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How to Be Assertive Without Being a Jerk

Are you assertive? Or do you hold your tongue because you don’t want to seem “pushy” or “dramatic”? Savvy Psychologist Dr. Jade Wu talks about what assertiveness is (and isn’t), and offers a fool-proof formula for asserting yourself while maintaining relationships.

By
Jade Wu
Episode #255
Assertiveness

Do you know how to be assertive? Let's say you’re at Starbucks. You’ve been patiently waiting for 10 minutes in line and you really need that caffeine hit. Then someone cuts right in front of you. Which one is the assertive response? Do you:

  • Silently resent them and throw daggers into the back of their head with your eyes,
  • Loudly tell them they should be ashamed of themselves and demand their immediate retreat, or
  • Make snide comments to your friend, just loudly enough for the offender to hear, about how some people are so entitled?

That was a trick question! None of those responses is assertive.

Silence is passive. Public shaming is aggressive. Throwing eye daggers and making snide remarks are passive-aggressive, the worst of both worlds. Some of these methods might get you what you want—closer to your coffee—but at the cost of not being very gracious.

Maybe you don’t care about being gracious at Starbucks, and that would be a totally okay choice. But sometimes the stakes are even higher than coffee. (That's hard to imagine, I know.)

Let’s say your boss keeps making sexist comments that make you uncomfortable. The wrong reaction could affect your job. When the pressure's on, it’s even harder to walk the line between keeping peace and standing up for yourself.

So what to do when you’re in an awkward or unfair situation and you want to both get what you need and avoid stepping on toes? What if you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or don’t want to be known as the “dramatic one,” but you also want to keep your dignity intact? Be assertive!

Being Assertive Doesn't Mean Being Aggressive

“But wait," you say. "What if I don’t have a very dominant or aggressive personality?”

No problem. You don’t need to dominant or aggressive to be assertive. In fact, being assertive is the opposite of bulldozing others’ opinions. You're not shutting down anyone's right to express themselves, hurting or humiliating them, demanding special treatment, or sticking to your selfish demands no matter what. Being assertive has nothing to do with threatening, coercing, or even raising your voice.

Being assertive means respecting yourself and others.

Being assertive means respecting yourself and others. It means clearly and honestly stating your position or your needs. It means being fair, direct, and open-minded.

Being assertive not only sounds ideal, but it’s also associated with better mental health. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology looked at assertiveness and well-being in over a thousand adolescents. They found that those who felt more comfortable with being assertive, and who reported being more assertive, had less depression and anxiety. They also had better self-esteem.

How to Be More Assertive Using the DEAR Technique

So how do you be more assertive, even if it isn't your natural state? Let’s walk through a foolproof script for expressing your needs assertively without combusting relationships using the DEAR technique. 

This method of asserting yourself is borrowed from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is an evidence-based type of psychotherapy created by Dr. Marsha Linehan, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle and Founder of the Linehan Institute.

The DEAR approach is very pragmatic. It’s a way of getting things done with as little drama as possible. If you're  trying to rally passionate support for a political cause or auditioning for a reality TV show where drama is an essential component, it's not going to help. But if you’d like to be calm, cool, and collected when confronting someone you’d like to maintain a relationship with, whether friendly or professional, this technique is for you.

If you’d like to be calm, cool, and collected when confronting someone you’d like to maintain a relationship with, whether friendly or professional, this technique is for you.

So, how do we start that difficult conversation? Let’s use our example of the sexist boss.

Step #1: Describe the situation, as you see it, in factual and neutral terms.

"During meetings, I've noticed that you make remarks about my appearance and dating life. But to my male colleagues, you only make remarks about work."

Here, we start with something like “I noticed that …” or “it appears that …”. We do this to acknowledge right away that we're owning our observations, and that we're open-minded and aware that others may see the situation differently. Notice how I used neutral and factual terms like “remarks” and “about my appearance,” instead of accusatory and judgmental terms like “sexist” and  “inappropriate.”

Accusations coming right out of the gate tend to make people defensive and unwilling to listen.

