Expand Your Assertiveness Tool Kit

Wellness |

She is “everywoman.” Isabella, a former patient, is bright, outgoing, warm and funny. She is also very successful in her career as a photographer. But Izzy has a deep, dark secret. She doesn’t know how to express displeasure, ask for what she needs, or stop putting everyone else’s wants before her own. Sound familiar?

Even today, we have trouble asserting ourselves. We are all too familiar with being passive or self-denying. Many of us also understand what it means to be aggressive, or to get what we want at the expense of others’ needs, wishes or feelings. We usually become aggressive after denying our own needs for so long that we lash out inappropriately, and almost involuntarily.

There are three main reasons why self-assertion is particularly difficult for women:

We are biologically inclined to be caretakers and to focus on the needs of others.
Our culture gives women cues (sometimes subtle) about “not making waves.”
Girls are rarely taught how to be assertive, either directly or by example.
So how do we change what Mother Nature and generations of practice have fostered? I am happy to report that assertiveness is a skill that each of us can master, given the necessary tools and lots of practice!

Assertiveness Tools

Assertiveness formula — When you have to offer criticism or disagree, recognize the other party’s position first. Let them know that you empathize with them, that you agree in part with their stance, or that you assume that their motive is positive. For example: “The first part of your proposal makes sense to me and is well-written. I have some concerns about part two … ” By using this approach, you take the other person off the defensive, and allow them to hear your position.

Don’t let anger and resentment build up — If you wait too long to speak up you risk becoming aggressive instead of assertive. In this case the other party is immediately put on the defensive and will be unable to hear the validity of your concerns. Further, you will feel badly for engaging in just the kind of interchange you were trying to avoid!

Be sure your body language mirrors your words — As you speak assertively, do you appear confident? Are you making eye contact and standing tall? Nonverbal messages have at least as much impact on the listener as words do.

Be a good listener — Others are much more likely to consider our point of view if they know we have heard theirs.
Take time before committing to anything — Becoming assertive means learning to say no to undesirable requests from others. You can give yourself time to consider the request by simply saying, “Let me get back to you.”

Accept responsibility for your mistakes — You will find it easier to approach others with constructive criticism, or to disagree with them, when you readily acknowledge that you are fallible.

Practice makes perfect — If you wait to assert yourself until you feel confident, you’ll never do it! If you change your behavior first, and act “as if” you are comfortable asserting yourself, the feelings will follow!

Keep an assertiveness log — Keep a record of the times you are able to engage in assertive behavior. What were the circumstances, and what did you do differently? This record will boost your confidence by allowing you to see the progress you have made.
Most importantly, be patient with yourself. Changing lifelong patterns of behavior is difficult. You will make mistakes and fall back into old patterns, because you are human. But instead of wallowing in self-criticism, pour your energies into engaging in healthy, assertive behavior next time!