Assertiveness 101
January 21, 2008 7:17 AM   Subscribe

Armchair psychologists and lifehackers: Please help me develop some basic assertiveness skills.

(My apologies in advance for the length of this; it just has been eating at me for so long and I want to provide all the information needed to answer my question.)

I seem to have a very difficult time asserting myself in many situations, and it’s causing me a lot of distress. I have always taken great pains to ever avoid embarrassing someone, putting them on the spot, hurting their feelings, or making them feel defensive. This causes me to not say anything when something bothers me and to ignore situations that clearly need to be addressed. The stress I feel while trying to spare others any bad feelings is really eating at me, and I’d like to learn what should probably be a very basic skill of adulthood.

Background: I’m 32, married with a toddler son, and run a company with my husband. I’m a little shy sometimes, but not a timid person by any means – I have no problem leading meetings or speaking in front of groups, for example.

I was raised an only child by a father who was pretty reserved and unemotional, and a mother who was chronically depressed and extremely hypersensitive. I made her cry on numerous occasions, during what I now think were normal parent-child disagreements. My mom is bothered by lots of things, but rarely if ever addresses it with the person with whom she has a problem, a classic martyr. She also used to rant and rave about how much she hated passive-aggressive people (ironic, huh?) and scoffed at anyone’s attempts to “nicely” bring up a problem.

Also, we moved frequently due to my dad’s work, and I had a very hard time making friends. And like many young women (maybe guys do this too, I don’t know), I lost many “best friends” over my childhood/teenage years due to stupid disagreements. All of this led to some deep-seated self esteem issues on my part, and a fear of not being liked.

All of this has probably contributed to my current incapacity to tell someone (in a polite way) when I’m upset about something they’ve done. I recognize the problem, but I can’t seem to do the obvious thing (duh): tell someone (in a polite way) when I’m upset about something they’ve done. Instead I seethe and stress out and harbor resentment, all while forcing a smile and trying to just go about my business. This makes me feel like a gigantic failure as a person. I know I just need to get a grip, that the world won’t end if someone doesn’t like being called out, but I guess I’m just really afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, embarrassing them, or having them walk out on me.

This is embarrassing, but here are a few recent examples of situations I’ve been unable to address:

1. Our regular nanny is late almost every day, sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes 20. My husband and I really need to start our work ASAP in the morning, but we can’t count on her being on time. Yet I can’t seem to bring it up to our nanny because I don’t want there to be awkwardness, and I don’t want her to decide she’d rather work elsewhere, because it was really hard to find someone good.

2. My best friend has been kind of distant lately, taking a really long time to return calls. I called her a few days before my birthday (Christmas Eve) asking if there was a time I could bring over Christmas gifts for her family, and she didn’t call me back until mid-afternoon on my birthday itself. I was really anxious about it and it hurt my feelings. Yet I didn’t say anything because I don’t want her to be angry at me.

3. A babysitter we had over here yesterday spent a good part of the day gossiping on her cell phone rather than interacting with our son. He was whining and clearly demanding her attention, but she was just yapping away. Eventually I did just send her home, but I should have been able to work up the nerve way earlier instead of being angry all day. I felt tremendously guilty later that my little boy had a bad day due to this person’s inattentiveness.

4. The company my husband and I own is basically a subcontractor agency, and most of the subcontractors are friends of my husband’s. I have a difficult time bringing up performance issues or pointing out to them when they’re falling short of our standards, and I imagine it’s because I don’t want them not to like me and I don’t want social occasions to be weird.

If you have any suggestions on how to confidently and politely assert oneself in these types of situations, I would really appreciate it. If you’ve gone through something similar but were able to make a positive change, even better. I just ask that any responses be a little more detailed than “Just say what’s on your mind,” because if I knew how to do that, I would. I’m not stupid; I’m paralyzed by a bunch of psychological crap that I don’t know how to get past. Thanks so much.
posted by justonegirl to Human Relations (24 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
You are not responsible for other people's reactions to what you say. You are responsible for stating clearly your own viewpoint. Stop pussyfooting around trying to spare people's feelings. They know they are getting a snow job and it is keeping them from knowing the real you and it is keeping you a doormat. Learn to express your own preferences and learn the art of compromise. Compromise doesn't mean you cave in every time. People will appreciate knowing the truth and they will also know you genuinely mean "yes" or "no" when you say it.
posted by 45moore45 at 7:25 AM on January 21, 2008


