The director of a small but busy public library in the Midwest, Marcia Fanning (not her real name) says she was meek and didn’t really stand up for herself for many years: “I let people walk all over me, and I ended up being really unhappy a lot of [the] time.”
But one day everything changed.
She’d made a small on-the-job error, and a library trustee known for her bullying manner sent a reprimand to Fanning’s personal email address, CC’ing it to the entire board. Fanning acknowledged the error, apologized and asked that work emails be sent only to her work address. So the trustee sent essentially the same email to Fanning’s work address. And then, the next day, she showed up at the library and reprimanded Fanning in person, in front of her staff.
“I snapped,” Fanning says. “I stood up and said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, this conversation is done. You’ve made yourself perfectly clear. I apologized. It’s over.’”
The woman stepped back, said, “Well, I guess now we have a director,” meaning that Fanning had finally shown she had the assertiveness necessary for the job, and walked out.
That was nine years ago, and Fanning has never been the same. She had discovered the power of asserting herself and, in doing so, freed herself from being bullied, backstabbed or stepped on.
The stress-reducing power of assertiveness
Going along to get along sounds like a restful approach to your interactions, but in reality, learning how to stand up for yourself—to ask for what you want, say no when necessary and insist on due respect—is much more effective for facing the world with confidence.
“Assertiveness is an anxiety-reduction procedure to face that which we fear, which is standing up for ourselves, saying what our boundaries are,” says Vancouver, Canada, psychologist Randy J. Paterson, author of five books including The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships and How to be Miserable in Your Twenties: 40 Strategies to Fail at Adulting.
Of course, the idea of being assertive can be scary.
“You might—and maybe are likely—to be met with resistance,” says psychologist Guy Winch, author of How to Fix a Broken Heart. “There may be an argument, you may have to prove your case, somebody might be unpleasant to you. And standing up for yourself is a subjective call: It’s saying what you deserve. The kind of anxiety people have is, Is this going to make me look like I’m whiny, entitled, self-serving?”
Communication styles of those who struggle with being assertive
People who struggle with being assertive usually behave in one of three ways when they encounter situations in which they want to assert themselves. Paterson explains that they might be passive, and always give in; aggressive, and force people to bend to their will; or passive-aggressive, and wreak sneaky revenge instead of attempting to get their way.
Passive people put others’ needs, desires or opinions above their own, and as a result feel powerless or invisible. It’s not an easy rut to escape. “The more passive you become, the more doing anything else begins to seem like intolerable aggression,” Paterson says.
People often confuse assertiveness with aggression, imagining it as desk-pounding, in-your-face demands. And while this can sometimes be effective for getting your way, Paterson points out that it’s a short-term solution that is ultimately isolating because people dislike and avoid aggressive people.
And passive-aggressive people try to have it both ways, giving in to others but then doling out punishment in sneaky ways—“forgetting” to follow through, backstabbing or sabotaging projects, for example. “The key to passive aggression is deniability,” Paterson says. “You can deny that you had any intention of harming the other person…. Typically, passive-aggressives see themselves as [only] passive.”
Best practices for standing up for yourself
Assertion is a skill that can be learned like any other. Some tips to get you started:
- Start small. “You don’t have to start with the most scary thing,” says Winch, also the author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts. He suggests trying things like calling your cable company and asking a phone rep to waive a late fee. Paterson has people who take his assertiveness training make reservations at a restaurant, then call back a couple of hours later and cancel.
- Learn it from the inside out. During breaks in his assertiveness-training groups, Paterson suggests people go to the hospital cafeteria to get coffee or a snack, and to “walk down the corridor in an assertive way—head up, shoulders back, not looking at the floor.”
- Fake it until you make it. Before he sends them to walk down the hospital corridor, Paterson suggests people channel their “inner George Clooney—but not Clint Eastwood.” Senior financial adviser Diana Bacon advises clients too meek to ask for the pay they deserve to pretend they’re someone else. “I tell them to imagine you’re the pushiest person you’ve ever met and play that role.”
