what I wanted in the relationship.

  6. I’m actually amazed that you never had this growing up. This is all I ever knew – verbal abuse. Constant screaming, yelling, drama, threatening behavior and words were an every day occurrence in my childhood. As a young adult I decided to never be this way. Every so often, once every several years, I lose my temper with someone. This is usually after I have tried and tried to get through to them, and it usually is in a dangerous situation where someone can get hurt. So sometimes I feel if you cannot get through to someone and they are endangering themselves or someone else, and the ONLY way to get through is to yell, I’m not sure that this is bad. However, my choice is to respect people in a verbal matter first – it is almost always through desperation of trying to get through that I rarely lose my temper.

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