Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Gentle Persuader? Or just the Good Girl?

I was raised this way, and I’ve spent a lifetime cultivating it.

My entire life I’ve been told that my best response to someone who is behaving in a way I don’t like is to be diplomatic; make a request or make my case in a manner that is polite and won’t challenge them. I call this the art of “gentle persuasion,” and in particular women in our culture are taught that this is the only viable way to get what we want. For most of my life I believed that if I could only find the right way to say something, others would come around to my thinking. If they did not agree with me, it was because my technique was faulty – and I would resume my training.

So I’ve spent my life developing the skill of gentle persuasion, of trying to get my way without offending; without meeting aggression with aggression (or even assertion); without confronting or directly standing up to someone. No matter the offense, it has been my role to respond in a way that will not anger or challenge the other person, but will gently and diplomatically offer them another perspective.

These skills were put to the test while co-parenting my son with his father. This was a particular challenge because this man was very manipulative, could talk circles around me, and argued to win. In addition I was afraid of him. So for many years I honed my skills in verbalizing, debating, making my point, or taking a stand. I would prepare ahead of planned interactions, write out my points and my goals, practice, and try to anticipate and develop responses to whatever insults and deflections he might throw at me.

Ironically the more I practiced, the more I learned the wisdom and necessity of simplifying. I had to admit that he could always manipulate and confuse me with his words. Despite my preparations I could never adequately anticipate his approach, and in the moment would become sufficiently rattled that I couldn’t come up with relevant responses. So I learned to simplify: I would draft about three phrases, and in response to his attempts to derail me would keep returning to one of those phrases. I wouldn’t respond to whatever he’d said (deflection, criticism, etc.), but kept bringing it back to my prepared phrases.

The more I practiced the skills of oration and diplomacy, the more something inside me felt unsettled: the part that was left unexpressed, the part of me that was angry, outraged, that wanted to call the other person on being manipulative, unreasonable, a liar, or mean. I would feel satisfied for staying calm and not showing if I felt rattled, but afterwards was always left with unexpressed anger.

A few years ago after leaving my job as a park ranger, I took on a job with a small nonprofit. I reported to the board of directors. Two of the board members (in my assessment) acted out their own unresolved issues by lashing out at others in a manipulative and vindictive manner. I became their number one target. For several months, during which time my PTSD symptoms fully blossomed, I struggled to not completely fall apart.

I read the book The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to unravel the mystery of why seemingly innocent phrases can make you feel defensive and attacked. Words are powerful, and toxic and accusatory messages can be delivered stealthily through subtle wording, or which word is stressed. For example the exclamation, “Everyone knows that!” implies that the person being addressed is really stupid (because they don’t know something that everyone else on the planet knows). Another example, “If you loved me you would stop nagging,” implies that you don’t love that person. One of my ex’s favorites was to drop an accusation like, “I think you are weak,” and then follow up with, “but I recognize that’s my problem, and it’s my responsibility to deal with.”

The book helped me to better understand verbal stealth attacks. It also helped me to identify the ways, throughout my life, I have silent conveyed that I am a target. Subtle things I say and don’t say, along with my body language, convey a strong inclination to not make waves, to get along.

I read and read, wrote out possible scenarios and rehearsed in anticipation of my employers’ attacks. Armed with this new and revealing information, I felt prepared for whatever they launched at me; I was soundly and repeatedly bested. Over these months I reached several conclusions. We people who are not inclined to use words to attack and manipulate will always be several steps behind those who are. We may spend a lifetime trying to prepare for these battles, but most of us will never achieve mastery. Those who are wired to manipulate, those who seek out targets, have more practice and their brains just seem to work that way. They don’t follow any rules of behavior, don’t following any particular strategy, but employ multiple strategies in rapid succession that will ultimately flummox all but the most skilled gentle persuaders.

And through all of my attempts at gentle and diplomatic entreaties, my building anger and outrage went unexpressed. I wondered if these people needed to hear that from me as well.

But we gentle persuaders (often women) coach each other to not abandon this approach: I have been relentlessly coached to keep reading, practicing, and trying to perfect the art of gentle persuasion – regardless of the challenge or offense.

I’ve started to notice a double standard. All this effort, to try to persuade someone who is being inconsiderate, a bully or manipulator, or even an abuser. Are they never to be held accountable? Are we the only ones held to a standard of conduct? Why are we the only ones being asked to change?

When I first started telling friends about my desire to also express my anger at, and disappointment in this person, to stop self-censoring, the response was overwhelmingly negative. I was told that it would be wrong for me to be less than gentle; it would be wrong to express my anger; I must only use “I” statements and only talk about my feelings and my behaviors; I certainly should not call the other person on his/her behavior. I was told that if I asserted myself I wouldn’t get what I wanted. In addition to not being encouraged to try this, I started to notice friends’ tendency to excuse the other person’s behavior.

Why is it that the folks who are inconsiderate, rude, insulting, or demeaning are allowed to get away with it? Why isn’t anyone coaching them on being more gentle and diplomatic? I am beginning to suspect it’s because these people are really hard to talk to, they aren’t interested in change, and they aren’t interested in what’s fair. It is far easier to talk to the folks like me who will bend over backwards to be fair and to not make waves.

