Learning to Say “No”: Tips on Being Assertive

Is it okay to say “no” to various requests?  Is it all right to be assertive?

Most of us at some time or other have said “yes” to various requests and then were annoyed at ourselves afterwards.

I said “yes” and then was angry at myself;  My best friend asked me so what could I say?;  I am so busy, but I just couldn’t say “no”; I just didn’t feel right about saying “no”;  Who else would do it if I said “no”; I’ve just got so many things on and yet I said “yes” to this job; I’m such a softie, I always say “yes”.

Why are we afraid to say “No”?

In a nutshell, we are fearful that people won’t like us anymore; they will be displeased with us (and that would be terrible wouldn’t it!).  So we run our lives pleasing others and trying to get others to like us by giving in to their requests.

Most people who are not assertive have low self-esteem and they rely on others’ opinion of them to feel okay about themselves.

Not surprisingly, non-assertive people are typically emotionally dishonest, skirt around the issues, make feeble excuses (“Oh, I think I’m busy that night”) are indirect, are self-denying and inhibited (and unhappy).

Beliefs You Need

In order to be assertive, it is important to accept two basic beliefs about standing up for yourself.  These include:

  • That assertion (rather than manipulation, submission, or hostility) enriches life and ultimately leads to more satisfying personal relationships with people.
  • That everyone is entitled to act assertively and to express honest thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.

Being Assertive

So what happens if you decide to be appropriately assertive?  If you’re feeling stretched, tense and under pressure, how can you respond next time you receive a request to do something?

Note the following pointers:

  • You don’t have to respond with an answer immediately.  Don’t be caught off-guard.  Give yourself time.  Say something like, “It’s nice of you to ask me, but I’d like to think about it for a week.”  In the ensuing week, you can usually sort out your priorities and decide if you really want to be involved.
  • When responding to the request be definite and say something like:  “Thank you for thinking of me, but I don’t wish to be involved at this stage.”  And if the other person persists?  Simply repeat what you’ve already said – don’t be conned into giving endless excuses and reasons and having to justify yourself and ultimately tying yourself up in knots.

There are other times though when being assertive is necessary and you need to stand up for yourself.  For example, what about when someone pushes in front of you in the queue or a workmate uses your desk and leaves it in a mess?  A useful formula or guide for helping you to assertively express difficult negative feelings is to use the following phrases:

When …. (objectively describe the other’s behaviour) ….

the effects are …. (describe how the other’s behaviour concretely affects your life or feelings) ….

I feel …. (describe your feelings) ….

I’d prefer….” (describe what you want instead).

For example, “When you use my desk, you leave it in a mess and it’s difficult for me to get down to work again and I feel annoyed about that, so I’d prefer if you either didn’t use it or cleaned it up once you’d used it”.

A Tip for Giving Bad News

Sometimes, particularly at work, it is necessary to give some “bad news” or feedback that you expect may not be received favourably by the other person.  What do you do?  How do you handle it?  Building on the assertion formula above, try this formula:

“I am ________ about discussing this, because ____________” (Describe how you feel about starting the discussion;

“When I (saw or heard)….. (describe what happened)

then I……. (describe what effect it had on you and others)

“What I’d like now is ________________ , but maybe there is something that I haven’t thought of” (describe what you would like now and indicate a willingness to compromise).

For example, you could say something like:

“I am hesitant about discussing this because I don’t want you to take this the wrong way or blow it out of proportion (…or…because I’m not sure that I’ve got all the information …or…because the last time we talked we argued about it etc).

But when I saw you speaking loudly at the meeting and interrupting others, I felt somewhat intimidated and I noticed that the others in the group went quiet too.  So, what I’d like is next time for you to keep calm and talk in more moderate tones and allow others to have their say, but maybe there is something that I’ve overlooked here.  What do you think?”

Feeling Free

If you can risk being assertive, you will be your own best friend — you will learn to really like yourself and you won’t feel resentful towards others or want to hide every time a friend, work colleague or family member makes a request of you.

You will also feel free to accept invitations to be involved in those areas where you really wish to help and consider that you have something to offer.

Personal Notes:

What steps am I going to take to be more assertive, to say what I think and feel, without being too meek and mild, and without being aggressive?

What courage will I need to step up for this?

Where am I going to start?