Essay

How to Deal Effectively with Peer Pressure

By Duff McDuffee on May 25th, 2011 1

Try to do anything new and you’ll probably run into some sort of resistance in the form of peer pressure. For example, let’s say after a particularly nasty hangover you decide to quit drinking alcohol. All your friends and family will immediately praise your maturity and willpower, and forever only offer you non-alcoholic beverages, right? Well, maybe not…

Them: Hey, you want a drink?

You: Yea, I’ll take a glass of water, thanks.

Them: Don’t you want a beer or something?

You: No thanks, I’m trying to quit.

Them: Come on, it’s just one drink…

Now here’s where most personal development writers will say “you should stay away from such negative people—they are only trying to bring you down.” I think it’s exactly the opposite.

Most people who try to pressure you to engage in a behavior you are avoiding have a positive intention for doing so, even though their behavior can be really annoying. For instance, they may want to have fun together, to share in some experience, or just to feel better about their own indulgences. These aren’t negative intentions of harm and ill will, but positive intentions of shared humanity (except perhaps the last one, but wanting to feel better isn’t necessarily a bad thing either).

When people gently pressure you to indulge in a behavior you are abstaining from, you shouldn’t necessarily avoid them but learn how to deal with their comments first. The easiest way is to avoid justifying, arguing, defending, or explaining your decision…unless you are really close to this person and have the time and space to really get into the reasons, and think this person will listen and empathize with you at this time. This strategy can be summarized as JADE*, which is what you don’t do—justify, argue, defend, or explain—when you want to deal with this kind of peer pressure, or otherwise avoid unnecessary drama. Basically it’s a way to end the conversation about your personal decision and force the conversation to move on to some other topic without being a jerk.

Note in the above example the speaker says “no thanks, I’m trying to quit.” Big mistake! Now the conversation becomes about the reasons you’ve decided to make a personal choice for yourself. By saying “I’m trying to quit,” you open a door for the other person to elicit your reasons for wanting to quit and argue with them.

Here’s a great strategy for responding to such peer pressure that I recently learned from Andrew T. Austin on his excellent Weight Loss: A Neurolinguistic Perspective audio program:

  1. Have a catchy phrase/affirmation to describe your decision. Example: “I choose what goes inside my body.” What I like about this one in particular is that to challenge it, someone would have to argue that they choose what goes inside your body! Most people will not be that rude. Whatever your phrase is, own it!
  2. Respond kindly and politely three times to anyone who pressures you to do something you don’t want to do. It’s best to keep it very simple like “no, thanks!” with a smile, really assuming they have a positive intent while maintaining your decision. DO NOT JUSTIFY, ARGUE, DEFEND, OR EXPLAIN. Good: “I just want water.” Bad: “I’m trying to lose weight.” Good: “I appreciate the offer, just water please.” Bad: “I said I just wanted water, you jerk! Why do you always have to be like this?” Good: “I don’t want any, thank you.” Bad: “Did you know alcohol is a known nervous system toxin? You should really quit too.”
  3. If the person pressures a fourth time, don’t be nice. Say something like, “I’ve said ‘no thanks’ three times, and yet you’ve pressured me a fourth time. Now, are you going to knock it off, or do we need to have a larger conversation about treating people with respect?” Note that saying it this way keeps the focus on the real issue—having your decision be respected, rather than defending your personal choices as in whether or not to drink alcohol. Very few people will push it this far. If someone is pushing you this far and they are a friend, you may want to ask yourself whether you want to be friends with someone like this. If they are family, well you probably have to deal with them—having a deeper conversation may help. If they are a stranger, you might consider leaving the situation. In any case, you should prepare for this to happen once in a while and be willing to say something like the above which does not justify, argue, defend, or explain your decision.
  4. Practice the above before it happens. Play act various scenarios with a supportive friend, therapist, or coach, or just rehearse in your head or out loud until you get it down. Try it out in the real world, and repeat your practice as necessary.

Here are some times to not JADE:

  • when facing peer pressure to put something inside your body that you don’t want to (alcohol, sweets, drugs, gluten, etc.)
  • after setting a reasonable limit with a child you are parenting (consider explaining later though when things cool down, away from the candy aisle, etc.)
  • when dealing with annoying relatives
  • when talking with people who regularly push boundaries or play power games: narcissists, psychopaths, 2-year-olds, etc.
  • when talking with an addict about their addiction to alcohol, drugs, etc.
  • when someone is being verbally abusive—a spouse, a boss, a pushy salesman, a manipulative “pick-up-artist,” etc.
  • when you’ve done something wrong and someone is confronting you about it. In this case, simply admit wrongdoing, genuinely empathize if you’ve hurt the person, and only if you are absolutely sure you will follow through, state what you will do differently or to make up for it. If you have repeatedly broken promises like this though, don’t make any amends verbally—just change your behavior for the better in secret. Broken promises of better behavior simply compound your problems. (Sometimes a little context can help the other person to understand your behaviors, but it’s best to not to try and explain away the behavior first, providing context only after admitting wrongdoing and harm if the other person cares to hear it. Make sure to emphasize that you providing context is not an attempt to excuse the behavior and that you admit to yourself and the other that it was wrong.)

