Creative ways to practice assertiveness
September 25, 2016 7:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for ways to practice assertiveness that I can incorporate into daily life. I've noticed that in certain situations, especially with men, I don't say anything even when I'm uncomfortable, because I have a deeply ingrained fear that they will become violent if challenged. I want to get better about this. I can't really ask men to start saying and doing inappropriate things to me until I say something, but I can work on assertiveness in other ways. A while back I read about a guy whose fear of rejection was interfering in his life, so he made it a point to get rejected every day until the fear became less intense.

My therapist suggested visualization, and I can do that but I'd rather practice actual assertiveness in small ways in real life, slowly building up. My own idea was to make a point of going to bars (or coffee shops) and sending drinks back. It's something I have done occasionally but I find it a little uncomfortable and doing it more often would likely help me. What are some other ways I can practice assertiveness?
posted by bunderful to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Make it a meaningful experience ---now would be a great time to do some phone banking and (ideally) door-to-door canvassing for campaigns. Some people will definitely get defensive and some will really get in your face. And however bad it goes, you learn you can push back in constructive ways, and at the very least can always leave and go on to the next one, and the next one is often great. And you'll be talking about something you care about, not some abstract thing.

Or in a similar vein, you can also go to things like town meetings and pta meetings and voice your opinion/ask questions
posted by veery at 8:17 PM on September 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Here's an excellent post from Captain Awkward (who is amazing, if you don't already know) that includes a list of examples.

Some of them are:
"That movie doesn’t interest me. Howabout this one, instead?”
"No beer for me, thanks. Do you have iced tea?”
“No iced tea for me, thanks. Do you have a beer?”
“You made my drink just right.”
“I really liked going on a date with you, let’s do it again sometime.”

The rest of the post isn't entirely relevant. The most-relevant-to-you part is the second bulleted list through the third bulleted list.
posted by meemzi at 9:47 PM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I am still working on this but for me, asking questions is a good way of being assertive even when I'm shy. Sometimes I'll even ignore someone completely and ask a question as means of saying "not into this conversation. Moving on!" Or I'll ask a pointed question. That can be passive aggressive but it's a bit easier for me. It also puts the person who is being a dick on the spot and requires them to explain their odd behavior.

I have been socially anxious and shy for a long time and my goal in life for the last twenty years was to be as invisible as possible (grew up in household where drawing attention to yourself only ended badly). Now I am a reporter and so I am always out of my comfort zone but it helped me quite a bit.

It's great to be able to say "Please don't talk to me that way" or "Statement about myself, different suggestion" but sometimes even that feels like too much. For some reason asking a question feels more doable for me.

Also, if you aren't prepared to deal with other people's reactions, think about ways to diffuse situations. When you say "that was inappropriate," some people might react with "you're overreacting," or "you're reading too much into what I said/did." I always respond with "I know what I saw/heard, and it was inappropriate. But I've already forgotten it. Just don't talk to me that way again." Affirm your position, offer them an out, and move on to a different subject/situation.

The situation doesn't have to be negative; it could be a circumstance where you just have a preference and feel weird voicing it. It helps me to remember that most people like to be told how to treat me rather than having to guess, and will appreciate it if you pipe up (and say thank you).
posted by mmmleaf at 10:10 PM on September 25, 2016

My own idea was to make a point of going to bars (or coffee shops) and sending drinks back. It's something I have done occasionally but I find it a little uncomfortable and doing it more often would likely help me.

That's aggressive behavior, not assertiveness (and it's unfair to the baristas). Assertive people are positive, too. They make eye contact, ask clearly for what they want, and thank those who help them.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:11 AM on September 26, 2016 [14 favorites]

I can help with this one! (hopefully). I’ve had a hard time setting boundaries and spent some time in therapy working on this. I don’t know if you can relate to this but : it became evident that my anger was linked to my lack of assertiveness, that is, anger was often an unmet (valid, reasonnable) need. So I started by recognizing my anger and see if there was something I could do based on this (that wasn’t lashing out on a poor innocent person ;)).

My major assertiveness accomplishment so far was when co-worker was looking non-stop at my boobs. That made me angry angry. After a while I managed to tell him that his behavior made me uncomfortable and that if he please could stop looking at my boobs.

I managed to do this *because* I kind of rehearsed on smaller things before. Examples that might fit your criteria :

- when seated on the bus, asking the person next to me to move their legs if they were taking more space than needed. It means being assertive physically _and_ verbally. Obviously don’t do this if you don’t feel secure enough.
- at the market, asking the seller NOT to lick their finger to open plastic bag before putting vegs / fruits in. (ugh)
- telling my SO that I need 15 min of alone time
- telling someone their joke made me uncomfortable because violent / racist / etc.

Phrasing is pretty important, as you say yourself, you don’t want your interlocutor to become violent. Make simple sentences with 1/ a statement 2/ how you feel 3/ a solution («when you look at my boobs (1) it makes me uncomfortable (2), please could you to stop doing this (3)).

