Assertiveness Challenges & Coping with Difficult Situations

You thought your Aunt Bertha was tough. Believe it or not, there are people out there who are even more difficult. They can be ill-mannered, grouchy, nasty, and appear to lack many basic interpersonal skills. They lose very little sleep over giving you a hard time. Sooner or later–and probably sooner–you will run into one of these types. You may have to bring out the bigger guns. More sophisticated strategies and tactics are required to spare you this unwanted and avoidable stress.

Here is the final installment of my Assertiveness blog.

The following sections outline what you need to do to overcome challenges & cope with difficult situations:

1. Start nice, then work your way up to nasty

Too often we start off nice and never push back. Or we go from “0 to 60” and come off as aggressive and hysterical.

A core CBT technique is called “de-chunking.” This involves taking a difficult or feared issue in your life; breaking it into small, manageable, chunks or units; listing them in order from easiest to hardest; and approaching them in a gradual, sustained, step-by-step fashion.

Adapting this technique to assertiveness difficulties we can create a continuum from 0-100, where 0=polite & friendly; 50= firm and demanding; 75=all out war; 100=acceptance & moving on.  Lets call it escalating assertion.

You start as politely and as courteously as you can and then move up the assertion ladder, rung by rung. Should you find yourself nearing the end of the ladder with little hope of success, you may need to venture into the realm of more forceful behavior.

Feeling a little confused? That’s okay. Here’s an example: Suppose you are enjoying a particularly good book. You become aware that your silence has now been disrupted. Your next door neighbor has turned up his television set to a highly disturbing level. It is loud. Very loud! You are very annoyed! You could let the incident go, but because this is not the first time this has happened, you decide that a little assertiveness behavior is required. Good for you! You determine that escalating assertion is the way to go. Following I give an illustration of how you might proceed:

Rating                   Your Mood                                                                     The Action you Take

0                                Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy                                                       A polite note under his door

10                              I’m a little miffed                                                             A courteous, but firm phone call

25                              I’m pissed                                                                           A personal visit with strong eye contact

50                            No more Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy                                   Wall banging; calling 311

75                               The gloves are off!                                                           The police, the super, lawyer’s letter

90                            Nuclear war                                                                         Lawsuit; you blast your TV

100                           Defeat                                                                                      Earplugs


The Takeaway: Start modestly and hope that you can resolve your issue before you get to the end of your list. The key to escalating assertion is being in emotional control, which means working to not let your anger or upset overwhelm you, take you off course, and get you to do something you may regret later.

2. Talk like a broken record

Persistence pays at times. By repeating your request again and again, like a record with a scratch (remember LPs?), you often find that you get what you want. The recipe for success is keeping your cool and speaking in a calm, logical fashion.

Consider this interchange I had recently with a store clerk, which illustrates the broken record technique. I purchased a lamp that worked fine for the first day; but after that, I began to hear some crackling in the socket that left me feeling leery of turning it on any more. I decided, rightfully, to take it back.

Me: “This lamp doesn’t work properly. I think the wiring is defective. I’d like a refund.”

The Store Clerk: “Do you have a sales receipt?”

Me: “No. However you can see by the box that the item was purchased here.”

The Store Clerk: ‘We do not do refunds without receipts.”

Me: “That may be, but I would like my money back. As you are aware, this same model is currently for sale in your shop.”

The Store Clerk: “I can’t do that.”

Me: “I would very much like my money back.”

The Store Clerk: “But we almost never give a refund without a receipt.”

Me: “I really would like my money back.”

The Store Clerk: “Okay, but just this one time only.”

Me: “Thank you.”

The Takeaway: As you can see, there is nothing brilliant going on here. Basically you wear down the other person. You are firm and repetitive. The tone of your voice doesn’t wary. You stay on topic. Does this approach work every time? Nope. But by sticking to a consistent and unwavering demand, you find that in more instances than you may imagine, you get what you want.

3. Try a little “fogging”

This technique is a nicer version of broken record, but includes some of the same ideas. Fogging recognizes that you may care about the other person’s feelings or that the other person may have a valid point or be asking something reasonable of you, but that you would like to decline. The following example illustrates this point:

You were asked to donate money to a charity that you feel has merit, but you have decided that it is not one that you want to add to your give-to list. The fund-raiser is well-meaning, but persistent. Using the broken record approach seems a little harsh. You opt for fogging:

The fund-raiser: “It’s a great cause. It helps a lot of people.”

You: “I know it is a good cause. I don’t want to donate to another charity at this time.”

The fund-raiser: “You don’t have to give a huge amount. Anything will do.”

You: “I realize that. But I’d rather not make a donation at this time.”

The fund-raiser: “Why don’t I put you down for $30. That’s not an awful lot.”

You: “I know it isn’t. I’m simply not in a position to give a donation of any amount right now. I wish I could, but I can’t.”

The Takeaway: Though it may sound much like the broken record strategy, it is a softer interaction. You are actively listening to the other person, paraphrasing, or feeding back some of what he is saying. You appreciate his point of view, and you may in fact be quite sympathetic; but you still want to stick to your guns. It’s the perfect technique when you are solicited for donations, membership on committees, volunteer positions, or asked for favors that are reasonable, but that you would like to decline.

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