HOW TO BE ASSERTIVE: A FLAWED GUIDE BY YOURS TRULY

HELLO FRIENDS! Acquaintances and enemies welcome too, I guess. I am writing this on Friday the 13th, a day that is supposed to be ~slightly scary~ for reasons I’m unsure of. Perhaps I will Google it when I finish this blog post, PERHAPS I WON’T. Such is the kooky spooky nature of this sacred day.

Yesterday was Thursday the 12th, believe it or not, and Thursday the 12th was the day I took part in a seven-hour workshop on BEING ASSERTIVE. To give you a little bit of context, I am one of those people who is constantly fretting about Not Being An Assertive Gal. Maybe you are Also This Kind Of Gal – in which case JOIN THE CLUB. I will make badges that have “I am learning to say NO, please bear with me” written on them.

But I mean… it’s tough, right? If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that with certain people you can do it: you can reject a social event you don’t fancy, or turn down an offer of extra work you can’t complete right now, or get your money back because your new kettle is a piece of shit — but with other people you can feel yourself turning into a scared, stuttering ball of “yes”.

Here is an classically-embarassing example for you: in a previous job, a colleague – who was also a friend – called me and said “I’m upstairs and I want to show Becky and Liam my new iPhone. Will you bring it up for me?” In a moment of ABJECT PANIC, I said “Yeah, sure!” and then plodded upstairs with her phone. The whole way up there I thought “Why did you just agree to that?” She said thanks without looking at me and I walked back to my desk feeling a mighty need to stab myself in the chest.

When I got back to my office, another colleague said “Why did you even do that? She could have just come down and got it herself.” I was like “GOOD CALL, COLLEAGUE! I DID IT BECAUSE I AM A PATHETIC HUMAN BEING WHO TAKES PHONES UPSTAIRS LIKE I AM TRAINING TO BE ONE OF BLAIR WALDORF’S MINIONS!!!!” and then I went to cry in the toilets. Afterwards he said “You shouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have done it. She wouldn’t have asked me, would she?” in a kindly sort of a manner, and I agreed that no, she would not have asked him. It made me realise that a) I was giving out a very amenable – but possibly TOO amenable – vibe, and b) that saying “no” wouldn’t make anyone hate me, because other people say “no” all the time and nobody hates THEM. It was something of an epiphany for me, but every day is a chance to learn slash mess up and I guess that is why I am still attending courses on how to be assertive many years later. HOORAH!

Anyway, I took some notes on October the 12th, like any enthusiastic attendee is wont to do, and I thought I would type ’em up so that all of the members of my new club (SERIOUSLY LET’S MAKE ONE) can get something out of this fateful day, too:

There are three behaviour types in THE ASSERTIVE SPECTRUM

I think I just made the term ‘assertive spectrum’ up. But there are three behaviour types:

1: Aggressive

Aggressive people will do that annoying finger-wag when they speak to you. They blame, threaten, use opinions as facts, shout, attack (not literally, I hope), put others down, and so on. My notes also say: AGGRESSIVE DOES NOT ALWAYS MEAN USING CONFLICT. SOME HUMOUR CAN ALSO BE AGGRESSIVE TOO. So there we are. To cut a long story short, being aggressive in this context means getting your own way at the expense of other people.

Cool fact: Most aggressive people just think they’re assertive.

2: Passive

Passive people ignore their own needs and objectives – they will put up with a situation that bugs or upsets them instead of being honest about how it makes them feel. They might grumble to friends about it, but they’ll rarely take responsibility for actually trying to change anything. A few years ago I read a really good book about passive women – The Nice Girl Syndrome by Beverly Engel – and one of my favourite parts of it is where she explains that people who act in this way are often thought of as super-chill and happy, whereas actually underneath it all they can be quite resentful.

Sometimes, passive people explode. They bottle stuff up for ages and then it all comes out (“…AND ANOTHER THING!”) – that’s called being passive aggressive. There are other types of passive aggression, too (like when someone says “GOOD AFTERNOON!” as you turn up late to the 9am meeting) but this swing between passivity and aggression is pretty interesting, right? I can’t relate at ALL, though, said Sophie, crossing her fingers.

