You don’t want to fight. You don’t want to be hassled. You don’t want to disappoint them. It’s easier to just nod and give them what they want.
But later you feel frustrated, trapped and depressed because you’re not getting what you need and you spend all your time serving others. Ever felt this way? We all have.
For some of us it’s compartmentalized: you’re a warrior at work but a worrier at home. Or it’s the reverse: you rule the house with an iron fist… but just can’t bring yourself to ask your boss for a raise. What’s going on?
There are 4 styles of dealing with people and they all hinge on the idea of control:
- Passive people feel they have no control over others. And because they give in to avoid conflict, they also feel they have no control over themselves.
- Aggressive people are the opposite. They know they have control over themselves and they also believe they should be able to control others. They typically do this through intimidation. In the short term, it often works. In the long term, people do their best to avoid aggressives.
- Passive-aggressive people have control over themselves. They want to control others… but they don’t want to pay the price of being direct. They don’t want to be seen as aggressive and they don’t want to be indebted to others after asking for things. So they play games. They think there are no downsides to deniable aggression. They’re wrong. Eventually they’re seen as inconsiderate or manipulative.
And then there’s the Holy Grail: assertiveness.
Research shows being assertive is that perfect Goldilocks balance of “just right.” It helps you get the things you need while preserving relationships over the long term. But there’s one problem…
Nobody ever tells you what the hell “assertive” really means. How do you do it? How do you get what you need without being a jerk or a manipulator?
Don’t worry. Research has answers.
Let’s get to it…
“Assertiveness is about controlling your behavior, not someone else’s.”
That’s Randy J. Peterson’s definition. He’s a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. The key thing to keep in mind is: “You are in charge of your behavior; others are in charge of their behavior.”
I know: sounds obvious. But when we get caught in passive thinking, this simple fact is what we’re forgetting.
When we behave assertively, we are able to acknowledge our own thoughts and wishes honestly, without the expectation that others will automatically give in to us. We express respect for the feelings and opinions of others without necessarily adopting their opinions or doing what they expect or demand. This does not mean that we become inconsiderate to the wishes of others. We listen to their wishes and expectations, then we decide whether or not to go along with them. We might choose to do so even if we would prefer to do something else. But it is our choice. Whenever we go along with others it is our decision to do so anyway. But we can often feel helpless because we forget that we are under our own control.
The key word there is “choice.” When you’re being passive, you forget that you have a choice. But you always do. When you comply, you’re making a decision.
Passive people think, “I have to do what they want.” No, actually. No, you don’t. Other people say no all the time. The problem is often that passive people assume the consequences of saying no will be catastrophic.
The issue isn’t the request and it usually isn’t the potential consequences of declining — it’s the unreasonable assumption in your head that saying no is the equivalent of hitting the self-destruct button on a relationship.
Many of the barriers that prevent us from being more assertive are in our own heads. We willingly obey imaginary rules that dictate what we are and are not allowed to do. It feels tremendously liberating to realize that the arbitrary standards we set for ourselves are not carved in stone. They do not appear in the criminal code.
Yes, standing up for yourself can have consequences. But if you respect other people’s autonomy, the results are rarely as bad as you think they’ll be.
Aggressives and passive-aggressives try to control others and that’s why in the long term they often pay dearly. But just because you can’t control people doesn’t mean you’re helpless. You can still talk with others, make requests, and negotiate.
Now I know what passive people are thinking: You make it sound so easy. I’m just not an assertive person.
But assertiveness is not a trait like height. It’s a set of skills. Skills you can develop. And you don’t have to run around being pushy all the time.
Assertiveness is like a weedwhacker. You take it out of the garage when you need it; you don’t have to walk around with it running all day long.
(To learn the morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
So how do you build these skills? Let’s look at the three big problems passive people dread and what the research says is the best way to handle them…
How To Say No
You’re wishing they didn’t ask you to do that. Why did they have to ask? You wouldn’t have asked them to do this. But they’re asking. And you can’t make them un-ask. Crap.
