A Lesson in Assertive Behavior

As I drove out of the dealership with my first brand-new car, a Dodge Aspen, I experienced both a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment. When my co-workers saw it, they complimented me on its appearance.    I very much enjoyed driving the car for the first week until it rained, and I discovered a leak in the trunk area. Because I had purchased the car with a 1 year/ 12,000-mile warranty, I returned it to the service department and was told they would take care of the problem.

Everything was fine until the next downpour.  This time I found more water in the same exact spot than I had previously.  Although it clearly was not my fault, I felt embarrassed in having again to bring the vehicle back to the same dealership where I had bought the car.  When I showed the service manager the car, he pointed out to me that the trunk area was bone dry.   Feeling attacked, I mumbled that it was not dry after it had last rained.  “All right,” he replied, “we’ll take a look at it.”

When I left, I was only hoping that they had fixed the problem and that would be that.  Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.  A few days later it drizzled causing the back of the car to be wet in different places.  Because I didn’t want to be viewed as a complainer or a pest, I was reluctant to take the car to the service department a third time.  But insofar as my girlfriend and I had planned a trip to Maine the following week for our vacation, I wanted the car to be in perfect condition.

In a quiet voice, I once more showed the service manager where the car had been wet.  He pretty much said the same thing he had said on my last visit: “We’ll take a look at it.”  When I picked up the car, he assured me that they did what they could, and I politely thanked him.

My girlfriend and I both felt excited driving up the coast in a new automobile.  The car drove like a charm.  When we were about a half hour from our destination, there was thunder and lightning followed by a heavy rainfall.  Upon arrival at our hotel, I parked and went to the trunk to unload our luggage.  To my consternation, the whole back of the car was inundated, but fortunately, there was no damage to any of our possessions.  My girlfriend said she thought that I had had the leak repaired.  With as much bravado as I could muster, I responded angrily: “I thought so too but those jerks that call themselves mechanics obviously didn’t do the job.”

We were both able to laugh it off and have a great time.  But when I returned home, I was both angry and anxious.  I spoke to my younger brother, Dan, who had much less difficulty asserting himself than I.  As parents often note, children, unless they are identical twins, can be as different as night and day.

With a tape recorder, Dan and I role played out the scenario of my entering the dealership, assuming an angry tone, upon asking to see the man in charge.  When I confronted him, I made sure to practice giving Dan, who played the head honcho, direct eye contact.  Because I knew a polite demeanor would be ineffective, I practiced my delivery a number of times until it sounded as if I were truly pissed off.

The next day when I brought my vehicle in, I indicated that I needed to speak to the head of the dealership.  Whoever greeted me asked if he could help, but I told him no, in a firm tone, asking to see the number one man.  When the boss emerged, though trembling inside, I explained to him, in no uncertain terms, that the trunk of the vehicle had been drenched in a rainstorm on my vacation.  I emphasized that I had been in for the same issue a number of times before and it was a huge inconvenience of my valuable time.  I continued that I did not want this to happen again, and that I was holding him, head of the dealership, responsible for the repairs.  I made it clear to him if the car was still leaking, I would know who to see and who was at fault.  I further threatened that I would go over his head if the work was not done properly.  He assured me that he would oversee the job.

When I returned at the end of the day, the boss approached me and showed me several black lines where the car had been caulked.  He said they had hosed the car down and had found a series of leaks all of which they had caulked.  He assured me that the work had been done, and I thanked him for personally overseeing the matter.  Upon departing, because I could actually see that something actually had been done on the car, I believed that the problem, finally, had been resolved.  And it was!















Can You Be Nice and Assertive at the Same Time?


In thinking about distinguishing between assertive and nice behavior, I recall the famous line by Leo Durocher, the player and manager of several baseball teams,  “Nice guys finish last.”  In an earlier blog, I broke down the concept of assertiveness into four behaviors.  To briefly recapitulate: These behaviors consist of the following:  1) The ability to say No; 2) The ability to make positive or negative comments to anyone; 3) The ability to both initiate and terminate a conversation with a friend, acquaintance or stranger and 4) The ability to ask for a favor or a request of a relative, friend or acquaintance.

Nice is probably one of the most overused words in the English language and, consequently, it is a poor descriptor of human behavior.  I can relate to many of my clients who don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings and/or want to be liked by everyone.  Those that try and accomplish this impossible feat, and here, I confess to having these tendencies, represent the quintessence of what it means to be “nice.”  This high need of approval, craved by many, inhibits the expression of the above assertive behaviors in various situations.  Niceness, in this sense, can result in self-demeaning behavior that may lead to a not so pleasant life experience.  Frequently, I have had to oppose my natural instinct, to let things ride by not putting my foot down to draw the line, when others may be taking advantage of me.  One who regards others as more important than his or herself will have difficulty winning, and will more than likely, finish last in the game of life.

