Toby Israel Ph.D.

Design on My Mind

Say It Forward: Presidential Debates and Verbal Abuse

Join the campaign to dismantle all of our bullies' pulpits.

Posted Sep 14, 2016

A toxic colleague takes a yucky swipe at me on Twitter. A sadistic “friend” throws zinger insults my way with a “just joking” laugh. A sanguine cousin lobs put-down-grenades and I struggle not to explode.   Sounds like a war zone?

These are just a sampling of similar landmines of verbal abuse we all experience at some point in our lives.  Often we try to sidestep them. I say “side-step” because most of us aren’t trained to recognize, respond to and remove from our universe this particular type of bullying.   Now, however, with the presidential debates approaching, we have the ideal 'teachable moment' when it comes to verbal abuse.

For months Donald Trump has been throwing sticks and stones at his opponents. His words have not only chilled many bones and broken his Republican competitors — his words have hurt all of us. In particular, a Clinton ad of Trump mocking a disabled reporter reminds us that, “Our children are watching.” Since Trump got rewarded with the Republican nomination, our kids are learning that a “bully-take-all” approach may just work. Unless ...

The word is that Hillary Clinton is seeking advice from psychologists on how to handle Trump during the presidential debates. As a design psychologist, let me use design thinking to help not only Clinton, but all of us strategize ways to dismantle our bullies’ pulpits.

Rather than side-step, I suggest that we deploy a "3-R's" Recognize > Respond > Remove campaign using these strategies to defeat verbal abuse:



  • Understand that Verbal Abuse is a Type of Bullying in the form of harsh or insulting language directed at another person.(1) It constitutes "psychological violence.”(2)
  • Attune Yourself to Hear Verbal Abuse such as when a relative, “friend,” colleague, boss, romantic partner uses demeaning phrases such as: You are “fat," a "dummy,” “crazy,” “a fool,” “a sad case,” “pathetic,”  “weak,” “a mess,” “disgusting,” “terrible,” “desperate,” “a clown,” “a disaster,” “a total loser.”( 3) 
  • Realize you have a right to be spoken to in a respectful way.


  • Call Out Verbal Abuse rather than side-step it unless you feel that it is not safe to do so.
  •  Set Limits that Set Your Boundaries(4) by saying, for example, “Stop!”
  •  Respond with a Tone of Firmness that shows that you are serious.(5)


  • Leave the room. Vacate entirely if you fear your bully may become violent.
  • Seek Advice from Experts on how to protect yourself /your loved ones from a cycle of abuse.
  • Gain Insight on if, why, and how you endured verbal abuse in order to prevent it in the future. In the end, however, it is the bully’s job (not yours) to stop such abuse.

How Can Clinton Use These Strategies? If she realizes that Trump is not just debating with her but 'punching' her with psychologically violent remarks, I recommend that Clinton pause.  She should then respond by saying, “I won’t allow you to speak to me in this disrespectful way.” If Trump continues, I suggest that she say, “This is a teachable moment. Millions watching around the world have been victims of verbal abuse. I’d like to model for them how to deal with it: Here and now I am asking you not to speak to me in that disrespectful way.” Then, if Trump doesn’t stop, she should suggest: “I want to have a meaningful debate with you. However, if you are unable to control yourself, we need to take a break and come back when you are ready to be civil.”

How Can You Use These Strategies? The New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof pointed out that “Trump’s venom has poisoned schools across the country” as documented in a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.(6)  Use the list above as an antidote to such poison. Print, cut and put it on your fridge for all to see. 

By doing so, you’ll be joining the ‘Say It Forward’ Campaign.’ As in the movie Pay It Forward where one good deed leads to another, the ‘Say It Forward’ goodwill movement encourages us one-by-one to pass respectful speech on. Otherwise, too, the danger is that when engulfed in an atmosphere of verbal assault, we all will revert to “saying it backwards" -- using abusive words.(7)

How Can I Use These Strategies? By writing this piece, I’ve realized that I don’t always follow my own advice. Dealing with verbal abuse isn’t always easy.  Too often I’ve side-stepped by removing myself from verbally abusive situations rather than calling them out.  This leaves bullies devoid of the feedback they need to recognize and stop their abusive language.

Even worse, I’ve realized that such deferral sometimes results in my own built-up anger when I inappropriately explode at 'Mr./Ms. Frustrating Cable or Insurance Co. Rep.' rather than confront my original bully. As such, I become a participant in a vicious cycle. Now I will put my 'Defeat Verbal Abuse' list on my own refrigerator to remind myself that within me (and all of us) lie anti-hate weapons that you and I can deploy- - a defense arsenal  that doesn’t cost a penny.

In the end, even if Clinton wins, our national psyches will have to recover from the mental scars left by the barrage of nationally televised verbal abuse. President Obama recently remarked that in the pre-election months, “. . . behavior that, in normal times, we would consider completely unacceptable and outrageous becomes normalized."(8) We will have to re-learn that bullying put-downs just aren’t O.K. Hopefully we will learn that the power to keep the peace- - not just abroad but within our own borders- - starts with respectful interactions within our own families and communities.

Remember this as you go to the polls. As you pull the voting booth lever, remind yourself that, yes, our children are watching and we are their models. 



1. Merriam- Webster Dictionary.
2. Patricia Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize it and how to respond (Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, Inc., 1992) p. 73. Other types of  verbal abuse Evans mentions include: withholding, countering, discounting, verbal abuse disguised as jokes, block and diverting, accusing and blaming, judging and criticizing, trivializing, undermining, threatening, name calling, forgetting, ordering, denial, abusive anger.
3. Ibid., p. 77-78.
4. These are all examples of verbally abusive putdowns used by Donald Trump as cited in:  Olivia Nuzzi, “Bullying Experts: Trump is an Eighth Grade Girl.” The Daily Beast, Sept 16, 2015; Chris Wilson, “Donald Trump Insult Generator.” Time Magazine, July 21, 2016; Barry Ritholtz, “The 258 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted On Twitter: A Complete List.” The New York Times, July 31, 2016. 
5. For more on “Responding with Impact to Verbal Abuse,” see Evans, op.cit. , p. 127.
6. Ibid, p.133.
7. Nicholas Kristof, “Trump is Making America Meaner.” The New York Times, August 14, 2016.
8. As Clinton did when she referred to half of Trump’s supporters as “The Deplorables” and as Republican contender Marco Rubio did when referring to Trump’s small “hands.” Both Clinton and Rubio later apologized for their comments. By way of contrast, Trump’s ongoing, unapologetic, abusive comments led Jeb Bush to conclude that Trump’s tactic was to  “insult his way to the White House.”
9. Comments by President Barack Obama, September 9, 2016.

Copyright Toby Israel 2016

About the Author

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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