45moore45, thanks for taking the time to respond...I just am a little confused by some of your suggestions -- in particular, that I should learn to express my preferences and learn the art of compromise. I guess that was sort of the point of my question, to see if anyone had suggestions for a starting point for learning such things. I'm not sure if the snowjob comment really applies since it seems I'm not glossing things over, I'm just unable to state any bad feelings at all. And do people always appreciate knowing the truth? I know my best friend might, in some way, appreciate knowing how I feel when she doesn't return my calls (though that still doesn't make it easy for me to do), but in the other situations I don't know that that applies. Sorry if I'm coming off as dense here; I suppose if I had the skill set to carry out what you suggested, I wouldn't have these problems in the first place :)
posted by justonegirl at 7:47 AM on January 21, 2008


With situation #4, I wonder if feedback to subcontractors could be formalized. I find it easier to critique someone's work if they are expecting it, and if I can preface any criticisms with an acknowledgment of and praise for what that person is doing right. A weekly (or bi-weekly) email or chat in which you briefly check in with them might be a chance to do this. Also, I have never felt as friendly or comfortable with a boss as I do with my co-workers, so you may have to give up the idea of wanting to be liked at all times by this group of people. It has nothing to do with how nice a boss is in my case - it has more to do with the nature of the relationship.
posted by PY at 7:54 AM on January 21, 2008


This is about self-respect. Before you can assert yourself, you need to really believe that you deserve to be treated with respect.
posted by mpls2 at 7:58 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pick some situations to tackle first. I nominate the babysitter and nanny.

People would generally rather be treated as colleagues than hired help -- sometimes it's helpful to periodically and somewhat lightheartedly reiterate the work that everyone's doing to make the whole machine work. "Hey, we know how the world works -- you get here on time to do your job so that I can get to work on time, so that I can get the guys on track working, so that the customers are happy. and we get paid, and I pay you, right?

I feel your pain. I have one job where I am Beloved Manager most of the time. In my other job, I am Displeased Boss most of the time (which isn't really helping morale.) I get this and get why, and yet still have a hard time managing to apply the things that work in one job to the betterment of the other.
posted by desuetude at 8:11 AM on January 21, 2008


I have recently felt a similar transformation in my own life and I know it's related to my job. It's always been hard for me to be direct and for some magical reason my job has started to solve that for me. I am also starting to use the same strategy elsewhere in life and most of the time it works. Basically this is it: say exactly what you want in the simplest way possible. I hope that doesn't sound obnoxiously simplistic because it's not meant that way - you have to just ignore all the psycho babble that's in your head and find the meat of the issue then state that.

At work I will need to get something done and I will need this person to do it for me. I will call or go up to that person and literally say: Hi, I need this done. Do you do that? If they do, they will then say so and either A. do it, B. say they do it but they've got this and this and this ahead of doing it. Or C, tell me who I need to talk to to do it. If it's A, that's so easy! If it's B, I ask when they can fit it in - and if there is any way they could do it now if I helped them, or do they know someone else that can do it. I make a point to thank them, let them know that they are really helping me out. I also don't take offense if they are argumentative, defensive, or reluctant. That's their problem and I'm not going to let it dictate how I act on my side of the conversation.

I would literally say to your nanny and babysitter: "Hi (nanny, babysitter), I really need you to be here at this time / not use your cell phone while you're watching (child's name)."

That's exactly what you want. Now they know that. If they act all weird about it - that is their issue. But more than likely they won't, they will be polite because the work they're doing for you is important. If it's not and you need to find someone else, then that's the direction you want to be moving in anyway.

Friends are different IMO. I give them more room. Maybe something is going on in their life that makes it hard for them to call you back. Give your friend the benefit of doubt.

On preview don't worry if your style of assertiveness is more gentle than others. We don't all have to be ballbusters to get things done. You know what you want. You can do this. Good luck!
posted by dog food sugar at 8:14 AM on January 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


To a great extent, I think what you're feeling is perfectly normal...a thoughtful person thinks twice about levying criticism even when it's appropriate. Only a real jerk relishes confrontation, and you're not a jerk. So rather than being a disadvantage, I think your abundance of empathy and thoughtfulness can serve you very well in how you approach situations where you wish to communicate displeasure without being disagreeable. It can help you choose your battles wisely. Being sensitive to the other person's point of view, you are probably better suited than most to communicate those issues without it coming off like an attack. Your reluctance to do so is normal, it's the total avoidance that's unhealthy.