Assertive behavior is a right and not a privilege.  When I just had graduated college back in 1967, I attended a conference sponsored by the American Psychological Association, in Washington D.C.  The session that most vividly stands out in my mind was a film showing and exploring the relics Freud had kept in his office where he practiced before he died.  One of these was his pipe.  This was a time when smoking was not universally prohibited, as it is currently. There was a gentleman in his 50’s, who appeared quite erudite, sitting next to me in the packed theater.  In the front of the auditorium by the stage, one clearly could see a sign in bold red letters that read:  No Smoking.   After the lights were dimmed marking the start of the film, to my misfortune my scholarly friend pulled out a cigar and lit it, completely oblivious to the sign.  His age and his demeanor thwarted me such that I felt it inappropriate to interrupt the pleasure he appeared to be deriving from his cigar.  So, I sat through the movie (fortunately, it was quite short) having to breathe in and endure the obnoxious aroma and air permeated by the cigar’s smoke.

The above example illustrates the point that age and/or status do not preempt another’s right in asserting oneself.   Because no one else asked him not to smoke, it was apparent that I was not alone in having been intimidated by this individual.  Although it was within my right to confront him, I, like the others, remained silent.

About two years ago, I experienced another situation in which I chose not to assert myself.  I had been going to the same fitness club as another fellow, who I will call Jim for the sake of confidentiality.  Physically, he was quite muscular and much bigger than I was.  We often exercised at about the same time and, so over time, we maintained a cordial relationship and became friendly acquaintances.  However, after some months had passed by, I noticed that he had become distant and less friendly than previously.  Subsequently, on one occasion, I felt the butt of his intrusive manner, when he preempted a bench that I was about to use, despite the fact that his partner indicated I had been waiting to go next.  He acted as if I were invisible, saying “it’s no big deal,” and he took the bench without my confronting him.  I felt both surprised and nonplussed by his action and, in thinking there might have been negative repercussions if I had objected, decided not to risk incurring his wrath by asserting myself.

A few months later, while doing curls with a barbell, I was waiting for a female to finish using another bench.  When she got off the bench, Jim approached her and asked her if she was finished using it, and though she nodded yes, she pointed out to him that I had been waiting to get on it.  When he saw me pick up the barbell to complete my last set of curls, in defiance, he said: “You’re not using it now.  You can go use the other bench.”  In the past, whenever a situation like this would arise with someone else, either that person would let me use the bench or might ask how long I would be using it.  Jim did neither.  Nevertheless, feeling intimidated and fearful of an angry confrontation, I allowed Jim to preempt me and take the bench.

Afterwards, I did not feel good about my inability to stand up to Jim.  To reiterate, might and strength are not equal to right, although, I must say, it did not feel that way.  It weighed on my mind to such an extent that I knew, for my own sanity, I needed to approach Jim about it. Given my understanding of this man, I wanted to avoid an angry clash with him, so I decided to take the advice of a psychiatrist friend and employ a technique similar to what is known as disarming.  This strategy involved my inquiring whether or not I had done something wrong to alter what had begun as a rather congenial relationship.

When I saw alone him outside of the fitness room, I went over to him and employed my disarming technique but it had little effect on the interaction.  I made a point of giving him direct eye contact, and not looking away from him, due to feeling threatened or frightened. In essence, he said that I had not done anything to piss him off but “things change over time.”  I assumed he was referring to his own personal situation, and I wanted to stay away from that insofar as it had little bearing on what had happened between the two of us. Although he was semi-apologetic about the bench, there remained a combination of anger and defensiveness in his tone of voice.  Because Jim said he was beginning to feel uncomfortable after I had made my point, I decided not to pursue it any further.

Although I had wished my talk with Jim to have been more conciliatory, I did feel better about expressing myself in an assertive manner.    About a week later, when I entered the locker room, Jim, sitting alone, started to stare at me.  In refusing to allow fear to overwhelm me, I returned his stare, again looking directly in his eyes.  Neither of said a word to the other.  I said to myself: “Fine, if this is what he wants, I will let him have it.”  In asserting my right to be present was no less than his right, I realized that, for now, a cordial relationship between the two of us was not in the picture.  However, what was different for me now than in the past, was I could accept that as a fact of life, with little worry or further thought.  If I had been “nice,” I would have allowed Jim to not respect my space when lifting weights.  Regardless, of how he acts toward me in the future, I made it abundantly clear that my space in the gym is as important as his.