Think back to the last time you were seated by the restrooms at a restaurant or when your partner forgot to take out the trash for the third consecutive day. Did you say anything? No judgment if you took the “Oh, no worries!” route. Assertiveness might not be your forte right now, but it certainly can be tomorrow.
But, to be clear, while being chronic people pleaser isn’t the goal, neither is constantly wearing metaphorical boxing gloves. If either of these archetypes seems to describe you, it’s worth working to reframe your thinking in order to approach your communication-style more openly. Being assertive doesn’t mean being a bully; rather, it’s about having the skills to express your needs and wants in a direct, honest way while staying respectful of the other person. If you don’t want to be a doormat, you can’t treat others like one, either. Communication #goals is being able to both resolve conflicts and also stand up for yourself—i.e. being assertive.
Productive assertiveness helps to quell resentment, and it also has a domino effect in strengthening relationships and harnessing inner confidence. “You’re trying to say, ‘I need to voice my complaint in a way that this person can actually receive it and make a change from it,’” says therapist Kerrie Thompson Mohr, LCSW. Basically, remove your verbal crutch of “they just doesn’t understand” from your vocabulary.
And if this doesn’t come easily to you, it’s not game over. Mohr says assertiveness isn’t an innate feature of someone’s character, and that understanding that truth is key for growth. Rather, it’s a skill anyone and everyone can learn, hone, and improve improve upon. Okay, so that’s the good news, but how do you get to the assertive promised land?
Check out 3 steps for letting your inner assertive HBIC shine.
1. Validate your feelings
Before you can ask for what you want or need, do a little self-reflection. “Take a step back and give yourself permission to feel a whole range of things in your interactions,” Mohr says. “Sometimes you don’t even know what you need until you understand your feelings.”
Once you’re attuned to these emotions, you’ll learn what you need, what to change or even when you should say “no.” Ask yourself, “what can I take away from this feeling?”
2. Say what needs to be heard
What message do you want the other person to understand? If being passive or aggressive is how you communicate by default, you might assume, blame, or criticize—and all of those avenues can derail the conversation or lead the other person think something totally different than what you intended.
A big aspect of cultivating assertiveness is approaching your relationship with openness and balance. “Give space to your right to be unhappy, your right to complain, your right to have your needs met and to have reciprocity,” Mohr says. Furthermore, be intentional and kind with your words, keeping tabs on your tone, body language, and other nonverbal cues. Imagine, for instance, how disingenuous it’d be to hit your conversation partner with an eye roll.
“I” statements are a tried-and-true means for expressing yourself, and Mohr reinforces that this strategy is a handy outline to keep in your back pocket. She says to calmly articulate what you’re feeling, and to describe the situation objectively in a way that doesn’t only revolve around you. Share your positive need, meaning what needs to happen versus what should stop happening. It’s telling your partner, “I need for us to spend more time together on the weekends,” instead of, “You need to stop hanging out with your annoying friends on the weekends.”
“It doesn’t just become an exercise in expressing yourself and being heard. There’s a follow-up step, and you have to set an expectation and mutual understanding of the change that’s going to happen.” —Kerrie Thompson Mohr, LCSW
In this example, you’d then be wise to make good on your ask by helping to make the change. How? Plan dates and offer ideas for how to spend more quality time with your partner. Basically, be assertive in your desire, from the expression through the execution of your point. “It doesn’t just become an exercise in expressing yourself and being heard,” Mohr says. “There’s a follow-up step, and you have to set an expectation and mutual understanding of the change that’s going to happen.”
3. Make the decision
You have to make the choice to be assertive when the moment goes for it. Even if you’re inwardly second-guessing yourself, you decide to push through and express your boundaries, needs, and desires. Assertion wins.
“Assertive can be used interchangeably in a lot of cases with ‘go getter’ or even simply ‘confidence in action,'” says Susie Moore, life coach and author of Stop Checking Your Likes . “It means you go for yours and that you can seize an opportunity when you see one or present your point of view with authority. What is alternative to this? Often being invisible, overlooked or silent. Make the decision to be assertive! No-one else can do it for you.”
4. Observe assertion
Find yourself a little mentor or role model, someone that you look up to for their direct and refreshingly unapologetic demeanor. Then, try to mimic their behavior.
“The best way to become more assertive is to see it in others and model it,” says Moore. “Who do you know is assertive? Pay attention! How do they speak, ask questions, even (politely) interrupt in a meeting? Notice how it’s done. And then get around as many people like this as possible. And remain an active observer, always.”
5. Don’t forget diplomacy
Assertion isn’t just about steamrolling other people, after all. BIG misconception there.
“There’s an old adage that the art of diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way,” Moore says. “Assertive types often don’t care who gets the credit for an idea, so long as the idea is aligned with their goals. It’s not about hogging the limelight or about force. Assertion can mean sharing the light with others, too.”
6. Be prepared
Again, we’re not trying to be brutish by being assertive. Instead, you’re successfully assertive when you play things intelligently and fairly…by doing your research. According to Moore, going into any discussion where you need to exercise assertion will benefit from your preparation, and it always helps to have the other person’s counter-points or questions lined up.
“For example, if you want a pay increase, do you know how much people are being paid at different companies,” says Moore. “Why are you deserving of an increase? List it all out. Preparation puts you in the strongest position possible. Prepare for all of the rebuttals you might get. Play devil’s advocate for yourself. Prepare a comeback for every possible rejection! You’ll deserve an assertion crown!”
7. Embrace the risk
“To be assertive takes vulnerability and courage. It’s not easy for a lot of people,” Mohr says. Reframing how you typically communicate is tough stuff—no doubt about it. Like trying anything new, it’ll feel a little uncomfortable. On the other hand, though, being more assertive isn’t a total shot in the dark.
“You wouldn’t bother explaining anything or asking for what you need unless you thought that person was capable of meeting that need,” Mohr says. And if it’s hard to swallow an endless stream of critiques or find your voice, start with small moments and rehearse in the shower (where everything sounds better, anyway). It takes practice, but setting boundaries and being heard is a worthwhile fight.
Of course, it takes two to tango. What if you’re being assertive, and the other person isn’t receptive to the new-and-improved you? Rejection City looms, but speed past worrying about it—you can’t control how other people react, after all—even Mohr say so. “That feels like a much more empowering thing than to feel like you’re constantly at the beck and call of the people around you.” And we can confidently and assertively agree.
Originally published on March 7, 2019. Updated on March 23, 2020 with additional reporting by Mary Grace Garis.
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