At another job, I sat near a coworker who spent an impressive amount of the workday complaining: complaining about her home life, complaining about her job, even complaining about how busy she was at work (no doubt lessening her load by spending hours of her work day complaining).

One week when she was particularly vociferous, I found myself becoming angrier and quickly feeling anything but gentle and diplomatic. I felt like I was either going to yell at her to shut up, break down in tears, or simply leave work. Instead I went to my supervisor and asked if I could work at another desk just for the day (what seemed to me a simple solution). She declined, and instructed me to ask my coworker to quiet down; she told me I could put it on myself, say I was having a bad day, ask if she could help me out. She even trotted out a few sample phrases that were placating and unassertive: typical coaching from a gentle persuader.

I did talk to my coworker, and did use gentle words and “I” statements. She was quieter for a while, but for several days would not make eye contact or return my greetings; and ever after she was quite chilly towards me.

In sharing this later with my supervisor (who asked me for an update), I was staggered by the amount of pro-gentle persuasion rhetoric she used. The coworker’s initial inconsiderate behavior was excused: “she’s a venter;” “she’s having a really hard week;” “others have had to tell her to be quiet before, you just have to ask her politely.” And her cold-shoulder response to my request was also excused: it was implied that my approach must have been lacking for her to respond with coldness; I was told that I really have to catch myself before becoming frustrated, before I might have a hint of frustration in my voice when I make my request; I was reminded that my coworker “is really young.”

And threaded through this rhetoric were even more examples of courteous wording. To be honest, this particular coaching method of supplying me with the words to use is infuriating because I’m a lifetime student of courteous wording. I don’t lack the skills, I don’t lack the words.

All of this coaching suggests that I must care more for the other person’s feelings and needs than my own; it is not ok for me to express myself unless I am able to do so in a gentle and diplomatic manner; it is definitely not ok for me to express my frustration and anger; if the other person responds poorly it is because of my poor approach, or because of something in them that they can’t help.

Even my therapist told me that I accommodate people too much, until I become completely frustrated. She says I need to be fully present within myself so that I know if I am over-accommodating, and do something about it before the resentments build.

I don’t disagree with her. But I was raised to not make waves, and to consider others’ feelings before my own; it is my default to accommodate. Trying to change this, to be fully present with and honor my own feelings, will take more than this lifetime. In the meantime there has to be another option; there has to be a Plan B.

What might my unexpressed anger sound, if I were to speak it? For this coworker it might be something like this, “When you complaint all day long, it ruins my day. Be more considerate of your coworkers!” For other situations it may be, “You are being mean,” or, “Your behavior is unacceptable.”

It’s time for the other person to be held accountable: the insensitive, the aggressors, the manipulators, those who are uninterested in self-examination. And no wonder: they’ve mastered the art of not taking responsibility, of not being held accountable.

Meanwhile we are completely preoccupied, focusing on changing ourselves, refining our approach, trying to fix ourselves. It reminds me of the farmers in some Central American countries whose farms are routinely destroyed by a corrupt government, to keep them so busy with the struggle for survival that they are unable to rise up and revolt.

I do not suggest that the art of gentle persuasion and diplomacy isn’t important; it is. The more we cultivate these skills, the more options we have. But its applications are limited. Gentle persuasion is not the solution to every problem. It doesn’t always work; it leaves unaddressed our need to express anger and indignation; and it leaves unaddressed the need to tell people when they are behaving inappropriately.

This revolution is about holding the other people responsible, calling it like it is. I am jealous and admiring of the older woman who says the most offensive and unbelievable things and doesn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks. That woman is my hero, and I would like to dedicate my life from here on trying to emulate her.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!


  1. KJ: I also have mostly been the "accommodator". But over the years I've noticed some things: 1) I have better things to do than either reprimand or try to fix people like those you describe. "Ignore" seems a better use of my time and energy. 2) sometimes a find a kernel of wisdom in their behavior. 3) On very rare occasions, I have let myself "blow up". Might be dangerous if it's to the boss of a good job, but also might be fun in the right circumstances just because it is so surprising to the "serial advantage taker". 4) I neither want to, or can, really change my personality type, so I might as well make the best of it and not let worry about it drag me down.
    love, tm

    1. TM, I can relate to most of what you wrote. I have to frequently remind myself to accept and let it go - when that's an option. Of course sometimes it isn't if a person exerts some kind of control over me. I have blown up a handful of times in my life, and curiously other than in the moment it doesn't bring relief. I suspect the problem is that I'm already "hooked," and even blowing up is coming from a place of defensiveness and feeling the victim. I guess all any of us can do is understand better our own personalities, and the realistic spectrum of what we can modify. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Wrote - I can relate to so much of what you have written here (probably most women can!). And it is difficult to construct emotionally congruent responses when you are forced by circumstances (like work) to maintain some type of relationship with offenders. But I think you are on the right track - endless accommodation is personally corrosive, and as a former 'people manager', I know that allowing bullies and manipulators to run amok in an organization is horrible for morale.
    Good luck!
    Glad I found your blog

    1. Anne, thank you so much for this validation! I have received so very little validation as I've struggled in recent years to express this internal dilemma. I very much agree with your sentiment, "endless accommodation is personally corrosive." Thank you for writing, and I too am so glad you found my blog!