Back in 2004
When I was younger, I got dragged around by police from time to time. Being both very angry and in denial of my illness led to a fair bit of trouble. I had mixed luck with the police. Sometimes they were decently nice, but other times they were quite nasty. I tended to expect the latter, and began to greet them with hostility. I would yell at them, call them names, and more.
One time, when being taken to jail, I started my usual routine of being nasty to the officer who was transporting me. He, however, showed assertiveness and gentleness. He did not push me around. He did not play mind games. He did not insult me. Yet, I persisted in being rude. Finally, as we entered the jail, he said to me, “I have been nice to you and have not in any way mistreated you. Please return that.” I was taken aback by this, but the fact is, he was right. He treated me well, and simply asked that I do the same to him. I did do the same from that point on with that person and I will always remember him.
He did a couple important things. While he was in a position of authority over me and had to use force, he was always appropriate with it. Never mean, never more forceful than necessary. I had restricted my abuse of him to words, so he had no need to restrain me other than applying handcuffs as is protocol. Basically he “did unto me, as he would like me to do unto him”, to paraphrase the Bible.
The other thing he did was calmly, but firmly point out the facts and make a request of me to return his kindness. At the time, I was far from being in recovery. I didn’t have many coping skills for anything, and I had a lot of hate in me, but his method worked. I was immediately respectful to him.
Fast forward 16 years and I’m in the Social Security Administration office. I need to talk to someone there about something that was worrying me. Now, the worker was not being pleasant. She was condescending, and honestly, just downright rude. Unphased by this, I showed her respect and calmly stated what I needed and what I had been trying to do. When this didn’t work, I said to her, “I have been very kind and respectful to you. I ask that you please return that”. While the worker was initially a tad bit defensive, within half a minute she was outright pleasant and we had a good conversation. By the end of the conversation, I had gotten everything I needed and more. She gave me information I’ve needed for several years but couldn’t seem to acquire from this cagey organization. I even asked her opinion on a regulation she had to deal with, and she freely gave it. She showed me respect and I showed her empathy. It was by far the friendliest conversation I’ve ever had at the SSA.
I strongly believe that empathy and assertiveness can get you almost anything. There are limits to all tactics, of course; dealing with big bureaucratic entities as a whole is different than dealing with individuals. Yet in dealing with individuals, assertiveness, combined with empathy can almost invariably get them on your side, even when they are initially hostile.
I went into the SSA office afraid, but quietly determined. I walked out feeling empowered and successful. I knew I had to write about it, because I have plenty of stories just like this one. In another post, I will break down a few components of assertiveness and how I learned it. But for now, just know that this communication tool is powerful. It is one of the answers to the boundary question, and it can change people’s worlds.