Hope it helps!
posted by Ifite at 5:26 AM on September 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Competitive social games preferably in public. I was a very passive person until I started to play a lot of pickup basketball and poker. In any game that involves a group competing with each other in some way (from Bridge to D&D to softball) you're most effective when you find the right time to step up and be aggressive about defending or advancing your team or individual interests. Over and over throughout the course of a game you have the opportunity to say "I got this, this is mine, and this is what will happen now."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:26 AM on September 26, 2016

Sometimes I'll even ignore someone completely and ask a question as means of saying "not into this conversation. Moving on!" Or I'll ask a pointed question. That can be passive aggressive but it's a bit easier for me.

mmmleaf, can you give me an example? I'm not sure what you mean by asking a question in that way.

Carol Anne - even when I don't like the drink? I'm not talking about sending back drink after drink, just one that I don't like. It's easy for me to thank people and tell them they did a good job. I am socialized to make other people feel good. It's making other people feel bad or defensive that I struggle with.
posted by bunderful at 5:31 AM on September 26, 2016

Something I've had to start doing (small office, uhhh politics are awful) is saying, brightly but firmly, "So, we aren't talking about this." Or "This is not an appropriate topic."

I am not stating my opinion / getting into political debates but I am stopping conversations that can make people feel sad/alienated/uncomfortable at work. As I've become more senior, this is more important to me. It's easier for me to speak up like this when I think about how hard it is to be a junior person and to feel like you can't say things like "I do not prefer to discuss this topic at work, thank you." So I guess that's a long-winded way to say, sometimes it's easier if you start by standing up for someone else.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:35 AM on September 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Carol Anne - even when I don't like the drink? I'm not talking about sending back drink after drink, just one that I don't like.

Sending back drinks that aren't made correctly is fine. Your original statement seemed to imply that you would just be sending back drinks for practice.

I agree that one of the best and lowest-pressure ways to practice being assertive is to express preferences and make suggestions. I've always been one of those people who was all "oh, whatever you want, I don't care". But at some point a very kind friend pointed out to me that doing that actually makes more work for the other person, who then has to do all the work of choosing. So I started trying to express more preferences. It's low-risk because you're not actually in a conflicted situation, but you very well may disagree. A really low-key way of doing this is to offer a choice back: "Hmm.... how about Thai or Indian food? I'm really not in the mood for Tex-Mex tonight."
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:15 AM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Go to one of those escape room type events (you and some friends and/or strangers go into a room and have to find clues and solve puzzles to figure out the mystery before time is up), and be in charge of it. Come up with ideas to solve things, state them loudly and make people listen, and when somebody is whining about how hard it is, or saying dumb stuff, tell them to stop.
In short, practice with friends, with women, with non-threatening people, and then build up to male strangers or people in power.
posted by aimedwander at 11:05 AM on September 26, 2016

Since you are a little reticent about verbal boundary setting at this point, maybe you could practice eye contact? I teach an activity where people make eye contact with someone and then either look down, or look away without lowering their gaze. The latter tends to signal assertiveness and makes you feel a bit more powerful, so that's what I recommend people practice. And it's super easy to practice because you can do it walking down the hallway at work or school (low difficulty level b/c you know the people) or walking down the street (higher difficulty level). Lots of opportunities.

Whatever you end up trying, I think it's great that you and your therapist are focused on practicing, because assertiveness is definitely a skill, and you can definitely acquire it through practice. And, it pays huge dividends. Good luck!
posted by helpthebear at 2:47 PM on September 26, 2016

>Sometimes I'll even ignore someone completely and ask a question as means of saying "not into this conversation."

I'm not the person who mentioned that above, but I do that too. I find it a really effective way to create conversations that you want to have.

THEM: Blah blah this city is the worst, *complaining about traffic*

(If I find them exhausting, I'll pick one detail they said and latch onto it to redirect- in this case, they are singling out this city, so let's talk about any other city! Or talk about cars, or talk about specific parts of the city! Just no more ranting.)

ME: Oh did you grow up in a different place? What was that like?
ME: What kind of car do you drive? I ask because I'm thinking of buying a car, do you find it's worth getting one?
ME: Oh traffic's the worst, what part of town did you commute from? Do you like it there?

Even though I basically interrupted them, because I'm asking more about them, I find most people don't process this as being "rude"- maybe it makes me look a bit scatterbrained, but because my focus stays on that person and their opinions, it tends to not come off as a slight.

Or perhaps they're being nasty, like..
THEM: Blah blah blah *some kind of topic I find objectionable*
ME: Takes bite of my sandwich, "Mmm, have you eaten here before? This is delicious, what did you get? Is it good?"

Worst case scenario when what they're on about is something offensive, I completely change the topic to something that's literally in the room with us- unpleasant topics are usually kind of abstract or distanced from their subject so the fact that my new topic is concretely present usually means the new discussion won't have any teeth.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:31 AM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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