So, that said, remember you have every right to be upset about certain things. Your emotions are valid. And you're the only person who has any ability to express your thoughts and stand up for yourself -- if you don't exercise your right to assert yourself (with discretion and good judgment of course), no one is going to do it for you. Waiting for someone to figure out what's wrong only serves to perpetuate the problems you wish to address (the babysitter, the contractors etc.) That is the negative outcome. So try to see the outcome of "pulling someone aside for a little talk" in positive terms...by your nature you're going to be constructive in your approach, and by doing so you'll be more likely to put issues to bed than to create new ones.
posted by edverb at 8:14 AM on January 21, 2008


I struggled with assertiveness problems (and had the same parental dynamics, how strange.) I'm better at those situations now but not always terrific.

A lot of it DOES have to do with the mistaken notion that I can control someone else's emotional reaction to what I'm saying. Which, as 45moore45 points out, you cannot do.

I got a lot of help over the years from The Dance of Anger by Harriett Lerner, as well as People Skills by Robert Bolton. Dance of Anger especially, because it so very clearly outlines techniques to use in these types of situations. Unfortunately, the title of the book (The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships) is really misleading. Yes, it IS about that. But it is also about much more, including how to deal with passive aggressive people and how to define boundaries.

Yes, I also went through a few years of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which also helped immensely. You may or may not want to do this, but if you find a good therapist, it is a wonderful way to get a more realistic perspective on what is fair to you in these relationships and how to approach renegotiating them.

Being more assertive takes practice. For years, I got stomach pains when I had to have conversations like the ones you are anticipating, sure that the reaction would be similar to my mother's past reactions (and end in tears or anger from the other person). It took a few successful conversations before I felt more confident and comfortable. Perhaps you could practice with your husband or a close friend? I practiced with my therapist.

Finally, the performance management issue adds another layer to the negotiation (for the nanny AND the subcontractors). I've benefited by making my expectations really, REALLY clear in writing with people (email, etc.) so that I can refer to these communications in a very neutral way when something goes wrong. Clarifying expectations after the fact is a bit more difficult. The conversation could go something like this:

You: Hi Nanny, now that you've been working with Junior for 6 months, I just wanted to see if we could grab a cup of coffee and talk about how things are going, what Junior needs, what you need, what we need. It shouldn't take more than 30 minutes. How about Wednesday during his nap?

The nanny might be uneasy because of the fear of the unknown and THAT IS OKAY. You can't control how she is feeling. She might wonder if there are very bad things that you are going to bring up, but you can be confident in the fact that you are going to touch on a number of things, including things you LIKE about her. When the conversation actually happens, it will probably be a relief. Or she may not be phased at all. In any case, you only have to schedule the conversation. That's it. You don't have to preview what will be discussed or explain, etc. Just schedule it and you're done for now.

Okay, during the conversation:

YOU: Thanks so much , nanny, for all of the work you've done for us so far. I just wanted to ask a few questions, perhaps get some input from you. By the way, I really appreciate how you draw and sing with Junior. It has been really fun to watch him develop confidence in his creativity!

NANNY: Thanks. I really enjoy teaching kids to sing, it's fun for them and fun for me.

YOU: Well, he seems to love it. Is there anything that my husband and I could be doing to help you in your work with Junior?

NANNY: I don't think so. Well, maybe if I was able to take him to a music class? There is one at the library on Mondays and it would be a change of pace for him and for me. It costs $35 for 10 weeks.

YOU: Let me talk to my husband about that and I think that would be a really fun activity for Junior. Is there anything else?

NANNY: I don't think so.

YOU: Great. I appreciate your ideas about classes. I've also noticed how patient you are with him and that is wonderful. The only thing I would change at this point is nailing down a predictable start time, perhaps. I know that our start times have been more flexible up until now, but we're going to have to start scheduling calls and meetings that require my husband and I to be more specific about when we start our workday so that we can accommodate our clients. It would be terrific if we could hand Junior to you at 7:45 am so we can quickly prep and begin calls. Do you see any problems with a 7:45 start time?

NANNY: Well, sometimes traffic is unpredictable so I'm not always able to be here right on time....

YOU: Yeah, you're right. Traffic can be a pain. What do you think we can do figure out so that my husband and I could start work at 7:45 am each morning? Maybe we can shoot for a start time of 7:30 am so that, if traffic is bad, you're here by 7:45 am at the latest?

