Everybody likes to go with the flow, but what happens when you find yourself doing it all the time? What happens when saying what you don't mean becomes a habit and your own desires play chronic second fiddle to everyone else's? All this adds up to an assertiveness deficit, a source of anger, depression and potential stress-related health ailments. In psychospeak, standing up for your rights without violating the rights of others is a mark of self-esteem. But this takes practice, for the simple reason that it often requires overturning the dictums and training of parents, teachers, bosses and politicians who prefer passive and even submissive behaviour.
Traditionally (and somewhat stereotypically), women have responded to the score by shutting up or crying and men by rolling out their aggression where they can get away with it.
But in the wake of such cultural motors as feminism, addiction recovery work and a general movement toward psychological healing, these kinds of behaviours no longer cut it. And thank goodness. Not being assertive is really stressful.
Stating your case at the right time and without attacking anybody sets the stage for creative solutions and diminished stress levels.
Techniques for putting your point across to someone who thinks you don't count include the "broken record," a calm, consistent repetition of a simple statement; shifting attention from the content of what's being said to the aggression you see happening; and "fogging," where you agree in part with your opponent and then return to your main point.
If you're really nervous about asserting yourself to someone, write down possible approaches, then evaluate them by role-playing with a friend. And take time to imagine your worst-case scenario and how you'd handle it. "When there are power dynamics at play, it's not (necessarily) a natural thing to assert yourself, because you may have concerns about your security. After assertiveness training courses, people have a tendency to be overly assertive. The fine art is knowing what your needs are, which ones are negotiable and which are not, and avoiding pettiness. Historically, it's easy to say that women need assertiveness more than men, but men need it just as badly for different reasons. Men have a huge problem articulating their needs and expectations in ways that have a chance of being met willingly. If men could learn to assert their needs in a way that respects others, they would get a lot more cooperation."
ROSS STOCKWELL, organizational psychologist, executive coach "To cultivate assertiveness, first and foremost respect yourself. Then you can do that self-talk, that I'm good enough and worthwhile enough that I can say no if I want to, or ask for what I want.' Asserting yourself does not necessarily lead to conflict or rejection. In fact, it generates respect in people when you set boundaries. People will push you as far as you allow them to push you. It's your responsibility to set the boundaries. The other person will feel more comfortable when that limit is in place."
MARSHA HARLING, organizational psychologist, GSW Consultants "Studies show that girls become more and more intimidated in school. Once they hit grade 7 they become more self-conscious, particularly when they're with boys. The boys tend to answer more in math class; girls traditionally step back, though not every girl. When boys aren't there, girls tend to step forward more. Single-sex classes mean that girls have to answer. It's a great environment for someone who's a little shy. Assertiveness is an integral part of wellness. Just to get a job done you need to be assertive, and success leads to wellness."
SUE McEVOY, director of marketing, Bethany Hills School, Bethany, Ontario (mixed junior school, girls' school only for grades 7 to 12) "Being assertive means developing a strong belief in yourself, acting and speaking with confidence and commitment. If you make a statement that you're on the fence with and people disagree, they'll jump on you and say you're wrong. But if you say something with total commitment, (those who disagree) may call you controversial but will respect what you have to say. I recommend maintaining eye contact. If you don't, the person you're talking to will tend to mistrust you and not listen as closely. Humour is a good tool. Keep the conversation light and respond to visual cues - when he or she smiles, you might lift an eyebrow. Even if the person disagrees with you, you know he or she is listening."
ART NEVSKY, actor, vocal and performance coach