How to Be Assertive and Stand up for Yourself the Smart Way

We’ve all experienced those situations where something is said that feels out of turn and borders on being offensive. The derogatory comments, aggressive taunts, hurtful judgments and criticisms can stun us like a deer in the headlights. That split-second we could be assertive and stand up for ourselves passes all too quickly, and we kick ourselves afterward for that witty rebuttal that only comes well after the event has passed. Doh!

Left for too long, those seemingly minor irritations can compound to significantly damage your self-esteem and self-worth. You convince yourself ignoring the taunts or insulting one-liners your boss makes at your expense is being professional and resilient. You might even try to justify the behavior to say “She was only joking and didn’t mean it”, “You say to yourself: “I can handle him” but then you start experiencing and witnessing that behavior in other areas of your life.

That unresolved injustice will continue to fester. The long-term damage can lead to emotional outbursts, rash decisions and even anxiety and depression.

There are right and wrong ways to step up to the plate and bat for yourself. Being assertive boils down to learning to manage your energy, plan your approach and craft your message in a way that maximizes potential for the other person, to be open to receiving and accepting it.

You will not just feel stronger. You’ll become stronger with a new confidence that will flourish throughout all areas of your life. Use these processes and steps and you’ll learn the smart way to assert yourself.

1. Acknowledge the Injustice and Refrain from Reacting

Acknowledge what was said or done. Make it known you noticed that underhanded innuendo by pausing and directing your attention to it.

By pausing and not reacting, you immediately demonstrate you believe what you just witnessed is unjust or underhanded. Your non-verbal body language alone can be highly assertive in itself to convey a message stronger than words can convey.

If you are not fully catatonic in shock disbelief, you might calmly state you will revisit what they said, the action they took or the decision they made at another point. And you don’t ask it as a question; you make a statement.

The offending party will realize they can’t simply have their cake and eat it too. The matter is not closed simply because they feel it is.

If you are being aggressively bullied, it can feel impossible to resist caving in. Having two or three statements you replay to each taunt will quickly send the message their persistent attempts to intimidate you will continually hit a roadblock. Examples might be:

  • I am not going to respond right now
  • That’s interesting you said that/did that/decided that
  • I will be revisiting what you said/did

None of these statements are passive-aggressive. They are emotionally neutral statements. You’ve simply commanded respect and attention.

Any dynamic of a power play that your opponent has over you, will have shifted. You have bought yourself time to consider what you want to do next.

2. Pause and Reflect to Develop Clarity on What You Want to Be Assertive About and For

When you’re in shock, it’s unlikely your brain will have the capacity to respond with the speedy comeback you swore you would retort with the last time you heard that snide remark.

Dr. Joan Rosenberg describes how we need to give ourselves space to come to terms with what we experienced, and how we experienced it before being able to consider what action to take next:

As the shock intensity subsides after the initial 90 seconds of the emotional gut-punch, it’s time to go inward to ask yourself:

  • What unpleasant feelings have been triggered for me?
  • What injustice do I feel took place here and why does this matter so much to me?
  • What values, ethics and morals do I have that are being violated here?
  • What should/should not have occurred?

Remember that the injustice you observe and experience is coming from your perspective and the framework through which you see the world.

The impact of your assertive action steps from here will need to include being able to express your viewpoint. You’ll need to be able to express why you don’t agree with the apparent nepotistic or sexist methods of recruiting staff for the business.

Get clear on your values. It’s crucial you understand within yourself first, the nature and reason behind the battle you choose to fight.

3. Seek to Understand First Before Being Understood

Asking yourself what drives the other person to behave and communicate in ways you feel create harm can greatly help to reduce your bubbling cauldron of anger, fury and humiliation to a gentler simmer.

Stepping into the other person’s perspective is not about dismissing your feelings or compromising your values and principles. It helps you to communicate in a language the other person will understand.

Your efforts to be assertive will have far greater impact when you actively consider what might be going on for them. The father who wishes to gift the majority of his inheritance to the sons and not the daughters may not necessarily be coming from an attitude of blindly favoring one gender. He may be the product of multiple generations who saw the family business’ continued success is passed through the male bloodline, and so he felt it right to follow suit.

You may not agree with this perspective. However, if that is an explanation, you need to find a way to be open to considering it. Consider also what could be going on for them and invite them to share their position. You’ll quickly diffuse aggressive energy or resistance between you and create the safe space essential for you to assertively exchange your points of view and differences.

Never invalidate the other person’s point of view even if it does not make sense to you. Once you do, you’re on a slippery slope back to the bottom where you started. Climbing back up again will be at least twice as hard.

4. Agree to Disagree as Being Assertive Is About Boundary Setting, Not Winning

Don’t make the error of thinking effective assertiveness means convincing and winning over others to adopt your values and point of view. If you do, expect to be met with resistance. You also risk becoming a bully yourself!