NANNY: Yes, I guess that could work.

YOU: Terrific. Thanks for your help with that. It's nice to have someone that we can rely on so that we can do our work. Let me talk to my husband about the music class at the library, and maybe you could help Junior pick out some new CD's from the store or even some little instruments. Would that help too?

NANNY: Yes, that would be great.


Okay, I know that was the world's LONGEST answer to your question, but I would practice having conversations like that. So, why did I structure that conversation the way that I did?

First, I sandwiched the negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback.

Second, I asked her a question first. This allows her to talk about anything that might be bothering her so I can address it BEFORE I get to what I need from her.

Third, I created a start time that was unusual (7:45). I don't know why this works, but unusual start times make people pay more attention to when they actually show up at a meeting.

Fourth, I described what would happen at 7:45 (I hand Junior over to you) and why it was important (I need to start calls with clients). My desired outcome has now changed from "the nanny needs to be on time" to "I need to hand Junior to the nanny at 7:45 am".

Five, I asked for her help on how to make this happen.

Six, I acknowledged the traffic situation, invited her to think of solutions with me for the desired outcome, and offered one of my own which would work for me.

You can use the same techniques for the subcontractors.

Anyway, practice, practice, practice and best of luck. Don't expect it to be comfortable until you've had a conversation a handful of times. Old habits die hard.
posted by jeanmari at 8:23 AM on January 21, 2008 [14 favorites]


I have learned to just anticipate and embrace the awkwardness. I mean - I hate awkwardness, it makes me so uncomfortable and makes me want to run and hide underneath the covers. But it has to be done. And I think a lot of times the anticipation of the awkwardness is worse than the awkwardness itself.

You just have to hold your nose and do it - rip off the proverbial band-aid. Write out what you want to say or the babysitter or whatever and then just say it. Practice on your husband - pretend he is the nanny and tell him he needs to start showing up on time, for example.

Start small but keep at it. Make yourself do it and it will get easier as time goes on. I regularly have to make awkward phone calls as part of my job and while I won't lie and say everything is easy-breezy now, because I have to do this almost every day it's been getting a lot easier. It's still awkward sometimes but it almost always ends up being worth it. I even write out my introduction so when I call people I know exactly what to say.
posted by sutel at 8:23 AM on January 21, 2008


The Assertiveness Workbook is a good place to start. Here's a longer description.
posted by limeswirltart at 8:23 AM on January 21, 2008


justonegirl, some suggestions:
  1. "Nanny, when you arrive late in the morning, this is what happens: my husband and I aren't able to meet our commitments, my son isn't sure what will be happening that day, and we're concerned that something may have happened to you en route to our house. While we appreciate you're great with our son, these are significant issues to us. What can you do to change this?"
  2. There are a lot of potential stories about this - maybe you should ask her what's been going on in her life "I've noticed that you've taken a little while getting in touch with me recently, and I've been feeling that you've been distant. Is everything all right with you?"
  3. Similar tactic to item 1 above.
  4. "I feel your pain" is about all I can say.

posted by lowlife at 8:26 AM on January 21, 2008


Argh. Phased should be FAZED. Sorry.
posted by jeanmari at 8:28 AM on January 21, 2008


Individual situations need individual approaches.

For example, I would have a short talk with the nanny in which you tell her how much you appreciate her and ask if there is anything keeping her from being on time, that you could help with? If she says no, say, ok, well, I understand being a few minutes late and you're so good with our son. A good nanny is so hard to find (see: yappy babysitter) that I would forgive ten minutes here and there. You have to actually make the conscious choice to forgive it, and focus on the loving attachment she has with your son.

In contrast, I would have walked up to the babysitter with the money she was owed for the time she was there (money gets attention, even from idiots) and told her "thank you, please leave immediately."

There's no one answer to this question! Asking us is a bit like getting physical therapy over the internet. You can get a general guide, or some exercises, but you need someone to help you with all the little situations that pop up from day to day.

I would suggest finding someone who handles these situations well and getting their advice whenever you encounter this kind of problem. That person may be a therapist--may be a close friend--may be an older relative who would love to give you help in your life. An assertiveness therapist, instead of a physical therapist. They can give you great advice for all the specific scenarios that you encounter.

After a while you'll be able to see patterns, use your assertiveness confidently on your own, and be more secure in your judgment. You still will need advice from time to time--everyone does! Even the pope has advisers!

