How to be more assertive

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Struggle to be assertive in everyday situations? Janet Stevenson shows you how to avoid mis-interpretation and always be clear about what you mean

It all began innocently enough.  John had been having bad day at work, and just wanted to unwind at the end of the day.  He got on well with Sadie, his colleague, and when he bumped into her at the coffee machine and she said she was having a bad day too, suggested they go for a drink at the end of the day to unwind.  Sadie hesitated.  She had secretly admired John for a long time but her rule was always never to mix work with pleasure.

“Well … I … er … OK, then,” she said, annoyed with herself for breaking her rules but nevertheless over the moon that he had asked her.

“Great!  Give you a shout at five,” he said, a bit confused by her hesitant reaction.  After all, it was just a drink to unwind; he wasn’t asking her out or anything.

And that’s where it all started to go wrong.  Assumptions were made about the intent of the invitation, and neither was assertive enough to clarify the situation with the other.  Needless to say, the drink was a disaster; they ended up arguing, Sadie accusing John of “using” her, John accusing Sadie of being over-emotional and a typical woman.

The other day, I held the door open for a young mother who had one arm holding a child on her hip, and the other arm pushing a buggy almost toppling over with shopping bags on the handle.  She said brightly, “It’s OK, I can manage,” as she insisted on leaning against the door to stop it closing on her, making my gesture of holding it open pointless.
I asked, “Do you have far to go?”

“No – just the car park”, came her reply.

“Well, I’m going to the car park too.  Can I help you with those bags?”

“No, it’s OK, I can manage … really!” she repeated, toiling on.  We chatted together about the weather as we walked back to our cars.  Meanwhile, she dropped one bag, the buggy fell over, and still she insisted she could manage.  The image of her struggling stayed with me for days after, while I pondered the question, “What is it that stops us from saying “yes” when we really would like help?”

Last week I overhead one neighbour asking another, “Could you do me a favour?”

“Yeah, sure!  Of course, glad to help.”

Then the first neighbour asked if the second would mind taking back a chainsaw to a DIY shop which had stopped working.  “It’s under guarantee, I’ve got the receipt but I just don’t have time to go myself.”

“Er, well …”

“Look, it won’t take you long …”

“Mmm, OK” (sounding uncertain).

And that got me thinking, “Why do we say “yes” to something before we even know what it is that we are being asked?”  Would it not have been better to say, “What would you like me to do?” before agreeing to it?

An old Chinese story tells of a man called Ren Guozuo, who lived a long time ago.  He was ill for a long period of time and seemed unable to recover.  He sought out a Daoist priest, and asked him to pray that God would give him peace and good health.  That night, Ren Guozuo had a dream and in it he was told, “For your whole live, you have said “yes” when you meant “no”, so the Gods have decided that you will soon die!”

This sounds harsh but, in ancient China, someone who said “yes” but meant “no” was considered to be a true villain – disloyal, untrustworthy, deceitful and unreliable.  The person deceives no-one but himself.

Yet saying what we mean is not always easy.  How often have you said “yes” to something and then not turned up?  Perhaps you were too busy or stressed out doing other things that you’d wished you said “no” to, or perhaps you really wanted to say “no” to the invitation but didn’t have the heart to refuse? There can be cultural issues too, such as the English art of understatement, or the Japanese importance of saving face.

If your “no” should mean “yes” and “yes” should mean “no”, then sign up for the Members Weekender stream on 18 May.

Janet Stevenson will be speaking on assertiveness at the Members’ Weekender, which takes place in Bristol on 18-19 May. More information and online booking is available on the official Members’ Weekender webpage.

Janet Stevenson is the founder and owner of Train2Grow.

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