Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
Excessive Rigidity

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/rigid.htm

Updated  01-31-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers perspective on the trait of "rigidity," and sample responses you can make to a significantly rigid person. The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • basic options for all responses

  • self-improvement lessons 1 and 2

  • effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

      This brief YouTube video offers suggestion for giving effective feedback to other people.


      What does the adjective rigid bring to your mind when describing a person? How would you describe the difference between rigid, self-confident, certain, and authoritarian? Can you think of someone in your life you feel is "too rigid" in general or with you? This article suggests ways to respond effectively to such a person.

      Rigid can mean unbending, strong, unyielding, righteous, fanatic, immovable, and/or stiff. These qualities can be social assets or liabilities, depending on the situation. Here rigid means "thinking, speaking, and imposing black/white right/wrong judgments (vs. opinions) on situations, relationships, and people. Examples:

 Abortion is inexcusable!

Prostitutes are immoral sluts

You should never _______

Crying is weak and pitiful

You shouldn't dye your hair

The Bible is God's Truth

Lying and pride are sins!

You must always _______

Rich people are snobs

Always think of the other guy

Republicans are fools.

Respect your elders!

       Overly-rigid people often....

  • see values and opinions other than theirs as wrong, rather than different;

  • may c/overtly scorn, fear, avoid, and/or reject people who disagree with them;

  • may pretend tolerance they don't genuinely feel;

  • may come across as arrogant, egotistical, righteous, controlling, intolerant, bigoted, prejudiced, and/or authoritarian;

  • are apt to lecture about absolute truths, rather than discuss possibilities;

  • may be rigid on a few topics or many;

  • have trouble hearing other opinions; and they...

  • may (rigidly) deny, justify, or minimize these traits and/or refuse to discuss them.

Does this sound like any adults or kids in your life?

       Rigidity refers to the way people think and express themselves on some topics. When rigidity focuses on demeaning certain traits, ideas, people, or organizations, it becomes bigotry and/or prejudice. The opposite to personal rigidity is flexibility, open-mindedness, tolerance, and compromise,

What Causes "Rigidity"?

      Though each person is unique, several causes may be common. One is being psychologically wounded from early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse. This can cause significant shame, insecurity, distrust, and the unconscious need to control other people and situations.

      Excessive rigidity (vs. firmness) can be seen as a desperate attempt to make an unpredictable world safe from confusion, doubt, and pain. If I accept that your different opinion may be valid, then I must face feeling (or being seen as) wrong / stupid / ignorant / inferior. Trying to persuade a wounded person to "be more flexible" is as futile as using logic to get an addict to choose sobriety or an atheist to want to accept a Higher Power.

      Notice the difference between "Alex is incredibly rigid (or controlling)." and "Alex is very wounded and insecure." Which would you rather be called?

      Implication - excessive rigidity is a symptom, not a "character flaw." It deserves compassion and assertiveness, not scorn, anger, or pity. With this perspective in mind, how can you respond effectively to excessive rigidity?

Response Options

      If there is an over-rigid person in your life, keep them in mind as you consider these choices.

  • Decide that someone is "too rigid," and you wish to respond to that.

  • Mentally review these until they become reflexes...

    • your definition of "an effective response," and these basic options;

    • your mutual rights as dignified people (including kids!)

    • options for giving effective feedback to another person,

    • the steps for effective assertions and empathic listening;

  • Stay aware of the difference between the person and their annoying   behavior;

  • Take the time to identify your discomforts - i.e. clarify...

    • how you feel when experiencing an over-rigid person pronouncing or imposing their "truth" on you - frustrated? Fed up? Shut out? Disrespected? Impatient? Numb? Intimidated? Resentful? Argumentative? Scornful? Pity? Resigned? Irritated? Angry? Weary?

    • what you need from responding to the person - to vent, learn, inform, cause change, set or enforce a limit, problem-solve, or something else;

      and identify...

    • what specific behavior/s annoy you about the rigid person - e.g. lecturing, proclaiming, interrupting, repeating, finger-shaking, criticizing, discounting you, etc.   

  • Remind yourself that (a) your needs and opinions are just as valid as theirs, and (b) respectful feedback is a gift to other people. Whether they choose to use it is up to them.

  • As a courtesy, ask the person if s/he is open to some personal feedback. If s/he says "No," you have a different challenge (distrust / insecurity ?). If s/he says "OK", then craft a response like one or more of these, depending on what you need:

      To Vent, Learn, or Inform

    "(Name), I experience you as not being interested in other opinions (on a certain topic or in general)."

    "I'm feeling lectured / dictated / preached to (or talked at) now."

    "So your main point is _____________." Sum up what s/he's saying in your own words.

    "Do you care what I think about this?" Be prepared for a double message.

    "What do you need from me now, (Name)?" (Option - if you get "Nothing," then respectfully ask something like "So why are we talking about this?")

    "Do you expect me to agree with you about this?"

    "I see this differently than you do."

    "(Name), stop. You've already told me how you feel about this."

    "How do you feel about people who impose their beliefs on other people?"

    "I feel you're saying (or implying) you're right and I'm wrong. Is that so? (Be prepared for denial, explanations, and/or excuses).

    "(Name), when you need to disparage or ridicule other opinions on this, I feel __________."

    "When you start preaching, I stop listening."

      To Cause Change or Set a Limit

    "(Name), I need you to stop telling me what I should think / feel / do and what I need."

    "I need you to accept that other people can have different opinions / perceptions / beliefs  than you without being 'wrong' or 'bad'."

    "(Name), I respect your opinions. I do not respect your imposing your opinions or values on me."

    "If you need to monolog, sermonize, or lecture me I'm going to interrupt you."

          In composing your own responses, note the theme of these examples - brief, sincere, factual, specific, respectful, and direct, said calmly, with good eye contact. These will work best if you use your own vocabulary and style, rather than parroting these.

      Responses to Avoid

      How do the examples above compare to your normal response to an overly-rigid person? Common ineffective (lose-lose) responses sound like...

"You're really close-minded and arrogant." (labeling)

"You are hopeless - there's no talking with you." (generalizing, exaggerating)

"Who do you think you are, telling me how to think?" (combative)

"You can't face an honest discussion , can you?" (belittling)

"You think your way is the only way, don't you?" (assuming, criticizing)

"I give up. I can't get through to you." (self-neglect - not asserting needs)

Bottom Line - you have many useful response-option with typical over-rigid people! Can you imagine trying some of these out?


      This is one of a series of brief Lesson-2 articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers an explanation for excessive personal rigidity, why it can be annoying, and ways to respond effectively to it. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • knowing how to give effective personal feedback,

  • clarity on your feelings and your mutual rights and needs, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

      For more perspective, see these articles on responding well to egotism, prejudice, aggression, and insensitivity

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