Assertiveness is often misunderstood. People might think it means being confrontational or strident; they might assume it’s about having to sound powerful.
In truth, assertiveness comes in many different styles, and sometimes involves vulnerability. At its core, it’s about expressing yourself–your feelings, your perspective, your beliefs–in a respectful way that allows you to be truly heard.
Maybe you used to speak up but after encountering resistant, you’ve stopped. Or maybe you speak up in some situations (like at work) and not others (with your parents, or with your partner.)
Here are some suggestions for finding your voice.1) Consider the situations where you speak up, and those where you don’t
Being specific is ideal. It might be that in some work situations, you express yourself (like one-on-one) and some where you don’t (like in meetings.) Or perhaps it’s more global and you feel like you’re not using your voice in any setting, with anyone.
Either way, improvements are possible. Remember that assertiveness is a skill, which means it’s something you can get better at over time. Practice is key.
Identification can be aided by recognizing which situations/relationships leave you most frustrated, resentful, irritable, and/or anxious. Your emotions can guide you.
Which brings us to…
2) To know what you want and need, you have to know what you feel
Sometimes the reason people don’t express themselves is because they have a vague sense that things aren’t as they want but they aren’t able to be more specific than that.
This is often a sign that you’re experiencing an emotional blockage. Emotions can be scary, and suppression is a way to handle that fear. Unfortunately, it also means that you’re missing out on some of the most crucial information: what comes from your gut, and your deepest self.
Emotions tell us where to focus our attention. They’re an alarm system. Don’t disconnect yours; respect it.
3) Try out assertiveness in the least threatening ways first
This will help you gain confidence and strengthen the assertiveness muscle. It might mean that you speak up more with strangers (like if you’ve been overcharged in a store and normally you’d say it’s no big deal to avoid confrontation–instead, speak up! Respectfully, of course.)
Or if you have trouble speaking up at work but less trouble at home, then tackle home first. Or vice versa. This is where specifically identifying situations is most helpful. It lets you rank and prioritize. It allows you to ramp up.
4) For the most difficult situations, develop a script ahead of time
Or you might want to write a letter. Letter writing is still assertive expression. Sometimes people think it’s lesser somehow, but it can be a great way to open. You’ll want to do a follow-up conversation later.
In terms of a script, this means thinking about what you most want to get across and the most effective way to do it. Consider what you know about your target audience. Think if you’ve seen other people assert themselves successfully to that person and perhaps emulate their style.
In order to develop your own assertiveness style, try it on in the mirror first. Say things a number of different ways and decide which one you want to lead with. You don’t need to use the exact words if you think you’ll sound rehearsed.
I’ve found that a good opener, because it invites the empathy of your listener, is, “This is hard for me and I might not say it perfectly, but I think it’s important for you to know how I feel.”
5) Be compassionate with yourself
And be proud! It’s brave to speak up. There’s risk involved. You could be misunderstood or rejected, but if there’s no risk, there’s no reward. And the reward of being truly known is a valuable one. Feeling truly accepted and heard, and having more control, can be life-changing.
But to get there, you have to be kind to yourself. You need to recognize that there will be a learning curve, and there will be stumbles. Tell yourself you’re doing great and you’ll get there. It’s a muscle. Just keep using it.
She’s also a novelist. Please visit her author page for details.