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Assertiveness: why don't you stand up for yourself

Staying passively silent in the face of oppression slowly corrodes the soul.

Growing up, I learned quickly that the kid in the playground that doesn't want to fight always leaves with a black eye. In my neighborhood growing up, there was a level of violence and aggression that I witnessed and experienced. I had to learn really fast to stand up for myself or life in the playground would be really difficult due to constant tests by the neighborhood bullies. I developed the ability to stand up for myself pretty quickly because in a quick moment, I would have to be prepared to protect myself and those I cared for. This was difficult since I was not a naturally tough kid but a friendly kid who had a value for relational harmony. Sadly, my value system and the Newark playground did not mesh too well. I had to become tougher. It was hard, but it was a necessary skill that I had to learn because the environment called for it.

Just like bullies in the playground as a child, in the world we live in, there are people who are bullies or have bully-like tendencies. These people intimidate, coerce, manipulate, or harm weaker people with no consideration for their well-being out of ignorance or selfish motivations. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve known a bully or two. These people can be people in your community, your boss, friends, co-workers, and even parents. You may be one as well intentionally or unintentionally. In order to defend yourself against people like this and also encourage resistance to bullies in other people, you have to develop the strength and the skills to stand up for yourself and teach it others. The skill is called assertiveness, and it’s a skill that the world we live in calls for. There are 3 aspects to assertiveness:

-The ability to express your beliefs in a non-offensive way. See chapter 3, 7, and 33 for guidance on how to come to a place of identifying and naming your beliefs and values in order to articulate them. In this chapter, you’ll be provided a set of reasons for why some people are afraid or unable to articulate their beliefs and provide some possible solutions.

-The ability to stand up for your rights and negotiate in close relationships. You’ll be given a framework for having what is called a clean fight. Yes, that’s right – a clean fight. Most people use dirty fighting which will be explained. We will walk through ways that we have learned to dirty fight, provide motivations for letting negative relational cycle go, and then walk through a clean fight. Another word for clean fight is called a negotiation.

-The ability to express your feelings in a non-offensive way. See chapter 34 for guidance on how to identify and process your feelings which allow you to articulate those feelings clearly.

Reasons Why People Are Afraid to Speak Up

Over time, I’ve noticed several reasons why people have a hard time being assertive. This is not an exhaustive list, but it certainly covers a lot of ground for many people.

Reason #1: Lack of subject matter expertise. Many times, we know what we want to say but have not taken the time to put the ideas into words. I believe the famous phrase, “think before you speak”, applies to not only random moments when you are asked to speak but it’s also a wise practice to anticipate moments when you will be likely be asked on to speak to a particular topic. This could be amongst your coworkers in the office, among your friends or in a casual setting with different types of people.

Here’s an exercise I recommend. Read up on the subject or listen to a teaching on the subject, take notes that can be easily recalled, and practice those talks envisioning yourself in the environment. I know it sounds weird, but this helps you get rid of your nerves and learn to speak clearly about important topics in high-pressure moments. This exercise can pay many dividends, as it is a skill that can open doors professionally and personally. The ability to communicate an idea is just as important as the idea itself. To help you with this, you can enroll in a public speaking course at your local college or university or sign up for a Toastmaster’s club near you. ( Toastmasters is a communication and leadership development organization that provides people with the opportunity and training to begin speaking in public.

Reason #2: The Presence of a Senior Person. I see people get intimidated and refrain from being assertive in front of their bosses or people who they consider to have more authority than them. A common reason why people are passive in front of others is a fear of losing something.

-Exercise: Grab a journal or use the Notes section at the end of this chapter. Identify the last 3 times you were passive in a meeting with a perceived superior. Brainstorm all the positive and negative results that could have occurred if you were more assertive. What can/will you lose if you speak up? What can/will you lose if you don’t speak up?

Note: What many people fail to realize is that anyone you see as assertive most likely had a moment in their life when they were intimidated by someone. But they overcame it ultimately by making a choice to feel the fear and speak up anyway, a choice to not allow someone else’s presence to keep them from being assertive. It’s been said that courage is not the absence of fear but the judgment that something else is more important than fear. As long as you are confident in what you are saying and have done your homework, you can respectfully and clearly speak in front of anyone. The best answer to fear and uncertainty is anticipation and preparation. As a matter of fact, this may give you more respect in that person’s eyes because most people get easily intimidated to the point of remaining silent and don’t get the chance to add value. Make a choice that you will speak when prepared in a wise and appropriate manner.

Reason #3: Unsure of convictions. I believe the answer to this reason is knowing and committing to your values and being differentiated. Values say what you are committed to and willing to pay the price for. Differentiation is the calm separation of your true self from the demands and voices of people around you. Far too many people allow their lives to be governed by the will of other people and for far too long. This results in a low sense of self-awareness, which makes them unable to be assertive. Please go back to Chapter 3 on Values and Chapter 7 on Differentiation and review these lessons, which help you to pinpoint what is most important to you, what you truly believe in, and what you are responsible for. You want to be inner directed rather than outer determined. Once you’ve come to a solid base of who you are, some people will be attracted to you but some people may get upset with you. The pleasure of approval and the pain of rejection don’t entirely go away but you have to work so that their ability to make you betray yourself will be gone.

At the end of the day, assertiveness is a skill and it takes effort and practice like any other skill. Make the commitment to work on this skill consistently. It’ll change your life. If need be, get a coach who can help you walk through the difficulty you may be having in your life.

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