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Provocative Paradox: A Tool to Shut Down Verbal Bullies

Among adolescents, a common occurrence is verbal provoking. Many of these kids believe themselves to be unequipped to handle these situations. After attending a seminar on this topic, I formulated a strategy that kids can use to de-escalate and shut down face-to-face provoking.
A paradox is something absurd, senseless, or contradictory. So a paradoxical response is an unexpected, illogical response to provoking by another. As crazy as this sounds, one of many ways to do this is to actually agree with the provoker and to invite more of what he’s “offering.” That unpredictable response disrupts the verbal exchange and power play that the provoker seeks and it confuses him. The response sets the provoker up for a difficult choice: Does he continue provoking, even though it’s suddenly not working, or does he attempt a new tactic that he now must come up with quickly if he is to save face? The response confuses and disorients the provoker and it’s that confusion that interrupts the usual provoking interchange that the provoker is used to “winning.” Let’s break down how this sequence can be managed differently.

The teen being provoked:

  • Accepts/agrees with the provokers’ comments. He/she even invites more of the same.
  • Does not interrupt the provoker but uses a brief verbal response after the provoker finishes each provocative remark, using the same response every time.
  • Maintains their composure throughout the interchange, because he/she only has to remember one response and repeat it over and over.
  • Ultimately outlasts the provoker’s onslaughts and “wins” the exchange. This gives the provoker the option to drop the issue, save face, and walk away.
  • Is able to calmly level the playing field, despite the previously-existing imbalance of power between them.
  • As a result of winning the interchange, the teen begins to feel more confident in his/her ability to manage future provoking.

… While the provoker:

  • During the interchange, quickly becomes confused by the recipients’ unexpected responses.
  • Quickly becomes frustrated because the provoking that has worked well in the past is suddenly not working, and it’s unclear why not.
  • If he still intends to “win” the interchange, he is suddenly under pressure to quickly come up with new ways/comments to provoke.
  • Eventually stops his provoking because the other teen has outlasted (and outsmarted) him.

While this may sound complicated or overly clinical, in practice it’s quite simple. 

Here’s how the teen can do this:

  • Ignore the content/manner of the provoker’s attack and wait for a pause.
  • Use a neutral tone of voice, neutral facial expression, and no sarcasm.
  • Speak in a normal voice volume and wear a non-threatening facial expression.
  • Do not glare or lock eye contact.  
  • Use good body posture and face the person directly.
  • Try to maintain an arm’s length of distance away from the provoker
  • Repeat the same verbal or non-verbal response after each provoking comment, no matter how many times it takes.
  • Do not abuse these responses by using them to provoke or irritate other people.

These are defensive strategies only.

Why these work:

This strategy turns the tables on the provoker, but does not attack or provoke him in return. The provoker will pause the next time he is tempted to provoke you, because he’ll have to consider that he might lose the interchange yet again, possibly in front of peers/friends.  

Instead of exhibiting hurt or powerlessness (as most provoking victims do), you are able to stay calm and focused throughout the interchange, because your “job” is easier (repeating one response) than the provoker’s (coming up with new strategies on the fly). You will see the provoker becoming increasingly frustrated, while you remain calm – a potent confidence-builder that demonstrates that you can be more in charge of these interchanges.

Because they typically don’t believe adults can help them with being victimized by provokers, teens don’t have to feel badly about not reporting the behaviors, because they’re managing them better on their own.

Because some victims may strike back physically, this technique allows them to remain calm and focused, before responding to the bully’s tirade.

If provoking victims were inclined to bring weapons to school to defend themselves against provokers, winning verbal interchanges with provokers might help them to become more confident and socially/verbally “armed” and hopefully less inclined to arm themselves with weapons.

Jim Catlin is a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from UW-Stout. He invites readers to submit questions and offer ideas about what they would like to see in this column by emailing

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Jim Catlin  author

Jim Catlin is a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from UW-Stout. He invites readers to submit questions and offer ideas about what they would like to see in this column.