- Accept the learning curve. You might come on as too strong or too wishy-washy at first, but don’t get discouraged. “Give yourself points for trying,” Winch says, “and keep calibrating until you find the tone that works for you.” And, says Paterson, “People often take that feeling of unnaturalness as a sign that they’re doing the wrong thing. But they’re just doing something new. It doesn’t feel natural, but neither did driving a car, holding a tennis racket, being in a swimming pool. And it becomes less scary as you begin to realize that the world does not end and everybody doesn’t abandon you.”
Standing up for yourself starts with controlling your actions
Learning to assert yourself starts by understanding that you are not trying to control what other people do—instead, you’re controlling your own actions. “There are  billion people on Earth; you can only control one of them,” Paterson says. Effective assertiveness is recognizing your needs or boundaries and then ensuring they are met or respected by changing your behavior, not attempting to change someone else’s.
Bacon says her clients often have a hard time charging what their services or products are worth. “They see that what they do has value and think, Yes, I should start a business. But when it comes to saying, ‘I’m going to do this for you, and you’re going to pay me X,’ it just blows their minds,” Bacon says. “It’s the I’m-so-sorry syndrome: ‘I’m so sorry I have to charge you for this.’”
To help clients break the syndrome, Bacon has them focus on their own value rather than their customers’ needs. She has them pull up their business websites and read their own bios, but insert (in their minds) someone else’s name. “I say, ‘Imagine we’re looking at someone else’s bio.’” Stepping back to look at themselves enables many women to objectively see the market value of what they do and understand that setting a fee is not about pleasing other people. They can’t control what people want to pay, but they have full control over what they charge.
Paterson describes a woman who took assertiveness training with him and complained bitterly about her teenage son, who would borrow her car and invariably bring it home with the gas tank dry, no matter how much she scolded.
“Finally, she told her son that he was free to bring the car back with or without gas,” Paterson says. “If he brought it back with gas, she would loan him the car again. If not, she would still loan it again—after a two-week gap. We knew that saying she would never loan it was unrealistic. The idea was, she wasn’t going to get angry. She wasn’t going to yell, wasn’t going to nag. She was going to control herself, not her son.” The tactic didn’t work right away, which is fairly typical, but it did succeed eventually.
Think it through before being assertive
When you need to assert yourself, the best plan is to have one; don’t just shoot from the hip. “I’ll listen and listen and listen to everybody’s point of view, make my own calculations in my head and then put it out there,” says Monica Joy. “You have to be confident in your decision and always think things through before you open your mouth.”
What is it that you want? To be treated with respect, to be paid what you’re worth, a full tank of gas? “One of the things that trips people up is they start talking before they know what their position is,” Paterson says. For example, before shaking your fist at the dry cleaner who ruined a favorite shirt, decide what will assuage you. (While many people imagine letting the company make the first offer leads to big payoffs, letting them know what you want is a better plan, Winch says. “It’s more effective, as long as it’s within reason.”)
And if you’re not feeling adamant about your position, know that, too. Maybe you’re planning to dine with friends and have a yearning for Greek food while they’re thinking hibachi grill. Is yours an “I must have it” craving or an “I’m flexible” desire? Or perhaps you’re collaborating with a co-worker on a report and feel pretty sure your title beats their idea cold: Is it worth pushing yours at the risk of annoying or alienating that colleague? Ask yourself how important the title is to the overall success of the report and behave accordingly.
Pick a delivery mode
When you decide to speak up about an important matter, is phone, email or face-to-face best (assuming you have options)?
Email has pros and cons, Paterson says. Obviously, it’s helpful to be able to write your thoughts, step away and review them later before hitting send. (Paterson advises composing sensitive emails in a word-processing program so you can’t accidentally send them too soon.) But the lack of nonverbal cues makes email risky; a joke that might lighten up a situation in person can fall flat in email.
Email and telephone conversations relieve the pressure of monitoring both your verbal and nonverbal messages in difficult conversations. Still, says Paterson, face-to-face is usually the ideal approach. The trick is learning to control your nonverbal messages. “Practice adopting a relaxed posture,” Paterson advises. “Notice what you do when you become tense. Allow your body to adopt that position, even an extreme form, then you can deliberately change that body position. Take your hands apart, rotate your shoulders back and sit back.”