Passive people say “sorry” a lot. They start their (often very long) sentences with “I’m afraid…” or “Just wondering…” and they often put themselves down or justify their actions.

3: Assertive

Assertive people are honest with themselves AND others. They say what they want/need/feel, but not at the expense of other people – they’re able to understand conflicting points of view.

Being assertive means:
– stating what you want
– making brief statements that are TO THE POINT
– saying “no” or “I disagree” when you want to
– finding out what others want and acknowledging other points of view
– making decisions
– standing up for yourself.

Why are we passive?

The difficulties we have in refusing requests or saying “no” can apparently stem from beliefs we’ve held for a while. Stuff like:

  • Other people will be sad if I turn them down!
  • Or maybe they will just plain HATE me if I turn them down!
  • It’s rude and selfish and kinda mean to refuse a request.
  • I’ll look really grumpy if I say “no…”
  • I don’t really have any right to decline, do I?
  • If I say “no” then I can’t ask anything of anyone else EVER.
  • Other people’s needs are way more important than my own.

(That last one is REALLY common with moms, who are told by pretty much everyone that they come last and that they should place their children – and partner, if they have one – above all else. And yes, that is a feminist convo for another day. But you know I’m right.)

How can we stop being passive?

Having the kinds of beliefs I’ve listed above means that you’ll often say “OKAY!” even when you want to say “HELL NO.” You probably know that, though. What you will want to find out is HOW IN GOD’S NAME YOU CAN STOP DOING IT, and luckily I have a suggestion. I learned yesterday that the key to refusing any kind of request is remembering this:

OTHER PEOPLE HAVE THE RIGHT TO ASK. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SAY “NO.”

That’s it.

I mean, this is not a flawless suggestion. It has its limits. If you’re at work and your boss is like “Hey do you mind picking up that task for me?” and you say “YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO ASK, I HAVE THE RIGHT TO SAY ‘NO’!!!” then you’ll probably get some weird looks. It’s not, like, the Lazy Saying. But I think you could use it in situations where you feel uncomfortable – i.e. the kind of situations where you feel you’re being unassertive anyway.

Say you work in retail, and you’re regularly told that you’ve been put down for extra shifts even though you’ve never expressed an interest in overtime. You feel nervous to refuse the requests each time they come – sometimes you don’t mind working extra hours, but you wish it wasn’t a given that you’d just do it. THAT’S a time where you can use this tip.

Here are some example conversations using each behaviour type as a response, just cos we can:

Manager: Anna, I know it’s your day off tomorrow but we need you in at 8am to cover for Ellie. It’s the only way this place is gonna run – I’ve got a headache just thinking about it.

  • Aggressive response: *explodes* I’m sick of you asking me stuff like this! I NEVER SAID I wanted extra shifts and you just PUT ME DOWN FOR THEM all the time!
  • Passive response: Oh! Um… well… I was supposed to meet a friend but… well, it was a friend who has a hospital appointment, actually – she’s been waiting for it for months and I promised I’d go with her. So I… yeah, I don’t think I’ll be able to. No, I’m afraid I can’t, really. Sorry. I’m really sorry. Is that okay?
  • Assertive: I understand that we’re short-staffed tomorrow, but I won’t be able to cover the shift – if you’d like to ask me to cover in the future, I’ll need at least two days’ notice. Would you like me to let you know my availability for next week?

The aggressive person I feel kinda bad for in this scenario, cos they have obviously gotten so het up that they’re about to burst into tears. But that said, they have not dealt with the situation AT ALL WELL. They yelled, they kind of insulted their manager, they are not having a good day. They need to find a more assertive way to get their point across, instead of just errupting.

