How to Assert Yourself: A Guide to Dealing with Unfulfilled Promises

The knob fell off my hotel room door. The room had the wrong number of beds, the mattress sagged, the shower would have made an Eskimo’s teeth chatter, and the restaurant included pieces of glass and wire in the food. A nearby hospital demanded payment for an expensive test they improperly submitted to my insurance company.

OK, not all events were on the same day or in the same place, but these unpleasantries happened over a period of years at a variety of locations.

They were opportunities to become assertive and I became pretty good at taking on poor service and unfulfilled promises.

I had not always been adept, however.

I did not deal with such matters from strength as a young man, but I learned by doing. We don’t become confident waiting for the emergence of the ability to assert ourselves, we become confident by asserting ourselves. We get better gradually. That said, this particular kind of “training” isn’t fun.

In all the cases described – and more – I received compensation, usually enough to satisfy me.

I’ll share some thoughts on the potential trepidation of this type of challenge, as well as what I learned about the best way to succeed in dealing with these difficulties.


  • You are paying for a service. You are entitled to the service for which you are paying. The company is not doing you a favor by providing it. Indeed, you have been inconvenienced by needing to prompt the vendor to fulfill his obligation to you.
  • Think of your relationship with the provider (the merchant or hotel or restaurant) as if it were a written contract: they do something for you and you pay them for what they do.
  • You are providing the owner or CEO with valuable information: what is wrong with his business. Consultants earn high fees telling ailing companies about their mistakes. Some of the organizations to whom you complain will, indeed, be grateful for the information provided. Example: a restaurant that is over salting the food needs to know its patrons don’t like it or will soon have empty tables .
  • Self-assertion doesn’t make you a bad person. Requiring things be put right shows self-respect. You can be a good man or woman and also stand up for yourself.
  • Be direct, but civil. Don’t lose your temper, but speak unequivocally. Your tone should convey seriousness. Phrases like “I think” and “I’m pretty sure” undercut your complaint.
  • The person who you are talking to is not always the one who failed to provide adequate service. Be direct and strong in dealing with him, nonetheless. Consider saying, “I realize this is not your doing, but I am unhappy with your company’s failure to _____.”
  • If you admit error when the failure is not yours, your argument will not succeed.


  • Read any signed contract with care. Even if the document suggests the service was not unconditionally guaranteed, websites and sales staff often convey the sense that the service will be provided, thereby implying an assurance or promise. Read the website and come prepared to quote from it, if necessary.
  • Try to manage the issue face-to-face, if possible. It is easier to be told “no” if you use email or phone.
  • Write down what you want to say. You can even read from your notes or script, though it is best to look at the representative most of the time.
  • Your written material should include the dates and times when events went wrong, the names of those with whom you spoke, whatever they said, etc. These details convey veracity (truthfulness) even if one cannot prove what happened.


  • Make and keep eye contact. My adult children call this, “the Stein Stare.” You needn’t display the controlled ferocity and x-ray vision my kids seem to imply in this “tribute” (a sort of family joke, both exaggerated and true), but people do take me seriously when I want them to.
  • Introduce yourself by name and, if possible, shake the agent’s hand firmly. You are attempting to establish a relationship, convey civility, and demonstrate the importance of the matter. Looking down most of the time will not help your case.
  • Since you may be speaking to a person with little authority, ask him to follow through on reaching a “decider” and request follow-up concerning the company’s intentions with regard to your complaint. Ask when you should expect to hear back and whether notice will come in writing or by phone.
  • If you don’t get satisfaction, request the attention of someone still-higher in the chain of command. A Vice President of Customer Satisfaction or similar individual stands on the top rung. You can find his name on the company website.
  • At some point you may need to ask for what you want. For example, a poorly cooked dish should be sent back to the kitchen and prepared to your liking or removed from the bill. A hotel problem might require you to request a room change, a reduced rate, or both. In hotels I’ve received a free day, a free meal, free parking, etc. Sometimes you will be offered a form of compensation without asking, but be prepared whether to accept the proposition or ask for more. Don’t say, “that’s OK,” unless you mean it.
  • Be persistent. Multiple contacts are often required. It took me six-months to get a hospital to submit a corrected insurance claim. I spoke with a nurse, a doctor, obtained the proper procedure code for the test that had been performed, wrote emails, and made regular telephone follow-ups with the hospital’s billing department.