The smarter approach involves having a genuine willingness to invite and appreciate others’ perspectives. It’s highly likely you may all have clashing values in some way or another, that none of you are willing to concede.

Recognizing and appreciating these differences helps to even the playing ground. It reveals that even though you disagree, you have the wisdom to still show respect.

Part of being assertive is then stating your boundaries and clearly illustrating the line you do not want the other parties to cross. Be prepared that your reveal needs to be free of ambiguity. Clear examples of what is and isn’t permissible for you, need to be stored up your sleeve.

5. Plan Your Response and Construct Your Argument Well

Know that sometimes you don’t need to go to the nth degree to explain and justify your assertions. Doing so can quickly lose you valuable alliances.

The fast-track to becoming the proverbial thorn in everyone’s side is to dampen the air with your tirades of self-righteousness.

Subtlety first

Asserting yourself the smart way involves assessing how subtle or explicit your communication needs to be.

A simple “that comment is not ok with me” or “I don’t appreciate what you said” might be enough to prod and communicate your distaste to the offending party and gain the change in their behavior you desire.

Choose your timing wisely

The timing of your response also needs to be a good fit between what you works for you and also what timing will have the most beneficial impact upon the other party/ies.

We’ve all left it too long afterward to respond when everyone has forgotten what actually happened, yet the scar is burnt in your memory as if it happened earlier that morning. Don’t leave it too long to respond.

Examples and stories give a stronger, clearer message

Also, be prepared to have examples which support your argument. Simply stating you deserve a pay-rise ‘just because’ is unlikely to be met with an open-mind or willing consideration.

When you demonstrate and show cases of your performing beyond role description, you show clear credibility you deserve to be considered. Where possible, use facts and figures that don’t lie.

Avoid placing blame

As soon as you use the words: “You did this to me”, “It’s your fault” “You made me feel…” you deflate the willingness of your offender to hear your case.

You position the other party to become defensive to attack because that is what you are doing when you use such language; you’re attacking.

Stick with the facts and describe the emotional and impact upon you with diplomacy

Describe factually what you believe happened, how you felt as a result, why you feel what happened was an injustice and then state the change you wish to experience.

If you can find a way to explain, there are also benefits to all parties with these changes; you have a far greater likelihood of your assertions being well-received and adjustments occurring from your action of standing up for yourself.

6. Never Feel Obliged to Heed Attempts at Invalidating Your Experience

Despite being told “you’re taking things out of context” or “you need to lighten up and accept I was just joking”, never forget that your experience is your experience. What you felt and how you were affected, matters. You have every right to dissent to experiencing the same impact again.

For difficult, arrogant and bolder, toxic personalities, beware also the catastrophic dangers of being gaslighted . Trying to assert your views, opinions and boundaries with a narcissistic personality type where gaslighting is a common feature, is virtually pointless.

When standing up for yourself starts being repeatedly met with “you’re the one with the problem. You really are the one who needs help”, get outside support. Talk to friends who can be objective, non-judgmental and supportive and strongly consider consulting a mental health professional. Such narcissistic traits can inflict long-term psychological damage.

Very little part of your assertive communication will be met with empathy. If it is, it’s likely to be calculated and endure for only a short period before the other party returns to considering things only from their own perspective.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula, continuing varied efforts to assert your position with such individuals from different angles and perspectives is probably a worthless exercise.((Dr. Ramani Durvasula: The 4 Types of Narcissism You Need To Know)) Be careful.

7. Manage and Practice the Energy of Your Assertive Exchange

Beware of coming across aggressively and defensively. Unless you’ve got the stamina to battle it out to the death, fighting fire with fire is unlikely to yield a workable resolve.

Whilst all parties are operating in attack and defense mode, the fences are up and the swords are out, no party will be receptive to any suggestions.

Fighting is futile, let alone an exercise wasting energy that could be harnessed, transformed and used more wisely to hold a healthier change.

Before your opportunity presents to make your case, practice being calm. Practice feeling your energy, emotional space and mental space being controlled. Rehearse your words meaningfully conveying your message with poise, clarity and passion.

Imagine and practice the body language and voice tone. Your body and neural pathways will develop a blueprint for your successfully delivering your message when you need to do so for real.

8. Practice Being More Transparent and Authentic

Well-renowned social researcher Brené Brown explains how facing and admitting vulnerabilities and insecurities is actually a demonstration of courage:

As you become more confident, to be honest with yourself, you have a better capacity to transfer that confidence into your normal exchanges with people.

The flow-on effect is you then becoming increasingly confident to stand your ground with issues that rattle your cage.

Final Thoughts

You can be assertive without being rude or hurting your relationships.

Next time when you want to stand up for yourself, take my advice and make use of the above essential ingredients to become an unstoppable force.

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