In the previous piece about being assertive with people who intimidate you, we talked about clarifying your values, starting small and shifting your thinking about the intimidating person. That is, we can change our perception of the person, so we no longer feel intimidated by them. We can choose to feel secure.
Today, we’re talking about other tools you can use. Because that’s the great thing about being assertive: It’s a skill we can learn and practice. And there are many ways to approach it.
Dealing with intimidating people can shake our confidence and trigger self-doubt, said psychotherapist Michelle Farris, LMFT. Sometimes we find them intimidating because these individuals dominate the conversation, express their opinions as facts and expect others to back down, she said. They might be used to getting their way and have strong personalities, she said. “[T]hey may not see that their behavior creates emotional distancing in their relationships — unless someone speaks up.”
So how do you speak up?
Below, Farris, owner of Counseling Recovery in San Jose, Calif., shared five helpful ways.
1. Validate what they’re saying.
According to Farris, let the person “talk — but not dominate — the conversation, and validate what you hear.” For instance, you might say: “I can see how you feel that way,” or “What I hear you saying is …” If they feel heard, they might relax a bit, she said. (Because all of us, no matter our differences, just want to feel heard.)
2. Be firm and direct.
If you’re dealing with someone with a strong personality, they might keep pushing if you’re backing down, Farris said. However, “if you state your opinion firmly, they often back down.”
The key is to express yourself without attacking the other person. When we’re truly assertive, “we focus only on ourselves without making the other person wrong,” Farris said. So you might use “I” statements, she said. This is different from starting sentences with “you,” which can put people on the defensive. It’s also important to be firm, direct and clear. She shared these examples of statements you can say:
- I feel …
- I need …
- I feel uncomfortable about what’s happening and I need to leave.
- I appreciate the feedback but I don’t agree.
- That doesn’t work for me.
- Let me get back to you on that.
- Here’s what I can do …
- I understand your position; here’s mine.
3. Don’t take their behavior personally.
Farris suggested applying this saying in 12-step programs to your situation: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control and you can’t cure it.” That is, what the other person is saying or doing isn’t about you. When you realize this, it makes it easier to be assertive.
4. Find the lesson.
“Ironically, you can learn a lot about boundaries from [these individuals] because they are skilled at getting what they want,” Farris said. In other words, they’re not afraid to put their needs out there. Even if they communicate these needs ineffectively at times, we can still learn from them about being bold in stating our opinions, she said.
5. Practice. A lot.
Like learning any skill, being assertive with intimidating people takes practice. And like learning any skill, the more you practice, the better you get at it. And in this case, the more confident you’ll feel in relationships, Farris said.
Being assertive can feel a whole lot less overwhelming when you start small. Start practicing this skill in less significant situations. In the previous piece, psychotherapist Diann Wingert, LCSW, BCD, suggested being assertive with people such as “the barista who always seems to get your coffee order wrong or the co-worker who monopolizes every conversation in the lunch room.” Then work up to individuals who are closer to you or situations that are more challenging.
Understandably, it’s tough to be assertive when you’re dealing with a difficult person who takes over the conversation, always thinks they’re right and has a strong personality. But it’s important to remind ourselves what being assertive is really about: expressing our truth. Which “is when we are our most authentic,” Farris said. And when we act from our most honest, sincere place, life becomes more meaningful and satisfying.
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