When we talk about expressing personal needs, nearly every client I've worked with has said something like “I can't. I hate conflict.” Yes, of course! Most of us hate conflict! It’s scary at the worst and uncomfortable at the least.
But please hear this: being assertive does not ensure conflict. There are ways to express your wants, needs and preferences without it leading to a brawl.
Aside from the desire to avoid conflict, I also hear from clients about the guilt they feel if they say “No” to someone or if they express a preference that the other person may not like.
We stay silent because we worry that other people will be mad at us, hurt by us, or disappointed in us. These are all valid worries. Most of us want to avoid these outcomes, and so we suppress our needs and wants. But guess what...
Suppression leads to resentment.
“He keeps leaving the dishes for days when it’s his week to wash, so I just end up doing them. I’m so pissed that he does this to me.”
Suppression leads to avoidance.
“She wouldn’t stop asking to borrow my car, so I just stopped responding to her.”
Suppression leads to disconnection.
Neither resentment nor avoidance are helpful for your internal state or for the connection between you and the other person. It's difficult to feel trust and closeness and appreciation when our needs are unmet.
I’d like to offer you some alternatives and some strategies for expressing your wants and needs and preferences in a way that might get them met AND preserve the connection with the other person.
First...the need for self-awareness
These are actually pretty easy to spot. Look for feelings of annoyance or resentment or dread. Look for actions like avoiding certain people or procrastinating on doing something that you agreed to do. Feelings & behaviors like these are usually indicators that your needs or preferences have not been expressed.
Pause and think for a moment about the dynamics at home, with friends, or at work that make you feel most annoyed and consider what this reveals about your preferences. What would change if you said what you wanted?
Why it’s hard to be assertive
You worry about how others will react to you
You’re afraid that you’ll be judged or shot down
You don’t really know how to be assertive
You’ve had past bad experiences when you expressed a need/preference
You feel unworthy to ask for what you need or you have low self-esteem
You believe that it’s selfish or rude to ask for what you want
Your family or culture expect you to suppress your preferences
You feel internal or external pressure to conform to what others what
You’re very sensitive to criticism, rejection, or disagreement
Which of these ring true for you?
Whatever the reason, know that it's normal to struggle with assertiveness. Many people do! We care about what other people think and we don't want to create a rupture with someone.
As we look at ideas for being more assertive, have some compassion for any discomfort you feel. We can start with small tweaks and you can develop this skill over time.
Some benefits of being assertive
You can reduce stress by getting your needs and wants met
You can reduce frustration and resentment
You can increase your self-confidence and sense of self
You can have more authentic relationships
You can expand your communication skills
You can solve problems better.
You can say “no” without feeling guilty
You can decrease your sensitivity to pushback from others
Pause for a moment and think about what could be different if you expressed your needs and wants more often.
Small steps in assertiveness
It can be overwhelming to try being assertive, so start practicing in low-risk situations.
Be anonymous online: Participate in online forums or communities where you can be anonymous and easily abandon the username/account. Express your opinions, ask questions, and engage in discussions in a setting where the consequences are low. No one knows you.
Be anonymous on the phone: Call a store and ask for them to check if something is in stock. Practice riding the wave of anxiety. They don’t know you and they can’t hurt you. Now do it again. The more you can ride the wave of discomfort, the more comfortable it starts to feel.
Give compliments: Randomly offer compliments and positive feedback to others that you normally wouldn’t. This helps build your assertive voice and increases your comfort with stating an opinion.
Role-play: Practice being assertive in a safe and controlled environment by role-playing a scenario with a trusted friend or therapist. This allows you to simulate real-life situations and practice assertive responses without the pressure of the actual interaction or the fear of the outcome. Practice increases confidence.
Medium steps in assertiveness:
Once you feel a little steadier with the idea of using your voice to take up some space, challenge yourself with situations that are a little tougher.
Ask for clarification: practice asking for clarification or further explanation when you disagree or have an opposite preference. Speaking up with a question rather than staying silent can help increase your comfort being a vocal part of the conversation and is a step towards asserting an opinion or idea.
Offer opinions: Share your thoughts and opinions about benign topics like shows, types of pets, travel locations, or the weather. If you’re still feeling anxious, use simple statements: I like/I don’t like_____, what about you? I prefer/I don’t prefer_____, what about you?
Modify food orders: ask for substitutions or modifications to menu items. First try it in a drive-thru or when you are taking the food away, to reduce your worry that the waitstaff will be annoyed with you. Then graduate to doing this in a sit-down restaurant.
Express preferences: State your preferences in social situations with friends or family. For instance, proposing a particular movie or restaurant or start time. You can offer it as a suggestion to ease your worries about their reaction. “How about we go at 7pm?” “What if we try the new brewery downtown?” “We could check out the new Pixar movie.”
Big steps in assertiveness.
Now we get to the situations that feel much harder because the stakes are higher. Practice with the easy stuff above to build your confidence. Then you can apply formulas and strategies I cover below to the big ticket items like:
Asking someone to change a behavior
Asking for a favor
Saying ‘no’ after a long pattern of doing things you didn’t want to
Negotiating who does which tasks at home/work
Being direct in emails or meetings
Asking a partner for something vulnerable (more sex, more support, more effort, more attention)
Requesting for your partner to stop doing something
Telling someone their words or actions are hurtful
That would be great, right? Let’s look at how to do it.
