What assertiveness means to me is the ability to ask for what I want in a clear, tactful, matter-of-fact way. When I am at my best, I can sometimes state my case in a way that the other person is happy or even eager to comply, assuming they can grant me what I want.
We all need work on our assertiveness. I just asserted myself for the first time the other day about something that has been bothering me for months.
Here are some things I have learned from 40 years of therapy and experimenting in the real world.
- When you find you have been triggered, sit comfortably, take 3 deep breaths and tell yourself, “I am not my thoughts and feelings. Rather, I am a person who has thought and feelings.” This should help you get a little distance from your thoughts and feelings, so they don’t overwhelm you.
- What do you need? Do you hope to accomplish something? or Do you need to vent? When approaching someone, it is good to know your purpose and state it up front. It helps the other person know what you are trying to achieve. “I am having a bad day. Can I just vent?” “When you said that was a silly idea, you hurt my feelings. I would like to talk about it.”
- Choose your battles. You may have strong feelings and opinions about what is going on and it helps to ask yourself, is this particular issue worth pursuing?People who fight every battle get a reputation as being belligerent and difficult. Sometimes the consequences aren’t worth the potential benefits.
- If the issue is worth raising, get crystal, clear on what you hope to accomplish. What outcome do you want? This is so important. You want to be focused when negotiate.
- Take some time and think about what you want to say before you confront the other person. Pare it down to the essentials. Simple communication is effective communication. When you are angry, you are more likely to overwhelm the other person with too many details. They will feel overwhelmed and confused and see you as unfocused and scattershot.
- Beware of black and white thinking. One possibility may seem 100% good to you and the other may seem 100% evil, but life is rarely black and white. Look for the gray areas. The other person probably sees it in shades of gray. When you take every factor into account, each option is likely to have pluses and minuses.
- Think about how your request affects other people. The reason the other person says no may have nothing to do with you. It may have to do with the affect the request would have on other people.
- To the best of your ability, don’t take any of it personally. Taking things personally is one sure fire way of getting pissed off. Usually, the other person doesn’t mean anything personal by what she or he does. Even if they do, you don’t have to give them the satisfaction of taking it personally.
- Can you frame the request in a way that shows benefit for the person who would grant it? It is more motivating for them if they can see how it is in their best interest to help you. Instead of saying, “Give me time off now.”, you could say, “I am not at my best right now. I am afraid my work will begin to suffer if I don’t take some time off to relax.”
- Think about the words you plan to use. Beware of language that sounds accusatory or insulting.
- Ask yourself, can this person give me what I want? If not, who can? Go to this other person instead. Perhaps no one can. Sometimes we want what no one can deliver. I used to gripe anyway. It didn’t win me any friends.
- Be prepared for the other person to say no. By considering this possibility up front, you won’t be blindsided by not getting what you want. When you are blindsided, you are more likely to explode.
- Think about the worst thing that could happen and how you would like to respond in that case.
- Think about what is most likely to happen and how you would like to respond in that case.
- Make an appointment with the person to discuss the situation. It is not good to discuss matters when you are pissed off. Scheduling a time gives you time to cool down. It is also more professional than bursting into someone’s office. At the appointed time, you will have their full attention.
- If you can’t make an appointment, ask the other person if this is a good time for them to talk. This shows the other person respect. They aren’t blindsided by you storming in. If they say yes, they have had a chance to shift gears and be fully present with you.
- Do overs are OK. There was a time when my coworker asked me a question that I misinterpreted and I started yelling at him. I put my hand up in a stop gesture and said, “This isn’t what I want. Please ask the question again.” This time I heard the question in the way he meant it and I was able to answer it calmly.
- If you lose it, you can ask for a time out. Excuse yourself by saying, “I am sorry. I am getting a little emotional now. I would like to have some time to cool off. Can we pick this up later?”
- Be as respectful as possible. If they grant your wish, thank them. If they say no, you can say, “I am disappointed, but I understand your decision and I want to thank you for your time and attention.”
If you are interested in pursuing psychotherapy to get a better handle on your emotions, there is a type of psychotherapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). It was created specifically for people who find their emotions overwhelming. Here is a link you can use to find a DBT therapist in your area:
For more ideas about how to communicate effectively, read Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg:
“Before you speak, ask yourself:
is it kind,
is it necessary,
is it true,
does it improve on the silence?” – Sai Baba of Shirdi
©2016 Stephen L. Martin
Photo: Sai Baba of Shirdi