Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to an
Overly-hostile Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/hostile.htm

Updated  04-11-2015

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      This YouTube video provides perspective on what you'll read in this article:

      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you (a) get your primary needs met well enough, and (b) both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you experience as "overly hostile." It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • effective assertion and empathic listening skills.



      Can you think of a "hostile" adult or child in your life? Would people describe you as hostile at times? How would you answer a 10-year-old asking "What is hostility?" How about "What's the difference between hostility, aggression, abuse, dislike, and combativeness?"

      Let's say that hostility is (a) an attitude of dislike and disrespect that (b) manifests in potentially harmful, aggressive verbal and/or physical behavior. People or behavior merits the label hostile if they imply or overtly threaten significant harm to someone else.

      Dislike implies passive scorn, rejection, and disapproval. Hostility is perceived threatening (active) local or chronic behavior. The term often implies attack, hurt, destroy, harm, wound, injure, protection, and combat.

      Attitudes and behaviors can fall somewhere on a line like this...

Dislike / rejection ---------------------------------> aggression / hostility

Hostility can be unprovoked, or may be a protective defense against perceived pain or threat ("You call me that again and I'll knock your teeth down your throat!") 

      Recall how you reacted the last time someone was hostile to you. Submissively? Defensively? Confrontively? Angrily? Aggressively? Numb out (paralysis)? Escape? Pretend? Argue? Analyze?  Reason? Plead? Whine? Cower? Divert? Call for help? Several of these? Something else? What did you need from the other person? Did you get it? Did you respect yourself after responding?

      Understanding what causes personal hostility promotes effective responses. What's your opinion on the causes? Mine is - hostility, aggression, and belligerence are all caused by the person not knowing their true Self has been disabled by several Guardian and/or Young personality subselves - like a Bully, a Rager, a Selfish one, an Entitled one, a Controller, a Magician, and/or a Warrior/ Amazon. Any of these may have sprung to the rescue of a Scared or Terrified Child who feels pain and/or imminent danger.

       When this is true, reasoning, arguing, or placating ("C'mon, just calm down!") will seldom cause these protective subselves to relax. Arguing, threats, or blaming will probably escalate them. Consider these...

Response Options

      If there is an overly hostile adult or child in your life, imagine responding to them like this...

  • Mentally refresh yourself on these basic choices;

  • Check to see that your true Self is guiding you, and that you have a genuine mutual respect attitude about the hostile person. If not, assume a false self rules you. See Lesson 1.

  • Review the difference between hostility and aggression. If you decide the other person is being more aggressive than hostile, see these options.

  • Get clear on (a) what emotions you feel from their hostility, and (b) specifically what you need from responding the other person - to vent, to inform, to learn, to assert your boundaries or cause other action, and/or to avoid discomfort,

  • If appropriate, review these mutual personal rights. They are the basis of healthy boundaries and assertions.

  • Check the person's E(motion) level. If it's "above the ears," use empathic listening to bring it down. Recall that listening is not agreeing!

  • Estimate whether the person is locally controlled by a false self. If you think so, see these options.

  • Ask if the s/he's willing to hear some useful feedback. If not, use more empathic listening and/or follow your own judgment. If you get "OK," select from responses like these with steady eye contact:

To vent or inform: "(Name), when you (describe their specific behavior calmly and objectively), I feel (name your specific emotions)." Use steady eye contact, speak calmly. and (option) use empathic listening with any response. Avoid loaded terms like "When you're so hostile, I..."

To learn: "(Name), what do you need from me right now?" Then listen and observe.

To assert your boundaries:

"(Name), when you (describe their specific voice tone, body language, and/or trigger words),...

I feel (name your specific emotions);...

and I need you too (describe your specific needs, like "respect my opinions and needs".

If you're not willing to do that, I'm going to (name a specific action that you can enforce, like "hang up / walk away / end this conversation / .)"

      Calmly expect the person to "resist" you - e.g. bluster, verbally attack or threaten, challenge, name-call, argue, swear, deny, blame you, etc Use calm, respectful empathic listening until their E-level falls "below their ears," and calmly repeat your assertion.

To problem-solve: "(Name) you seem to have a problem with me. Are you willing to problem-solve now?"

  • If you get "No," use empathic listening and the "to learn" option above.

  • If you get "OK," follow steps like these calmly and respectfully.

  • Avoid these common false-self alternatives.

If you need something else, improvise, using the theme of these response-options.

      Notice your thoughts and feelings now. Can you imagine confidently using responses like these with overly-hostile adults or kids? If not, why? Most barriers stem from false-self dominance + lack of experience. Both can be reduced! The benefits of learning to respond like this are priceless - serenity, security, and possibly enhancing your self-esteem and your relationships.


      This is one of a series of brief Web articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common irritating social behaviors. This article offers (a) a definition of hostility; (b) possible causes of hostility, and (c) several ways to respond effectively to a hostile adult or child.. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the Lesson-2 relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

For more perspective, see these options for responding to aggression, egotism (superiority), and disrespect.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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