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Speak up; the alternative is grief.
I heard this from a friend recently: “Why is it like pulling teeth to get others to open up and say, ‘I really don’t like it when you…’” On the same day another friend lamented, “I have so many people in my life who stew, steam, get so mad at someone, and tell everyone except that person.” Both of these people were understandably frustrated at others’ unwillingness or inability to speak their minds. Whether you have problems expressing yourself or you’re frustrated with people in your own life who don’t express themselves, the following suggestions can help you change or understand their experience.
Do you have a difficult time being assertive? Do you avoid confrontation? Is making decisions a struggle for you? You aren’t alone; many people deal with these challenges. Often we learn to be passive and fearful as a result of childhood relationships in which parents and other adults hold all the power. From the vantage point of a child, the feeling of helpless makes sense. You may have learned to cope by giving in or backing off, rather than “arguing,” or remaining steadfast. You may have been raised by controlling or abusive parents and never learned confidence. Whatever your experience, it’s simple to see that we become what we practice. For you, authority and intimate relationships include both love and danger. The decision to protect yourself by “going along and getting along,” while necessary as a child, is kicking your butt as an adult. Regardless, you can still learn confidence and assertiveness.
Being assertive means speaking up for yourself and confronting difficult situations. The reason this is difficult for you is that it’s more familiar to you to sulk or pretend “it isn’t such a big deal.” You likely bottle up your emotions, stew until you can’t stand it any longer, and then lash out. That’s your roller-coaster. You probably have what you imagine are good reasons for your behavior. Still, you’re unhappy; you know you have a problem; and you’re afraid to tackle it. Your complaints aren’t doing you any good because the world isn’t going to change for you. It’s time for you to take action, unless you’d rather remain frustrated, indecisive, and scared. What’s your choice? If you’ve truly decided to do something about this, I encourage you to follow this simple recipe.
1. Begin to address simple decisions with authority. You’ll make mistakes, but the consequences of holding back from these simple choices are much more painful. Make a choice and move on, don’t dwell on “what ifs.”
2. Speak with someone you trust and can confide in; share with her how you’ve been afraid and lacked assertiveness. Let her know you intend to change this about yourself. Ask if you can begin by being forthcoming about something that’s bothered you in your relationship with her. Hard as this may seem, it’s a small and important stepping stone on a new path.
3. Be on the lookout for similar situations with other friends, family and co-workers. You’ll find opportunities to express discomfort or frustration – speak up! If you miss a chance and become aware after the fact, prepare yourself mentally for a more assertive response. Do it soon; the longer you wait, the more difficult it will be.
4. You’re likely to find yourself at a loss for words sometimes. This is to be expected. Think about it or ask a friend for advice about what you could have said. Situations when others are hostile can be especially hard to deal with. This is why you’ve begun with more manageable relationships. “Baby steps” are helpful in building self-confidence for those more challenging encounters.
5. When dealing with a combative person do not justify your actions, become defensive, validate your view, explain the situation, or deny your behavior. Each of these responses is natural, but will only fuel his anger. Instead, acknowledge facts, verbally recognize his emotion, take responsibility for your choices, and ask what he would like to happen.
6. Assertiveness is not aggressiveness, but it may feel like it. You’ll feel uncomfortable, maybe even sick, being firm. The discomfort is temporary and a normal response to change. You’re feeling this because you’re being different and stepping out of your comfort zone. Don’t let this stop you.
7. Be respectful in your communication. Assertiveness isn’t an excuse to be inconsiderate or cruel. However, the pendulum often swings in the other direction; look for balance. Work on being both forthright and kind. This takes practice, and I’m sure you can do it.
Marriage Counselor Austin, Texas
The Art of Communication: Speak Assertively, Kindly, and Effectively – Article © 2009