It takes guts to deal with toxic relationships. The difficult person might be a peer at school, colleague, parent, sibling, or neighbor, and they can do damage. This post is about dealing with problem situations in assertive ways.
Being assertive means standing up for your rights in a direct, honest way. It’s about solving a problem and taking care of your needs — without being aggressive. That includes wisdom and caring for others as much as you care for yourself, about knowing when to take on a problem and when to bow out. Here are four assertiveness methods to help you survive those “difficult people” moments. These methods vary from determining whether the battle is worth fighting and trying to solve the issue with communication to blocking the difficult person’s attack.
(1) The S.T.O.P. Technique
First you have to decide whether the battle is worth fighting. Is the problem serious enough to act upon? Start by creating distance between you and the situation. This separation helps you see everything more clearly. The S.T.O.P. technique is an effective way to do this.
(a) Stop. The second you notice negative emotion welling up inside you — associated with a conflict at hand — pause, acknowledge it, and move onto the next step.
(b) Take three breaths. Take. Three. Breaths. Breathe slowly each time, inhaling comfortably, exhaling comfortably. With each exhale, imagine all negative thoughts, emotions, and sensations leaving your body. If you need more than three breaths to clear your mind, take your time.
(c) Observe and listen. What’s going on? Take a look at the situation objectively. Looking at the scenario with new eyes, what do you see? If it helps, imagine a broad stage with each person acting out their part. Try to be objective. Each time a problem thought, emotion, sensation, or memory comes up, acknowledge it and breathe it out. Ask yourself:
- Is the outcome to this conflict important to me?
- Will it matter in ten years?
- Will acting on the situation improve the outcome?
- Will not acting cause harm to me or someone else?
(d) Proceed wisely. If the answers to the above questions are no, relax your mind and body and consider letting the situation go. Fighting this battle might not be worth the energy. For example, someone flips you off when you’re driving, for absolutely no reason. Instead of getting angry and responding in like, possibly worsening the situation and expending lots of energy being upset, consider taking a deep breath and choosing to do nothing. On the other hand, if the answers to the questions are yes, work on solving the problem. For example, this would be the case if you’re being bullied at school or threatened by a coworker. If the battle is worth fighting, move onto another technique.
This strategy is a slight variation from the cognitive behavioral therapy S.T.O.P.P. method. For more information check out the getselfhelp.co.uk website page get self help STOPP (opens in a new window).
If the stress and emotion are over-the-top, regardless of your decision to fight or not fight the battle, consider mindfulness to help deal with the intensity of your feelings.
(2) The Scripting Technique.
So you want to solve the problem? Start with the scripting technique. This is a good method to communicate directly, express your needs or desired outcome, and maintain the relationship. If you can, organize your thoughts in advance. There are three parts to this method. Meet with the other involved person and follow the guidelines below.
(a) Talk about the situation and how it’s affecting both of you. Tell the other person about the problem — from your point of view, and your understanding of their viewpoint too. What’s the issue at hand? Why is it bothering you? Be respectful and direct. For example, if you’re frustrated about a neighbor who’s always asking to borrow money, consider saying: “Bill, I’ve been lending out a lot of money this past month, and now I’m having problems paying my bills. I understand you’re also having money problems. It isn’t easy for either of us. Personally, I get frustrate when people ask me for money, and I can’t afford to give or lend out anymore.”
(b) Express your need or desired outcome. Explain to the other person what you need from them. Why are you having this conversation? What is the hoped-for outcome? Take into account the needs of the other person, but if the outcome affects you profoundly, stand firm about your needs. If the outcome is only moderately important, be willing to meet the other person half-way. One way or another, communicate directly, so they don’t have to guess. For example: “Bill, I’d like you to stop asking me to lend you money.”
(c) Talk about the benefits of solving issue. Describe what good things will result from the other person fulfilling your request. How will you benefit? Will the other person benefit in any way? Try to stay positive. Don’t talk about negative consequences. This isn’t a threat. In the scenario above, a possible statement would be, “Bill, if you stop asking for money, I’ll feel more comfortable hanging out with you. It would be better for our friendship.”
A quick note: make sure to use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. “I” statements help you focus on the problem, rather than putting blame on the other person. For example, say “Bill, I get angry when people borrow money,” instead of, “You make me angry when you keep asking for money.”
