Anna hates to rock the boat.
Whenever her best friend Linda suggests a place for dinner or a movie they might see together, Anna never disagrees.
Linda has strong opinions and knows exactly what she wants. When Anna brings up a different option, Linda always overrides her, so it’s easier to just goes along, even when she doesn’t want to.
Kyle adores his wife. Sometimes he thinks he loves her more than she loves him. He bends over backward to keep her happy and placate her. When there’s a disagreement, he’s always the first to back down because he can’t stand confrontation.
Marie knows she’s the most talented designer in the marketing department. Even though she’s quiet, she has a great relationship with her clients, and they trust and admire her. When the creative director position opens up, Marie wants it more than anything, but she’s afraid to ask her boss about it. The idea of walking in his office and asking for the job makes her hyperventilate.
Anna, Kyle, and Marie are limiting themselves. They are holding themselves back from being authentic and happy because of fear and self-doubt. When they don’t assert their true feelings and desires, they are quietly imprisoning a part of who they are and stunting the growth of who they could be.
They avoid asserting themselves because they fear rejection, abandonment, and the discomfort of risk or confrontation. Perhaps they view asking for what they want as selfish or demanding, or maybe they don’t feel worthy of success or happiness.
Whatever the root cause, the inability to assert yourself in relationships damages you and undermines the relationship. When you don’t speak up for what you need or want, over time you feel increasingly diminished and powerless. Other people see this, and they lose respect for you, take advantage of you, or simply ignore you.
For those who feel intimidated or wildly uncomfortable speaking up for themselves, being assertive feels like jumping out of an airplane with no parachute. But with practice in small and manageable situations, you can teach yourself to become more assertive and self-empowered.
Here are ten ways of how to more assertive in your relationships:
1. Examine the problem.
You might have difficulty asserting yourself in all relationships, or it might be with one person in particular. Maybe you can speak your mind with women, but you can’t with men — or vice versa. Maybe it’s just with your spouse or love partner.
Define the people and/or situations in which you have the most difficulty speaking up for yourself or asking for what you want or need. Think about specific situations where you’ve wanted to say something, ask for something, or disagree — but you kept your mouth shut. Write down these situations so you have a reference point.
2. Define the meaning of assertive.
According the Merriam-Webster, assertive means, “disposed to or characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior.” Compare that definition to the definition of aggression: “a forceful action or procedure (as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master.” As you can see, being assertive is far different from being aggressive.
I like this definition of assertiveness that I found online on the UC San Diego website:
Assertiveness is the ability to honestly express your opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights, without undue anxiety, in a way that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.”
You have opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights, and it is perfectly normal and acceptable to express those — even if the other person reacts negatively. Remind yourself that assertiveness is not only an acceptable behavior, it’s a desirable one.
3. Acknowledge your feelings.
Even when you understand that assertiveness is acceptable, it might not feel acceptable to you. What are the emotions you have around speaking up for yourself or asking for what you want?
What do you fear? What do you doubt about yourself? What is the worst thing you think might happen if you speak up? Dig deep and try to get to the root cause of your lack of confidence and fears.
Understanding and acknowledging these feelings helps you see there’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t have a character defect or a weak personality. You are simply reacting to your history and your life experiences.
4. Examine the truth.
Most of the time, the powerful feelings we have around being assertive have little basis in reality. When you shine the spotlight of truth on these feelings, you can diminish them and remove some of the mental roadblocks keeping you from speaking up. For example, you might fear speaking up because you could get rejected. But is this 100% true? How likely is it that you’d be rejected? If you are rejected, could you survive it?
Maybe you don’t speak up because you don’t like the discomfort of confrontation. But can you tolerate this discomfort for a short time? Will the discomfort kill you? Is the short-term discomfort better or worse than the long-term pain of holding back?
If low self-esteem is the reason you aren’t assertive, you must ask yourself intellectually if you know you’re deserving of what you want and need. You do know you’re as deserving as anyone else, but you don’t feel as deserving. Taking small assertive and confident actions will help you feel better about yourself and your worthiness.
5. Define what you want.
Determine a situation in which you’d like to speak up, set boundaries, or ask for what you want. Don’t be ambiguous with it. Be able to state in one clear sentence what you want to communicate. Here are some examples:
I want you to stop looking at the computer when I’m talking to you.
I want us to take turns deciding on the restaurant and movie.
I want to apply for the position of creative director.
I don’t want you to speak to me in that tone of voice any longer.
I disagree with your position on that. Here’s what I think.