  • You needn’t always make an issue of things. Pick your fights. The world is imperfect and you can drive yourself batty demanding justice at every turn. Some problems are best allowed to pass unchallenged.
  • Be aware of what your “default” tendency is when it comes to the kind of assertion described here. Some of us demand perfection as customers and enjoy fighting. Some are meek, prone to cowering in the face of anyone in authority. Others are easy-going and accept life’s occasional disappointments with a good-nature and plenty of tolerance.
  • If you are prone to fighting you might need to ask why. If you are avoidant of anything portending conflict, confrontation, or disappointment, you risk transforming yourself into the world’s doormat. Think about who you wish to be and how much emotion you are willing to spend in obtaining the service you expected or compensation for a failure or delay.
  • Most service providers hope to satisfy you, want your return business, and look forward to word-of-mouth advertising from you.
  • The vendor dislikes negative publicity. It is sometimes necessary to let the company know of your intention to tweet or blog your story to others if you aren’t satisfied.
  • If you do make such a threat, recognize this is the only “arrow” in your quiver. Once you have used it and tweeted your unhappiness to the world, your leverage with the vendor is gone. If at all possible, keep any such actions in reserve unless negotiations reach a dead-end


  • Consider all that I’ve said as free advice, with the usual warning: no guarantees and you get what you paid for it.
  • You will feel better about yourself if you challenge some of the personal injustices life offers and stand up to those who might take advantage of you, whether intentionally or due to incompetence or negligence.
  • What you prove to yourself is more important than proving anything to others. Knowing you can face difficult situations is worth the unpleasantness required to obtain such knowledge. You won’t always get what you want, but you will build an internal psychic muscle. Like the proverbial 99-pound weakling who enlarges his body by lifting weights, your newly found internal strength will be worth the hours spent in the gym of life.

The top image is A Snowball Fight in China by 大雄鹰. The second photo is a Giant Snowball, Oxford by Kamyar Adl. The final painting is Three Lawyers in Conference by Honoré Daumier. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Eleven Steps to Becoming the Most Interesting Person in the World


“He is the most interesting man in the world.” We see him in the Dos Equis beer commercials, surrounded by manly men and beautiful women. He arm wrestles brawny brutes, sits at an easel painting an uncaged rhinoceros, and weathers rough seas. Each ad ends with the tag line, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” The closing maxim has a double meaning: be thirsty for beer and for life. The connection between his adventurous history and his beer allows us to live vicariously by drinking the same brew, thereby borrowing some of his charisma, good looks, and self-confidence; or so the Dos Equis marketing department must believe.

Jonathan Goldsmith is the actor who convincingly inhabits this “interesting” role. Lots of people want the character’s magnetism, but lack an idea of how get it. Yet, in one commercial he tells us what is required: “It’s never too early to start beefing up your obituary.”

How can you make yourself a more interesting person? The two lines I mentioned are key: stay thirsty for life and beef up your résumé (a more optimistic word than obituary), not by work alone but by living full-out.

What might you become? Start with being interesting to yourself. Here are the 11 suggestions promised in the title:

1. Find something about which you want to learn more:

  • If your subject is Beyoncé, become an expert on her life and art.
  • If your concern is yourself, do a genealogy, enter psychoanalysis, visit your old neighborhood, and learn the history of your parents and grandparents, if possible by talking with them, their friends, and relatives.
  • If your focus is  life, justice, beauty, or truth, read philosophy and enroll in a course taught be an excellent professor who uses the Socratic method.