Note how the passive person has actually managed to say “no” but has done so in such an I-am-nervous-about-this sort of a way that they might as well have just said “yes.” The response they gave was long-winded and apologetic, and they used terms like “I’m afraid” and “I can’t.” If you say “I can’t,” people will just give you a long list of reasons why you actually CAN. If you end your sentence on “Is that okay?” they will find a way to explain why that’s NOT okay and why you should do what they want, instead. And the bloody HOSPITAL EXCUSE. I have given this so many times. “APOLOGIES, MARGARET, B-B-BUT I HAVE TO GET TO MY HOSPITAL APPOINTMENT!” No. Your rejection does not have to be borne out of a Wholesome Excuse or a Day Spent Taking Care Of Orphans. You can turn down an extra shift to sit at home in your joggerz and eat peanut butter out of the jar if ya want. You don’t owe your manager an answer re: why you can’t work a shift that wasn’t even yours in the first place. THEY ARE ENTITLED TO ASK, YOU ARE ENTITLED TO SAY NO.

The assertive person did well, I feel. They stated what they wanted, they weren’t rude, and they didn’t justify why they wouldn’t take the shift. BUT – and I think this is the most important part – they also recognised the other person’s perspective: they said that they understood the predicament, AND they offered to send over their availability for next week. You wouldn’t HAVE to do that, I guess – if you don’t wanna do overtime, the choice is yours to not do it. But if you can reach some kind of compromise, or offer something that addresses the other party’s conundrum, that’s a really big plus. I find that interesting, because I used to think that being assertive was JUST SAYING “NO” and it’s actually not – it’s about respecting the other person’s view while remaining confident that yours is important too. It’s a happy, calm middle ground. Isn’t that nice?

Tips ‘n’ stuff

If you want to practise being assertive, here’s what you should try to remember:

  • Ask for clarification.
  • Acknowledge the requester and their viewpoint – it’s not all about you.
  • Keep your reply short and sweet (not that sweet, tho, PASSIVITY IS BANNED).
  • Avoid “I can’t” phrases.
  • Don’t apologise profusely – it’s okay to say “Sorry, I won’t be able to work that shift” but don’t be like “OH MY GOD, I’M SO SORRY! I AM THE WORST EMPLOYEE EVER!!”
  • Simply say “No, I don’t want to…” or “I prefer not to…”
  • If appropriate, give a reason for refusing, so the other person gets where you’re coming from.
  • Honestly state your limitations or the possibilities, e.g. “I won’t be able to ______ but I will be able to _______”
  • Ask for more time – if you’re easily flustered, keep your go-to phrase as “I’m going to take a moment to think about that” or something similar.
  • Check your non-verbal behaviour and body language – assertive people sit back on their chair with their arms uncrossed. They don’t go high-pitched and they won’t raise their voice. They keep eye contact most of the time.
  • Remember that no-one is going to hate you and the world is not going to end. People might react in a confused sort of a way if you suddenly start being assertive after years of not-being-assertive, but that’s fine. You can deal with it. Your long-term happiness is worth their short-term irritation.

Trying it out

Ready to give it a go? YEAH YOU ARE, CHAMP! *slaps you on the back like an overzealous dad who has missed a few baseball games but is keen to make up for lost time*

You can coach yourself on some scenarios, OR – and I would recommend this, cos I found it really useful – do this with a pal or colleague who can help out and give you some suggestions. Below is a tediously-named coaching model which I was sceptical of but actually found quite useful – take a look:

GROW

G – Goals
What do you want?

R – Reality
What is happening now?

O – Options
What could you do?

W – Will
What WILL you do?

I really hope you find this useful and that it gives you some practical advice to go and try out – remember, we are pretty much ALL struggling with being assertive in some way or another, whether it’s at work or with friends or in our relationship or wherever else. You are not weird or lame or useless. You’re a perfectly good person who just needs to get practising at this new skill, in the same way you practised riding a bike when you were six or PLAYIN’ THE RECORDER when you were 10. GOOD LUCK, EVERYONE! And remember, if you fall off your metaphorical Assertiveness Bike, just get back on it again tomorrow. No-one does it perfectly all the time.

Now, I am off to order our badges for the club.


SUGGESTED READING LIST

(Header image credit: sullen_snowflakes on Flickr)

 

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