I keep a general framework in mind when trying to express a need to someone or ask for a change.
When ______ happens, I feel ______, would you please _______?
When I come into the kitchen and see the sink full of dishes, I feel really stressed and disappointed. Would you be willing to re-commit to washing them each night before bed?
Social situations are pretty hard for me. When you poked fun of me in front of our friends last night, I felt really small and alone. I know you were meaning to be playful, but would you be willing to stop doing that?
I know you are really stressed with work and that you’re not happy with your body right now. When you rebuff my bids for intimacy week after week, I feel really disconnected and lonely. Would you be willing to talk about some other ways we can create closeness?
In addition to the formula, try including these concepts and strategies.
Use "I" statements
When expressing your needs or wants, try to use sentences that start with "I" instead of "you."
Instead of blurting: "You never listen to me."
Try: "I often feel like I'm not being heard when we talk."
Instead of: "You never notice all the things I handle around here."
Try: "I often feel under-appreciated and like my efforts aren't noticed."
Be clear and concise
When making a request or stating your needs, be clear and specific. Avoid beating around the bush or using overly polite language that can obscure your message.
If a friend asks you to help them move…
Instead of: "I’m not really sure what my weekend will look like, let me get back to you."
Try: "Thanks for asking me, you know I love to be helpful. I'm not able to help out this weekend though, I have some other commitments already planned."
Validate their perspective.
Let the person know that you understand their feelings and point of view. It softens the dynamic when you acknowledge their perspective, even when you don’t agree to their request. Read further for more validation strategies.
When a coworker asks you to take on a task…
Instead of: “Why can’t you just take care of that project?”
Try: “I definitely get it that you are looking for some support with that project because of everything else on your plate. Thanks for thinking of me but I don’t have capacity to take it on right now.”
Seek common ground or compromise
Look for areas of agreement or compromise that might help to resolve the situation. Try to find a solution that works for both of you.
When your friend reaches out to cancel plans for the night...
Instead of: "Okay, that’s fine." (suppressing your needs & disappointment)
Try: “I totally understand you’re worn out and want to stay in. I was really looking forward to hanging out tonight. Are you open to considering something low key we can do together and just make it an early night?”
Be thoughtful about timing
Consider when the other person is likely to be more open to feedback or discussion. Think about the time of day or particular day of the week that they might be less worn out or agitated.
Think about the timing when you will have more ability to remain emotionally calm and deliberate with your communication.
Stay calm and respectful
If you notice that you or the other person are getting defensive or emotionally escalated during a conversation, suggest that you take a pause.
Acknowledge out loud that you both care about the topic and it would be ideal to return to it when you both feel more open.
Use active listening
Listen carefully to the other person's perspective after you have shared your want/need/preference.
Repeat back what you hear them say. This demonstrates that you are paying attention and trying to understand them.
People tend to be more open to a productive dialogue and dig their heels in less when they feel understood.
Avoid the word “but” if you can.
Most of us are pretty well trained that the word “but” equals disagreement or rejection. And most of us don’t like disagreement or rejection, so we can quickly get our defenses up and stop listening to the words that come after the “but.”
It’s a simple trick to remember. If you avoid using “but” when asking for your needs to be met, it will be easier for the other person to maintain attention on what you're saying without going into defensive rebuttal mode.
Old: I hear what you’re saying but my answer is no.
New: I hear what you’re saying. My answer is still no.
Old: I know you felt hurt, but I didn’t mean to hurt you.
New: I know you felt hurt. It wasn’t my intention. I’m sorry I hurt you.
Old: I know you’re feeling frustrated about work, but I didn’t cause this situation so don’t take it out on me.
New: I know you’re frustrated about work. I feel like you’re taking it out me.
Old: I get it that you’re short staffed, but I can’t come in today.
New: I get it that you’re short staffed. It’s not an option for me to come in today.
Assertiveness comes down to expressing your individual needs and preferences in a clear and respectful way. If people care about us, they do want our needs to be met. And they can only do that if we articulate our needs and preferences out loud.
Note that it can be common for people to feel surprised or uncomfortable when we start to assert ourselves, especially if it’s a new behavior. You might get some pushback and feel like retreating to your old patterns of suppression, silence, or agreeing just to avoid conflict.
Hang in there through the discomfort.
Being assertive is a skill that takes practice and patience. The longer you stick with your new methods, the more confident you will feel and the more accepting others will be that this is your new way.
One of my favorite therapists told me about a house rule she had in her family:
Anyone can ask for anything.
Anyone can say no to anything.
Everyone deserves a respectful response.
There’s such freedom in that rule.
You are allowed to ask for what you want. You are allowed to say no to what you don’t want. People can want different things and still be respectful.
Maybe you'd like to adopt this rule for yourself too? Where could you start?
Sometimes high levels of anxiety and powerful emotions make assertiveness feel impossible. If you want to learn new ways to manage high anxiety & other intense emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.