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Assertive Courtesy: A 21st Century Technique to Managing Conflict

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In the field of verbal self-defence (alternatively called conflict management, verbal de-escalation, tactical communication, or any other buzz word that suits you) there is an ongoing dichotomy between two of the most common pieces of general advice offered.

1)   Treat the other party with respect

2)   Being polite will get you killed

Before I offer my approach to managing this seemingly fatal paradox, let’s unpack each piece of advice to understand the rationale behind it.

Treat the “bad guy” with respect

The core element of this piece of advice is that we shouldn’t be assuming that every person who treats us in a less than courteous manner is a “bad guy.” Rather, they could be a good person having a bad day, or even acting completely appropriately given circumstances that we are unaware of.

No doubt we’ve all been in situations where we have acted in ways that were aggressive, rude, condescending or in other ways “difficult.” I’m sure I’ve been a difficult customer at times when I didn’t feel I had gotten the service I had paid for, or as I mentioned on a recent podcast episode, when I was charged $70 at the gate for my luggage being less than 1kg over the allowed limit. My behaviour in those situations, while not violent or threatening, still did not accurately reflect what I believe my actual character to be. 

The difficult person in front of you may not be a threat.

She may be a stressed-out mother who has just had a 30-minute battle to get her four kids dressed and in the car, and is now being short and snappy at the drive through window when told she has to wait for her life-giving (life-saving?) caffeine hit.

He might be a distraught, angry, and grieving son who has just found out that his mother has terminal cancer and has come back to find a parking ticket on his car.

She might be the embarrassed, humiliated middle-aged business owner whose credit card has just declined in front of a line of impatient customers, and is now terrified that her Chanel power-suit is not hiding the fact that she’s facing bankruptcy.

There are a thousand reasons that someone may act in an aggressive, rude or disruptive way towards you. Sometimes it might even be your fault. You’re human, too. Sometimes what’s going on in your life will impact how you communicate, and that can provoke a problem without you even realising it.

Back when I got my first introduction to conflict communication, working as a crowd controller in nightclubs, I had an understanding with my regular partners. All of us were occasionally going to be coming to work after stressful days and really not be in the mood to deal with the disrespect and attitude that a normal shift entailed. We developed a “not me tonight” policy. Basically, it meant that if I came to work after having an argument with my girlfriend and my dog chewing my favourite headphones, I could tell my buddy “not me tonight” and he would take the lead in all verbal interactions. It meant I didn’t inadvertently escalate a situation with my own grumpy attitude, but I was still there to provide backup physically if required.

And of course, the favour would be returned when the circumstances were reversed. It was a great system and taught us all to be aware of our own mental state and how we might be perceived by those we are speaking with. Further, it greatly reduced the number of avoidable physical incidents. You never want someone who is internally spoiling for a fight to be the one you’re relying on to verbally de-escalate a situation!

In essence, the advice to treat your counterpart with respect is based upon three solid elements:

1)   You don’t know what they’re going through or why they’re acting this way, so have some compassion.

2)   Being disrespectful is only going to escalate the situation further, and may turn a verbal disagreement into a physical altercation.

3) If this is taking place in your workplace, your behaviour is likely to be considered and reviewed as well. By maintaining a level of dignity in your conduct, it is unlikely to cause you professional issues moving forward.

Makes sense, right? So… let’s look at the contradiction.

Being polite will get you killed

This piece of advice may not make as much intuitive sense to those outside of the self-protection world, but it is often the core of many women’s self-defence programs and for good reason. To understand this advice, we need to have a quick look at predatory psychology.

What I class as “predators” are criminals that purposefully select their victims, crime scenes and means in accordance with a particular desired outcome. Predators are often meticulous in their planning. Predators in general are not interested in a “fight.” They’re interested in an outcome. Examples include: rapists, serial killers, muggers, pick-pockets, carjackers, bag-snatchers, pedophiles, kidnappers, conmen and so on.

Victim selection is a crucial element of being a good predator.

Anyone who has watched an African wildlife documentary knows that when the lioness launches into action against a herd of panicked gazelles, she hasn’t got some kind of ego-driven urge to take down the fastest, strongest gazelle that will present the biggest challenge. No. Quite the opposite. She’s going to take the one that falls behind. The sick one. The lame one. The old one. The baby one. The lioness doesn’t care about social rewards or bragging rights. The lioness wants a meal, and she doesn’t want to expend any unnecessary energy in getting it.

