The Broken Record, a skill to stop manipulation attempts

Manuel J. Smith’s book has quickly become one of my favorite books. Reading it is an eye opener and excellent immunizer to manipulation. Here is one particularly useful technique that will help you to be more assertive.

To enforce your assertive rights and to halt manipulation of your behavior, you seed to change your own behavior in response to manipulation—the behavior that allows you to be manipulated. The rest of this manuscript deals with learning a set of assertive verbal skills that are effective in enforcing your assertive rights in your relationships with other people.


In introducing students to the first systematic assertive skill, BROKEN RECORD, I begin by asking them: “Why do you usually lose in a conflict with the auto mechanic about correcting the sloppy repairs he made on your car?” Their answer to this question is typically a profound silence. Having thus established that the class doesn’t know any more than I do—why they keep getting frustrated—I offer the following opinion: “You don’t know why? I’ll tell you why! Because you usually give up after you hear the first ‘No.’ He tells you ‘No’ and you say ‘Okay’ or mumble under your breath something less than flattering about his possible sexual habits and walk away. You lose because you give up too easily. This guy (like many other people) has only a few ‘Noes’ in his bag. If he’s got three ‘Noes,’ you only need four. If he’s got six ‘Noes’, you only need seven. It’s that simple!” At this point, one of the students typically says: “But I can’t do that. I can’t ignore someone when he tells me ‘No.’ ” My response: “What do you mean, you ‘can’t’? I don’t see any handcuffs or ball and chain on you that keeps you from doing anything. I’ll respect that you don’t want to, but I won’t respect that you ‘can’t.’ And if you don’t want to, my guess is that you are trained like the rest of us: you should be nice and listen to the poor garage mechanic when he says ‘No.’ Right? After all, he is only trying to make a living like the rest of us. Right? (Here the class usually picks up the litany with a sarcastic chorus of “Right!” including the one bearded left-winger present in all classes who adds an upraised clenched fist to his “Right on!”) He’s got six kids he’s trying to feed and educate just like you. Right? If he loses money in his business, he won’t be able to support them in the manner to which they would like to become accustomed. Right? But where does it say that if he screws up the job on your car, you should keep him in business and let him make a profit by subsidizing his sloppy work?” If you are like this student and many others, you need to learn to be more persistent in asserting yourself. One of the most important aspects of being verbally assertive is to be persistent and to keep saying what you want over and over again without getting angry, irritated, or loud. Most often, to communicate effectively in a conflict situation, you have to be persistent and stick to your point. Nonassertive people tend to get bogged down in excess verbiage and give up easily when someone tells them “why,” shows them “logically,” or gives them “reasons” for not doing what they want to do. In learning how to be persistent, the nonassertive person must not give reasons or excuses or explanations as to “why” he wants what he wants; he needs to ignore guilt-inducing statements. One verbal skill that teaches people how to accomplish all of this simultaneously is a technique first used in assertive therapy by my close colleague Dr. Zev Wanderer, who gave it its descriptive title: BROKEN RECORD. By practicing to speak as if we were a broken record, we learn to be persistent and stick to the point of the discussion, to keep saying what we want to say, and to ignore all side issues brought up by the person we assert ourselves to. In using BROKEN RECORD, you, the learner, are not deterred by anything the other person may say, but keep saying in a calm, repetitive voice what you want to say until the other person acceeds to your request or agrees to a compromise. The purpose of BROKEN RECORD training and rehearsal is not to teach you to speak like a broken record, but to teach and reward persistence, no matter what words you use. To see how you can accomplish this result, let’s look at a very simple real life BROKEN RECORD dialogue in a commercial situation.
Dialogue #1
Carlo and the
The following BROKEN RECORD dialogue is one reported by Carlo, a Chicano community relations worker. Carlo received instruction from me as part of a staff development program in effective communication. During the fourth session, Carlo reported that on the previous Saturday he had done the week’s marketing for his wife and when he returned home, he could not find his meat purchases. Since his father was at the house for dinner, Carlo asked if he would like to accompany him to the supermarket to get his meat purchases back. Setting of the dialogue: Upon entering the supermarket with his father in tow, Carlo spoke to the clerk at the checkout counter about his missing purchases.
CARLO: When I was here earlier, I bought three steaks, a roast, and two chickens
with my other groceries and when I got home, the meat was missing. I want my meat.
CLERK: Did you look in your car?
CARLO: Yes, I want my meat. [BROKEN RECORD]
CLERK: I don’t think I can do anything about it. [Evasion of responsibility]
CARLO: I understand how you might think that, but I want my meat. [BROKEN
CLERK: Do you have your cash register receipt?
CARLO: (Handing receipt to clerk) Yes, and I want my meat. [BROKEN
