Your sister asks you to watch her kids for the third weekend in a row. You say yes.
Someone cuts in front of you in the supermarket checkout line. You don’t utter a word.
Your in-laws insist that the holidays be at their house—again. You resist the urge to disagree.
The problem is, you didn’t want to babysit again, it did bother you that you were cut in line, and you would like to spend some special occasions with your side of the family too.
Why didn’t you say something?
Maybe you worry that voicing your opinion may come off as being aggressive. Or perhaps you tend to avoid saying anything that might “rock the boat,” for fear of creating conflict or damaging a relationship. Challenge yourself to think about things in a different way: Being assertive means expressing yourself in a clear, honest and respectful way. Each one of us has preferences, feelings and desires—and yours are no less valuable or important than those of the next person.
Speaking up doesn’t mean you’ll always get the outcome you want, of course, but it may bring you benefits you have yet to consider. For example, honoring yourself by making your needs and desires known can help you manage stress that can come when what’s happening on the outside conflicts with what you’re feeling on the inside. Also, asserting yourself can help others get to know you better, which can strengthen your connections.
Like many changes, it can take time for you to easily assert yourself in the moment. But successfully doing so even a few times can help make it come more naturally. Here are some effective strategies:
- Remain calm and maintain a controlled voice, which helps get your point across.
- Be clear and specific about what you think or need—vague or tentative statements can be easily misinterpreted.
- Start your response with “I.” Statements that begin with “you” can seem accusatory and foster resentment or escalate an argument.
- Don’t be afraid to use the word “no.”
- Acknowledge the other person’s feelings when you respond.
- Remember that your body language can speak volumes: Maintain eye contact; stand up straight, face the person you’re talking to, and make sure your facial expression matches your message.
Let’s revisit the scenarios mentioned above and apply these tips:
Say no when your sister asks you to babysit and be specific about why it’s not convenient for you:
I know you’re in a tough spot, but no, I can’t watch the kids. I need to use the afternoon to get some work done around the house. It would be better if you asked someone else for help.
Instead of stewing silently when you’re cut in line, try to remain calm and say:
Excuse me, but I was waiting. I’m not sure if you’re in a rush, but if you wouldn’t mind taking the spot behind me, I would appreciate it.
Acknowledge your in-law’s feelings when declining their invitation or proposing your alternative:
I know how much it means to you to have everyone over for the holidays, but we will be heading to my parents’ house this year. We would love for you to join us.
Whatever the scenario, you don’t need to offer elaborate explanations, excuses or justifications. Stick with the simple truth, even if you have to repeat yourself more than once before the other person accepts your answer.
If the situation is one you can anticipate—like asking your boss for a raise—rehearsing your words can help you when the real interaction arises. Practice out loud, in front of the mirror or with a trusted friend or family member. Ask your stand-in audience for feedback and, if needed, tweak your approach. You can even hone your assertiveness in less stressful situations to help build your confidence: Suggest sushi for dinner, even if your spouse wants pizza, for example.