How To Be More Assertive

“I was hoping you could write an article on how to be assertive. I am neither shy nor aggressive, but I have such a hard time standing up to people I feel inferior to. For example, my landlord is being just dreadful to my house-mates and I, and is trying to make us pay for things we did not damage! I want to stand up to him but it’s difficult, I’ve always been taught to be respectful to those older then me. How do I muster up the courage to be assertive in this, and any situation?”

It’s so funny how the things we’re taught at a young age, which were well-intended, can end up sabotaging us later in life. Of course, being respectful to everyone, fast food workers & emperors alike — not just people who were born earlier than we were — is important. But it’s important that we are respectful of ourselves, too. That means standing up for yourself, putting your foot down sometimes, & clearly communicating your wants, needs or concerns to other people.

A lot of us find it difficult to do that. We don’t want to put other people out. We don’t want to be difficult or annoying or to be a bother. But the flip side of that is that by neglecting our own needs, we are making a very clear statement: that we don’t think we’re very important. Doing this is like wearing a sign around your neck that says “Kick Me”. It’s totally self-defeating, & you don’t need that!

So how can you present yourself in a more assertive manner? It’s not as tricky as you might think — you just need to make some subtle changes to the way you do things. Here are a few hints to get you started!

Avoid posing statements as questions
I think this is one of the major ways in which we give away our power, & often we don’t even notice! Many of us turn what would otherwise be a simple statement into a question just by letting our voice rise up at the end of the sentence. This is known technically as a high-rising terminal (or HRT) in linguistics, & informally as the “Australian Question Intonation” (thanks, Stephen Fry!). While there is some debate as to how to decode this manner of speaking, mostly people perceive it as coming from a place of uncertainty & nervousness. It’s something people’s voices do when they are unsure of themselves & seeking approval. Conversely, a falling intonation — where the pitch of your voice drops towards the end of the sentence — is much more assertive.

All you need to do is become more aware of your speech patterns. Actually listen to what you’re saying when you speak to other people, & you’ll get the picture quickly! Don’t feel bad if you realise that you rock the HRT with gay abandon! You just need to make an effort to keep your pitch level, or to drop it when it’s more appropriate.

Don’t apologise unless you’re actually sorry!
It seems like such a little thing, but the words we choose say much more about us than we might first think. How often do you say “sorry” when you don’t actually mean it? Do you say “sorry” when you really mean “excuse me” or “no”? If so, start saying what you actually mean! Saying sorry is essentially a way of accepting blame for something — it sets you up to be submissive. Not cool!

Another time where people apologise when they don’t need to is when they disagree with someone. If someone says something that you think is rubbish, & you say, “I’m sorry, but I disagree, because _____”, you are effectively apologising for having independent thought. You may feel like you’re just being polite, but you’re not. You’re talking yourself down, & you don’t need to do that. Ever.

This point goes for when you turn someone or something down, too. You are entitled to making your own choices, & you don’t have to apologise for them! Don’t apologise unnecessarily! If whoever you’re talking to takes issue with your decision, that’s okay! They’re allowed! Let them stew in their own juices! Not your problem!

Let your statements stand on their own
You don’t need approval from other people to say what you feel or believe, so drop the addendums which infer that you do! That means nixing all those little things you tack on to the end of sentences. Some choice examples include, “…Don’t you think?”, “…Do you know what I mean?”, & “…Eh?”

Disavow disclaimers!
You’re not a packet of pills, so quit making disclaimers! They promptly discredit everything you’re about to say, even before you say it! You might as well not say anything! This means that if you normally preface your statements with phrases like, “Well, it’s just my opinion, but…”, you need to nip it in the bud. I mean it!

