True or false? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” False! I despised this saying as a child. Words were oftentimes more harmful than anything– especially as an adolescent learning to formulate my own understanding of the world. And even worse than words were the times I didn’t quite know how to respond back to a question: do you have cooties? Where are you from? Why are you so hyper?
This silence has trickled into adulthood and made itself present in far more complicated situations than yes or no questions — when a man catcalls me on my way to the subway, when an older Caucasian man asks me why I was vacationing on this particular members-only island (being one of the handful of guests who was a woman of color), when I am being mansplained during a meeting. I am not alone. Every single woman has felt silenced and when it comes to matters of #metoo, we’ve been silenced for so many generations that now when we have the chance to speak, we just feel pure anger.
Enter Kasia Urbaniak, a former dominatrix -with one hell of a presence- turned founder and CEO of “The Academy,” a school, which she describes as “unlike any on earth” and whose graduates “demonstrate mastery of the games of power.” It emphasizes practice over theory and teaches women how to take action in the moment.
After the recent news of major transgressions by men in power — across all industries — Kasia tapped into this broader “reckoning” with a verbal self-defense training camp called ‘Cornering Harvey.’ (As in Weinstein, but here, Harvey represents all men in power.) I attended her sold-out workshop, which focuses strictly on words — not combat tactics — to change the power dynamics of an uncomfortable situation. While only some women may need physical self defense in their lives, nearly all will need verbal.
As I read up on her work, I found myself nodding vigorously in response to all of the scenarios in which verbal self defense may be needed: “Have you ever entered a conversation wanting an apology, only to wind up apologizing yourself?” Yes. “Have you ever stepped into a scenario ready to ask for something you wanted, but walked away with something entirely different?” Definitely yes.
So who is our enemy here? Silence, says Kasia. Silence is our enemy. She starts the workshop by asking, “Who’s angry?” Everyone (all women, mind you) raises their hand. “Who’s angry in this way where they don’t want to be angry anymore because there’s not enough time or space in the day to do something with it?” Everyone raises their hand. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, she broke down the anger and frustration of the 150 women in the room into action, humor, and kindness.
If you’re not able to attend Kasia’s workshop firsthand, I’m going to highlight how you can incorporate these techniques into your everyday life. (Be sure to check out the video directly below, too.) Gone are the days of silence, ignoring the question, and avoiding eye contact. Kasia’s method helps you retrain the moment where you find yourself speechless.
Drawing from Kasia’s dominatrix days, one first has to understand dominant and submissive states of attention. In a dominant state of attention, a person has their attention fully on the other person. In a submissive state of attention, a person has their attention fully on themselves and their experience. The person in a dominant position gives attention and instruction while the submissive position receives that attention and instruction. When asked an uncomfortable question, Kasia teaches to ask a question back— putting the other person into the submissive state. Another key component? Doing it with confidence and direct eye-contact.
This technique is specifically referred to as “turning the spotlight,” which means flipping the power dynamic between the dominant and submissive.
Watch Kasia demonstrate this technique in a video from her workshop.
Each attendee from the workshop walked away with a real understanding of how to take control of power dynamics, speak up, and break the female silencing pattern. Kasia also explains that the thing that makes women speechless is a habituated reaction that starts in the body and influences brain chemistry. So take note — the next time you don’t know what to say, turn your attention back out and ask a few questions in return. As Kasia explains, not answering the question isn’t meant to be perceived as “rude” — instead, it puts the other person on the spot.
At the end of the class, we had an open discussion and the male volunteers who were part of the workshop made their voices heard, too. Every one of the men said they benefited from the class as much as the women did. One male volunteer said the experience of having women asking him these questions turned his focus inward, to recognize the deep rooted fears and insecurities he might not have been fully cognizant of himself.
The thing that struck me the most was the incredible range of age diversity in the class: from college students to a grandmother and every age in between. The night concluded with a middle-aged mom saying, “We as women are always taking bullets in life and now knowing how to [verbally] respond will act as our bullet-proof vests.” Let us all reenter this world with a bullet-proof vest for life.
Sophia is the former Entertainment Media Editor at Vogue. She now consults to help brands and people alike be more authentic storytellers through social and digital media. Sophia also leads the HER NYC chapter, a female community empowering women and celebrating the authentic self. Sophia is based in Brooklyn and prefers to commute by bike. Follow her here: instagram.com/sophfei Ge