– Episode Nine –
Verbal Self Defense
About The Empowerment Podcast
In this podcast, created as a platform to teach you everything she knows about self-defense, join host Silvia Smart in this safe space. With over three decades on the frontlines, she’ll give you skills and knowledge for your self-defense toolkit so you can live your most fearless and empowered life. Research proves that empowerment self-defense programs work. Participants are less fearful, more aware of their boundaries, and are able to speak up sooner when faced with manipulative or threatening situations. Furthermore, for those who have experienced trauma in the past, evidence shows that empowerment self-defense training can interrupt the cycle of violence and decrease the likelihood of a future assault.
This podcast is brought to you by the empowerment project.
Research proves that empowerment self-defense training makes you safer period. I want you to have a great self-defense toolkit so you can create strong boundaries, speak with confidence, and take up all the space that you deserve in the world.
We’ll hear stories from survivors and find out what worked for them and why. We’ll interview leaders in the field and talk about tips, concepts, and really easy things that you can do to make yourself safer and interrupt the cycle of violence.
I’ve taught self-defense classes for over 30 years and I promise to teach you everything I know!
Ultimately, I’m going to want you to get some in-person training, but a great empowerment self-defense class is more than just the physical skills. The list of things I want to teach you is endless, so let’s get to it.
My name is Silvia Smart, and welcome to the empowerment project.
I’m so glad you’re here! Welcome.
Hi! Welcome back!
In the last episode, we talked all about the voice and the various ways we can use it, hone it, and rely on it. Today, I want to talk about the actual words we use and how we can create safety through their application as a self-defense tool. Of all the tools, the voice and our verbal self-defense can go the farthest to prevent unwanted attention and situations. As with all of empowerment self-defense, we’re also going to look at the multitude of ways words can impact the quality of our lives and the way we walk through the world, which keeps us safer. I’ll give you examples, stories to illustrate the strategies and solid suggestions for practicing so you can get really good at this.
Self Defense Story
A long time ago, I had a job that I really loved. At the time, the minimum wage was about $4/hour. Yet, for some reason, I agreed to be paid $1/hour. Seriously. I did. I wanted the job that badly. Eventually, I got a little raise. And eventually, I got another raise. But I worked a lot. I held down other jobs and cleaned lots of people’s houses so that I could make ends meet.
My choice, but it wasn’t easy.
The job slowly became harder. Not because of the scope of the work or the difficulty of the work, but because the quality of the work environment became more and more dysfunctional and ultimately, was toxic for me. I still believed in the work I was doing and still wanted to be doing it in spite of everything.
After years, I came to realize that I needed to be paid a living wage and at long last, after putting up with an awful lot, I admitted to myself that I was going to have to ask for a raise.
I didn’t want to ask for a raise. I was afraid. The environment had gotten so toxic that I was scared I would lose my job or that my boss would be mad at me and then treat me even worse than what was happening already.
You are probably wondering why I would put up with this? It’s a good question! And one day I’ll tell you all about it.
It was finally time to ask for the raise so I set up a meeting. You’ve heard this term: fake it till you make it? Well, that’s what I did. It’s what I teach. If you have something to say, if you need to speak up to be seen, heard, respected and appreciated and you are scared, do it anyway! This is empowerment. And sometimes, we have to pretend or “fake it” until we believe it in our heart of hearts.
So I did that. I went in to talk with my boss and her henchman. I pretended I felt strong and secure and I asked for a raise with a voice that didn’t even shake. I was really proud of myself. The ending might or might not surprise you, but you know me, I’ll tell you the end of the story after we talk all about verbal self-defense and verbal self-defense strategies!
Verbal Self Defense Strategies:
Here’s the first one!
When we are talking about words, there is one word. The most self-defense-y word EVER. This word is a full sentence unto itself. And that, simply, is NO! This one word has the capacity to change your life.
If you are a people pleaser, like we’ve talked about before, or if your tendency is to be timid or shy, or if you ever allow yourself to be treated like a doormat, pushed around, dismissed or taken for granted, I guarantee you this word will set you free!
Take a deep breath!
Now say it with me: NO!
You can say NO with volume or without. You can say it in a high voice or a low voice. You can say it with a smile or a look of intensity. You can say it kindly or with force. This one word though, no matter how you say it, forges freedom for you and the space to create self-determination and the empowerment of you having choices.
I dare you to practice! I ask my students to practice – which is often met with titters and uncomfortable looks and jokes. But I mean it. Practice saying NO!