Good luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 8:30 AM on January 21, 2008


Give yourself a bit of a break: these are not low-stakes situations you've described here! I have been called assertive-to-the-point-of-aggressive, sometimes (i.e. the negative end of the spectrum), and even I would think twice about how to proceed in your scenarios. Losing a nanny? Offending your best friend? Not being able to staff the company that is your livelihood? Those are all critical issues that can have long-term repercussions, and you are wise to want to consider the outcomes. It's the responsible thing to do, rather than just opening your mouth and let whatever fly.

I would suggest that you might identify low- or no-risk situations where you can practice asserting yourself. If the sacker at the supermarket isn't bagging your groceries carefully... when the impatient and rude person cuts in front of you at the queue for movie tickets... when the waiter at the restaurant doesn't provide good service. These are places where there is an acceptable standard of public behavior, and a safe and acceptable course of action you can take to make your needs and wishes known when they aren't being met. Practicing in cases like this will allow you to "work up" to being assertive in the more important situations. You just have to start saying to yourself, "I don't care what that woman thinks, I'll never see her again."

You might also consider adding some additional internal mantras to your repertoire:

- "My money spends just the same as anyone else's, so I deserve to receive 100% of the value."
- "Asking politely to get what I was promised isn't pushy, rude or mean -- it's what's fair."
- "It's time for the Golden Rule to start applying to how others treat me, also."
- "I'm not asking for special treatment, or behaving like a princess."
- "A person who gets upset when I've politely asked them to keep their word is the one with the problem."
- "I'm the mom/wife/boss. If I don't speak up, and demand what's best for my child/family/business, who will?"

Don't laugh, I know it sounds slightly like Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley... but I'm a believer in "fake it till you make it." If you need to say over and over in your head, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" to get you through situations that make you nervous or reluctant to speak up, then do whatever works.

For me, when I need to make sure another person is treating me as expected, it's most effective (and makes me feel the best) to state my feelings very kindly, without judgment. I sometimes will be overly sweet, or I will sometimes even imply with an apologetic tone that it's my fault -- for being too meticulous, etc. "Hey [new part-time babysitter], I know this makes me one of 'those moms', but I really hope that when you're here tomorrow afternoon, you will be able to spend active time with Billy. The reason I bring in help is so I can get my own work done, and I just can't concentrate on my stack if I am worried that Billy isn't receiving lots of fun interaction and stimulus. Thanks so much for understanding!"

Another phrase that I find works really well here is "Can you do me a favor?" It accomplishes what you need (to communicate your wishes) while using language that allows the bad-behaver to correct his actions without losing face. It takes some of the sting out of the request.

"Can you do me a favor and make sure that the light and breakable items are all in one bag? I just don't want the eggs to be squashed under the bricks! Thanks!"

"Can you do me a favor and make sure you're here right at 8 am? I know we've all been pretty flexible these last few weeks but things are getting really busy for Husband and me at work, and we don't want to have to stay in the office longer in the evening in order to make up for our late starts! Thanks!"

Another thing you might try, while practicing your assertiveness overall: begin clarifying expectations up front in order to create fewer opportunities for people to let you down -- ergo, fewer opportunities for you to need to express your displeasure with them. By telling the subcontractors in advance that you expect X, Y, and Z, you will likely eliminate some of the original need to have unpleasant conversations with them. In many things, it's often easier to lay out firm, clear expectations ....and firm, clear ramifications for failure to meet those expectations... in the beginning when the slate is clean. Then, if a service provider fails in some way, the cause/effect has already been explicitly laid out.

If you hire a guy who is told in the beginning that there is zero tolerance for no-show on a job, barring life-or-limb emergency, and then he makes a choice to no-show because of traffic, you can be truly, sincerely apologetic: "We are so sorry it didn't work out... but as you knew, this is a company policy and we simply have to adhere to it, in fairness to the whole team." You're not just being mean or cruel: there was an understanding of expectation, he agreed to it up front, then he failed it.

[Separately, on the nanny -- it's so very hard to find people who are good with one's child, and if you are worried she'll leave, I think I'd likely consider a workaround instead of confronting her. I would tell her that you need to push back her arrival time, to [X - 15 minutes] every day, so that you and your husband can start work promptly at X. That way it's you taking the action, rather than criticizing her for her tardiness (Because trust me, the nanny knows she's late, and knows she's taking advantage. This should be a harmless way to get it sorted where everyone can save face.)