CLERK: (Looking at the receipt) You have six meat purchases here.
CARLO: That’s right, and I want my meat. [BROKEN RECORD]
CLERK: Well, I don’t have anything to do with the meat department [Evasion of
CARLO: I understand how you feel, but you’re the one I paid my money to and I
still want my meat. [BROKEN RECORD]
CLERK: You will have to go to the back and see the meat manager. [Evasion of
CARLO: Will he give me my meat? [BROKEN RECORD]
CLERK: He’s the one to take care of it [Evasion of responsibility]
CARLO: What’s his name?
CLERK: Mr. Johnson.
CARLO: Call him up here, please.
CLERK: Just go in the back, you’ll find him. [Evasion of responsibility]
CARLO: I don’t see anyone there, please call him up here. [BROKEN RECORD]
CLERK: Go in the back, he’ll be there soon. [Evasion of responsibility]
CARLO: I don’t want to go in the back and wait around forever. I want to get out
of here quick like, please call him up here. [BROKEN RECORD]
CLERK: You’re holding up the line, all these people want to be served. [Guilt
induction: don’t you care about other people?]
CARLO: I know they want to be served, just like I want to be served. Please call
the meat manager up here. [BROKEN RECORD]
CLERK: (Looks at Carlo curiously for a few seconds, walks over to the girl in the
check-cashing booth, speaks to her and walks back to Carlo) He’ll be here in just a
CARLO: Okay.
After a few minutes, the meat manager, Mr. Johnson, walks up to the checkout
counter and taps the checkout clerk on the shoulder.
CLERK: This customer lost his meat purchase.
JOHNSON: (To Carlo) Where did you lose it?
CARLO: Here, I never got it from you, and I want my meat. [BROKEN
JOHNSON: Do you have the cash register receipt?
CARLO: (Handing it to him) Yes, and I want my meat. [BROKEN RECORD]
JOHNSON: (Looking at the slip) There are six items from the meat department.
CARLO: Right three steaks, a roast, two chickens, and I want my meat.
JOHNSON: Did you look in your car to see if they fell out of the bag? [Ignorance
and guilt induction: you have to be checked up on and are not responsible.]
CARLO: Yes, and I want my meat. [BROKEN RECORD]
JOHNSON: Is there any other place you could have dropped them? [Ignorance
and guilt induction: you are careless.]
CARLO: Yes, here. And I want my meat. [BROKEN RECORD]
JOHNSON: I meant besides here.
CARLO: No, and I want my meat. [BROKEN RECORD]
JOHNSON: Most people who say they lost their purchases remember later that
they left them somewhere else. Why don’t you come back in tomorrow if you can’t find
them? [Ignorance and guilt induction: you don’t have a good memory and made a
CARLO: I understand why you feel that way, but I want my meat. [BROKEN
JOHNSON: It’s getting late and we’re ready to close the store. [Guilt induction:
you are keeping me from going home on time.]
CARLO: I understand how you feel, but I want my meat. [BROKEN RECORD]
JOHNSON: Well, I can’t do anything about this myself. [Evasion of
CARLO: Who can?
JOHNSON: The store manager.
CARLO: Okay. Call him over here. [BROKEN RECORD]
JOHNSON: He is very busy right now. Why don’t you come back on Monday
and talk to him? [Guilt induction: he is a busy, important person and you shouldn’t bother
him with a little problem like this.]
CARLO: I understand how you feel, but I’m very busy right now myself. Call
him over here. [BROKEN RECORD]
JOHNSON: (First silently looking at Carlo for a few seconds) I’ll go talk to him
and see what I can do.
CARLO: Okay. I’ll be here waiting for you.
Mr. Johnson walks to the back of the store, disappears in a doorway, and then reappears a few moments later in the window of a business office overlooking the merchandise displays. He starts a conversation with a man seated behind a desk. The man behind the desk says something. Mr. Johnson shakes his head and points to Carlo. The man stands up, looks at Carlo, and speaks again. Mr. Johnson replies, shaking his head. The man speaks again and goes back to his desk. Mr. Johnson disappears from the window and moments later walks up to Carlo.
CARLO: Well?
JOHNSON: We are very sorry this happened. Why don’t you go back to the meat
counter and pick out what you lost.
CARLO: Right, thank you.
JOHNSON: Next week we are having a sale in the meat section. Some very good
CARLO: I’ll tell my wife about it, thanks.
While picking out the meat replacements, Carlo’s father expressed his approval of the way Carlo had dealt with the supermarket staff. He kept saying with amazement in his voice, “If that were me, I would have been looking for the meat in my pockets, underneath the seat in the car, in the closet at home and in the attic!” Driving home, Dad asked Carlo how he was able to do what he did. With some modesty, but no lack of confident self-respect, Carlo replied; “It’s just something I picked up in a course on being assertive at work. If you want, I’ll teach you it.” In Carlo’s dialogue with the supermarket clerks, you can see how he repeatedly told them, via BROKEN RECORD, what he wanted, his main goal, the replacement of his meat purchases. When other minor goals arose in the discussion, Carlo did not hesitate to use BROKEN RECORD to communicate his immediate wants to the clerks. For example, when told to stand around and wait until they got to his problem, Carlo repeatedly asked that the person who could resolve the problem be brought to him. The purpose of BROKEN RECORD, Carlo had learned, is to transmit a message repeatedly to the person he asserts himself to: “I will not be put off, I can do this all day if necessary”—no matter what manipulative ploys the other person may come up with.