Say it three times a day for this entire week. Even if you don’t mean it. No laughing, no apologies, just NO! And then take a deep breath, be quiet, and see what happens. Does the world stop turning on its axis? Does everyone in your life suddenly get angry at you? Does anyone even notice or care? Will you, can you survive? Most of the time, when students tell me about their experience, what I hear is that no one died, no one cried, no one threw shade or started yelling. Mostly, the “No” was met with a shrug and acceptance, leaving my students to wonder “what took me so long?!”
Try it! Then go to the FB Group: The Empowerment Project and tell us how it goes!
Stop saying Please and Thank you so much!!!
Just like I want you to say NO more often, I want you to think about how often and in what contexts you say PLEASE and THANK YOU. “Please” is a polite word. A word to use when you are making a request of someone or asking a question. “Which way is the grocery store, please?” or, “May I please have some more salad?”
Thank you is also polite. It shows your acknowledgment, or gratitude. “Thanks for the compliment!” or, “No thank you, I’ve had enough salad. It was delicious!”
I grew up saying “Please” – and “Thank you”. There is nothing wrong with either! Some of us say these words a LOT and without much thought. Unconsciously. We use them inappropriately or as a way of being submissive or pleasing. As a way to be deferential, to not take up too much space, to take care of other people’s feelings. Almost as an apology.
How do you use the word, “Please”? How often do you find yourself thanking people? What is the context when you say “please” and “thank you”? How do you feel when you say these words? Sometimes it might feel very clearly like you are being polite. Sometimes, though, if you are really and truly honest with yourself, you might notice that you have some other motivation. THAT is what I want you to be aware of, it is those times that matter in the life of an empowered person.
Once again, just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with saying “please” and “thank you”. What does matter is your motivation. Your real and authentic reason for using these words within the context of the situation.
Someone touches my butt and I say, “don’t do that, please!”
I’m at a restaurant eating a meal by myself and the person at the next table keeps trying to engage me in conversation which I don’t want, asking me too many personal questions which I just don’t want to answer. After multiple evasion techniques I say, “I just want to eat quietly, thanks!”
It’s not that it’s wrong to say “please” and “thank you” in either of these situations. These words though, in this context, can take away from your power, your clarity, and your intention if they aren’t warranted. They almost disqualify what you are saying. Think about how much stronger your words would be if you don’t worry about being polite, taking care of someone else’s feelings, or being pleasing or demur.
Someone touches my butt and I say “Don’t do that!” Period.
To the person at the next table who’s not taking the hint and leaving me alone, I say, “I am not interested in a conversation right now.” Period.
We are looking at making sure you are “less selectable”, right? Bypassing the testing process and not being the one who is picked. Getting rid of these niceties can go a really long way towards strengthening your message and giving your words the backbone they deserve! You deserve!
There are a couple of other words to name. If Please and Thank you take first and second place, these two phrases get honorable mention.
Here are some examples:
Someone touches my butt and my default is to say, “Excuse me!” As if it’s my fault!
Or the example at the restaurant with the person not getting the hint and I say “Oh! Sorry! I just don’t feel like talking right now. Sorry!” Yep, sometimes we even say it twice!
I hope you can hear that your message is much stronger when you don’t disqualify it with the polite, people-pleasing, and caretaking words and phrases. Again, it’s not that I’m recommending that you never use them. What I’m suggesting is that you employ them more consciously.
Don’t get me wrong, when you begin this process, IT WILL FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE! That does not mean it’s wrong. Or bad. What it means is that you are trying something new. You are being aware and making choices, noticing habits and deciding how you want to handle them! And if you are anything like me, it might take some time, but uncomfortable stretches you into empowerment! And THAT is very awesome and worth the trouble!
I like to warn my students: When you use verbal self-defense, EXPECT BLOWBACK. We’ve talked about this before too on this podcast. Chances are good that when you change your behavior or set a new boundary, you are going to get a reaction. Some (not all!) of the people in your life might not like it! If you always wash the dishes, put them away, and clean the kitchen, your roommates might be kinda pissy when you speak up and ask them to do their part. You will know who the healthy, emotionally balanced people are in your life because they will understand your new boundaries, or at the least, will be able to talk with you about them.
Let’s keep going and talk about verbal self-defense strategies…
This is a great strategy. This one changed my life. It takes a bit of practice to start to feel comfortable with it, but it’s worth it! It’s got some flexibility, you can do it a couple of different ways, and you can always, as with all the verbal strategies, use words that you would normally use. Put this stuff into language that feels right to you.
