Asking for what you want—and setting boundaries around what you don’t want—is a key life skill. Are you challenged to ask for what you want? Or so enthusiastic to practice this skill, that you over-do assertiveness and end up with colleagues who shut down, get angry or feel resentful?
Here are four tips for developing your assertiveness in a way that will actually strengthen, deepen and enrich your relationships—thus avoiding the “alienation trap”:
1. Get Clear.
Being assertive starts with knowing what you are—and aren’t—willing to be, do, or have. For many of us, coming to this knowledge is a real task unto itself. Here, it may be useful to ask: “In an ideal world, what would I like to happen?” Focusing on an ideal outcome opens our minds, prevents us from falling into passivity or “victim-thinking,” and helps us get really clear on what we want and don’t want.
2. Set Boundaries.
Once you know what outcome you need (or want), share it with your colleague. Pay attention to the way stating your boundary feels in your body. With practice, you can actually sense when you’re hitting the “sweet spot.” It can feel really good to express your needs or desires out loud. Phrases like “such and such doesn’t work for me” are simple ways of being assertive while maintaining connection with your colleague.
3. Make a Regular Habit of Stating Your Needs and Desires.
You can build your assertiveness the same way you build any muscle: exercise. Practice speaking up about your needs, big or small, on a daily basis. When you speak up about things that are less controversial—such as a meeting start time, how to communicate about a patient or what committee you want to participate in—both you and colleagues get used to your assertiveness. It becomes easier for you to practice and for your colleagues to hear. Also, when bigger issues come along, you and colleagues will have a healthy process in place for dealing with differences in needs, and you’ll have greater confidence in the resilience of your partnership.
4. Give as Much as You Get.
Assertiveness is a two-way street. If you want your boundaries to be respected, you must return the courtesy to your colleague. If she asks that a meeting not be scheduled after 5:00 p.m., respect that. If he asks you communicate by email and not by text, don’t. When it comes to following through on a colleague’s reasonable request, actions really do speak louder than words.
If your colleague isn’t respecting your boundaries even though you’ve set them clearly, it may be time to ask for help to look more deeply for underlying concerns or issues.