JADE Gone Wild

There are however times it is appropriate to justify your actions, to engage in an argument, to defend your position, or to explain your behavior. Every principle has it’s limits, and taken to extremes can do the opposite of its intended outcome.

Let’s say you decide to change your name from your given name Robert to Tzechal (I don’t even know how you’d pronounce that) because of a vision you received during an Ayahuasca ceremony. Don’t be a dick about it—if you want people to call you Tzechal it’s reasonable to give at least a sentence describing your reasons, something like, “I had a really powerful experience in Peru and was given this name. I’d like it if you’d call me this from now on.” At this point, explaining further may not be helpful, as people are either going to accept this request or not, and you’ll have to live with the result. If you consistently make these kinds of requests of your friends, or change your name more than once in your adult life however, be prepared for people to roll their eyes and ignore your request.

Or let’s say you have some unusual health problems and think you might be allergic to gluten because your friend is, but you aren’t sure if you are yet. Demanding that your family all stop eating gluten immediately and then refusing to explain why is unreasonable. A little explanation—ideally away from meal times and when people have time to really sit down and listen—can provide the space others need to help meet your needs.

Some people make negative changes in their behavior and then refuse to JADE because they believe they are always in the right! For instance an abusive alcoholic might come home at 4am drunk and refuse to explain where he’s been to his spouse. Usually in these cases though, the person will then argue, but not explain, but sometimes you get people like Tim Ferriss and his “policy on haters” to simply ignore their valid criticisms. Obviously this is a poor use of this principle.

Justifying, arguing, defending, and explaining some of your choices and behaviors can be reasonable when a) you are talking with someone you love/respect (or you are in a court room), b) you both have the time and space to get into the details, c) you feel are being listened to, and d) the conversation is leading towards mutual appreciation and understanding. Avoiding JADE is useful for bypassing excessive drama, dealing with people who are seem like they are never going to back down from their position, or when you sense the conversation isn’t ever going to end up with mutual understanding and appreciation.

A hair-trigger response to all negative feedback such as immediately labeling someone as “a negative person” and cutting them out of your life (or banning them from your forum, etc.) reduces an individual’s intelligence by cutting out feedback that would expand their perspective. This is why I like the strategy of three polite “no thank you”‘s before initiating a deeper confrontation/conversation, and only then considering cutting someone off (with some exceptions for abusive or violent behavior, comment spam, etc.).

There are of course many other possibilities that you can imagine when JADE is reasonable, and when it’s best to avoid. In any case, I hope you’ve found this article useful. Next time you are considering making a positive change in your behavior that may lead to peer pressure from others, I hope you will practice these ways of responding in advance to give more support to your success, while maintaining a balanced approach in your communication.

* Hat tip to @Mjausson on Twitter for posting an article on JADE today that spurred my thoughts.

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17 responses to “How to Deal Effectively with Peer Pressure”

  1. Jacq says:

    In my previous life with a borderline personality ex, I learned the hard way that the word NO (thanks) can – and should be – a complete sentence. "Deeper conversations" were futile because you just go round and round and round and eventually their thought process will wear you down. Best to exit stage left ASAP and not get dragged into their agenda.

    My friends know I don't drink when I go out and have to drive since my sister was killed by a drunk driver. It can be a bit of a downer when I have to explain this to new acquaintances but they back off amazingly quickly. And hopefully if it makes even one person think about the repercussions of getting behind the wheel if they were thinking of doing it, it's worth that little bit of awkwardness.
    My recent post The cup of life

  2. Abigail says:

    I continue to be impressed with the articles I find on this site (even though I don't agree with everything – but then again, we're all different and can't possibly agree on everything, right?).

    How to deal with negativity and situations like the one you've mentioned here are things not covered enough in most personal development that I've seen. 'Ignoring' negative people and negativity can be useful in certain situations, but as a whole, having something as simplistic as a 'policy on haters' has never really sat well with me. As you've mentioned in this article – it really is just about basic respect and there certainly are situations in which JADE is necessary.
    My recent post How shall I live

    • "I don't agree with everything" is the best compliment I could get on my writing, as my intent is to spur thinking and dialogue, not compliance with my point of view.

      Indeed, "negativity" is a broad brush that could use a lot more finer distinctions within personal development culture.

  3. 32000days says:

    If you consistently make these kinds of requests of your friends, or change your name more than once in your adult life however, be prepared for people to roll their eyes and ignore your request.

    In such cases I'm reminded of the fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. The first major identity shift is treated with great concern and honor – "I really respect you for coming out of the closet".

    The second one gets a bit less – "So you're a devout Muslim now, huh? Hope that works well for you.".

    After that, it's pretty much a one-way road to jokes at the person's expense. "Was food-combining before or after the Pentecostal phase? Or was that shamanism? I forget – but it doesn't matter because it'll be different in another month."

    Bonus points when the person takes all of these things Very, Very Seriously and wants everyone else to Treat These Profound Life Changes With The Respect They Deserve.

    A hair-trigger response to all negative feedback such as immediately labeling someone as "a negative person" and cutting them out of your life (or banning them from your forum, etc.) reduces an individual’s intelligence by cutting out feedback that would expand their perspective.