Still, if she asks for increased pay, you can look a bit surprised, and say, "Well, the agreed time at present is X, and you usually arrive at X+20, so I figured that by pushing back to X-15, that would help you manage your travel time better so you could be here right at X." Which is a clear but polite way to say,"You're getting full pay for reduced performance now, so we're just trying to get our money's worth."

You will get responses here saying, "Screw that, just sack her!" or "You shouldn't have to play these mind games!" ...but those people have not had to find a nanny in a seller's market, either.]
posted by pineapple at 8:31 AM on January 21, 2008 [6 favorites]


Justonegirl, I recently took a wonderful online course in how to be assertive. I consider myself a fairly assertive person but I need credits to renew my teaching certificate and I thought this would be an easy A. I was wonderfully surprised at how much I got out of the course and how little I knew about real assertiveness as opposed to just being a b#*@h. I understand your position, you have alot of responsibility and feel like you have to tread carefully with some people in order to keep everything running smoothly. As good as they are, a handful of suggestions on the internet can't help you turn around years of set behaviors. I would really suggest finding an online course or something similar to help you learn new techniques and put them into practice. That is what I liked about this class. It gave you excercises and gentle suggestions to practice your new skills and learn the talent of standing up for what you need, want and expect. MeFimail me if you want the info on the class that I just finished. It did cost some money but was easy to do, I learned a TON and it was much cheaper than therapy. Best of luck to you!!
posted by pearlybob at 8:35 AM on January 21, 2008


A little while back, I learned, not just in my head but in my emotional body somewhere, that I will live if people don't like me. I think I used to subconsciously believe before that if someone didn't like me, it was one of the worse things that could happen and I also used to subconsciously think that if something wasn't okay emotionally, I should try to "fix" it. And I think these beliefs led to a lot of hypocritical behaviour on my part - lying or masking the truth or not saying something that might hurt someone's feelings or just not saying what I needed to say because I was scared of stirring up conflict. So I think the skill set I needed to learn in order for me to be able to say the truth more had to do with changing some of my core beliefs. What sometimes works for me is to simply make the decision to say what I need to say while I keep telling myself that:
1) if there is conflict, I will be okay.
2) If someone doesn't like me, I will still be okay. They will be okay.
3) If there is conflict, it is not necessarily my job to smooth things over. Repeat #1, if there is conflict, I will still be okay.
4) If someone isn't happy, I don't necessarily have to "fix" it somehow. If they are unhappy, they can say what they need to say and go from there.

It is hard to do and still pretty stressful and there were and are some days where I tell myself over and over that it is okay if someone doesn't like me. Some days I have to say it like a mantra because there are people that don't like me. Probably for good reason. I will still live. For some reason, it is harder for some people to do than others, and I still can't do it all the time, but I think it is a skill set that can be practiced.
posted by gt2 at 8:42 AM on January 21, 2008 [9 favorites]


I agree w. a few other commenters - these conversations would be challenging for most people. The fact that you're avoiding these conversations doens't necessarily indicate a huge assertiveness problem- they'd be hard for anyone. The fears you list aren't crazy fears - you don't want to lose the nanny, you don't want to sour relationships w. your subcontractor=friends.

You may want to check out a book called Difficult Conversations. I'm a really big fan. It talks about the sorts of emotional issues that prevent people from, say, discussing problems w. under-performing employees. It also prvoides a lot of smart guidelines for how to have the conversation. Knowing how to effectively communicate your concerns and make things better isn't always just a matter of being assertive enough to start the conversation, it's also about having the skills to conduct the conversation in a way that's as effective as possible, and maintains a good relationship. The book is based on research at the Harvard Negotiation Project, and combines a mix of personal examples, workplace examples, and examples where the realms overlap.
posted by ManInSuit at 9:02 AM on January 21, 2008


In-person training and practice is helpful for this sort of thing. I took the Crucial Conversations course and it was surprisingly helpful. I made a point of practicing the skills I learned (ie, straightening people out) and I got excellent results. Their website suggests that there is a seminar in Arlington, VA on 3/18. I suggest you count it as a business expense associated with your company and go take some training.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:09 AM on January 21, 2008


I was raised an only child by a father who was pretty reserved and unemotional, and a mother who was chronically depressed and extremely hypersensitive. I made her cry on numerous occasions, during what I now think were normal parent-child disagreements.

