Being assertive shouldn’t be so hard. At its most basic, it’s stating what you want and need in a given moment. “I’d rather have Indian food.” “A family Zoom call isn’t good for me tonight.” “I can’t help you on that project.”
Words between adults, though, are never that simple. People bring their histories and experiences to what constitutes “good communication”. They end up doing what they believe is necessary to be heard, and, in the process, terms like “aggressive” and “assertive” end up being synonymous.
But the terms aren’t interchangeable. The former is angry and can rely on bullying. The latter is helpful where you protect yourself by establishing boundaries. You’re also happier, because rather than saying, “Doesn’t matter,” (lie), and then sitting and fuming, you’re honest and you don’t have to end up eating Italian for dinner.
“Your needs are being met,” says Gina Handley Schmitt, psychotherapist in Seattle and author of Friending. “It takes out the guesswork.”
There’s no foolproof script for how to be more assertive, because people are involved. But there are things to keep in mind and do in order to give yourself the best possible chance of being understood and having the person you’re speaking with walk away feeling all right.
More than Words
The good and bad news is that there’s no Right Amount of Assertive script, says Nina K. Thomas, Ph.D., psychologist in New York City and Morristown, New Jersey. Every person comes with their filter, so the same line can be interpreted in multiple ways. Even more, one person — your partner, your friend, a colleague — can do the same on different days or different hours because of stress, hunger, work, and just because.
Words do matter in a Communications 101 kind of way. You want to stay away from accusations and blaming, but it’s more about your intent. The big question to ask, per Thomas is: Are you looking to get what you want, or do you want to be heard?
The first almost guarantees a fight, and even if you get what you came for, resentment will linger. The second sets it up as an exchange, because you go in knowing that you don’t own the conversation. You’re both part of it, and when it’s your spouse or friend, there’s an existing deep love and high regard. Even if it’s a relative stranger, that person has feelings, so in the most fundamental, obvious but often forgotten way, “Talk like a person caring about another person,” Thomas says.
It comes down to basic planning. Before you open your mouth, you want to think. Anger is a usual motivator, which inevitably leads to one of the “four Fs”: fight, flight, freeze or the popular four-letter one, says Laura Silberstein-Tirch, New York City licensed psychologist and author of How to Be Nice to Yourself.
None of those are productive, but when you pause and calm down, you can ask yourself: “How does the other person best hear things?” “Is this the best time to talk?” And more than that, “How do you want the other person to walk away feeling?,” she says.
And then just say what you want in a clear, kind, firm way. You don’t need to provide endless justification, or as Thomas says, “overwhelm them with bullshit.” What you can do is expand your reasoning. “I love your folks but I’m tired and I won’t be good company on the call” allows the other person to understand. And when it applies and is genuine, you can offer something reinforcing to the other person, Silberstein-Tirch adds, with, “I’d love to help on your project, but I’m swamped and I wouldn’t be able to do it to your level.”
When you take the time, your consideration comes through. You might not be giving the desired answer, but presenting it in a thoughtful way makes a person feel valued and the information easier to take. As Silberstein-Tirch frames it, “Do you offer a meal on a dirty trash can lid or a nicely set table?”
And Still …
Being assertive might not work. Someone else’s reaction is out of your control, but you can’t say your piece and turn your back. You have to watch the person’s eyes, face, and body language to tell how your words land, Thomas says.
When you sense that what you said did not work, you want to be able to change tacks, and do it with something other than the always common, never effective “dumb American in Europe” approach, as Thomas explains, where you speak slower and louder. Even if you don’t have Plan B or C phrases, it’s never bad to go with questions. “I’m not sure. Did you get what I meant?” or “What did you hear?,” can work when done with pure inquisitiveness. You can even be obvious with, “This isn’t working. What do you suggest, so we can talk about this?” and that invites someone into the conversation.
The bigger thing to realize is that assertiveness can be messy. You can’t be constantly thoughtful or mindful of your words. You have off days where you’re tired and frustrated, along with a more every day reason. “We’re selfish,” Handley Schmitt says, and that makes it hard to regularly muster up the empathy.
But it’s good to try, and shooting for assertiveness in 50 percent of your interactions is enough to be a significant step forward. “No one is going to do this perfectly,” she says. “We’ll at least get it right some of the time.”