2. Take on challenges about which you are hesitant. Risk. Strive for something worthwhile. Even if you fail, you will acquire some good stories (and you will have some failure). Learn how to present the tales to others by watching those who do or by joining a story telling group.

3. Strike cliches from your vocabulary. Never say the word “awesome” again. You don’t need big words, but learn to use the simple ones as needed. Very few people express themselves with precision. You will automatically become interesting if you do. Conversation is not a race to be clever, but the art of clarity in oral communication.

4. Read newspapers, whether online or the print variety. Learn what is going on in the political and social world and be capable of forming well-reasoned opinions without imitating a fulminating pundit. Think critically about the information you gather or what passes for information and is actually biased, incomplete, incorrect, or all three.

5. Come alive to the world around you. The trees are not only beautiful, but named. So are the flowers and the clouds. Gaze at the buildings. Friedrich von Schelling wrote, “Architecture is music in space, as (if) it were a frozen music.” Such soaring beauties await your appreciation. Don’t be afraid to proclaim them.

6. Notice people. We are not all the same. From dress to attitude to movement to language — observe and listen. Test your intuitions, as Dan Ariely emphasizes in this TED talk; don’t assume your worldview is correct. By understanding why humans (including yourself) think and act as they do, you will have much worthwhile to say. First, however, recognize that emotion often leads thought, not the other way around. Attempts to persuade people with ideas and reasons frequently fail because the audience is emotionally tied to the views that preceded their rationalizations.

7. You must eat, so sample and learn about different cuisines. Better still if you cook them.

8. Hang around with exciting, wise, and soulful personalities. There is much you can learn from them.

9. Reduce time watching TV, tweeting, surfing social media sites, and sending the world your image. All of this is routine and risks overexposure. The public attempt to prove your uniqueness makes you one of the crowd. Moreover, you’re not likely to do some of the things I’ve mentioned if your virtual existence takes over your free time.

10. In conversation, learn to ask questions and to find what is engaging about the lives of others. Get under the surface gradually, if permitted. Everyone has a story to tell. They will be grateful for your attention. Be prepared, however, for some to rebuff you.

11. Travel if you can, but don’t return from, say, Germany, thinking the most interesting part was drinking beer. (I was once given exactly this answer to my question,  “What made the biggest impression on your visit to Deutschland?”).

Having talked with thousands of people in my clinical psychology practice, and many outside the office, most of them were interesting to me if I bothered to make the effort to get to know them. A psychologist is permitted (at least in session) to open the dark closets, step downstairs into the psyche and examine the foundation. Men and women want to be understood, but are afraid to be known. James Baldwin said, we trap ourselves by wearing

…the masks we fear that we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.


You will find other online guides to making yourself sparkle, but few if any such as the one above. Yes, some of these steps demand work, others only an opening of your eyes, listening with intensity, touching things and people, tasting life, and breathing in aromas both foul and fair. Thought and courage will also be required. Goethe wrote:

Talent develops in quiet,
Character in the torrent of the world.

Insecurity might prevent you from becoming more interesting. These steps can also make you more secure. The irony is that once you become more secure, you will care little, if at all, whether others think you are interesting. In the self-knowledge of your own value, whether others agree or not, you will achieve an amazing freedom — one setting you apart from timid souls and making you even more admirable and captivating.

Now back to the title. I promised you eleven steps to becoming the most interesting person on the planet. Ah, dear reader, it is not possible, for men at least. Jonathan Goldsmith’s Dos Equis persona* is beyond our reach. As for the ladies, the position is open. Go for it!

*If you’d like to find out more about what Jonathan Goldsmith is really like, take a look at this. He is actually quite interesting:

The second image is Beyonce Knowles, taken by Tony Duran, Parkwood Pictures Entertainment, LLC. The final photo is Le Escalier de Montmartre, 1936, by George Brassai.