The Coward’s Guide to Assertiveness

January 18th, 2010

OK.  I admit it.  I’m a coward.  It’s in my nature and I’m not afraid to admit it.

For most of my life, I was the kid who played what everyone else wanted to play. Did what other people wanted to do. Ate pretty much whatever everyone else wanted to eat.

And where did this push-over, non-assertive attitude get me?

Actually, it got me pretty far…considering. Especially since I am now living in a Confucian society like South Korea’s, my non-assertiveness actually endears me to my bosses. But is non-assertiveness a virtue any more than assertiveness?

The truth is there have been points in my life when we need to be more assertive–cowardness notwithstanding. And for someone who is not naturally assertive, it took some effort. But being more assertive is not impossible. Actually, it doesn’t take much to be assertive, even if you are the type of person who’d rather sit quietly at your desk than risk a riff with co-workers, bosses, or clients.

Throughout my life, I discovered some really simple ways to be more assertive without having to go through a transformation into a type-A personality. In small steps, you too can be more assertive.

Here are three ways I have discovered that have helped me to become more assertive:

  1. Use eye contact

Most of the people you consider assertive are never afraid to look at others in the eye. I had this problem. My tendency was always to look down. But I discovered that when I looked into people’s eyes, they listened more intently to what I was saying and were more inclined to follow my suggestions.

If looking people in the eye is tough for you, try what I did.

Step 1: look at the space in the middle of the other persons eyes.

Step 2: Start gazing directly into other people’s eyes (blink occasionally so you won’t look like a psychopath)

2. Make suggestions instead of asking for opinions

The way you speak defines you. I didn’t make that up. People judge you by how you talk. You can tell a person’s social class and education by how they speak and you can generally tell who is a pushover too. But by taking a few simple steps, you can start becoming more assertive by changing how you speak.

For example, when people ask you what you want to eat, rather than replying with the usual “what would you like?” try getting into the habit of making suggestions.

Maybe try:

“I propose…”

“Why don’t we have…”

“Let’s try…”

By getting into the habit of making suggestions, you will start to sound 100% more assertive, and in fact, you WILL start to feel assertive.

3. Embrace your indirectness

A lot of personal development material encourages you to change your personality.  Actually, their whole point is that you CAN change it.  But I don’t give you crap in this blog.  And the truth is you can’t change your general personality.  But you CAN find ways to work around it.  Most non-assertive people tend to be rather indirect tin their speech. And a lot of self-help books will tell you, in essence, to simply be more direct. Easier said than done is you are by nature non-assertive.  But I take a little different approach. I say rather than fight against yourself, embrace your limitations.  Indirectness can be very powerful and can make you more assertive if managed correctly.

For example: let’s say your boss spouts a really bad idea during a meeting. Other people argue with the boss, but being the boss, the boss refuses to hear them. Those people are direct and probably consider themselves quite assertive. In fact, they’ll probably go out and complain about the boss but pay themselves on the back for “standing up to him/her”.

But what can you do? How can your indirectness actually help you? You could go to your boss after the meeting.Maybe talk about small things, and then mention how much you liked the boss’s idea and then recommend some improvements (while you are in essence disagreeing).

Are you being assertive by using an indirect approach? You bet you are. Assertiveness comes in many forms. Being indirect can be interpreted as being non-assertive, but I have found that if done correctly, an indirect approach not only makes you more assertive but gets the result you desire.

Assertiveness, when you boil it all down,  is all about making your wishes known. By making very small changes, you can increase your assertiveness dramatically.


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