Even if you do feel strongly that your boss’s remarks are sexist, now isn't the time to say so. Accusations coming right out of the gate tend to make people defensive and unwilling to listen. I also recommend keeping this part very brief. The more you describe, the more opportunity there is for you to slip into an opinion and for the other person to slip into defensive mode.

Step #2: Express your feelings.

“This makes me feel frustrated, because it makes me think that my contributions to the project are not as valued. These remarks also make me feel embarrassed in front of my colleagues, which makes it more difficult for me to participate in meetings.”

Here is where you express your feelings and thoughts. You could even leave out the second part about feeling embarrassed if you don’t think the other person would respond sympathetically to vulnerable emotions.

The key here is to stick to “I” and “me” statements. You can only speak to how you feel about the situation, not to what the other person’s intentions are. Even if you’re pretty sure the other person is bullying you on purpose, making “you” statements like “you’re being sexist” or “you don’t respect me” tends to make people defensive or dismissive. That won't get you very far.

Step #3: Assert your belief, need, or want.

“I would appreciate if you would not comment on my appearance or dating life. Let's stick to professional topics, instead.”

OK, this is where you do the actual asserting. Keep it brief and direct. Resist the urge to qualify. Avoid words and phrases like “maybe,” “I only ask because,” “if it’s at all possible”, and “it’s not really a big deal.” Most of all, don’t say “sorry.” If you're truly apologetic for your request because it’s unfair or harmful, you shouldn’t be making the request at all. If your request is reasonable, don’t apologize.

If you're truly apologetic for your request because it’s unfair or harmful, you shouldn’t be making the request at all. If your request is reasonable, don’t apologize.

To be effective at asserting yourself, you have to carry through. Don't stop at describing the bad situation without making a request. If the only thing you express is that the current situation sucks, then the other person feel that you're berating them. Making a request gives you both something productive to work towards.

Don't just drop hints, either. Hints are not enough. Maybe you’re hoping they’ll catch on if you say something like, “Society nowadays can kinda unfair to women in the workplace, you know what I mean?” Okay, sure, the other person might think. What does that have to do with me? Notice how the hint gave no indication of what the person should do differently. They can’t read your mind, so do them a favor and make a specific, actionable request. They’ll be more likely to change their behavior.

Step #4: Reinforce the other person.

“I appreciate you hearing me out. It means a lot to me to have a supportive boss. Your cooperation would make me feel a lot more comfortable and better able to contribute to the team.”

This last step is very important. It’s the cherry on top, the thank-you-in-advance. It reminds the other person that you’re not trying to pick a fight or cause drama, and that you care about maintaining the relationship. People enjoy being acknowledged and appreciated, so if you can do this in advance, they are more likely to comply with your request. Not to mention that, when you’ve ended on such a gracious note, it would be hard for them to derail the conversation by becoming defensive.

So, let’s try the Describe, Express, Assert, and Reinforce technique all together:

During meetings, I've noticed that you make remarks about my appearance and dating life. But to my male colleagues, you only make remarks about work. This makes me feel frustrated, because it makes me think that my contributions to the project are not as valued. These remarks also make me feel embarrassed in front of my colleagues, which makes it more difficult for me to participate in meetingsI would appreciate if you would not comment on my appearance or dating life. Let's stick to professional topics, instead. I appreciate you hearing me out. It means a lot to me to have a supportive boss. Your cooperation would make me feel a lot more comfortable and better able to contribute to the team.

How does that feel on the tongue? If it feels stiff and scripted right now, don’t worry, it'll get smoother with practice. And people rarely complain that someone's assertiveness is too professional. Write your own script down, practice out loud, and you’ll feel confident in no time.

Do You Always Need Four Steps to Be Assertive?

So, what about the coffee shop situation? Do you really have to go through a whole DEAR script when someone cuts in line? Not necessarily. A brief line using the spirit of the DEAR script would probably suffice.

"Excuse me, I believe the line goes this way. Could you please join the folks over there? Thanks!"

If you try the DEAR technique in real life, let me know how it goes. And if you want to learn more tips about communication and well being, subscribe to the Savvy Psychologist! Next week, we'll talk about surviving as a night owl in a 9-to-5 world.

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Disclaimer: Please note that all content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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