How can I learn to be more assertive?
July 8, 2011 1:07 PM   Subscribe

I want to be more assertive - to be able to express my needs, ask for and state things clearly without feeling guilty or being whiny. Please give me suggestions for how to learn and especially how to practice/build up to this so it becomes a habit.

Ideally I'm looking for things that could function sort of like training wheels - small, easy, low- or no- stakes things I can do to help myself get in the practice of being more assertive without feeling like I'm making a giant leap. Or opportunities I can create to practice, if there aren't a lot of opportunities in my day-to-day life.

I'm also interested in books or workbooks that will help me learn or have confidence in my understanding of what it means to be assertive vs being needy, being assertive vs being aggressive/walking all over someone, etc.

Any other ideas are welcome too - I've heard interesting ideas about things like certain forms of partner dancing teaching people who to be assertive physically. I realize therapy helps some people with this, and I'm looking into it, but I haven't found a good fit in my budget yet.
posted by needs more cowbell to Human Relations (20 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
If you're anything like everyone, you're probably getting accidentally slighted in retail, food service, etc. all the damn time. You know, you get the wrong topping on a pizza, your new t-shirt rung up without the coupon you totally gave the clerk, you got the wrong change, more-or-less miniscule stuff like that.

Well, that stops, starting now. You wanted pepperoni and they gave you peppers? Pizza goes back until you get the one you wanted. Sure that coupon was for 68 cents, but who cares? Get your damn 68 cents back. Wrong change? You might lose the argument, but you'll feel better for trying.

There's no negative consequence to any of this, for anyone. Nothing bad will happen to you, and you won't be putting anyone out. Yeah, it's a pain in the ass to make a new pizza, but it's a whole lot worse to lose a returning customer (especially with Yelp and all) over ten minutes and pennies of raw ingredients, and they know that.
posted by griphus at 1:19 PM on July 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

You can also practice by speaking up in situations where there's not any kind of conflict. I really like griphus's ideas, but you can also practice being assertive by just stating your wishes. So, for instance, if you and some friends are trying to figure out where to go for dinner, and you're usually the kind of person who kind of hangs back and is more or less happy to go where the group wants, start speaking up and saying, "I'm really in the mood for Chinese tonight." Or you're going someplace with someone--do you have a preference about who drives? Say so. The early movie is a little bit more convenient for you than the late show? Speak up and say, "I'd reall prefer the early movie." And so on.
posted by not that girl at 1:28 PM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've said this several times before on the green, but run, run, run to the bookstore or library and get two books by Linda Babcock: Women Don't Ask and Ask For It. The books are based on her decades of research on women and negotiation. Don't let the word negotiation fool you into thinking these books are just for work: you can apply the information and skills to any area of your life. The second book is more action-oriented (though it's not quite a workbook) than the first.
posted by unannihilated at 1:34 PM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Another book recommendation: When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, by Manuel Smith.
posted by russilwvong at 1:41 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Those are good ideas, but I'm especially looking for situations I can totally create, not situations that just arise (like the retail situations or making plans with friends.) Ideally I'd like to practice the shit out of this.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:45 PM on July 8, 2011

Telemarketers or any kind of solicitors are good for this - just have your "no thanks, I'm not interested" response ready, and use it. Even if it's a good cause; you can always send them money later, but start saying no, without excuses. Don't avoid answering the door or picking up the phone - face them and say no.

When you say no, to anyone, don't make excuses. Either just say no, or tell them honestly that someone else had a better price/you don't want to go to the bar/whatever.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:13 PM on July 8, 2011

Affirmations are helpful. Practice saying, out loud, "I deserve to be treated well." Look up more affirmations; my mind is blank. Then, practice asking for things, sweetly. Going to the movies with a friend - don't give in and see a movie you don't care about. "You know, I really don't want to see Die Hard 8. I'd like to see Dirty Mary." It's okay to compromise, as long as you feel it's fair. Don't say We always see your choice, just quietly and sweetly keep offering your choices. Ask a friend to come over and help you do something- maybe you need someone to help you cut your bangs or shorten a hem, whatever. Just ask, nicely. The trick is to be positive and cheery, not angry or whiny, and ask for what you want.

It takes lots of practice. I'm still working on it. I'll also mention that if you get the wrong pizza item or whatever, your chances of success are better if you start out assuming that the other party is totally reasonable, and wants to cooperate. If you wait til you're mad, it becomes adversarial, and you want cooperation as a 1st choice. Excuse me, I ordered pepperoni, not peppers. ... Yes, what an easy mistake to make. How long will it take to remake it? ... Thanks so much."
posted by theora55 at 2:59 PM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

You can even practice in the super low-stakes world of email. I get a lot of junk mail that is nominally addressed to me, whether it's linkfarm places asking if I ever do "guest blogging" on my site [no] or getting put on mailing lists as a result of registering for conferences or that sort of thing. I used to just toss these all into spam and ignore them, but now some days I write back to people, sort of for that same reason, practicing saying "no" in a way that is palatable and doesn't start fights but also realizing that if I am being polite and that DOES start fights, that sometimes happens and that doesn't mean I did it wrong.

