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How to Assert Yourself Without Being Mean

Someone asks you to lend them money. Not a lot. Just enough so you’ll miss it and wonder if you’ll see it again. You’d rather not lend it, but you can’t say no. You give it up, then resent the person for not paying you back without your having to ask.

You visit the home of an acquaintance and she says, “My dog is super friendly. Let me know if he’s bothering you.” Fifteen minutes and a gallon of slobber on your pants later, you offer a silent prayer of thanks when the dog gets bored with you and decides to torment his chew toy instead.

If not wanting to be mean often keeps you from stating your needs, this post is for you… and for me, because remember the general rule? It goes like this: We teach what we want or need to learn.

In order to be a good person, you have to sometimes bite your tongue, yes. But there’s another way to be a good person. It may be scary, but it’s worth it, because it lets you be good to others without erasing yourself in the process. It’s called being assertive.

What is assertiveness, and how is it different from other ways to communicate? Look at these multiple ways of dealing with being thirsty:

Assertive = Clear, direct I-statements (“I’d like a glass of water, please.”)

Aggressive = You-statements (“Don’t you understand the concept of hydration?”)

Passive = Silence; inaction; private suffering

Passive-Aggressive = Cloaked messages, either verbal (“Are you thirsty?”) or non-verbal

The last three styles are designed to either deflect responsibility, avoid conflict, or both. Only assertiveness treads politely but fearlessly.

I teach a simple 3-step technique in my assertiveness training, and find that it’s easily learned. However, one of the hardest things for participants in the training to get used to is the basic idea that good people should assert themselves at all! For some reason, assertiveness strikes a lot of folks as mean.

Say What You Mean, Keep Them Keen

If you’d like to be more assertive, but worry about coming across as mean, the following are some thoughts on how to overcome this common fear.

Review the definitions of aggressive, passive and passive-aggressive above. Now picture someone responding to YOU in those ways.

As an example, imagine you’re hosting a party in your home, and it seems a little warm in the living room.

You approach a group of guests. “How’s the temperature in here?” you ask.

Aggressive Al, fanning himself, says, “What do YOU think? It’s like Phoenix in July.”

Passive Paula refuses to answer. You have to guess if she’s too hot… or too cold, too thirsty, or her appendix is about to rupture, etc.

Passive-Aggressive Pat answers, “I’m perfectly fine; I just assumed you were still on Costa Rica weather from your vacation.”

Assertive Anne says, “It does seem warm in here. Can you cool it down a bit?”

Let’s analyze these answers and see who’s being mean.

It’s easy to see why Aggressive Al might be considered mean. He’s implying your question was stupid.

But what about passivity? Isn’t it kind of mean of Passive Paula to make you guess what she wants,  when she could save you time and perhaps anxiety by just telling you?

And Passive-Aggressive Pat throws an awkward wrench into the works. Now, in addition to figuring out whether to open the windows, you have to deal with a confusing remark that makes you feel like a bad hostess. Not very nice of Pat, is it?

Assertive Anne’s answer is clear and to the point. Far from being mean, it’s the most respectful, considerate and easy-to-navigate of the bunch.

The take-away point from this little scenario is this:

When you speak assertively, you may not always say what people want to hear, but you respect the listener as well as yourself.

If you remember that the alternatives to assertiveness (aggression, passivity and passive-aggression) can actually be meaner than stating your case clearly, you’ll be more confident in making assertive statements.

PS. I’m a dog lover. Your dog can slobber on me any old time.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado.
She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations.
The author of “Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them” and the “Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children,” Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships.
Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called “Constructive Wallowing.”

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