Remember: you can’t control other people’s behavior. So when you start down the path of wishing they didn’t ask, you’re violating the cardinal rule of assertiveness: all you can control is your behavior.
…they will ask. Of course they will. Who wouldn’t? Imagine having a genie who will carry out any request you make. It would be wonderful. If you can’t say no, you are such a genie for the rest of the world. Once the rest of the world discovers it, they will be unable to resist.
You always have a choice. When you hold the belief that you must say yes, that’s why you feel like a slave. So what do you do?
First, stay calm. Don’t just react. Don’t say “okay” out of habit. You want to strike while the iron is cool. Delay if you need to: “Let me get back to you about that.”
Next, examine your beliefs. What do you believe will be the result of saying no? “If I don’t agree, they’ll round up the townsfolk and surround my house wielding pitchforks and torches. I’ll be put in the stocks and my children will be forced to wear a scarlet ‘N’ as the child of the monster who said no.”
Is your belief reasonable? Is that the most likely result? Has it ever happened before? What would your very assertive friend Larry think is reasonable? “If you say no, the person will probably nod, shrug, walk away and not hate you forever.”
Decide based on reasonable beliefs. Are you willing to accept the likely consequences? If you are, then go ahead and say no. If you’re not, make the choice to say yes. But you’re not a slave. You made the decision.
But there’s one problem you might face the first few times you try this…
If you’ve been passive for a long time, people are going to be surprised. And if you’re dealing with an aggressive, they’ll think they can control you.
If you mumble a no and they keep asking, you might cave. And now all you’ve done is teach them to push harder.
So, early on in your attempts to be assertive, try the “broken record technique.” Say no. And just keep repeating yourself every time they push.
You don’t have to find the magic words that will satisfy the other person. Using a response once doesn’t wear it out. If you keep repeating the same message, eventually they’ll hear it. “No, I’m not willing to do that.” “No, I’m not willing to do that.” “No, I’m not willing to do that.” Worried that this will sound odd? Doesn’t matter. It won’t sound as odd as you think. At any rate, the fear of sounding odd is a trap that can keep you in the control of others.
(To learn how to increase your self-esteem, click here.)
Okay, you know how to say no. But how do you ask others for something without feeling awful?
How To Ask For What You Want
Other people aren’t psychic. The reason you’re frustrated is because you believe they should be. It’s just another form of trying to control people, and that’s why it makes you angry.
You want something? You’re going to have to ask. Aggressives have no problem with it. And so, for a just a second, channel your inner aggressive.
If you were a bullying jerk, what would you demand? “Take out the trash right now!”
Got the answer? Good, you know what you want. Okay, put The Hulk back in his cage. Now think about Larry, your very assertive friend…
What would he say is the reasonable version of your demand? “Can you take out the trash, please? I’d appreciate it.”
Don’t apologize or put yourself down when you ask. You ran a check in your head; this is a reasonable ask. You don’t need to feel like you’re burdening anyone.
Make sure to word it as a request — not a demand. You’re respecting the person’s autonomy.
Review, rehearse and consider the timing of the ask. You want to be relaxed and you want them to be receptive.
And guess what? They still might say no. And that’s okay. You can’t control their behavior, only yours.
And you didn’t fail, you merely asked. They’re not going to hate you forever — you were reasonable. And you can negotiate further if you’re feeling up to it.
(To learn the FBI’s lead hostage negotiator’s tips on how to negotiate, click here.)
Alright, let’s take it to the next level. Someone has been driving you crazy. You can’t take it anymore. You need to confront them.
You can’t be passive anymore… but you don’t want to explode like an aggressive or start twisting your mustache like a manipulating passive-aggressive. How do you have a tough conversation?
How To Confront An Issue
The key concept to remember here is “Symbolic Value.” What’s that mean?
They didn’t take the trash out. Again. But honestly, taking out the trash is not a big deal, is it? Nobody gets the chair for forgetting to move garbage.
