You know that prickly feeling you get when something happens and you feel you should protest, object, demand satisfaction or whatever--but you don’t?“Don't expect to make a difference unless you speak up for yourself.” -- Laurie Halse Anderson
Maybe some dolt cuts in front of you in line at the coffee shop, or the loudmouth sitting in front of you in the theater won’t stop talking during the show. Your colleague takes credit for work you’ve done, or your boss, distracted by her phone, is only pretending to listen to you. Trivial slights, you have bigger things to worry about, right? Sure, but sometimes when we let things like this slide, regret comes calling. We end up fuming privately, complaining to others, replaying the event in our head and imagining how differently things might have gone if we had just spoken up.
So why is it that some people speak up when they feel someone else’s behavior is offensive while others don’t? Certainly personality type has some influence (test yours here), but we all have the ability to choose to respond to any situation by behaving in one of four ways:
- Passively (letting it slide)
- Passive-aggressively (muttering to ourselves or others)
- Aggressively (criticizing, blaming or attacking)
- Assertively (standing up for our rights appropriately and respectfully.)
How do we decide which style to use? It all begins with a stimulus, of course, something happens that bothers us. We analyze the stimulus, interpreting it to come up with our own version of what happened and why. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t very good at perceiving an event objectively because of attribution bias, which means we tend to attribute the behavior of other people to something personal about them rather than to something about their situation. In Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson described it this way:
The emotion we feel generates our behavioral response. Let’s say you are cut off by another driver. You slam on your brakes and avoid a collision, but your coffee spills all over the passenger seat. If your interpretation of the event is that the other driver behaved recklessly and inconsiderately, you might feel angry and go into attack mode—blowing your horn, yelling, or gesturing at the other driver. If, however, your interpretation is that the other driver was driving fast because of an emergency situation, you might be annoyed or concerned, but not react at all. If that sounds wildly unrealistic, realize that attribution bias is more common in individualistic cultures, so if you are reading this in the US there’s a good chance your default behavior involves blaming the person, not the situation.Just after we observe what others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. We add meaning to the action we observed. We make a guess at the motive driving the behavior. Why were they doing that? We also add judgment—is that good or bad? And then, based on these thoughts or stories, our body responds with an emotion.
Psychologist Robert Plutchik identified eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. He also identified an escalating range of emotions within each, so anger includes annoyance, hostility, rage and fury. Different people experiencing the same situation may come up with a totally different interpretation because their value and belief systems and attribution biases are different, which shapes their interpretation of the situation, their emotional reaction, and their behavioral response. That’s why many of us might simply be annoyed by being cut off in traffic, while others may feel rage and fury, prompting them to respond with threats and violence. (See road rage data for US and UK)
In primitive times, our basic stress response (fight or flight) helped us deal with life-threatening situations, and it still does, but “fight or flight” isn’t really appropriate for most of the personal offenses we need to manage today. Psychologist Randy Paterson, author of The Assertiveness Workbook, says that while people may shy away from conflict and criticism, assertiveness is a proven way to deal with offensive behavior. Assertiveness, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary means:
Assertive people believe they are in charge of their own behavior, and that they alone will decide what they will do or not do in response to a situation that bothers them. They examine the offending situation carefully, testing their interpretation because they understand what they “think” is going on might not be what’s really going on. They assess the significance of the situation (is it worth pursuing?), they consider their goals in asserting their rights (what do they want to happen?), and they choose their battles realistically before moving forward.Forthright, positive, insistence on the recognition of one's rights.
According to the Mayo Clinic, behaving assertively can help you:
- Gain self-confidence and self-esteem
- Understand and recognize your feelings
- Earn respect from others
- Improve communication
- When you (describe the other person’s action or the event of concern in a purely factual way)
- I feel/I felt (describe your own feelings in response to the above action or event – for example, sad, angry, hurt, frustrated)
- Because (describe your interpretation of the event and the reason why you feel the way you do)
- What I would like in the future is or what I would prefer is (offer a future alternative that better meets your needs whilst not infringing on the needs/rights of the other person).
How will the line cutter respond? Research tells us most line cutters who are challenged will back off, some will deny cutting the line, a few will ignore you, and the rest will respond aggressively and tell you to mind your own business (or worse). The line cutter’s response and your emotional reaction to the story you tell yourself about the response will influence what you do next. Whatever you do, remain calm, confident, and in control—no screaming or yelling—ever mindful of Mark Twain’s advice:Excuse me, I noticed you just cut in front of me in line. That troubles me because it’s not fair to me or any of the people behind me for you to try to cut in front of us. The line forms at the rear, so please go to the back of the line.
Finally, since you can’t control the behavior of other people, focus on controlling your own behavior. Whether or not you achieve your goal by being assertive, the very act of standing up for yourself will boost your confidence and self-respect and help you become a more effective communicator.Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.
By the way, if you are ever confronted with a “chat and cut” situation, this Larry David clip could be helpful, but try not to behave like this guy. And since queue jumping is a global phenomenon, you might enjoy reading about the queue reality in the UK, queuing in Europe, and effective line cutting defenses in China.
Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist. He can be reached at email@example.com or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors