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The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work

Reviewd by:
The Aternative Newsletter Editor,
Robert Kirkman Collins
Published by:
(Prentice-Hall, 2000; ISBN 0-7357-0089-0, 340 pp., paper
Second Edition)

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Suzette Elgin, a Professor of Linguistics at San Diego State, has provided a sequel in her Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series. This is
clearly a negotiation “self-help” book for a lay audience, but — pop psych aside — does have the appeal of being well written and instructive,

with the laudable goal of attempting to use language to deflect, rather than inflict, verbal damage.

The book also provides a “gentle” reminder of the sometimes overlooked centrality of tone and inflection in communication. Running as a

theme throughout the book is Elgin’s view that in English “more than half of the information is not in the words, but with body language,

modulating the intonation of the voice.” While this insight should be essential to mediation, negotiation and advocacy, the subject is rarely

addressed in the same formal manner as the art of dispute resolution vocabulary. We’re are all taught how to use language in dispute

resolution — but which of us are instructed in how to use our voices? Yet the impact of inflection can be dramatic. I recall that in New York

City twenty-five years ago, two judges in adjacent courtrooms had criminal jury conviction rates of 33% and 95%, respectively. It turns out

that the first judge charged the jury to convict “IF you find the defendant is guilty beyond ANY reasonable doubt”, while the second judge

instructed them to convict if they found guilt “beyond any REASONABLE doubt.” While the transcripts were identical, their results clearly

were not.

Not for the professional, this book is still a useful guide for those who might need to be sensitized to hidden patterns of verbal toxicity, and

some common-sense steps to avoid — and deflect — them.


Robert Kirkman Collins

Robert Kirkman Collins, J.D., has been cited by Cardozo Law School as being “among the pioneers of divorce mediation”. A co-founder of The New York Mediation Group, Bob is an attorney with an independent practice in divorce mediation and matrimonial law in Manhattan, with over twenty years of experience as… MORE >

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