    What I've observed is that the busier people get – i.e. the more inbound feedback they get – the more they choose to make such "snap judgments". If I have 10 requests for my time and attention and one hour to decide what's worth my time, then I can afford to dedicate a full 6 minutes to each one. If I have 1000 requests incoming, I'm looking for any reason to turn something down.

    My recent post Life is

    • What I've observed is that the busier people get – i.e. the more inbound feedback they get – the more they choose to make such "snap judgments".

      I agree. What's interesting is often these people want to be busy, and have even consciously planned and taken action to fulfill their goal of being busier, having more fame, putting themselves in the role of all-knowing-advice-giving-guru-type, but then simultaneously dismiss input as being from "negative" people, quick to judge those human beings as non-human who have given them the fame they've sought.

  4. 32000days says:

    I agree. What's interesting is often these people want to be busy, and have even consciously planned and taken action to fulfill their goal of being busier, having more fame, putting themselves in the role of all-knowing-advice-giving-guru-type, but then simultaneously dismiss input as being from "negative" people, quick to judge those human beings as non-human who have given them the fame they've sought.

    I agree with you about the audience seeking – many (most?) who publish on the internet seek to reach some point of high popularity, like (e.g.) 100 000 list or feed subscribers. But there's a big difference between judging someone's feedback as negative and dismissing it or ignoring it (even if too quickly and/or incorrectly), and judging them to be "non-human".
    My recent post Life is

    • Indeed there is a difference, although many guru-types will let the public know that they think other people are non-human, for instance when Pavlina did his experiment in seeing all others as merely dream characters in his reality.

  5. Fraser123456 says:

    Wow, this is really good.

    Could you share any resources for learning more general conversation strategies which are similarly empowering?

    -Fraser

    • Hi Fraser, glad you enjoyed this article.

      I'm not sure which contexts you are interested in, but here are some suggestions:

      The Successful Parenting audio from Connirae Andreas. While the context is oriented towards parenting, the skills taught apply to a range of contexts: management, dealing with adults who are currently acting like children, etc. (Note: I work for Connirae but do not get commissions and am not paid to blog here, and I legitimately think it is a great product.) See also the Advanced Language Patterns CD set.

      As I mentioned in the article, I've been getting a lot of juice lately out of Andy Austin's teaching too. He has a bunch of things on his site and some stuff available through Real People Press as well: http://www.andrewtaustin.com/shop.php http://realpeoplepress.com/

      Connirae's style is very friendly, whereas Andy Austin's is much more "no BS." Both are useful depending on context and your personal preferences. Andy works a lot with chronic psychotherapy clients, so he's learned ways of dealing effectively with difficult people if that's an interest of yours.

      Steve Andreas has a bunch of really insightful stuff about conversations (in psychotherapy and otherwise), some of which is available for free on his blog: http://www.realpeoplepress.com/blog

      I also think Steve's books are invaluable and wise, especially Six Blind Elephants vol 1 and 2, as well as Transforming Your Self. They will take significant study and practice even though his writing is lucid, but it is well worth the effort.

  6. Fraser123456 says:

    Thanks Duff, that's a generous response. The "advanced language patterns" looks promising to me. That's the kind of thing I'm after.

    I used to read (and try to apply) 'pua' stuff and they all talk about not qualifying yourself. Maybe because of the way they explain it or the non-integrous intentions behind it, I never really understood what they meant or how to apply such a thing. When I became disillusioned with that I kind of dismissed all conversation strategies as manipulative and unnecessary, but what you've described has made me realise the potential for ethical and empowering conversational skills.

    Now I want more! 🙂

    Btw, I'm not just saying "it's really good". I read the article a few days ago and have put the strategy into effect. It feels really good!

    • Great that you applied the strategy! That's the hardest part, and the only part that really counts.

      The PUA stuff is like crack–hooks you in based on desire, feels kinda good, but is ultimately a dead-end (and harms yourself and others). I was more hooked by Tony Robbins, but dabbled in the dark realms of the PUA stuff for a bit too and quickly became disillusioned with both. Until I found the Andreas's, I wasn't sure how to use all this communication knowledge effectively and ethically.

      A rule of thumb I have now is to look for people who teach effective communication as it applies to parenting, psychotherapy, and long-term relationships and avoid people who teach communication as it applies to sales and seduction. For the most part that is a pretty good filter for finding people with an ethical compass! 🙂

      • Fraser123456 says:

        Sounds like you're a way ahead of me in this path. I've been through a brief Robbins phase a few years ago. I spent a month or two being absurdly enthusiastic about unrealistic goals. 😀 That was fairly harmless for me at the time. The 'pua' stuff was much more an influence on my life, but I wouldn't replace it… it was an EXPERIENCE, and I'm strangely grateful for it.

        Interesting what you say about the parenting, pyschotherapy et al. I've never even really looked at advice for long term relationships, and certainly not for parenting, being 22 and without kids.

    • Hi Fraser,Feel free to email me directly about this stuff in the future if you want. It's my #1 favorite thing to talk about! :)~Duff

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