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Learning to Say No: 5 Steps to Become More Assertive

Dr. Joti Samra

October 4, 2019

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As humans, we ultimately want to get our needs met. However, when these needs require us to set boundaries, say no or make requests of other people, it becomes more difficult. Many of us struggle with being assertive, communicating assertively, and saying no.

What does it mean to be assertive?

Assertiveness is being able to respectfully communicate your ideas, feelings, and needs, while at the same time balancing the needs of others. Assertive behaviour is quite different from passive behaviour (not standing up for your rights, or not expressing your needs and feelings) and aggressive behaviour (pushing for your own needs at the expense of others, or not allowing others to express their needs).

There are many factors that contribute to the challenges we experience with being assertive, including:

  • Our upbringing. Growing up in a home where you were not permitted to express your needs, or if those requests were met with an aggressive, dominating or abusive response, chances are over time a person learns to quiet their own voice.
  • Values. If a person places a strong value on “maintaining the peace” when it comes to relationships, they may (incorrectly) view an expression of their needs as being incompatible to that end goal.
  • Personality. People who are shy and introverted may find it harder to voice desires in interpersonal situations.
  • Societal stereotypes and cultural expectations. These also factor in – for example, women often have a harder time being assertive in some situations than men, and individuals from certain cultural and ethnic backgrounds, such as Asian and Southeast Asian cultures, may be taught that being assertive is a non-desirable trait.

Learning how to say ‘no’

So, what can you do? Here are five steps that can help you build your assertiveness and get a little more adept and knowing how to say ‘no’:

1. Identify the situations in which you would like to be more assertive. Being able to anticipate the scenarios where you would like to change your behaviour is the first step.

2. Identify personal barriers. Think about the reasons it is hard to say no, and ask yourself if those assumptions are valid and accurate. Challenging the thoughts that interfere with your ability to say no can help you move forward; for example, if you believe that saying no makes you difficult to get along with, ask yourself if that is really true, and find other pieces of evidence that are incompatible with that belief.

3. Specifically articulate what you would like to say and think about why that is important to you. One of the hardest things about saying no is that “no” alone doesn’t capture the spirit of why you need to be assertive, and it can sometimes come across as rude. So, if you have made plans with a friend to see a show on Sunday night, rather than just saying “no,” add in the reason: “I’d love to see you, but I’m going to have to decline. I’ve realized I really need to get a decent night’s sleep before the work week starts, otherwise, I’m wrecked for the day! How does the Tuesday early show sound?”

4. Get feedback from a trusted friend. Receiving an objective opinion on how you want to communicate your needs can help you reshape your words/messaging if needed. Ask for feedback on your words, tone, and posturing. Non-verbal communication is hands down the most important part of how we communicate. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on body language is one of my favourites and I’d suggest a watch!

5. Practice, practice, practice! Visualize yourself saying no, practice in front of the mirror, and try it out in neutral situations that have a low risk for harm (with wait staff at a restaurant, a sales clerk at a store). Practice makes perfect, and part of the challenge is just becoming comfortable saying words that may feel unfamiliar to you.

Then, go give it a try. Try saying no in situations that matter to you – you will probably learn very quickly that the sky will not fall down once you begin asserting your needs. The only qualification is that if you have taken a very passive role in certain relationships, it may take others a little bit of getting used to the new you. But people often feel better about themselves when they are assertive. On this note, I’d like to qualify that if you are in an abusive relationship, or relationship that has the potential for abuse, assertive behaviour is not recommended. In this situation, seek out professional help and advice on how to proceed.

Remember, being assertive is not incompatible with being kind or empathetic. Good luck with practicing being assertive!
 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.

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