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How to Be More Assertive

You can learn to be assertive.

You can learn to be assertive.

People often make the mistake of thinking that being assertive means learning to say "No!" But becoming assertive is neither as simple nor as challenging as that! For someone who is not naturally assertive, uttering a flat-out "No!" would be near impossible. Besides, it's unlikely to get the result you want - the person you're talking to may react badly to a straight refusal.

If you feel you're not assertive enough, chances are it's because you feel you're letting yourself be bullied or pushed around by others. Or perhaps you feel invisible because other people aren't giving your views due consideration when making decisions. It's not that you want to be aggressive or dominating like the bullies, or that you want to make all the decisions - you just want to be heard and respected.

You don't have to be pushy to be heard and respected. You have to be quietly assertive and stick to your guns.

For a nervous or shy person, that can still seem a big ask, but it is achievable.

Being Assertive Protects You

In many ways, being assertive is about protecting yourself. It's not just about speaking up for yourself, but doing so in a way that won't create or escalate conflict.

Most people see only two ways of reacting to an attack: we can either give in for the sake of a peaceful life, or we can attack back, either physically or verbally. If you're a non-assertive person then you always give in, because to retaliate is unthinkable. Assertiveness is the third way - and you can do it!

The hardest thing about being assertive is staying calm in the face of whatever-it-is. The secret of assertiveness is all in the language, so it's important not to panic, so you can think about the words you're using.

Assertiveness Means Sharing Your Feelings

It's going to sound strange, but the way to be assertive is to let the other person know how their behaviour affects you. That may sound like exposure, but it works in a variety of settings.

Say you're in a crowd of people and someone tries to pressure you - if you make it clear their behaviour is unacceptable and they still persist, then they're going to look like a boor and a bully in front of all those people, so they're more likely to back down.

Or, say the other party is a spouse or friend who doesn't realise how dominating they are (as opposed to someone doing it deliberately) - let them know what they're doing and they will, with time, change their behaviour.

Perhaps it's not someone attacking you, but someone who is behaving in a way that's unacceptable - like someone who is habitually late. Say "you're late again" and they'll bristle and give some excuse. Say, "when you keep me waiting, I have to leave the kids on their own for longer. What I'd like is that if I knew you were going to be late, I could plan better", and it not only takes the sting out of your remark but makes them realise how inconsiderate they're being.

That sentence encapsulates the strategy I recommend you start with. Another example might be, "When you tell the kids it's OK to do something I've forbidden, I feel undermined. What I'd like is if I could discuss it with you first."

If you look at these sentences, you can see that you're letting them know why their behaviour upsets you, and giving them a chance to fix it, all without inflammatory or critical language or a raised voice.

If I Can Do It, You Can Do It!

My first reaction when given this strategy was that it was too long, and I didn't think I'd be able to spit it out when it came to real situations. I was wrong!

Of course, it took some effort at first. It helps to take a deep breath before you speak. If you're sitting down, it may help to stand up so you feel more powerful. But I did find that it made a big difference in my dealings with people.

What's the Worst That Can Happen?

One final tip. We often avoid doing things because we fear the consequences, which is perfectly natural.

However, most of the time we haven't even worked out what the consequences are! In fact, we deliberately shy away from working them out, because we think they're too awful to contemplate.

Very few things are really as awful as that! When I force myself to really think about what could happen if I go ahead, nine times out of ten it isn't really all that bad. Once I realise that, I don't need any courage to proceed because there is nothing to be afraid of.

So next time you shy away from doing something, ask yourself, "What's the worst that can happen?" and force yourself to sit down and write out exactly what could happen.

That has several benefits. One, it may not be as bad as you think. Two, if it is bad, but you have no alternative but to go ahead, you're better prepared. Either way, you can't lose!

  • - assertiveness offers a suite of articles on assertiveness, which go into these techniques in more detail. There are also some interesting discussions in the comments.
  • Assertiveness: An Important Stress Management Technique
    It may not seem like an obvious connection, but if you are not assertive enough, you may suffer from a feeling of helplessness or lack of control in your life - both of which can be very stressful.