Please don’t interrupt me while I’m speaking.
It is time to discuss a salary increase for me, and here’s why.
When you create this statement, don’t use weak or cryptic language like, “I’d really appreciate it if you’d think about a time to talk about my raise if that’s OK with you.” Create a firm, strong, confident statement. Then practice making the statement in front of the mirror to make sure your expression and body language match the confidence of your statement.
6. Know what to expect.
If all you had to do was make the statement, and you’d get a positive response immediately, then being assertive wouldn’t be so intimidating. But you’ve learned from past experience that it’s not so easy. People can get mad, argue with you, put you down, or reject you. It can be distressing and painful to have these encounters.
As much as you dislike negative encounters and feelings, you must decide if it’s worth giving up your self-respect in order to avoid them. And it’s often not only your self-respect at stake. It could be a new job or a pay raise. It might be the intimacy and trust in your marriage. It could be any number of positive benefits you could enjoy if you permit temporary discomfort.
The reactions you receive will depend greatly on the other person or people involved. You may need to manage the timing of your statement or request based on the temperament of the person. Consider in advance how they might respond, and be prepared with a follow-up statement to support your reasoning. This is especially true if you are being assertive on the job, as you need to back up your actions or statements with proof or evidence.
If the other person reacts defensively or with anger, don’t engage in a battle. Simply state, “I’m sorry you don’t like my request, but this is the way it must be. Let’s discuss it further when you are calm.” Then walk away. If it’s a situation that needs immediate action, like deciding on a restaurant or movie, stand your ground and let the other person determine if they will or won’t respect your request.
7. Initiate dialog.
You have some relationships in which the other person deserves being informed about your new, more assertive frame of mind. If you’ve spent years acquiescing to others or holding back on your ideas or opinions, then your sudden new behaviors or statements can be disconcerting.
Initiate a conversation with your spouse, partner, friend, or even your boss, in which you kindly but firmly acknowledge your past mindset and share your decision to be more assertive in the future. Mention how this not only makes you a happier, more confident person, but also how it will positively impact them.
You could say something like, “I know in the past I’ve allowed you to make most of the decisions (or I haven’t been very proactive at work or I’ve kept my opinion to myself), but I’m learning a new way to be a better, more confident person. You’ll begin noticing more assertiveness from me, and I hope you’ll support and encourage my efforts to speak up for myself and share my opinions.”
You may be surprised to find how much support and respect this conversation fosters. When you let others know how you want to be treated, they will generally rise to the occasion. Proactive communication and dialog is essential in any relationship.
8. Pick your battles.
Even as you work toward becoming more assertive, use good judgement and discretion. If your friend is feeling sad, don’t demand to see the movie where the dog dies. If your spouse is in the midst of a big project, now is not the time to ask for an intimate conversation. There may be times when you choose not to assert yourself because the situation isn’t right, or maybe it simply isn’t all that important to you this particular time.
You don’t have to be assertive 100% of the time. As you practice saying what you mean and asking for what you want, you’ll gain more clarity around your core values and personal boundaries. All relationships involve a certain amount of give and take, as well as the ability to be discerning about timing and setting.
9. Practice in manageable situations.
You can practice assertiveness in daily scenarios that aren’t overly uncomfortable. If someone in your office makes a political statement you disagree with, rather than keeping quiet, say something like, “That’s an interesting position, but here’s why I disagree with it.” If you have an idea in a meeting, speak up and share it. When a friend asks what restaurant you want to go to, rather than saying, “I don’t care, you pick,” instead say, “Let’s try that new sushi place.”
The more you practice assertiveness, the easier it will become. When the time comes to use it in more difficult or confrontational situations, you’ll have some experience in speaking up.
10. Keep a journal.
It’s hard to know whether or not you’re progressing with a new behavior unless you measure and document your efforts. As you begin the practice of being more assertive, keep a journal in which you document your efforts, your emotions around your efforts, and the responses of other people.
Give yourself a score from one to ten after every assertiveness encounter, with ten being completely uncomfortable and one being totally confident. As time goes on, you’ll notice your score getting lower and lower as you grow more confident in your abilities.
You don’t have to be an extravert to be assertive. You just need enough confidence in who you are and what you want in order to speak up in spite of fear or discomfort.
Healthy-minded, emotionally mature people respect those who are willing to step out of their comfort zone and calmly ask to be heard. When you find your own assertive voice, you’ll find the world opens up for you in ways you’d never anticipated.
How have you found your voice and practiced healthy assertiveness in your personal or professional life? Please share your experiences in the comments below.