The question: I have a really hard time saying no to people but realize it's time to be more assertive. Are there specific strategies to help me do this?
The answer: Assertiveness – being able to respectfully communicate your ideas, feelings and needs, while at the same time balancing the needs of others – is often easier in theory than in actuality. Assertive behaviour is quite different from passive behaviour (not standing up for your rights, or not expressing your needs and feelings) and aggressive behaviour (pushing for your own needs at the expense of others, or not allowing others to express their needs).
What makes it so hard to be assertive? Our upbringing, values and personality all play a role.
If you grew up in a home where you were not permitted to express your needs, or if those requests were met with an aggressive, dominating or abusive response, chances are over time you learned to quiet your own voice.
If you place strong value on "maintaining the peace" when it comes to relationships, you may (incorrectly) view an expression of your needs as being incompatible to that end goal. Or, if you are shy and introverted, it may be hard for you to voice your desires in interpersonal situations.
Societal stereotypes and cultural expectations also factor in – for example, women often have a harder time being assertive in some situations than men, and individuals from certain backgrounds, such as Asian cultures, may be taught that being assertive is a non-desirable trait.
What you need to keep in mind is that assertive behaviour is fundamentally respectful behaviour – it balances your rights with the rights of others, without putting one above the other. People often feel better about themselves when they are assertive, and others will demonstrate more respect for the person too. And remember, being assertive is not incompatible with being kind or empathetic.
Here are five tips on how to build your assertiveness and learn to say no:
1. Identify the situations in which you would like to be more assertive. Being able to anticipate the scenarios where you would like to change your behaviour is the first step.
2. Identify your personal barriers. Think about the reasons it is hard for you to say no, and ask yourself if those assumptions are valid and accurate. Challenging the thoughts that interfere with your ability to say no can help you move forward; for example, if you believe that saying no makes you difficult to get along with, ask yourself if that is really true, and find other pieces of evidence that are incompatible with that belief.
3. Specifically articulate what you would like to say and think about why that is important to you. One of the hardest things about saying no is that "no" alone doesn't capture the spirit of why you need to be assertive, and it can sometimes come across as rude. So, if you have made plans with a friend to see a show on Sunday night, rather than just saying "no," add in the reason: "I'd love to see you, but I'm going to have to decline. I've realized I really need to get a decent night's sleep before the work week starts, otherwise I'm wrecked for the day! How does the Tuesday early show work?"
4. Get feedback from a trusted friend. Receiving an objective opinion on how you want to communicate your needs can help you reshape your words/messaging if needed. Ask for feedback your words, tone and posturing. Non-verbal communication is hands down the most important part of how we communicate.
5. Practise, practise, practise! Visualize yourself saying no, practise in front of the mirror, and try it out in neutral situations that have a low risk for harm (with wait staff at a restaurant, a sales clerk at a store). Practice makes perfect, and part of the challenge is just becoming comfortable saying words that may feel unfamiliar to you.
Then, go for it. Try saying no in situations that matter to you – you will probably learn very quickly that the sky will not fall down once you begin asserting your needs. The only qualification is that if you have taken a very passive role in certain relationships, it may take others a little bit of getting used to the new you.
Note: If you are in any abusive relationship, or relationship that has the potential for abuse, assertive behaviour is not recommended. In this situation, seek out professional help and advice on how to proceed.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network's Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV's The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra
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