Why is so hard to be assertive? To say “no” when you have no desire to do something or have way too much on your plate already. To give your opinion, especially when is varies from what others are saying. It makes sense to view others in an open and forgiving light. But when it comes to ourselves, it can be all too easy to put our needs aside and say yes when what we really need to be saying is no.
Here’s a three step process to say what you need to say.
1. Tune into and respect your emotional reactions
It’s helpful to know that your body is on your side. It might not feel that way if you’re racked with anxiety, but if you can slow down and tune in to how your body is responding in certain situations, you might be surprised with what it’s saying. For example, maybe when you’re around a certain colleague at work or school and you find that you feel more tension in your muscles. Or maybe you feel a pit in your stomach. Or an overall sense that you want to avoid any contact with them. This is important information to have. It could clue you into the fact that this person asks too much of you and tends to monopolize your time. Or maybe they talk to you in a way that feels condescending or manipulative.
If I have an unusually strong reaction to someone, I will make a mental note of it and then respect my reaction by exploring why it was difficult. It can take some time to get to the bottom of it, but when I do it can make all the difference moving forward.
For example, say I have a difficult interaction with someone who is asking me to do something that I don’t have time for and during my interaction with them I feel sick to my stomach about it. Later as I think about it, I realize that this person was disregarding my response and ignoring me when I made more subtle attempt to turn down their request. It seemed as though they had a specific goal in mind and their interaction with me was intended to get what they want. Even if they had to steamroll me in the process.
It usually takes some time to really understand why you have strong reactions to some people. The important step here is to slow down and listen to your body, which will prepare you for the next step.
2. Practice what you need to say
Saying no doesn’t come easy to many people. In fact it can feel painful and awkward. With the example above, it may be difficult to say no if the other person responds with something like, “I know it’s not what you want to do, but you’re my last hope to get this done.”
This is where practicing what you need to say comes in hand. Ask someone that you trust if you can practice with them. Say what you need to say to them and get honest feedback about what they thought and how they felt as you said it. Did your message come across? Did it sound passive or aggressive? Did you end up rambling and giving the other person an opening to keep pushing you? With time and practice you can end up giving yourself space to say what you need to say.
This process gets easier with time. You might start practicing being assertive with a trusted friend and quickly find that you are able to think through scenarios on your own pretty quickly. The goal is to be in tune with your physical reactions so that you can identify how you feel in the moment and respond how you want to respond, feeling confident in yourself. Practice goes a long way to help you feel ready.
3. Trust that other people can manage their emotions
After you’ve said what you need to say, the next step is to trust that other people can manage their own emotions and reactions. I see this step as a sign of respect for others. When you interact assertively with people it gives them confidence that you will be honest about how much time/energy/money/desire you have to contribute. When people know that you will set clear boundaries with them it frees them up to interact with you in a more genuine way.
We don’t have endless time and resources in life. Care for yourself by knowing your limits, saying your piece and respecting that other people can and will adapt.