Don’t allow people to interrupt you
Most people who interrupt others aren’t trying to be rude, they’re just enthusiastically trying to get their point across. It’s pretty cute, when you think about it. Having said that, it’s still annoying & after a while, you’ll start to feel as if your point of view isn’t important to them at all. When you get to that point, you begin to wonder whether it is worth having a conversation with them at all. They seem pretty happy with their monologue…

Of course, the solution lies within you. We can’t change other people, we can only change ourselves — so that means you need to take responsibility for getting your point across. If they start to gab over the top of you, say, “I’m not finished”, or if that sounds too brusque, try, “Whoah there Nelly!”. If they still use their tongue to trample all over you, you might find more peace of mind with your headphones on.

Watch your body language
You’ve already heard it a gazillion times before, so I won’t labour the point too much, but your body language is supremely important in presenting yourself assertively. People look at you, the way you stand, the way you walk & the way you sit, & draw conclusions about you. Do you hunch over or do you sit up straight? Do you shuffle along with your eyes on the pavement or do you strut like you own the sidewalk? The images projected by the above behaviour are so obvious I don’t even need to tell you which one belongs to the confident person!

As well as the usual things like sitting up straight & walking with purpose, there are a few other things you can do to help promote your new image. Sometimes when we feel awkward we find ourselves smiling a lot. Smiling is wonderful, of course, but only when it’s genuine! Excessive smiling is often something we do unconsciously to help whoever we are with feel more at ease or in control. The same goes for nodding, tilting your head or looking away when someone makes eye contact with you. It’s one thing to be empathic, but it’s another to yield to someone else. When do you these things a lot, you are placing yourself in a position of lesser power.

You might like to try giving each one of these behaviours the flick one at a time, though I think you’ll find that as you practice the other suggestions in this article, your body language will fall in step with your new assertive mode of operation pretty quickly!

Come up with a script
Conflict can be tough, especially if it’s something you go out of your way to avoid. Most people are relatively non-confrontational, but when you start to shy away from conflict at the cost of your own satisfaction, you know you’re taking it too far.

If conflict is unfamiliar to you, & you feel really weird about saying what you want, there is a very simple formula you can use to get your point across. You might feel a bit strange & robotic & uncomfortable talking like this at first, but after a bit of practice you’ll get better & it will start to come to you more naturally. The script goes like this.

“When you (behaviour), I feel (emotion), & (desired resolution).”

So to translate that into real life, it might go something along the lines of…

“When you leave your underpants on the floor, I feel aggravated, & I’d like you to start putting them in the laundry basket.”

Not so hard! (Hopefully underpants on the floor is not a problem you have. It’s an unfortunate one!)

The reason we say, “I feel” is because that means that we are taking responsibility for our emotions, rather than blaming someone else. While it would be easy to fly off the handle & start calling names, it’s not a good way to resolve a problem. No one responds well to having their flaws rattled off in a long list, so don’t go there! Stating your desired outcome is an important part of the script, too, because otherwise, what is the other person supposed to do about it? Without this step, it would be very easy to just go around in circles & never get anywhere.

One thing you may notice when you start acting more assertively is that people who have previously banked on you being passive might not like it. As a general rule, people like their lives to stay pretty much the same, & if all of a sudden you start asking for what you want & not taking any guff, that can be a bit of a shock to the system. If you find yourself getting negative feedback from people about your new way of behaving, do your best to recognise that it is their problem, not yours. You may find you need to cut them out of your life altogether. This can be hard, but it’s always worth it.

On being assertive: “I have the right to state my own needs & to set my own priorities as a person, independent of any roles that I may assume in my life. I have the right to be treated with respect as an intelligent, capable & equal human being. I have the right to express my feelings. I have the right to express my opinions & values. I have the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for myself. I have the right to make mistakes. I have the right to change my mind. I have the right to say that I don’t understand. I have the right to ask for what I want. I have the right to decline responsibility for other people’s problems. I have the right to deal with others without being dependent on them for approval. Other people have the right to all of the above.” (From here.)

Extra For Experts:
Five Compelling Reasons To Become More Assertive at The Positivity Blog has a good little quiz you can take to check how passive, assertive or aggressive your behaviour is.
Take a free online assertion class!