How To Be Assertive With Strangers

I was on my way to music class this morning and the peak hour train was a little more crowded than usual. As I headed downstairs to find a seat, I came across a couple of men occupying two opposite-facing three-person bench seats. I wasn't keen on standing for a half hour while two guys occupied six seats, so I politely said "Excuse me" to the guy on the aisle end of backward-facing seat, and he kindly moved over to the window to accommodate me.

As I sat in the newly vacant aisle seat, I felt constrained by the man sitting in the middle of the bench seat opposite me. He was sitting forward with his legs spread wide in the classic genital display pose that male primates evolved to demonstrate dominance to other lesser primates. So wide in fact that his left leg and knee were taking up at least a third of the legroom in my own individual seat.

His behavior may have been unintentional and unconscious; but it didn't feel good to have my newly acquired space dominated by another man's knee.

Assertiveness Makes a Man Feel Strong

I'm working on getting over my fear of conflict with strangers, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to be assertive with one who was overstepping my boundaries; albeit boundaries that I had just stepped into by requesting the seat.

I made eye contact with the spread-eagled man and politely asked: "Would you mind moving your leg over a little please?"

He kept his leg in place and said something that I didn't hear due to my noise-cancelling headphones. I removed them so I could hear his objection and replied: "I'm sorry?"

"Where exactly should I move it?" he replied aggressively, as if to say that the cramped conditions of public transport left him no option but to have his knee in my personal space.

"Over there", I replied pointing to the gaping empty space between his legs, "You're kind of spread-eagled"; stating the very very obvious.

He was clearly not happy at my outrageous request or the way it was delivered. He continued to keep his knee in-place and stare me down saying: "Chill out dude. You need to chill out."

My heart started racing at this point with a mix of anger at having my request so bluntly denied and my needs invalidated; and anxiety at the fear of potential conflict with a stranger. Conflict wasn't handled well by the people around me where I grew up and so my nervous system is still wired for hypervigilance at the first sign of potential trouble.

I took a few deep breaths and reminded myself that these uncomfortable feelings would pass.

Then I thought to myself: "I don't want to engage with this idiot. Besides; he's right, I do need to chill out: I often feel more anxious than I'd like. Right now though I just want him to move his leg so I can relax in my own seating space."

I wasn't really looking for an alpha-male showdown. So I put my headphones back on, noise cancelling him out of my auditory environment and went back to listening to my podcast about the neurology of consciousness.

Over the course of the next couple of minutes, I noticed the guy very slowly and almost imperceptibly moving his leg across until it was out of my seat's leg space and into his own.

I assume he didn't like being asked/told what to do and didn't want to lose face; but later realised that my request was perfectly reasonable. There was plenty of room for his legs to be closer together and he was indeed being an asshole who clearly needed to chill out.

I hate being dominated by other people. It's very triggering for me because it reminds me unconsciously of my experience growing up with my domineering mother and the bullies at my all-boys high school. Once we've healed as much of our nervous system wounds from childhood as we can, the final step in curing the submissiveness that bullying generates is learning to be assertive with people who try to dominate us now as adults.

This means dealing with the uncomfortable feelings of anger and fear that arise when we ask for what we want from challenging people who may not be willing to give it to us. But don't ask, don't get. Once we learn to manage our uncomfortable feelings we can freely and clearly ask for what we want in life, and we're much more likely to get it.

About Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.
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