June 21, 2024
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Verbal Assertiveness: Persistence Using the ‘Broken Record’ Skill

Do you ever find yourself in an intimidating situation? An awkward social interaction? On the receiving end of manipulative comments? Or deserved or undeserved criticisms? Do you ever wish you could stand up for yourself without feeling guilty, anxious, ignorant or scared?

If you answered yes, then I invite you on a journey to learn the skill sets and ideas to assert yourself and feel good doing it. At the heart of every social interaction is the constant decision to either submit our free will or assert our free will.

Whoa!

What?!?

You read it correctly:

In every single interaction, either with ourselves or with others, we will choose to either submit our free will or assert it.

The Almighty gave us a fantastic gift called free will, or Bechira. The root word of Bechira is Bachar, choose. As in the famous passage: Bachar Banu Mikol HaAmim, He chose us from all the other nations.

Our Bechira gives us control over three main areas: our thoughts, feelings and behavior. What thoughts we decide to entertain when some event occurs is in our domain. What emotions we feel, based on the filter we choose to view the world, is within our control. Lastly, every action we pursue is also our responsibility. These areas are the only ones we can make meaningful evaluations about and decisions on.

To engage our Bechira, we will focus initially on our actions by challenging our old behaviors and responses. We will start with a simple skill that Manuel J. Smith, PhD, author of “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty,” called Broken Record. Basically, we persistently and calmly repeat what we want over and over until the other side hears it. We do not get distracted or pulled in by questions or manipulative tactics. Let us illustrate with the following example dialogue.

SALESPERSON: You do want your children to grow up to be talmidim chachamim, don’t you? PARENT: I am not interested in the program.

SALESPERSON: How can you deny your children this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? You could be preventing them from becoming outstanding bnei Torah!

PARENT: I understand, but I am not interested.

SALESPERSON: You obviously don’t understand what a great program this is and how special it is. If you did understand you would sign your children up immediately.

PARENT: I understand how you feel, but I am not interested.

SALESPERSON: Why do you keep saying you understand?

PARENT: I understand, but I am not interested.

SALESPERSON: You’re acting quite disrespectfully considering how much I am trying to help your children.

PARENT: I understand how you feel, but I am not interested.

SALESPERSON: Do you know how to say anything besides this chutzpadik phrase?

PARENT: I understand, but I am not interested.

SALESPERSON: Fine, fine, you’re not interested. Goodbye.

PARENT: Have a good day. Goodbye.

It is important to differentiate that this skill is neutral. The intention behind its use defines whether it is being used for a godly purpose or not. Think about why you want to use Broken Record in any given situation. Is it to control or manipulate another or to protect yourself or help your children? Adults and children can intuitively pick up our intentions. If we are not using a technique for a positive reason, they will feel it.

As with anything that requires behavioral modification, the best way to acquire this skill is practice. Ask a friend you feel safe with to role-play a difficult conversation until you feel confident asserting yourself. When an actual confrontation materializes, you are more likely to respond with Broken Record! Celebrate every success—it will propel you to the next one.

Parents will especially find it helpful to use Broken Record with their children. Kids are naturally assertive and will keep asking—or demanding—what they want. When a parent calmly and respectfully repeats his/her position over and over again, two wonderful results can occur. First, the child can respect the parent’s persistence; and second, the child can learn to use Broken Record properly.

In addition to being a useful tool with other people, Broken Record can be used to strengthen us against our yetzer hara, the negative inclination. Rabbi Akiva Tatz points out that our negative inclination usually speaks to us using the word “I” rather than “you.” We may not always win the battle with it, but as long as we try, we will strengthen our resolve and gain more clarity. Suppose you desire a piece of chocolate cake and have recently decided to cut out sugar and junk food. Let us imagine what that inner dialogue would sound like:

VOICE: I want it. It looks so good.

ME: It certainly looks good, but I will not eat cake.

VOICE: Oh come on, it’s just a small piece.

ME: It is a small piece and I will not eat cake.

VOICE: I am so hungry for it. I want it now.

ME: I am hungry for real food and I will not eat cake.

VOICE: Just a bite. What difference would an itty bitty bite make? I just want a bite.

ME: I will not eat cake. I will not eat even a bite or a bit of cake.

This inner dialogue can go on for quite some time. When you feel like you are close to giving in, remove yourself from the situation. There will be times when you fall and you feel like a failure. Remind yourself that, like a toddler learning to walk, you can fall, brush yourself off and try again. Rav Noach Weinberg, zt’l, defined failure as the prerequisite to success. When you expect failure, its sting may slow you down but it won’t halt your momentum.

You will become more aware of how people and the yetzer hara engage with you and how you react. You might tell yourself, “I don’t like how this feels right now” or “Hmmm, I see what tactics are being used.” This awareness is the first critical step to making meaningful changes in your life. If we were to take the time to observe our environment, we would come to realize that there are persistent (Broken Record) messages that we have subconsciously accepted that are actually undermining us personally and/or collectively. Some messages promote fear, others inadequacy and inability.

Remember, the Almighty gave you the ability to choose. You decide whether you submit and accept these messages as unchallenged truths or if you assert yourself and judge these messages on their merits, or lack thereof. Evaluating our beliefs takes some effort, and the degree of effort reveals the depth of its value. Never forget that you are the judge of your own thoughts, feelings and actions—and that only you are responsible for them.

May Hashem bless you to use these skills to raise yourself and others up and to bring more of His divine presence into our world.


Zita Weinstein resides in New Jersey with her husband and kids. She is passionate about education and spiritual growth. Additional details on these assertive skills and ideas can be found in the books “Rav Noach Weinberg: Torah Revolutionary” by Yonason Rosenblum and “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty” by Manuel J. Smith, Phd.

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