Being assertive is a much misunderstood skill, and one that can be a challenge to master. This is because not only does it involve garnering the necessary inner resources to do it well, you need technical skills in delivering your assertive message, and then of course there’s the age-old challenge of how others will receive it.
And herein lies the sticking point for lots of us. Other people.
Other people who may have grown very used to us being the way we are – letting things go, going along with everyone else, silently seething, never complaining, doing as we’re told and asked, feeling squashed at the first hint of discord, keeping our heads down, playing a role we’ve always played, feeling safer at the sidelines, disliking the conflict that often comes with saying your piece. I dare say there are many other reasons of your own that you could add here.
I like Ann Dickinson’s definition of assertiveness in A Woman in Your Own Right:
“Assertiveness is defined as the art of clear, honest and direct communication. An assertive approach builds self-esteem and strengthens our ability to make our own choices in life, by helping us to manage the anxiety and stress of communicating in difficult situations.”
I believe that it’s the potential for anxiety and stress that often prevents people from becoming more assertive and speaking up, and instead, remaining quiet, ruminating over troubling situations and rehearsing unspoken scenarios internally, often for days. I’ve written about my own struggles with this before here
Recently, we went to a folk festival. It was baking hot. The couple a few feet in front of us decided at one point to put up an umbrella. They were around 5 feet away, and the umbrella was the size you’d use over a big garden table; it instantly blocked our view of the stage completely.
My husband and I looked at each other aghast and several other people around us started mumbling and complaining but sat where they were. I got up and stuck my head around the brolly and asked the couple underneath if they knew that they’d completely blocked our view of the stage. It didn’t go down well.
I was reassured that they’d take it down when the next act came on. I thanked them and went to move away, but they wouldn’t leave it and continued to justify and defend themselves for some time. After I sat back down I could hear them talking about me for a while.
It felt awkward and uncomfortable in the moment. A few people around us nodded approval at me as I sat down but I ‘d felt very much ‘on show’ as I spoke to them, and did start questioning myself – what else could I have done? I could have left it and waited to see what they’d do. I could have waited to see if anyone else got up and said something. We could have moved without saying anything (my hubby did in fact move us eventually as it was like sitting facing the back of someone’s family-sized tent!). We’ve always got options, and speaking directly to them instead of sitting and moaning was the best course of action for me.
Now this is a pretty simple example with no long term consequences – I’ll never see them again. But how do you cope with your thoughts about the aftermath of other people’s reactions to being more assertive and speaking up when they may be colleagues, your boss or the board?
Here are 10 suggested tips for handling your fears around speaking up and out.
- Feeling uncomfortable often comes with the territory. I’d hazard a guess and say that most people find speaking up uncomfortable at some point. It shouldn’t be enough to stop you. Even boldly assertive people will feel awkward is some circumstances.
- Stop making up stories that have no basis in truth. We make assumptions and tell ourselves tales that stop us in our tracks. You don’t absolutely know how someone else will react or what others will think of you. Ask yourself ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know it’s true?’ You may be pleasantly surprised! And even if you’re not, then it’s easier to deal with the cold hard facts than the not-knowing.
- If someone doesn’t like what you’ve got to say, then why does that mean you shouldn’t say it? Understand that not everyone has to agree with you, and that’s ok.
- Prepare well, using facts.
- You can’t control others reactions, but you may be able to influence them with your communication style. Think about the ‘win-win’ – how can you leave someone else feeling ok?
- Know that holding an opposing opinion and speaking up can be a great way to put yourself on the map – if that’s what you want.
- Practice turning that fear into fuel. Learn to identify where the fear manifests itself in your body and notice those first signs. Instead of letting it take over and stop you, harness it. One way to do this is to imagine it’s a colour, growing and giving you courage. As the colour gets deeper, see this as fuel for your opinions and let it give you the power to make your point clearly and directly.
- Change never came from sitting quietly on the sidelines. Think about people who’ve had an impact on society over the decades. Think about people you know closer to home.
- Involve others in the dialogue. If they’re clearly not happy with you or your ideas, then why is that? Learn to ask incisive questions.
- What’s really going on here? What are you really afraid of? Often this goes deeper than ‘what will they think of me’ and is more to do with what you think of yourself…
What do you think? What else would you add?
I’m Susan Ritchie, an author, leadership and executive coach and trainer. My second book, Strategies for Being Visible: 14 Profile-Raising Ideas for Emerging Female Leaders is now available as a paperback, an audiobook and for the Kindle reader.
You can download a free copy of The Communicate with Impact grid here