This strategy asks you to do three things:
- Name the behavior, whatever it is that is happening.
- Criticize the behavior – and this is important – criticize the behavior, not the person. When you make a judgement about the person, that tends to just piss them off.
- Tell them what you want them to do – give them a command.
“Your hand is on my knee. I don’t like it. Take it off.”
“You’re asking me too many personal questions. That makes me uncomfortable. Stop it!”
“You came into my room without knocking. That sucks. Knock next time.”
This is a strategy that works when you practice it and think it through. It’s great if there is a situation you face every day or every week and you know it’s coming up. You ride the subway to work every day and there is always the same person who gets on at one of the stops before you. They always take up three seats with their splayed legs and all the bags and briefcases they carry. As the subway gets more crowded, they don’t move their stuff. So you think about what you want to say. And you practice and rehearse it in your head or with a friend. “You are taking up three seats. The subway is crowded. Be a pal and move your stuff.” NOW a word here about please and thank you. This might be a time where, especially since you don’t know this person, you can give them the benefit of the doubt and use “please”. That’s ok. That’s your choice. What feels right to you? What words feel authentic? Do that!
The idea here is to start with something easy… Practice it with a friend. Get some success under your belt, so to speak, and then try it again. This time on a situation that is more challenging.
This time, let’s take your boss. Your boss makes sexual comments to you. Ick. One of the things I really like about this strategy is that it’s great on the lower end of the spectrum and with people you know and have to deal with again. You are calling out the behavior and setting up your boundary, but you can play with tone and volume and all the other stuff we talked about to keep it professional or courteous, or whatever. To my boss, I say, “That sexual comment makes me uncomfortable. Stop.”
AND HERE’S SOMETHING IMPORTANT – The redirect! This is where, if you are going to have to deal with this person in the future, you can help them save face – but only if you want to! Let me show you what I mean.
Same situation, but this time with a redirect: To my boss, I say, “That sexual comment makes me uncomfortable. Stop. Now, what were you saying about the project?”
So slick! I love the redirect. It totally takes the heat off you – and again – especially if this is a context in which you have to regularly see this person.
And this is a choice. You might have already chosen to talk to HR. You might choose to deal with it another way. This is just an example, K?
This strategy works great on the lower end of the spectrum. It helped me, when I first started using it, because I had to 1. Call out the behavior which meant I had to notice it and identify it. 2. I had to figure out how that made me feel or what it was about the behavior that was out of bounds. And 3, then I had to be really clear and give a command. This was not easy to do without saying please, but I recommend it when you can!
And as a nod to a dear friend who is also a self-defense teacher, I’m going to give you the out of not saying the middle part.
For example, “Your hand is on my knee, take it off” is plenty. You really don’t have to say “I don’t like it”.
Another Verbal Self-Defense Strategy
NO – we talked about this! As a reminder, you are going to say NO three times a day for a week! Even if it would be just as easy to say “Yes”!
The reason why I want you to do this, to say NO even when it would be just as easy to say YES, is for a very specific reason. I want you to practice saying NO when it feels UNCOMFORTABLE! You practice saying one of the most important words in our toolkit while feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Therefore, when you need it, when you need to call on all the power of “NO!” you will have already pushed through the challenge of saying it when it feels awkward and weird and uncomfortable and you will know that you can do it!
Another Strategy with a great story!
Broken Record – This is where you pick a word or a phrase and you repeat it. You just say it over and over and over again. This is a great strategy when you are dealing with a person who is high, or angry or is experiencing a psychotic episode. Often times, they don’t hear the word or phrase the first time, or the second or even the third, fourth or fifth. But at some point, it will probably connect. A side note, I really like this strategy because once you land on a word or phrase that feels right, you don’t have to be creative. You just say the same damn thing over and over.
Here’s a story to illustrate this strategy. My friend, Jessica, was coming home from a walk. She heard yelling and screaming and as she approached her house, she saw her next-door neighbor running out into the street covered in blood having been hit by her spouse. Another neighbor, from a different house, was leaning out the window shouting that help was on the way. But meanwhile, the bloody neighbor was sobbing because her husband was holding her baby and wouldn’t let her have it and she was really scared of what he might do.
Jess, as she tells the story, was scared and trembling. A martial artist, being no stranger to self-defense or to fighting for that matter, takes a deep breath. She marches right up to the guy holding the baby and says, “Give her back the baby.”