But you don’t understand! When they don’t take the trash out I feel disrespected. If they loved me they would take the trash out on time without me having to remind them!
Ah-ha! Now we’re on to something. Taking out the trash has “symbolic value.” It means respect and love. Or, more specifically, taking out the trash has symbolic value to you.
Did you ever tell them what taking out the trash means to you? I’m guessing no. So to them, taking out the trash may mean, well… “taking out the trash.” They’re not aware of the symbolic value you’ve attached to it.
But you’re assuming they are aware, and that their defiance is intentional, and therefore they are evil incarnate and they must be destroyed. (This chain of thinking can be, uh, problematic to say the least.)
You’ve got three options here:
- Realize the problem is with your symbolic value and revise it.
- Have a direct conversation about the symbolic value issue.
- Focus on changing their behavior.
If your partner regularly does 900 other things to demonstrate their love and respect, then #1 might be the smart choice.
If your partner regularly does 900 other things that make it clear you are neither loved or respected, #2 might be in order. (But tread lightly — making accusations and demanding immediate, massive personality change is a tall order.)
Nine times out of ten, the best thing to do is to focus on changing behavior. But respect their autonomy.
We often have a secret goal. We secretly want others to admit that they are villains, that they intended to hurt us or frustrate us, and that we ourselves are completely innocent of wrongdoing… Here the task is to recognize that we have this perfectly normal thirst for victory — and then to let it go. Face facts. You probably won’t get this admission of total guilt… In general, it’s best to focus on behavior rather than convincing people they are wrong.
Define your goal: “I would like them to take out the trash.” Then relax, rehearse, and don’t try to get them to admit they are evil. But most of all: listen. Why?
If you do, it’s quite likely you’ll get the answer to your “symbolic value” question:
I’m sorry. I had no idea how important this was to you. I’ll take care of it right now.
And you may just find out there’s some silly, stupid, insignificant thing you’ve been ignoring — that has enormous symbolic value to them.
(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s tips on how to get people to like you, click here.)
Okay, you’re on your way from passive to assertive. Let’s round it all up and find out how being assertive doesn’t just get you what you need, it might actually improve the relationships that mean the most to you…
Here’s how to be more assertive:
- Assertiveness is about controlling your own behavior, not theirs. You always have a choice. And the consequences for resisting control by others are rarely as bad as you think.
- You can’t stop people from asking, but you can say no. Figure out the reasonableconsequences of doing so. And then decide. Use the “broken record technique” with aggressives.
- People aren’t psychic. If you want something, ask. Figure out what you want. Make it reasonable and fair. Word it as a request. If they say no, that doesn’t mean they hate you.
- Symbolic Value is often what makes confrontation hard. It’s usually best to try to get people to change their behavior, not their personality.
It takes some time and practice to become more assertive. People will push back initially. They’re used to the old you. That’s okay. Again, you can’t change their behavior, only yours.
But once you start being more comfortable speaking up, it doesn’t just mean more conflict. It can actually mean wonderful things, too.
Professor Randy Peterson points out something interesting: passive people don’t just avoid conflict. They often avoid saying a lot of good stuff too.
You might think that a person who overuses the passive style would have no great difficulty giving positive feedback. They might be giving it constantly, using a “Here’s a compliment, don’t attack me” strategy. In fact, the reverse seems to be true. Most passive individuals not only avoid conflict, they also avoid the expression of positive feeling. They seldom give compliments, express affection, or provide positive feedback.
As you become more assertive, you’ll be a more encouraging, supportive, friend, partner, employee or co-worker. And that’s something that makes life better for everyone.
Those around you will come to appreciate the more assertive you.
Through assertiveness we develop contact with ourselves and with others. We become real human beings with real ideas, real differences… and real flaws. And we admit all these things. We don’t try to become someone else’s mirror. We don’t try to suppress someone else’s uniqueness. We don’t try to pretend that we’re perfect. We become ourselves.
By being more assertive, you finally let those around you see who you really are.
And that’s the only way they can love the real you.
Join over 270,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.