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Speak Up! How to be More Assertive

How to be more assertive

Are you someone who struggles to say what you really mean? For many women, our default is to ‘be nice’ in order to be liked and this can lead to saying yes when you really mean no, or not speaking up and telling people how you really feel. If you have difficulty being assertive, it can lead to you feeling overlooked at work, unappreciated in your relationships or railroaded by more strong-minded and outspoken individuals. Ultimately it creates resentment and frustration for you.

Learning to express yourself with confidence is an important life skill that benefits you and all the people around you. It might feel scary but people feel more comfortable when they have a sense that you’re being honest about how you feel and that you’re clear about your boundaries. If you struggle with assertiveness, here are some ideas to help you flex that assertiveness muscle:

1. Buy some time

When someone makes a request of you and you feel put on the spot, often you will default to saying yes and then regret it later. Instead of feeling like you have to give instant responses, it’s ok to buy yourself some time so that you can come back with a more considered response. You might say, “Let me check my diary and get back to you” or “I’m not sure whether that’s going to work”. When you’ve had time to consider your other priorities, you might decide to say no (in which case, you don’t need to offer a lengthy explanation) or to offer a compromise, such as “I’m not able to do xyz, but I’d be happy to do abc if that helps.” The important thing is to not feel pressured to respond immediately.

2. Find a middle ground

Feeling put upon can sometimes lead you to extreme reactions, with the two most common being  “compliant” and “defiant”. In other words, depending on the situation you might become passive and let people walk over you or you might become aggressive and react angrily. Being assertive is about finding the middle ground between those two extremes, in which case you’re able to respect your own boundaries and needs, while also maintaining respect for the other person. When you’re able to find this healthy balance, you don’t dismiss your own needs for the sake of someone else’s preferences, nor do you dismiss other people’s opinions or needs. Being assertive then allows for a very healthy and balanced communication and compromise, rather than ending in tears and hurt feelings.

3. Practice saying how you feel

Speaking up for yourself often creates anxiety because you assume it will cause conflict (this is usually because you think the only options are to be compliant or defiant!) This is especially true in situations where you disagree with another person or they’ve upset you. The problem with anxiety is that it hijacks your brain and body making it very difficult to think straight or formulate strategies or even to find words for how you feel. It also leads to avoidance and the more you avoid a situation, the more fearful you become. Until you feel less anxious, it can help to have a few short phrases scripted and practice using them.

Some example might be:

“Have you considered…(alternative point of view)…?”

“I don’t agree…”

“I’m not comfortable with that..”

“That’s not going to work for me..”

The important thing is to practice, practice, practice – even if it feels uncomfortable at first. As you do, you begin to see evidence that people will usually respond positively and learn that stating your needs is not as scary as it seems. 

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  1. Kay on August 12, 2020 at 3:54 am

    I am having so much trouble with my passiveness. Which I was also not even aware of until I met my beloved boyfriend. I want to be more assertive but just can’t seem to actually focus on what I need to say before I say it, therefore screwing up even worse and then fights breakout anyway. I don’t want to live like this. Please help!

  2. Jennifer Marshall on November 20, 2020 at 7:19 am

    Thanks Cass this is very helpful

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
Hi, I’m Cass.

I'm here to help you find freedom from psychological struggles so that you can live your happiest, most meaningful and fulfilling life.

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