Remember what I said about being ready to get “blowback”? Well, the guy laughed at her and said, “What, are you going to try to MAKE me?” And Jess just stood there and repeated: “Give her back the baby.” “Give her back the baby.” “Give her back the baby.” “Give her back the baby.” The guy, confused, ultimately handed her the baby!
Jess is an excellent storyteller and I’m not sure I did justice to her story. Jess is still out there teaching empowerment self-defense and you can find her in our FB group, The Empowerment Project. Be sure to join us there and ask her for more stories! In fact, we’ll have to have her here, on the podcast sometime and hear more!
De-escalation – is another verbal strategy. It’s way more than just a verbal strategy though it has a verbal component. I recently went through a training in de-escalation. We’ll have to do a whole podcast on this strategy! There are lots of different pieces to this strategy, but the basic idea is that you are confronted with someone who’s energy is escalated and it feels out of control. It feels scary and threatening. Often, your best bet, like any good self-defense, is just to get away.
But there might be some times when it’s less threatening and you decide the situation calls for you to talk them down, or you can’t get away and de-escalation is your best bet. It’s a way of listening and holding space until this person can calm down. All the while, if you need to, you are buying time and looking for a way to get away.
Humor. Cracking jokes or finding humor, making light of a situation that lands somewhere on the lower end of the continuum of sexual assault and violence can work. And sometimes it doesn’t work. Or it’s not a great option because it buys you time but doesn’t actually make you safer. But I’ve experienced and heard of plenty of times when a little laughter lightens things up just enough that a person can get away. Or provides an opening for a good dose of boundary setting.
Lie – Just BS. A lie is always an option. My roommate is on their way home. My dad is waiting for me. I’m with those people over there. I just had lunch, I’m not hungry. Whatever the situation calls for. A lie is a tad tricky because you want to make sure it’s realistic and if you are going to see this person again, they might find out you lied – which might or might not be OK. It depends and you are the only person who can make that call.
I’m going to tell you a story which takes place in a very remote part of Alaska. Our hero is home alone. Miles from any other home. Their spouse is out of town for a few weeks and their best friend comes over out of the blue “just to make sure everything is ok.” This situation quickly turns into an attempted rape. Our hero is being forced onto the ground and thinking quickly says, “Hey, slow down! What makes you think I don’t want this? That it has to be this way? I’m actually really into you. I want this. But I’d feel better about it if I could take a quick shower. You don’t mind, do you?” Surprised but pleased, the assailant lets go and hero hops up with a big smile, goes into the bedroom, locks the door and calls the nearest neighbor who comes over to help. THIS is crafty. This is an example of what a lie can look like.
Here’s another one: A college student parks their car a little way away from their dorm. As they step out of the car, they find a gun pointed at them with an assailant who says, “Give me all your money!” Thinking fast, our hero says, “I just went to the bank earlier. All my money is in my dorm room. I’ll go get it for you!” And the attacker says, “OK!” And they run into the dorm, lock the door and call for help.
Commands: A verbal command is, besides the word NO!, one of the most simple verbal self-defense strategie. Period.
Leave me alone!
You pick a phrase and you practice saying it with gumption. Then, when and if you need it, you’ve got it close at hand. Pick a couple. Practice. Repeat.
I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT
LEAVE ME ALONE
THIS DOESN’T FEEL GOOD
I CHANGED MY MIND
I DON’T LIKE THIS
(with kids I DON’T HAVE TO. YOU CAN’T MAKE ME)
I want you to practice. I really do. If you can get away on your own someplace and just say these phrases out loud, over and over again, do it. If you can’t say them out loud, because you don’t have a lot of privacy or space, maybe you can whisper them with intention and feeling. I want these to be easy for you to grab out of your toolkit. Easy to access, not a lot of thought. They are tried and true and can cover most any situation.
Planning and Preparation
if you know you are going into a situation, practice with friends beforehand. Write the words down, memorize them, role play with your friends. Say them in your office, your car, the shower, or while you are on a walk. Be prepared with the words. Have a tough situation coming up? A tough phone call? Have your response ready. Memorize parts of it, go into it with three main points you’ll be able to remember. Whatever it takes.
Verbal Self-defense takes practice. It takes practice and repetition. It takes role-playing and support from people who love you.
But as with most things, with practice, it gets easier and easier and easier until it becomes second nature. This is what I want for you. A verbal self-defense arsenal in your toolkit! You’ll practice scenarios, by the way, in your empowerment self-defense class! But meanwhile, get to work! This is really life-changing stuff!
