Speak Up for Yourself
John had an irritating habit – arriving late. One evening, he agreed to meet Sue, his wife, at a restaurant at a set hour after work. She had another evening meeting and needed to eat promptly. John was late – again. Sue waited for him and ended up eating quickly, leaving John to finish his meal at a leisurely pace. She was furious, but decided not to say anything. “I’d never be able to change him anyway,” she thought.
Just before the end of the workday, Fred’s boss asked him to come in an hour early the next morning so she could discuss some things with him before she left on a business trip. She had done this a number of times recently, and Fred was getting fed up with it. Besides, it was Fred’s turn to drive the school car pool the next morning. He would have to re-arrange the schedule of drivers – something the other parents disliked immensely. Mumbling under his breath, Fred reluctantly agreed. After his boss left the next day, Fred made several long personal phone calls, took two hours for lunch, deliberately delayed solving several customers’ complaints, and left more than an hour early. He figured she owed it to him.
Antonio’s new neighbor had a dog, Fuzzy. Every morning and evening, they let Fuzzy out and the dog relieved himself on Antonio’s yard. This created a problem for Antonio when he mowed the yard and when his children wanted to play outside. Antonio became increasingly upset about the situation, but he didn’t say anything to his neighbor. One day after Fuzzy had done his thing on Antonio’s yard, he scooped it up, dumped it on the neighbor’s front porch, rang the doorbell and vented all his feelings about Fuzzy at the neighbor. The neighbor grew red in the face and slammed the door in Antonio’s face. The two neighbors haven’t spoken since and the parents don’t allow their children to play together anymore. Occasionally, Antonio finds evidence of a visit by Fuzzy to his yard. Antonio thinks his neighbor does it intentionally to aggravate him.
When have you had an experience similar to one of these? You wanted to speak up for yourself and try to change a situation. But, how you handled it didn’t help. You may have done one of three things:
• Passive approach. As in Sue’s story, you “stuffed” your feelings and went along with
whatever the situation was.
• Passive-aggressive approach. Similar to Fred’s story, you kept your mouth shut and let
things go someone else’s way. But, you got even.
• Aggressive approach. You blew up at the other person, as in Antonio’s story. The other
person was probably offended or angered and reacted in such a way that the
situation ended worse than it was before.
• Assertive approach. You express your feelings, opinions, beliefs, and needs directly,
openly and honestly, while respecting the other person’s needs. You work toward a
"win-win" solution to the situation.
• Set yourself up for success. Pick a good time for the conversation, use a posture and
gestures that signal openness and calmness, speak in a firm but pleasant voice,
maintain eye contact and suitable facial expressions, etc.
• Use an “I message.” Usually, this has several parts:
1. State your feelings. It’s tempting to start out by “jumping on” the
other person with an accusation or threat. Instead, start by “owning”
your own feelings and stating them clearly. For example, Sue might
have said: “John, I feel resentful and taken for granted ... “
2. State the situation. Sue might have continued:
“... when you are late for activities that we schedule for the two of us ...”
3. Say why. Sue’s reason might have been:
“... because it gives me the impression that my time is less important
than yours and often leaves me in a bind to get to the other things I
have scheduled ...”
4. State what you need. Sue might have finished her message;
“... From now on, I need us to pick times that we both are sure we can
Altogether, it would go like this:
“John, I feel resentful and taken for granted when you are late for
activities that we schedule for the two of us because it gives me the
impression that my time is less important than yours and often leaves
me in a bind to get to other things I have scheduled. From now on,
I need us to pick times that we both are sure we can keep.”
• Notice that this is just a report of our feelings and a request for new behavior. There is no
blaming, judging, mind-reading of the other person's feelings or motivation,
exaggerations, psychological analyses, overgeneralizations, "shoulds" or "oughts,"
accussations, threats, demands, sarcasm, or any of the other things that ask for a
• Be prepared for the person’s response. If you have always been passive, your “I message”
may startle and confuse the other person. It is possible that the person will honor your
request or attempt to negotiate with you. He or she may become defensive and criticize
you. If that happens, try these responses:
1. Acknowledge whatever you can from the other person’s statement that
has some truth in it. Then restate your request.
2. Listen and clarify the other person’s position. Remember that all of us
put our own “spin” on other people’s behavior. You might learn
something about the other individual that you didn’t realize.
3. If the conversation starts to go off on a tangent, ask to get back on the topic.
4. If the other person isn’t listening to your request, just keep repeating your
“I message.” This is called the “broken record” approach
5. If the conversation becomes heated, ask for a break and agree on a time
to continue talking.
6. If the discussion doesn’t go anywhere, suggest a counselor or some other
mutually respected person to help develop a solution to the issue.
• Learn to say “no” to requests that are unreasonable or impossible for you. Empathize with
the requesting person's situation so that they know that you understand the request.
But, stick with “no.” You can offer an explanation if you wish. But, don’t apologize (you
have nothing to apologize for) and do not make excuses.
• Do not let others impose their behaviors, values or ideas on you. Let them know,
respectfully, what you think.
Be thoughtful and cautious about your assertiveness. There are situations in which pushing for an immediate solution may not be wise. It could result in being fired from your job, an unwanted divorce, and other undesirable consequences. Behaving in an assertive manner may be disturbing to others who expect your previous behavior patterns. There may be some rare instances in which another person might react with hostility or even violence. If this is possible, always be sure you have other people with you or some legal or physical protection.
At first, an assertive approach may feel “scripted” and awkward. But, with experience, it will flow like normal conversation.
Using an assertive approach instead of a passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive approach will bring you benefits such as:
1. Increased self-respect and confidence
2. More respect from others and more compliance with your requests
3. Improved relationships
4. Happiness with situations that previously were problematic
5. Better communication skills
If assertiveness is new for you, you might want to share your intentions with a friend, discuss how you will go about being assertive, maybe even practice with some role play. Start with a small issue so that the chances of success are greater.
© Glen Rediehs, Ph.D.
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