When you're a lady — even if you're smart, together, and tough — standing up for yourself can be pretty difficult. Women are supposed to smooth things over, be nice to everybody, and defuse conflict rather than cause it — so asking for anything at all controversial can seem transgressive or even bitchy. Here's how to get over that, and start getting what you want.
Or rather, what's kind, or good. I talked to Sue Hadfield, author of How to Be Assertive, who says,
People aren't going to like it when you start saying no if you have always been a doormat. But constantly trying to please other people in the end leads to stress and sometimes depression.
It can also lead to relationship problems. You may think you're being nice by keeping your emotions to yourself, but you're also depriving the people around you of the opportunity to know how you're feeling. People who care about you — partners, friends, family members, etc. — don't want to unintentionally bug you or make you feel bad. Nor do they deserve the simmering resentment you may start to feel if you never speak up. So while being assertive about your own needs may seem like a more confrontational choice in the short term, in the long term it can actually be the loving thing to do. Also, remember that a lot of prohibitions against women's assertiveness are rooted in sexism. Dr. Lois Frankel, author of Nice Girls Just Don't Get It: 99 Ways to Win the Respect You Deserve, the Success You've Earned, and the Life You Want told me,
What women need to understand is that the fear of being seen as "not nice" or bitchy comes from social messages about how they should behave. It's the way men have gotten women to acquiesce for centuries. Just the thought of being considered less than nice makes a woman feel less than feminine. Each time you hesitate or avoid asking for what you want you've bowed to these messages. The vast majority of women could be more assertive and still be far from bitchy in reality. When you're called that, it's usually because you didn't do what someone else wants –- in which case, kudos to you!
Ah, this tip again. But seriously, preparing beforehand can make you more confident about standing up for yourself — and it can make other people more likely to give you what you want. Says Frankel,
Advance preparation is the key. If you want to ask for a raise, you don't just go in and ask for it, you prepare your business case in advance and practice delivering it to a friend before you speak with the boss. Or if you want to have a difficult conversation with your mother-in-law, write down in advance what you want to talk about, why it's important to you and what you'd like to see happen in the future. Then stick to the script. The more you do this, the easier it becomes.
You can also practice your script with a friend beforehand. Says Hadfield,
If you are asking for something (promotion, more help, etc) get as much information as you can to help your case. Decide what exactly you want and then role play it with someone you trust. Learn the words you are going to say and then practice your body language to make sure that you don't appear aggressive or nervous. If it's a difficult phone call write down what you want to say and practice saying it calmly.
Getting plenty of information will help you feel secure about whatever you're asking for, and practicing will help you actually ask for it — especially if you're not in the habit of doing that thing. If you practice your pitch beforehand, you're less likely to slip back into doormat behavior.
Hadfield offered me this tip:
If you are ever asked to do something that you are not sure about always say, "I'll think about it and get back to you."
This is great advice for a lot of reasons. First of all, it's a lot easier to say no if you haven't already said yes. And if you feel like you have to answer on the fly, you're more likely to say yes — in the short term, this is the easy, "nice" response. But if you take some time to think about it, you might realize that you'd really rather say no. And then you can do your homework (as above) and get back to the requester prepared to be assertive.
Standing up for yourself doesn't have to mean being a total dick. You're not responsible for keeping everybody else happy all the time, but you can also maximize your chances of getting what you want by showing your appreciation and being a little bit conciliatory. Frankel offers a couple of strategies:
One great way is to practice the technique of "contrasting" when delivering difficult messages. It enables a woman to say what she does want and doesn't want without being too strident or demanding. It sounds like this, "I don't want you to think I'm not grateful for all that you've done for me because I am. At the same time, we agreed that you would provide additional services for that price and I didn't receive them so I'd like to discuss when you will be delivering those." Another is to use "inclusive" taglines after you give a strong opinion. For example, "You can hear I feel strongly about this but I'd also like to hear what you think so that we can get all of the best ideas on the table and move forward." At its core, assertiveness is about expressing yourself clearly while showing concern for others. Do that and you won't wander into aggressive territory.
Don't confuse being appreciative with beating around the bush. Frankel also has a couple of warnings: "don't couch your opinions in the form of questions" and "don't use preambles before getting to the point." It's tempting to lead up to your request or complaint with a bunch of equivocal language, but that can just confuse listeners and prevent you from getting your point across. And if you ask a question when you really want to make a statement, you're not doing yourself any favors.
If the idea of standing up for yourself freaks you out a little, Frankel says you can "begin by taking small steps in low-risk situations." Maybe that means not saying sorry when somebody else bumps into you. Or it could mean asking for clarification rather than pretending you understand. Hadfield says that "I'm not sure what you mean" can be a very assertive statement, adding "assertive people aren't afraid to say when they don't understand something — but don't be self-deprecating." For me, learning to speak up when I don't understand something has been really important. It's easy just to let somebody continue talking, and harder to interrupt and admit you don't get what they're saying. But once I got in the habit of saying "I don't know what that word means" or "tell me who that is," I learned that admitting you don't know something actually shows you're confident — you know you're smart, and you're not worried that the other person is going to doubt your intelligence. And asking questions when you need to can build confidence too — you'll have the information you need, and people will often take you more seriously when you make the effort to seek it.
In my case, this kind of small act of assertiveness has paved the way for bigger ones. For you, what constitutes a small self-assertion might look different. But taking small steps — no matter what they are — can help you get closer to being the kind of person who stands up for what she wants even when what she wants is something big. And as Frankel says, if that kind of person is a bitch, so be it.
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