These experiences seem to have left you with the idea that interpersonal conflict is somehow capital-B Bad, something extremely anomalous, something that Nice People don't do with each other.

This notion is wrong.

Conflict and disagreement are completely normal features of human relationships. The trick is in how you manage them and resolve them.

(nthing what others have said above -- that number four is a really tricky situation, even for people with very good people skills. it's very difficult to have candid conversations about work performance with friends. which is why most people prefer to hire strangers. if it doesn't work out, no harm done to the social network.)
posted by jason's_planet at 11:05 AM on January 21, 2008


When these situations pop up ask yourself this question - Is it more important that this person like me or more important that I express what I need?

Extra credit question - How do I feel about myself when I'm dissatisfied due to my own passivity?

When you can answer those questions, you'll know how to assert yourself.
posted by 26.2 at 11:08 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Being disposed to passive aggression (and armchair psychology) myself, I felt the urge to comment. Passive aggression is not always a bad trait, you know. I think a lot of people find it endearing. I say this with absolutely nothing to back it up.

If you have any suggestions on how to confidently and politely assert oneself in these types of situations, I would really appreciate it.

If you're having trouble communicating these things directly, maybe try and think up some more creative ways to express them. For example, when it's time for you to go to work, you could get all your things together and hover around the front door, waiting for the late baby sitter. Then once she gets there, you rush off to work. No time for awkwardness.
posted by Laugh_track at 11:55 AM on January 21, 2008


Hmm.. er, I guess what I was trying to say is, why not accept yourself for who you are? That's all. Being passive aggressive (like being aggressive) can be fun as long as you don't really mean it deep down. Besides it's all psycho babble anyway. Just 2 cents
posted by Laugh_track at 12:52 PM on January 21, 2008


Another phrase that I find works really well here is "Can you do me a favor?"

For the situations mentioned in the question, I don't think this phase is appropriate. Your nanny is your employee, not your pal. She doesn't do favors for you- she works for you. For her to do her job properly is not a "favor"- it's her job. I would avoid any language that diminishes your power of authority (in situations where it is your authority that sets the boundaries).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:58 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Crucial Conversations was recommended above, and I strongly second it. It changed the way I saw these things almost instantaneously. For the last six months or so, I've been woking my way through similar questions (and I recently asked how to "express strong opinions without saying anything offensive or controversial"). This book has been great, and I'm only halfway through. What I've gotten from it so far is --
* you have to be honest about what really matters to you or else problems build up
* there are ways to do this that keep everyone feeling comfortable and safe
* starting from shared goals (or at least a positive goal you have) is a good way to do this (like how jeanmari above structured the conversation around your shared goals for Junior)
But it's a lot better than my bullet points, because you actually come to believe all that. The book is full of examples of conversations that went well, and of problems that happened when conversations were not attempted, so you become convinced that talking directly is in everyone's interest. You all want to have mutually satisfying business partnerships. Of course your nanny doesn't want to be screwing up your professional life. Of course your contractors want you to be satisfied with their work and for the work they do for you to be structurally sound (though they may have a different opinion about what exactly it takes to achieve that). And just like you'd feel bad if you found out ten years from now that you'd been cooking your husband some food he hated (assuming you cook), you're not doing anyone any favors by not telling them. But I understand that you hold back out of a fear the conversations would go badly, which is where this book is also great, because it gives specific techniques for having tricky conversations without anyone getting hurt or things going haywire. As someone with these same questions, I cannot recommend the book highly enough.

In the meantime, here's one technique my old boss used a lot, to good effect. First, realize that it's your own responsibility to set and maintain clear standards for the work. That's your role in the situation. And, I'm assuming you hired them because they're people who want to do good work. So, the fact that they're not doing things right is your fault, at least the first time or two. Your message therefore is a cheerful clarification about what needs to be happening, while making sure it's still something they're willing to do. "I realize there's something I didn't explain clearly when we started, so this [ie, what you're about to say] is my fault, but Hubbie and I actually need to start work at 7:45. I notice you've been arriving between 7:40 and 7:50, but we actually need you to arrive between 7:30 and 7:40. Will that work for you?" Then, follow up a few days later by saying, "thank you for all your hard work.....And thank you for getting here between 7:30 and 7:40 every day this week. It has really made our mornings run smoothly."

Also, read this comment. It's about subordinates but it's true for everyone else. It's about what a relief it is to know what someone really wants and to have clear communication about what should happen.
posted by salvia at 4:45 PM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


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