Lessons on Assertiveness

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I used to have a problem with being assertive when I was a young adult. Always struggled with saying ‘No’ when someone tried push their opinions on me or tried to get me to do things their way. Then I end up feeling fed up and resentful that I have to see things through, just because I did not have the guts at that moment to stand up for myself.

I became a lot more assertive after becoming a mom. In fact, it all started with an episode at work, when I was being unfairly evaluated at a year-end appraisal due to being pregnant. I presented my case to regional HR for the unfair treatment, but was prepared to move on to a new job after that episode. I was severely ‘marked’ by my boss who hated my guts, but thankfully, I found a new job after 2 months.

I encountered two episodes this week on how assertiveness might / might not work to a person’s advantage.

The first episode happened when I had to make a trip down to ACRA to get some paperwork completed. While at ACRA, at the customer service counter, I was brushed off by this lady who obviously had little idea what a customer service job entails. I tried to bring up my issue three times and all she did before listening what I had to say, brushed me off and told me that I had to make my payment at the internet kiosks on site.

After struggling for like 15 minutes, I realized that the issue could not be resolved with a simple click of the button. I went back to the customer service counter, tried to tell this lady at the counter that I was experiencing a problem, but got brushed off 2 more times, as she continued to insist that all I could do was to make payment at the kiosk.

At that moment, I lost patience, and raised my voice, “Now you listen! I am having problems with my payment, as your system put my application on hold since yesterday. You have to stop telling me to go to the internet kiosk and make the payment, as the method does not work anymore for me. I do not want to make my way all the way here, and be told to use the internet to the make the payment, when I could have easily done it at home, if I did not have this problem. So are you able to help or not!”

She started fumbling with her response when she realized that she had to manage a not so happy customer in front of her. She answered weakly, “You never tell me.” I raised my voice at her again, and said, “Did you bother to listen in the first place? You didn’t! All you did was to brush me off many times when I tried to bring up this issue to you!”

Within the next 5 minutes of this exchange, my problem was solved.

Could I have done it differently? Probably not. Giving her that nice, gentle, and understanding response will not have solve my problem so quickly. Sometimes, one have have got to be assertive, especially when it comes to dealing with lousy service.

The second episode happened in an underground carpark, as I was in a car with K, waiting for hb. A lady came along with her supermarket trolley, knocked on the window when she saw K seated at the driver’s seat, who was pretending to drive. She opened the car door and said to K, “Young man, you cannot be in the front seat, turn off the engine now, as you are destroying the environment!” As I was seated behind the driver’s seat, I opened the door and asked the woman if I could help her. She immediately blasted at me with these words, “You are very irresponsible, to leave the engine running, you will destroy the environment! How can you do that, turn off the engine now!” I looked at her, with a deadpan expression said, “Sure…” and then closed the car door.

By now, I was actually quite taken back by how someone could infringe into my personal space, be so aggressive towards me and to tell me what to do with my car. Even though I was fully aware that I was not environmentally responsible, by leaving a stationery car engine running, and have the air conditioned in the car turned on for the sake of our comfort. But to hear it in such a rude, aggressive and self-righteous tone, just prompted me to ignore the point that she was trying to make with her speech.

About 5 minutes later, she came around to my car again, open my door one more time, and starting blasting at me, “I told you to turn off the engine, how can you leave the engine running like that, and you have been doing it for the last 5 minutes!” By this time, I was getting quite irritated by this intrusion of my privacy. But I just looked at her in a deadpan voice and answered, “Why don’t you stop driving altogether then?” With my rebuttal, she got even more indignant and started, “This is a shared environment, by doing this, you are destroying our shared environment. How can you do this, you better turn off the engine now, it is a shared environment…” She continued repeating the same words about how this was a shared environment to people who walked pass her, and was ignored.

All I did after her speech, was to reach out for my car door, closed it and I continue talking with K. While from the corner of my eye, I saw her stand outside my door for another 10 seconds before walking back to her BMW car and driving off in a huff.

This lady chose to be assertive at the wrong place, wrong time and at the wrong person. All she did with her assertiveness was to pushed my wrong ‘buttons’. I was in my ‘rebellious teenager’ mood where the rebel in me just said, “Just make me.” For that moment, I just refused to be coerced into doing anything.

For the record, this lady did not look crazy. She was dressed neatly, spoke proper english, carried herself like a normal person and looked like she had a supermarket trolley filled with organic goods. But she sure has got lousy EQ. If she had approached me differently, or told this to me in a different tone or manner, I would have willingly or even felt embarrassed enough to turn off the engine immediately. In fact, I can’t really tell if she was being assertive, or just plain aggressive.

How would you have responded if you are being confronted with such assertiveness or aggressiveness, like in this instance?


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  1. More and more we come across people who, for all the brains and brawn they have – have no EQ!!!

    Yes, totally agree that you have to be assertive with some service staff or they’d step all over you or be biased in a totally uncalled for way.
    Pamela Tan´s last blog post ..Sing, sing a song

    Rachel Reply:

    Totally, I really don’t understand what causes the lack of EQ. Really wonder if it is the fault of the society that we are in, or is it a question of upbringing?

    Pamela Tan Reply:

    I think it’s innate. Some people just can’t “get it”. In 10 years time, they’d classify the lack of EQ as a disability :p
    Pamela Tan´s last blog post ..Writing the Unspeakable

  2. It’s great that you are assertive. There are many people out there who are really crazy and think they can push you around.
    I would totally ignore that women and tell her to get a life!!
    Dominique@Dominique’s Desk´s last blog post ..Family, Love & Other Stuff 4K Fan Celebration Giveaway-(US) end 15/5

    Rachel Reply:

    I think she was hoping that I will be afraid of her threatening manner and will do what she told me to.

  3. Good for you Rach! I’m always too nice to people and should learn a thing or two from you on reclaiming my rights especially as a customer. And what’s with all these lousy customer service we’re getting nowadays?
    Well there was once I ticked off a bunch of boys who were using vulgarities in the playground right in front of a bunch of kids, including Sophie. I’m usually the kind who minds my own business, but upon hearing that, I scolded them to mind their language in front of the children. They left shortly after they felt embarrassed by my scolding.
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    Rachel Reply:

    I think it all comes down to a disgruntled workforce in customer service, till today, I think people in the service line really have no clue that providing good customer service is part of their job description.

    Sometimes I think we should speak up and be vocal when we need to, I definitely did the right thing by telling those boys off.

  4. I also realize that I have grown more assertive (and at times aggressive, oops) after the kids came along. Perhaps it’s some form of maternal instinct that comes with the need to protect our children??

    Honestly, I would have also put my foot down with the customer service counter lady, though I usually also try to give some wriggle room. But with the crazy lady in the carpark, golly I honestly don’t know how I would react to something like that…I seriously think she must be having a terribly bad day for her to do something like that, if she’s in a right mind that is!
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    Rachel Reply:

    I think so, motherhood makes us into protective mother hens 😛 I was also thinking about the experience with the woman at the carpark, she didn’t look crazy, but I don’t think anyone in her right mind will insist her way like she did though.

  5. I wld give bad service staff a piece of my mind but I have to agree with the rest, I wouldn’t know how to react to the angry lady in the carpark. I think I might have entertained her the first time but will ignore her the 2nd time. After all, I make it my habit to always lock my car doors so what can she do? Just talk to the air n make herself look like a fool. I realize ppl get angrier when u ignore them and I’m real good at that haha.
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    Rachel Reply:

    U reminded me that I should really lock my car doors the next time. These days I think there are a lot of crazy and angry people out there…better to stay safe. Cannot imagine if she would have turned violent or something.