Human predators are exactly the same. They will seek the victim that is the most vulnerable and easiest to isolate. For the types of predatory crime that require intimate proximity, such as rape, abduction, murder or even catfishing, one of the key vulnerabilities that predators look for is complicity. How far can I push this person before they will stand up for themselves? Someone with a very small BS-tolerance makes a poor victim selection. Someone with heavily internalised politeness often does.

Sexual assault case:

“What made you decide to let him into your apartment, even though you weren’t informed of the gas leak he claimed?”

“I felt impolite if I didn’t let him at least have a look around.”

Abduction case:

“What was the reason you stopped to converse with him despite feeling uneasy about the proximity to the van?”

“I didn’t want to be rude.”

Catfishing case:

“What made you feel like you should provide so much personal information to someone that you hadn’t physically met yet?”

“Well, he’d already told me so much about himself [fictional information] that I thought it would be a bit unfair to not tell him the same about me, you know?”

Heartbreakingly, some former rape victims have even confessed in counselling that they didn’t fight back during the attack because “I didn’t want to be rude.” Of course, they realise how absurd that sounds, how ridiculous the very idea is, but under unimaginable stress, the mind reverts back to whatever it has been programmed to do. In some of these tragic cases, the programming to be polite, no matter what, has proven faulty.

Being polite and complicit with requests despite internal alarm bells ringing can be a recipe for disaster when dealing with a predator.

It should be noted that there it is usually not possible to escalate a predator. They’ve already decided on the outcome they are looking for. If you deviate from the script they have planned, they are more likely to abandon the attack all together than they are to dramatically escalate the level of force. The caveat to this is that you don’t know how much force the predator is prepared to use to achieve their objective, and once they’re in a position where they feel committed to the attack, all bets are off.

For example, if someone is looking to snatch a bag, the smart play is to be a poor victim choice by keeping your bag securely attached to your body and being aware of your surroundings. The riskier play is to fight over the bag once the snatch is in progress, as the predator has now committed to the act and is forced to choose between either escalating force (such as punching the intended victim) or fleeing and potentially still risk being arrested. It’s a very dicey move.

In summary, the “screw being polite” advice is really about not allowing your behaviour or conduct to be controlled by the other party when your intuition is telling you otherwise. While being polite and courteous is good general social advice, you should never allow a conditioned sense of social obligation to put you into a dangerous situation.

That makes sense too, right?

So how do we balance these two contradictory pieces of advice?

Assertive Courtesy

Assertive courtesy is the term I’ve coined to describe the balance between these two important principles of self-protection. The essence of assertive courtesy is that we default to polite, respectful interaction, but maintain an emotional detachment from the conversation so that we are not sucked into the games often played by conmen and other predators. By remaining emotionally detached, we can treat each piece of verbal and non-verbal communication analytically, further arming our intuition.

The weaknesses that predators rely upon are hardwired into us. We are a social, pack animal. We have a biological need to be liked. For 90% of our history as a species, being ostracised from our tribe meant certain death – left to fend for ourselves in harsh environments full of deadly predators. As such, those who didn’t learn how to build relationships and friendships soon found themselves removed from the gene pool.

This need to be liked leaves us open to a variety of attacks. A person who can’t control this need to be liked is like a landlocked country with an open border policy, or your aunt Carol who instantly clicks on any link that lands in her inbox. We trust too fully, get sucked into the game, and can be taken advantage of by even the most unskilled manipulators.

As Gavin DeBecker writes in his classic text, The Gift of Fear, we need to think of charm as a verb, not an attribute. Instead of saying “This person is charming”, we must think “This person is trying to charm me.” By associating charming as an attribute, we create a halo effect that puts the other party on a pedestal and draws us closer to them, building trust that may not be deserved. When we recognise charm as a skill that can be developed and deployed in a deliberate way, we can then more analytically take stock of other behaviours to see if they a congruous with a generally charming person or if there are inconsistencies.

An Assertive Courtesy response to someone using a charm strategy simply involves maintaining respectful, socially appropriate dialogue while mentally cataloguing the attempt to charm. We do not allow ourselves to begin liking the person just because they flatter us and build our ego. We stay on guard, and if the charming individuals starts to push boundaries that would normally be tightly enforced, we step in with an assertive response:

“Steve, you’re a lovely guy. But I’m not going to break the rules for you or anyone.”

