People often tell me they admire my courage to demand what I need. I don’t see it as courage. I see it as being clear and direct about what I need to do my work and support my health.
There seems to be a misunderstanding between what is being polite and what is taking care of yourself. This varies by location, culture, and upbringing, but I experience some level of this conflict everywhere in the world I travel and teach.
Most people learn to alter their self-expression in accordance with their society's expectations. Often, these rules are outdated, passed down through generations without much thought to how they relate to success in today’s world.
In addition to assimilating what is supposed to be correct self-expression, we fear how others might judge us if we declare what we think and define what we believe is necessary. The judgment of "too assertive" is often placed on women and subordinates. Labels like "self-serving," "egotistic" and "insensitive" are given when we state our opinions and attempt to take care of ourselves.
The fear of judgment holds us back from being open and honest in our self-expression. Clinical psychologist and coach Lloyd Thomas says when we are inhibited in our self-expression, “We remain dependent and helpless in our self-care. We may even become ill.”¹
Being aggressive is different from being assertive. Aggressiveness has a punishing tone; your requests or opinions have the intention of making others wrong. Your desire is to be better, put them in their place, or demonstrate you have more of something than they have, such as wanting to show you have more knowledge, power, or privilege than others do.
You can be assertive without being aggressive by not attacking anybody else. When you are being assertive, you are standing up for yourself and what you believe.
I have experienced difficult lessons that have taught me the distinction between being aggressive and being assertive with my requests. The following five steps combine academic knowledge with hard-learned lessons to help you be successful and healthy without hurting others. Use these five practices to be clear and direct when expressing your needs and ideas:
- Concisely state what you want and be willing to repeat your request when you hear excuses. Ask repetitively and firmly for what you want to have or create. Let others know you heard what they said and then ask what it would take to change or if they would be willing to explore a different solution. For example: "I know your standard practice is ____, and I still need a larger room. What will it take for you to get me what I need?" Or, “I understand that you believe you have solved this problem before. I see new variables this time and think we should try a different approach. Would you be willing to hear my suggestion and then see if we can negotiate a way forward?” Repeat the request until you get a positive response even if it is reluctantly given.
- Repeat your understanding of the other's point of view. Example: "I understand you feel badly about letting the person go. We need the right people to act wisely and swiftly and with the right attitude to make the changes we need to succeed going forward. To ensure we have the best team, I need you to have this conversation. What date can you set to make this happen?” Or, “I know you are wanting to help by telling me I need these supplements but I don’t agree. Let’s move on to a new topic.”
- Offer solutions to problems. Don’t just complain. State what you need to solve your dilemma or offer an idea that could resolve the bigger issue. Example: “I know it is ritual for everyone to go to dinner after the event, but my evenings end by 8pm. I would like to start dinner earlier. Can we work this out?” Make your request and confidently stand in the silence. Others may have to override their old opinions before they are open to work with you.
- Avoid believing your ideas or feelings are more important than theirs. You are stating your needs and ideas cleanly without arrogance. They have reason to believe they are right. If you are persistent, they should consider your request but this won’t always happen. If you reach a stalemate, know if you need to walk away or if you can acknowledge their position and offer a compromise.
- Ignore if they criticize your assertiveness. Discard it without apology. You are exerting your right to express yourself. Even if they refuse, you can walk away knowing you stood up for yourself.
Don’t hold yourself back from stating what you want and offering your ideas. You may be judged as aggressive but you cannot fulfill your potential when you hold yourself back. Regretting what you did not do is more difficult to bear than being disappointed when you don’t get what you want. You can move beyond disappointment. You can’t redo what you regret.
¹ Lloyd J. Thomas, PhD writes weekly newsletters with tips like these. You can subscribe at https://practical.canvasvps.com/lists/?p=subscribe. He is also a co-author with Dr. Patrick Williams of Total Life Coaching: 50+ Life Lessons, Skills, and Techniques to Enhance Your Practice...and Your Life (W. W. Norton, 2005).