Be careful about how you stand up for yourself
Choose your words wisely
Words also matter in delicate situations. When Bacon must deliver less-than-rosy news to clients (for example, telling them something they want is beyond their budget), “I really try not to use the word you. I try to, in almost every situation, get on the side of the person I’m talking to. I’ll say something like, ‘We need to look at this a different way,’ so I can be on their team,” she says.
Winch likes the word disappointed. “It conveys your dissatisfaction in a way that doesn’t sound angry or malicious. People have an easier time connecting supportively and empathetically,” he says. The sentence “I feel really let down by this” is also useful.
“You also want to be brief,” Winch continues. “There might be a lot of context, but probably 90% of it doesn’t matter, so throwing it out there will just confuse the issue.”
Watch your attitude
Try to control your temper, too. Joy always tries first to solve problems with a calm, friendly approach and careful reasoning. “I’m always fair about it. It’s not just my way or the highway,” she says. Still, she admits, she does sometimes blow her top—and invariably regrets it.
Showing anger is usually counterproductive, Winch says. “Anger distracts the people you’re dealing with. It becomes about your anger, and that subverts your purpose.” Effective assertiveness means toning your pitch right down the middle, aiming for quiet dignity. Not too aggressive, not too meek.
Stick to your boundaries
Keep in mind that if you’re trying to change a longtime pattern, you’ll probably meet initial resistance no matter how skillfully you assert yourself. “When you become assertive with other people, they always get worse,” Paterson says. “Whatever problem you’re trying to work on is going to intensify. Obnoxiousness will almost always go up, which will cause you to think, Why did I ever do this? If you stick to your boundary, usually the obnoxiousness will go down. Anyone who has ever raised a child knows this.”
Know when to stop
Even when you’ve mastered the strategies, asserting yourself won’t always be easy. “It’s a set of skills that become better with time, but there will always be situations where it is not second nature,” Paterson says.
While Joy is skilled in assertiveness, she sometimes reaches her limit. She recalls struggling to get a contractor to commit to a start date. After several phone calls, the contractor got huffy and hung up on her, so Joy took herself off the job: “I refused to work with someone who wasn’t professional.”
Paterson suggests alternative and more assertive approaches. She might have called back and given him “the benefit of the tiny doubt, claiming to have been cut off,” he says. Joy then could have reminded him that, as a contractor, he works for her, the project manager. She could ask for more information (Would he still make his deadline? Did he expect problems? Did he need to subcontract some of the work?). She could suggest he see the problem from her perspective: “As you know, we need your piece before we can do X, Y and Z, and I need to know dates when I can bring in others to do those pieces.” Finally, she could ask whether he would prefer to back out and break the contract.
Easy? Nope. And sometimes, as Joy did, you may opt for an easier way out of a tough situation. Still, assertiveness skills are worth developing.
Positive Outcomes of Standing Up for Yourself
Joy used her assertiveness to help her mother, who died of breast cancer when Joy was 28. She took about a year off work to care for her mother, taking her to doctor and chemotherapy appointments. “I put my foot down many times,” she says—including insisting that some dismissive doctors perform tests that confirmed her suspicion that the cancer had returned. The tests didn’t improve the prognosis, but helped by clarifying where they stood.
For Fanning, standing up to the obnoxious trustee was a turning point that made her a more effective director. When library budget cuts went too deep, she met one-on-one with the mayor and council members to make her case. And it worked. “I realized, Oh, I can actually stand up to adults. It’s hard at first, but oddly enough, you earn other people’s respect. Then I go sit in a room alone and stop myself from shaking,” she says.
Bacon says she finds “confidence to go into other spaces where I might not be comfortable. I took up weightlifting a couple of years ago, in a gym with a bunch of guys. It doesn’t bother me being there. I’m not giving up my platform just ’cause a 22-year-old guy is there acting like he deserves it.”
Being assertive doesn’t guarantee that others will always do what you want, but it does give you the confidence of knowing you can stake out your space in the world. “When you’re able to assert yourself successfully, it will absolutely put a spring in your step,” Winch says. “You will feel empowered.”
This article appears in the May 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock
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