How, When & Why to Be More Assertive

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Be more assertive: seems like a simple enough concept, right? But how do we do it without being aggressive or pushy? What happens if someone takes our assertiveness the wrong way? What if it changes our relationships? What if it makes us uncomfortable?And WHY is it so difficult for us to be direct, say no, set boundaries and ask for what we need without feeling guilty or bad about it? I have spent much of my life asking these questions and convincing myself that people pleasing and putting other peoples’ needs before my own was the easier/better route. But here’s why it’s not:

  1. Resentment – We falsely believe that avoiding assertive communication protects our relationships when in fact, it hurts them. Avoiding confrontation or direct/honest communication results in an unmet need in us, which overtime will only breed resentment. And no relationship can thrive on this.
  2. Burnout – Those who lack assertiveness tend to put too much on their plate out of fear of saying ‘no’ in order to please others. Without boundaries & directness about what we realistically can/cannot do, we end up dispensing a lot of time and energy toward other peoples’ needs and goals instead of our own, which often results in burnout. Burnout can result in poorer work performance and can prevent us from showing up as our best selves in our relationships with others.
  3. Mental Health Issues – When we’re not honoring our authentic thoughts, feelings, needs & values through assertive & truthful communication, we can begin to feel anxious and/or depressed. By attempting to appease others or by avoiding conversations out of fear, we lose a sense of connection to ourselves and our mental/emotional health often suffers as a result.

So now that we’ve recognized why passivity does much more harm than good to ourselves & our relationships, here’s some tips on figuring out when you need to be assertive and how to put it into practice.

Get Honest With Yourself – It can be hard, especially in the beginning, to identify our needs/values and know what areas of our lives require more assertiveness. Start by doing an inventory of your relationships. Make a list of the people you interact with on a consistent basis and make note of how each of them make you feel. Your instincts/gut reactions will cue you in to which dynamics may be resulting in an unmet need, feeling taken advantage of, requiring better boundaries or needing more direct/honest communication. Tuning into your emotions more regularly is also a good way to identify where something isn’t aligning. Feeling anxious, frustrated, dreadful, irritated, angry or like you “should” do something are all cues that let you know where your boundaries are and are a good indicator that you need to speak up about them.

Choose Your Battles – While it’s almost always more helpful to honestly express your needs, thoughts and feelings than it is to suppress them, there are some situations that are just not worth it. The mistake we make, though, is convincing ourselves that it’s never worth it as a means of perceived self-protection and to avoid the discomfort that comes with a difficult conversation. If someone is being aggressive toward you, has not been receptive to your assertive communication in the past or is otherwise not a particularly important or crucial person in your life, consider processing the situation/relationship elsewhere and figuring out an exit strategy so you don’t have to continue being in a dynamic that isn’t satisfying to you or fulfilling your needs.

Practice – Once you’ve identified a need/value that you’ve deemed worthy of addressing and feel that the person/situation is important enough, brainstorm your approach. Not only can writing it out be a cathartic process, but it can also help you to untangle your thoughts/feelings about the situation and figure out how to best articulate it in real time. It can also help to practice assertive communication with someone you feel safe with, like a friend or therapist, who can provide you some insight/feedback before approaching it and help you see that it isn’t as intimidating as it may seem in your mind. For situations that require assertiveness on the spot, know that the more you do it, the more comfortable it will become over time.

Propose a Compromise – The mistake people sometimes make when beginning to be more assertive is thinking that in order to achieve this we must swing the pendulum entirely the other way – to the point that it can become aggressive. The goal in being more assertive isn’t to replace the other person’s needs with your own, but rather to find a middle ground that results in both parties being satisfied with the outcome. That being said, situations where one person’s needs haven’t been considered or met for a long time may require less of a compromise/middle ground in order to regain a sense balance in the relationship.

Don’t Apologize or Explain Yourself – It’s common that those who lack security in being assertive will apologize or over-explain themselves as an attempt to soften the message/make the other person & themselves more comfortable. Sometimes, depending on the situation, a brief explanation is suitable, however it’s unnecessary to apologize for your needs and/or feelings. Apologizing or over-explaining takes away from the directness of your message and leaves it vulnerable to being manipulated or misunderstood.

Stand Your Ground Afterward – Know that when you start to communicate more assertively and begin to set clearer boundaries, there may be some push back from people who aren’t used to that from you. They may become hurt, angry, confused and/or take it personally. This reaction doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong or should change your approach. You may even be able to help them in there relationships by modeling direct/assertive communication more frequently in yours. Remember: People who care about you want you to respect yourself and will adjust to this new dynamic over time.

So what does this look/sound like? Here are some examples/key phrases to use when putting this into use:

“Thank you so much for the invite! I’d really love to spend time with you this weekend, but I’m feeling burned out and need some time to myself. I’ll have to take a rain check.”

“I’m really committed to doing a great job on this project, but that timeline doesn’t feel realistic given everything else on my plate right now. How about I get this to you by COB on Friday instead? If the deadline is inflexible, is there someone that I can delegate some of my other tasks to?”

“Hey, I realize it might not have been intentional, but the comment you made earlier made me feel uncomfortable. I’d appreciate if you could be more mindful of that moving forward.”

“Unfortunately I’m not able to stay late this evening.” 

And my favorite… “No”. Just plain ole NO. Remember, you don’t owe anyone an explanation or an apology. You are allowed to simply decline anything that is in misalignment with your needs, goals, priorities or values.

It takes consistent practice to become more comfortable with being assertive, but the result of ensuring that your needs are also being met in your relationships will lead to them being all-around healthier, more fulfilling and more trusting.

I’d love to hear about your own personal challenges with assertiveness and/or how you’ve overcome them in the comments below!

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