Practicing the art of calm assertiveness



In my last post, I was writing about what being assertive actually means, why we may choose not to assert ourselves and what could be the costs of this in the long run. In this post, I am looking at assertiveness in practice. More specifically, I would like to share some ideas of how we can assert ourselves in a more introverted way.


I would like to start with an experience that has stayed with me as a very fitting example of calm assertiveness. I remember a talk at my university that was given by a senior manager of a well known international company. What struck me was how soft-spoken this person was. His voice was so quiet that I literally had to strain my ears at first to be able to hear him. However, what happened then was really quite astounding.


First of all, everyone in the room had to stop chatting as there was no way we would understand anything otherwise. In actual fact, the person waited to start speaking until the room was completely silent. Secondly, once our ears had adjusted to his quiet voice, the atmosphere became much friendlier overall. This was because the speaker was calm and serene. There was no more fighting for air space or people competing with each other for who was the wittiest. Everyone was just focused on his talk. Thirdly, the pace in the room noticeably changed. From a frantic hustle and bustle, we all had to slow down as this person's presentation was measured and thoughtful.


He took time in formulating his words, time in speaking and time to think about his responses to our questions. He spoke with confidence, knowing that he held the expertise we were interested in. He was comfortable for us to wait for his words. At the same time, he clearly was a very introverted man.


There is a lot in this example that can help us with developing our assertiveness. As I referred to in my previous post, what is most important in gaining respect from others is to demonstrate self-respect. Self-respect means being a loyal friend to ourselves. Whether I have a particularly quiet voice, a strong foreign accent, a tremor, a stutter, a tick or easily blush, what matters is how I am dealing with it. If I can be accepting of this, my audience will be. If I value myself regardless or can even show compassion towards myself, my surroundings are likely to follow suit.


It is in these moments when I may feel self-conscious, embarrassed or unhappy with myself that I most need to stand by my side. If I can get in touch with my inner strength, my conviction or my passion, this will transmit to my listeners. A thought that has helped some of my more introverted clients to speak out is to focus on their role in this situation. We may hold specific knowledge or experience that others can benefit from or are keen to hear about or we may act on someone else's behalf who is relying on us to represent their interests.


A second insight I took from this experience is the value of silence and calmness. Silence is such an underestimated tool in effective communication. In fact, I may want to dedicate a whole other blog post to it. In the context of developing our assertiveness, we can start by experimenting with pauses and by becoming more comfortable with others waiting for our response. We can take time in putting our ideas into words and by doing so also give others space to calm down.


Taking time to look for more accurate words to express ourselves means that we can say more with less. We can gather our thoughts and be a lot more succinct in our message. We can wait for others to turn their attention to us. We can deliberately slow ourselves down. All of this increases the impact of our message and communicates self-respect.


We do not have to have all the answers. In fact, it may be more respectful to our audience to admit where our boundaries lie, both in terms of our expertise and in terms of who we are as a person. I would even go as far as saying that it is actually very attractive when someone knows themselves and their limitations well and can openly talk about them. So being firm with our self-care boundaries and aware and articulate of our needs and preferences may not be such a bad idea. After all, we know ourselves best.


Calmness is particularly important and powerful when expressing disagreement and giving and receiving feedback. I am going to expand on both of these topics in my posts on anger management and dealing with feedback. For now, I just invite you to picture the inner strength we are conveying when we can peacefully state the emotional impact something is having on us.


When starting to improve our assertiveness, all we may feel able to do at first is to say that we are feeling uncomfortable in a given situation and to physically remove ourselves from it, if necessary. As we develop our self-awareness and assertive communication, we may be able to describe more clearly how different feelings are being triggered, how they are rising, plateauing and subsiding.


If we want to get into the habit of asserting ourselves more, it makes sense to start with situations that we have little emotional investment in. Having a list of assertive rights to read back over or thinking about particular situations and actually writing down things we could say can help. I remember a client of mine practicing his assertiveness by returning meals at restaurants or clothes at a store whenever they didn't quite meet his expectations.


Initially, it would take him a lot of courage to go back to the store or wave the waiter to his table and calmly explain the reason for returning the food or clothing. He found himself blushing and being lost for words and smiling apologetically. However, with practice, these situations became a lot more second nature to him, and what was once clumsy and stiff in his behaviour became smooth and self-assured.


A final tool I would like to bring to your attention is to have a mantra as an anchor for our thoughts. This can be particularly helpful when we are the type of person who can easily feel overwhelmed in social situations. The mantra I like to use and recommend for assertiveness is Firm and friendly, friendly and firm. It highlights that we can be both warm and boundaried at the same time. Being friendly doesn't mean we cannot be clear about our limits. And equally, being firm doesn't mean that we cannot be understanding and empathic towards others.


This mantra also captures for me the integration of mind and heart. It combines my intellectual understanding of the need for boundaries and a perceived sense of fairness and reciprocity and my emotional understanding of the need for connection and validation of my own and other people's feelings. The exercise below may inspire you to practice and integrate some of these ideas. It may also act as a helpful mental bridge to get into a more assertive mood.


Exercise:

Think about someone you admire for their assertiveness. This could be a teacher, a colleague, a family member or a friend, for example. Consider what it is exactly in their behaviour that makes them a role model for assertiveness for you. If you can, observe their behaviour more closely and take notes. The next time you would like to assert yourself, take on their role. Think: What would he/she do, say and feel in this situation? Try to think, act and feel as if you were your role model. Imagine being an actor tasked with playing the role of this person, portraying them as accurately as possible.


Feedback:

How do these ideas work for you? What did you put into practice, and what was the impact? What other tools do you use to calmly assert yourself?