Sometimes, not often, people will write me back saying "Oh no we really did read your blog and we think this book is perfect for you because" and I can then write back and say "Then you might have noticed, I never do book reviews, please take me off of your mailing list, thank you"

The takeaway is that you can politely enforce your own boundaries and be assertive about them without necessarily stomping all over someone else's. And the best place to practive this is, I agree with griphus, in a situation where you're interacting with someone who is just doing it for work, because they're unlikely to really dig in. So maybe set yourself up to make some phone calls to get off of mailing lists and send email back to people saying "please take me off of your mailing lists" and interact with people on blogs and such [like here] and find ways to disagree with people [if you do disagree] in ways that are friendly and cooperative, not statusing on which there is always one-up and one-down. While some people see it that way, it's not the only way to deal with work and social interactions and often refusing to interact in that way can make the whole interaction go so much better. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 3:10 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wholeheartedly seconding what russilwvong suggested--that is a seriously good book.
posted by lovableiago at 3:26 PM on July 8, 2011

If I'm shopping and the checkout person asks for my email address or whatever for promotional purposes, I say, "I'm sorry, I don't give that out." Keeps me in the habit of saying no sometimes.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:32 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm especially looking for situations I can totally create

Is it too much of a big step to become a volunteer fundraiser for a local charity?

You could go to a cuddle party. The rules seem appropriate for you. You could go and not cuddle anyone, even the rules say so. Just go and practice saying no to people -- or yes if you want.

If you live in a city, you could walk through an area where you know a lot of panhandlers are going to be.

If there's anything you need to buy soon, which is often sold by pushy salespeople (appliances, cars, expensive clothing), you could go take a look around. Even if there's nothing you need, you could go take a look and practice telling them that you're just looking, thank you.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:43 PM on July 8, 2011

Ah! You could go to shops or markets where it is expected that people will haggle.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:44 PM on July 8, 2011

In general, I'm good at saying no. I need practice in asking for things rather than in saying no.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:49 PM on July 8, 2011

Hmm. The asking-service-people-to-do-things realm seems the most obvious here, but I wouldn't want to suggest doing that just as practice, rather than situations where you don't really need it. So -- can you take up any righteous cause?

Like, are there any places in your town that should really have disability accommodation, but don't? Could you call or visit and bring up the issue with them?

Basically, many activist/advocacy groups will have at least one issue that they're working on involving a particular person, entity or organization who isn't doing what they should be doing. You could go in person to put the pressure on the problem-causer to do the right thing.

Are there any policies/laws that you don't like in your town, or things you wish they would do? Can you go to a town council meeting and ask for them?
posted by Ashley801 at 4:08 PM on July 8, 2011

Assertiveness Practice - Situational Suggestions (MS Word doc). This is a handout from the DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) module on Interpersonal Effectiveness. I think it's pretty close to what you're looking for. If you don't have MS Word, here's a cached version of the worksheet on another site (the main site unfortunately seems to be down right now.)

The source of the first link has some other downloadable interpersonal effectiveness worksheets that you might find helpful.
posted by granted at 4:39 PM on July 8, 2011 [13 favorites]

Call all of your credit card companies and ask for lower interest rates. Call your cable, cell phone, and internet providers and ask for a lower monthly rate. Call random consumer products companies and ask them to send you free samples or coupons for products you like. Basically, call people and ask for stuff. You'll likely be pleasantly surprised at how often people say yes to this stuff, and when they don't, it's good practice dealing with the no's.
posted by decathecting at 5:40 PM on July 8, 2011 [15 favorites]

"I need practice in asking for things rather than in saying no."

I've tried nicely asking for what I need - the problem is I can be told no. Now, in dire situations when negotiating is not possible, I tell the other person what I need or want. Don't ask.
This can be done curtly or nicely. This has taken me years to work up the courage to practice (why???) and I'm finally seeing the results. Good luck!
posted by JacksonandFinch at 7:19 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pay attention to how you are feeling in your interactions with others - maybe there are particular ones where you feel you need to work on this more, so especially those - and notice when you have a need or desire that you are smothering. Look at it, and think, what if I just said what I need/want right now? Probably in most situations this would be simple enough and appropriate to do, so try just saying how you feel or what you want instead of keeping it in.

You mention not wanting to feel guilty or be whiny, and I think that both of those things will come with practice, as well as reminding yourself that your feelings and needs are as important as other people's, so you should not feel guilty nor does it make you whiny to express them. The more you act to express yourself, the more natural it will become to do so and you will do it before your feelings have festered (often a source of whininess, at least in myself). You will also figure out better ways of expressing yourself as you go along - or maybe some of those books can help with this.

Also, be forgiving towards yourself. If asking for things is difficult for you to do, you may stumble at first, and sound whiny, or feel that you've committed a faux pas or something. But just remind yourself that that's ok, it's a learning process and it's not always going to come out perfectly, especially when you're first trying it out.
posted by sumiami at 7:54 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could get involved in local advocacy and do phone-banking ("will you be able to attend the hearing? great! we are asking that everyone bring two or three friends -- could you do that?"). but I'm not sure that'd help, because it'd be asking for someone other than yourself. It depends on whether your challenge is having the confidence to put your own desires on the table (this won't help; it's someone else's desires) or overcoming the fear of hearing a "no."

You might consider giving improv a shot. It's not just asking for what you want, it's about defining the entire reality of a situation in a very confident way. But you get to pick your characters most of the time, so you could also try on assertive characters and use it as a lab to explore what it feels like to be demanding vs. assertive vs. meek.
posted by salvia at 1:13 AM on July 9, 2011

Late to the party but thought I would share this anyway. It's a simple way to create these situations: get rejected once a day.
posted by Adamsmasher at 5:52 PM on July 20, 2011

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