The STOP method not working? The other person might not respect your wish, but you’ll know you did your best to communicate honestly and respectfully – and that goes a long way. If the other party counters with something unreasonable or keeps trying to take advantage of you, move onto a different method.
(3) The Broken Record Technique
When faced with conflict where the other person is insistent or unreasonable, use the Broken Record Technique. Think of a pertinent statement and say it over and over again. Sometimes it helps to pick the statement ahead of time. Come up with something that states your opinion. The trick is to repeat that statement and say nothing else until the other person gets it, or grows tired and moves on. Use a low, steady, polite voice.
For example, if your neighbor keeps insisting you lend him money, even though you can’t afford to, what would you say? Imagine the scenario.
Your neighbor: “I’m sorry, man, but I need to borrow money from you again. My mother is sick, and there’s no cash to buy her medications..”
You: “I can’t afford to lend out money right now.”
Your neighbor: “But my mom’s sick, I told you. Her medications cost 1234 dollars, and without it, she’s going to die. It’ll be all your fault.”
You: “I can’t afford to lend out money right now.”
Your neighbor: “Come on, I told you this is for my mother. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t so serious.”
You: “I can’t afford to lend out money right now.”
Your neighbor: “You going to repeat the same thing over and over? Her being sick will be your fault, that’s all I’m gonna say.”
You: “Sorry, but I can’t afford to lend out money right now.”
The broken record technique helps you avoid being manipulated or bullied into unneeded conversation. There’s no need to explain yourself. This method is good to protect you from people who want to take advantage of you, but please don’t use it to bully others!
(4) Respectful confrontation.
You’ve tried calm, honest communication and, still, no success. Maybe you’ve tried the broken record technique as well and, again, no success. The other person doesn’t want to solve the conflict. It’s time to take the next step.
Confrontation involves politely, nonviolently telling the other person what will happen if they don’t do what’s right. This is about consequences, but as a person with dignity, you’re still trying to consider the needs of both parties. Choose your consequence carefully. Don’t threaten to take away their last morsel of bread if they’re starving to death! Confrontation should only be used when your request is reasonable and necessary.
Think: what would motivate the other party to do what needs to be done? Possible consequences include:
- Withdrawing your friendship and refusing to talk to them in the future.
- Taking away a toy or cell phone (for children and teenagers).
- Telling others about the problem (telling those who care or have influence).
- Giving the other person a warning or putting them in detention and escalating the consequences from there (for students and employees)
- Alerting a teacher, supervisor, or boss
- Contacting the Better Business Bureau (for problem businesses)
- Pressing criminal charges, suing, or contacting the police.
- Going to the press or posting the truth online/giving bad reviews.
- Taking out a restraining order.
- Telling the other party you’re going to contact your attorney.
- Documenting the situation and letting the other person know. Take note of their behaviors or insults on paper, and include the date.
Whatever you do, make sure the consequences are appropriate, reasonable, realistic, and fair. They should not be toxic.
Once you’ve chosen a consequence, approach the person and explain in respectful, clear language what you need from them and the potential outcome if they don’t change their behaviors. Describe what you’re prepared to do for them, and what you’re hoping they will do for you. Consider giving them a deadline or specific criteria that needs to be met.
If they don’t change their behaviors, follow through with the consequence. However, if they meet their end of the bargain, be fair and meet yours.
For example, for the neighbor who keeps asking for cash, consider saying, “Bill, if you continue to ask for money, I’m going to have to cut you out of my life completely and stop talking to you. This is just too stressful for me. Next time you ask for cash, it’s over. On the other hand, if you stop asking for money, we can still hang out.”
Keep in mind that confrontation can rupture relationships. If you’re trying to reserve a friendship or the situation doesn’t warrant “consequences,” consider a different tactic.
In the end, always ask yourself: is the battle worth fighting? Know when it’s time to let matters go.
Note about aggression
It’s key to confront a situation when the other person’s actions (or lack of action) are potentially harmful to you or someone you care about, especially when solving the problem costs them nothing. However, if there’s a risk that the other party might retaliate or get aggressive, don’t confront them. Instead, reach out for help elsewhere or go directly to the police.