Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Conversation You've Been Avoiding

How to up your assertiveness.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Learn how to be assertive
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

For those of you who lean toward the passive side—who struggle with being assertive—you know the day will come when the difficult conversation you've been meaning to have will be unavoidable. And I know what you are thinking: "I don't want to be mean!"

I am not advocating meanness, but I've heard this enough times to know that people who are passive feel like they are being mean when trying to be assertive. Trust me, your effort to be assertive is not, in any way, shape, or form, mean. It may feel mean, but assertiveness is not mean.

By avoiding meanness, you risk being passive when trying to be assertive—and your aversion to conflict will undermine you again and again. Time for you to stop shooting yourself in the foot.

You know you have to be assertive, so put on your big girl or boy pants and get to it. And what better way to ensure your success at being assertive during a difficult conversation than to plan it out?

That's right! I want you to plan your conversation out before you have it. The effectiveness of planning comes down to your ability to visualize and imagine. This won't work if you don't vividly imagine yourself having that difficult conversation.

First, ask yourself: How do I undermine myself in conversation?

You need to identify all the ways your passivity undermines you. To get a better understanding, ask yourself the following:

  • Do I apologize for something I didn't do?
  • Do I beat around the bush when stating a problem?
  • Do I struggle to give meaningful feedback?
  • Do I get so uncomfortable that I try to end the conversation as quickly as possible?

It helps to then to map out, as much as you can, how these passive tendencies inhibit you from being assertive. It might also be helpful to ask a trusted friend, who's seen you in various settings, for feedback. They see what you can't.

Avoid Your Passive/Undermining Tendencies
Source: nappy/Pexels

Once you identify all your passive/undermining tendencies, then imagine healthy alternative behaviors that would advance the conversation to the intended outcome.

For example, if you have a tendency to take blame or responsibility for problems you didn't create, imagine yourself not taking the blame and allowing responsibility to be taken by the appropriate parties. What would you have to do in order to achieve this?

Well, you'd probably have to do some emotional self-regulation, like deep breathing, and then plan out a positive self-talk script, such as, "It doesn't help anyone or the situation for me to falsely take the blame," or "Trust the process," or "I'll get through this."

This is just one example. You probably struggle with many passive/undermining tendencies. In order to be successful, you'll have to imagine a healthy alternative behavior for each tendency you identify.

Having done this, don't expect others to be pleased with your newfound assertiveness. Others will expect you to behave as you have in the past, so expect some resistance and plan for it.

Ask yourself: How will I react to other's dislike of my assertiveness?

Another person's negative reaction is not sufficient reason for you to back down from being assertive. You owe it to yourself, to your relationship, to your company, or to your friendship to be assertive with others.

For example, a person you consider a good friend has the tendency of getting what they want from you, even if you protest. They are going out of town next weekend and expect you to watch their dog. But you have plans. Instead of canceling your plans to dog-sit, you assertively share with them that you are unavailable. Their response is to guilt you and suggest that you are being a bad friend.

What do you do? Visualize yourself taking a deep breath, not letting the frustration overwhelm you, and responding assertively that you already made plans, and if they can't respect your wishes, this is cause for concern about the relationship.

Finally, you need to ask yourself: What is the outcome I hope to achieve in the conversation?

Have an idea of where you want the conversation to go. And make sure you set realistic expectations. Don't expect to be perfectly listened to, understood, and agreed with. Anticipate and plan for the other person to dislike what you have to say and your assertiveness. They can feel however they want to feel; their response should not discourage you from being assertive. They can react however they want to react; their response should not deter you from steering the conversation to where you want.

Again, the key is to imagine these scenarios as if they were real. Try to imagine the feelings you'd have. Think about how you would normally react, and then imagine how you would like to ideally respond in an assertive manner.

In addition to imagining/visualizing, many find it helpful to write down the hypothetical reactions of others and their assertive responses. I'd encourage you to do that if it helps. You may even try role-playing with a trusted friend. They can play the role of a resistant person who shames and judges you for being assertive, and you can safely test out different assertive responses. Do what works to help you feel more confident in being assertive.

Facebook image: Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock