It’s hard to be assertive when you’re really worried about the other person’s response. Maybe you’re worried they’ll think you’re being ridiculous and reject you. Maybe you’re worried they’ll be critical, and you’ll feel even more uncomfortable.
These are legitimate concerns.
Maybe they’ve even been substantiated by past experiences. For instance, after trying to be assertive, you’ve left an interaction feeling “misunderstood, shunned or ignored,” and the issue went unresolved, said Leslie Garcia, LCSW, a psychotherapist and founder of Counseling Space in New York City, which focuses on the mental and emotional wellness of women business leaders and CEOs.
So, the next time a similar situation arises, you inevitably recall the negative experience and do everything you can to avoid it, she said.
After all, Garcia noted, humans are “social beings; maintaining social connections is necessary for our survival and health.”
Maybe you’re worried because you have a history of people-pleasing and hate to take an opposing view, said Kirsten Brunner, LPC, a therapist who specializes in perinatal mental health and relationship counseling at her private practice in Austin, Texas. Or maybe you “struggle with a pervasive fear of conflict, abandonment, or rejection.”
Either way, whatever the specific reasons, the good news is that you can stand up for yourself and voice your needs, values, thoughts, and feelings. Remember you can do scary things.
Of course, the question is how?
Below, you’ll find expert suggestions on being assertive when you’re worried about the reaction.
Make sure you’re really being assertive. Sometimes, we think we’re being assertive, but we’re actually being vague, passive, dismissive, or even abrasive. Being assertive means being kind, clear, attentive, and specific. It means “sticking up for yourself but still respecting the rights of others,” said Maegon S. Miller, LPC, a therapist and self-care coach for professional women who are looking to strengthen their relationships, work life, and everything in between.
Being assertive also means being “calm with your tone instead of aggressive or angry,” said Brunner, co-author of the book The Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads: How to Support Your Partner Through Birth, Breastfeeding & Beyond.
Both Brunner and Garcia stressed the importance of letting the other person know that you’re listening to them by recognizing and reflecting their point of view.
It’s also important to tell the other person that you value them and your relationship (where appropriate), Garcia said. She shared this example: “I appreciate our relationship, your support, and your loyalty. It is my intention that this conversation will serve to help us better understand our perspectives and strengthen our relationship.”
Brunner shared these additional examples of assertive statements:
- “I’ve enjoyed getting to know you on these couple of dates. That being said, I’m not feeling the connection with you that I hoped to feel so I’m wondering if we can just move forward with just being friends at this time.”
- “I see that your driveway is narrow and that you don’t have a lot of space to park. Unfortunately, my grass is beginning to die because you keep parking on it. Can we discuss other parking options?”
- “I recognize that you have been working hard at the office lately and I appreciate that. I need to let you know that I am not coping very well at home and I really need more help. In particular, can you start helping me with the dishes and the laundry? That would be incredibly helpful.”
- “I can see where you are coming from and that makes sense to me. Let me share with you where I am coming from.”
Know pushback is normal. “Change is hard for everyone so when you start switching things up, people may act in ways you aren’t used to seeing,” said Miller, who emphasized being patient and preparing for some pushback.
Similarly, Brunner suggested thinking about how you’ll handle negative responses. For example, how can you take care of yourself after a critical remark? She also suggested exploring why you might be especially sensitive to criticism and how you can maintain your sense of self and soothe yourself during unpleasant interactions.
Identify the worst-case scenario. Brunner encourages her clients to consider the worst thing that’ll happen if they assert themselves. Maybe the other person might be “a little uncomfortable or taken aback. But in the end, they will probably appreciate the direct communication and will respect [you] for it.”
And if your worst-case scenario does come true, remember why you’re being assertive in the first place, Brunner said. After all, you are standing up for your health and well-being.
Also, “sometimes facing the worst-case scenario can help us to see issues in our relationship that need addressing.” So, you might talk to the person and see if you can resolve the issue.
Practice. A lot. Start by being assertive in lower-risk situations with people you feel comfortable with, Miller said. Be honest with your loved ones. Tell them that you’re trying to be more assertive and ask them to be patient with you and respectful of you “trying something new,” she said. Remember the more you practice being assertive, the more automatic it will become—regardless of who’s on the receiving end.
Walk away. And other times, the best course of action is to walk away from the interaction, said Garcia. For example, if someone is constantly interrupting you, yelling, or being disrespectful in other ways, remove yourself from the situation. And if this becomes a pattern in your interactions, it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship, seek professional help, or end the relationship.
Because being assertive may feel very uncomfortable (and some people might react negatively), you might be tempted to stay silent. But remember that speaking up can help you improve your relationship and it, ultimately, helps you to honor yourself. And that’s really the best reason to be assertive with anyone.