“Dianna, I’m very flattered, but I’m not going to compromise my integrity for you.”

“I’m sorry you seem to have been given the wrong information, and you seem like a nice guy, but surely you understand that I’m not going to allow a stranger into my apartment without any kind of warning or verification. Tell my building manager to call me. Good bye.”

Beyond charm, there are a host of other manipulation strategies that Assertive Courtesy guards us against. Two common examples are authority and reciprocity.

The authority strategy builds upon the basic human instinct to defer to someone we believe to be a figure of authority. Marketers have known this for years. That’s why toothpaste is advertised by someone pretending to be a dentist, why cigarettes were originally marketed by doctors, why sports stars are used to promote electrolyte drinks, and why celebrity chefs are paid handsomely to promote frozen meals they’d never normally glance at. Of course, any intelligent consumer knows that these are marketing ploys, but it doesn’t make the strategy any less effective.

Predatory criminals use this same strategy. Common examples include

·     Using police strobe lights on the dash of their vehicle to get lone drivers to pull over

·     Wearing recognisable uniforms (police, military, ambulance, firefighter, etc) to gain entry to properties or elicit a different level of service

·     Wearing high-vis workwear to gain access to building sites

·     Cold-calling scams claiming to originate from a government department, threatening arrest or law suits if a fictional fine is not paid

The Assertive Courtesy response to this one is also simple. Detach from the urge to comply and think to yourself “Is this person really an authority figure? Is there anything else about them that confirms or contradicts what they’re claiming?” Perhaps the “police vehicle” doesn’t have any visible antenna for communication. Maybe the high-vis construction worker is sporting perfectly clean work boots. Or you might notice that the person who claims to be a doctor is flustered and aggressive when challenged to show identification. In all such cases, an assertively courteous response would be:

“I’m more than happy to comply, but I’d like to see some proof of identification first, please.” If not convinced, ask for more. Seek external verification if needed. Never allow yourself to do something that feels unsafe just because someone of authority tells you to.

Lastly, the reciprocity approach is another common tool of marketers and conmen alike. The general idea of reciprocity is that if I do something for you or give something to you, you will feel inclined to reciprocate. Here’s the kicker though, the reciprocity is seldom proportionate. This is why sales teams will gift $500 theatre tickets to executives that can sign over million-dollar contracts. It’s also why every shopping centre in the world will have someone giving away free samples or a product at all times. Once you’ve received something, you tend to feel honour-bound to at least listen to the person who gave it to you, if not actually buy from them.

Criminals use this strategy in a number of ways. Catfishers will often spend a long period of time developing trust with their victim by sharing a huge amount of (fictional) personal information. Inevitably, the victim will buy in and begin sharing their own (real) information, which leaves them exposed to identify theft, extortion or other manipulation. Many random killers and rapists over the years have used the strategy of innocently offering help to draw close to a victim. Perhaps it is carrying groceries to a victim’s door and then leveraging this good will to get an invite inside. Or it might be an extravagant unsolicited gift of Valentine’s Day, hoping to secure an otherwise unlikely date.

The Assertive Courtesy approach to this situation is really just telling it how it is without crossing over into the territory of rudeness. For example:

“I’m very flattered by the gift, Steven, but I don’t want to pursue any kind of relationship with you. You’re welcome to give the gift to someone else if this changes your mind.”

“You’ve told me a lot about yourself, which is information I didn’t ask for. It’s nice that you trust me enough to share, but I am not going to divulge information in this forum that might make me vulnerable. I’m sure you can understand why.”

“I didn’t ask for your help. You offered. Now I am asking you to leave. Please respect my wishes.”

Obviously the more ominous the situation seems, the blunter your response can be. Just be mindful that doing this will put the predator into a position where they will need to decide what action to take next. They may escalate or de-escalate. You must be prepared for either eventuality, but it is still a better option than allowing yourself to become more vulnerable by falling for the manipulation.

Surprise, surprise…

The answer to this dichotomy, like most, is somewhere between the middle and “it depends”. Being polite is always good advice, until it compromises your safety and sovereignty. Don’t do anything that feels wrong. For times like this, choose Assertive Courtesy.

SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING: A Laypersons’ Guide to Threat Recognition

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