As with all of the tools in our toolkit, if one of your verbal strategies is not working, you’ll know fairly quickly and you can pivot to something else.
End of Success Story
It’s time for the end of my story. As you will recall, there I am being really brave, asking for a raise so that I can quit a few of my other jobs and maybe even think about saving some money or having a family one day. And I’m proud of myself because my voice isn’t shaking even though I’m dying inside.
At that moment, by the way, just so you know what is going on in my head, and why I’ve allowed myself to agree to this unhealthy work situation, I am thinking, I am believing that I really don’t deserve a raise. Not because I was asking for too much, because I was only asking to be paid minimum wage.
Not because of my work ethic – I was a workaholic and often worked not just through the workweek, but on the weekends as well, knowing I was not to put those hours on any timesheet.
I didn’t think I was unworthy of a raise because I didn’t do a good job. I prided myself on being the best I could be. There was a reason I was the one they asked to do more projects, to add extra hours to my workload. I got things done.
Not because the work I did wasn’t important, I felt it was super important and that I was helping change the world and make it a better place.
No, I felt that I didn’t really deserve a raise because deep inside, I was kind of broken. I believed, deep down, that I was unlovable, was not valuable, was not good enough for anything. Was unworthy. And because of that, I’d allowed myself to be used and yes, I’d even say, abused.
So I did it, I asked for a raise. My boss and her henchman first looked surprised. I remember this clear as day. Then they looked taken aback and then, offended. Then they looked pissed. And they said “NO WAY! You need to consider very carefully what you are asking.
Even though I was shaking inside, I asked again!
And my boss said, “Well, you’re not getting it so I guess you need to quit”. So I did. And that was that.
You might wonder how I can call this a success story when I ended up not getting what I wanted? I didn’t get what I thought I wanted, but I did get exactly what I needed.
And that was my life back. My self-confidence back, my self-esteem and joy back. That place was so bad for me. It was so toxic and dysfunctional! There were zillions of reasons why I should have left many years earlier but didn’t. One day, I’ll tell you my story and how this piece of it fits in. But that will be for another day. For now, suffice it to say that this was the end of that era in my life, and the moment when I really started to see how I let people use me and hurt me. I stepped up to the plate and even though I was scared, even though I didn’t really believe yet that I deserved it, I knew it was the right thing to do. I asked for what I wanted and I got the information I needed to turn my life around.
This empowerment stuff? It is deep.
I’m a living breathing example of a person who has slowly, sometimes painfully, evolved. From the beginnings of feeling insignificant and unworthy, I have grown into a human being who feels deeply that I belong and am good. That I am worthy of respect and of consideration. I believe that I am worth protecting. Just like I believe that about you.
As humans, we are neither less than nor greater than, anybody else. This is my belief. No matter the color of our hair, our eyes, or our skin. No matter how much money we make or how little. No matter how young, no matter how old. No matter where we live or what country we are from. No matter who we choose to love. No matter what religion we call ourselves part of or whether we don’t. We are human beings worthy of respect. Worthy of protecting.
When I see people being subservient, it drives me nuts. You do not need to bow down before any other human being. No one is better than or less than you.
For today, let’s close with this. You are worth protecting and I am so glad you are here with me today. Thank you for listening all the way through. I hope you always have words and that your voice is loud and clear and that you use it to sing out the deepest parts of your soul. Because YOU, my dear friend, are an incredible human being. See you next time.
And it’s affirmation time. This is how I end every self-defense class. It’s kind of cheesy, but it’s very cool. And this is how it works. We’re going to do like a little call and response. If you can say this out loud. If you can repeat after me, do it because it’s important, I think, for you to hear your own voice. But if you can’t, like if you’re on a crowded subway or someplace where It’s embarrassing, don’t worry, you can also just say it inside your head. Okay, so I’m going to say something and you’re going to repeat it after me. I’m going to give you space to do that. And at the end, we’re going to say “YES”! Here we go.
Repeat after me.
I am worth protecting.
I love myself.
I deserve to take up space on planet Earth.
I am a strong and powerful person.
And hey, as a wrap up, will you do me a favor? Will you do all the things that you do when there’s a podcast like, will you tell your friends, will you subscribe? Will you come back each week? Communicate with me? Review this podcast? Will you please do all the things to help get more bandwidth, help more people find out about this podcast? That would be super awesome!
Take a deep breath. You are amazing. Thank you for being with me. See you next time.