Assertiveness lies on a spectrum. On one extreme you’ll find passivity. On the other extreme is aggressiveness. According to psychotherapist Ali Miller, MFT, “Passivity often results from the belief that ‘my needs don’t matter.’” Aggressiveness often results from the belief that ‘your needs don’t matter.’”
Being assertive marries both beliefs. “Assertiveness is the art of holding everyone’s needs with care — including my own — when there is something that I want,” said Miller, who has a private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco, Calif., and specializes in helping adults live more authentic, empowered and connected lives.
But when you’ve spent your entire life being a people-pleaser, this concept can be hard to make sense of and practice. You might get stuck on the part where everyone’s needs matter. You might get stuck worrying about everyone else’s varied concerns (again) and forget, neglect or dismiss your own (again). Because how do you balance other’s needs with your own needs? Isn’t it just easier or better to remain quiet?
Miller suggested dropping the label “people-pleaser” because of its negative connotations. “[I]nstead think about it in terms of having a strong need for harmony or contribution or connection or peace.”
Many of us try to meet this need for connection by silencing our self-expression, said Miller, also founder of befriendingourselves.com. This leads us to be passive and to feel resentment. The key is to give yourself permission to refocus on your needs, she said.
What does respecting your own needs and that of others’ look like?
Miller shared the example of a breakup: One person wants to stay in contact; the other person wants space. If you’re the one who wants space, you can respect your own needs and your ex-partner’s by saying the following: “It’s really important to me to take some space right now so I can focus on my own healing, and I hear that it’s important to you to be in contact. I want you to have the connection you need in your life, and I’m not available for that right now. I hope you find other ways to get connection.” If you’re OK with talking about this further, you might say: “How is that for you to hear?”
According to Miller, this example illustrates how you can hold someone’s needs with care, even if you’re not going to help them meet those needs. That’s because we’re not responsible for meeting someone else’s needs, even if their needs matter to us.
In other words, respecting someone’s needs doesn’t require you to fulfill them. But it is important to acknowledge them.
Miller also shared this simple example: You’re unhappy with the service you’re getting at a restaurant. A passive response is saying nothing to your server. An aggressive response is yelling at them. An assertive response is kindly letting the server know what you’d like. “You’re speaking up for your needs, while also treating the server with respect.”
We also can respect others’ needs (and our own) by making requests, not demands. Demands don’t consider the other person’s needs. Plus, demands backfire. “People tend to want to contribute to others when they feel connected and [when they feel that they have a] choice.”
In addition, it helps to be flexible about how others meet our needs. For instance, according to Miller, a demand is saying: “You need to call me three times a day.” However, a request is saying: “Would you be willing to call me three times a day?”
“If you’re not open to hearing ‘no,’ it’s a demand. If you are open to finding strategies that both of you can genuinely say ‘yes’ to, then it’s a request.” The other person might not be willing to call you three times a day. But they might be willing to text, email, call you once a day, or talk for a longer amount of time, she said.
And if you don’t get what you want, avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, which is what we tend to do, Miller said. Instead, one strategy is to simply ask the other person why.
She shared this example: “I’d really appreciate having a 10-minute conversation with you to talk about what’s keeping you from giving me a 10 percent raise. I’m guessing it has something to do with the financial stress the company is under, but I’d like to understand better. Would you be willing to sit down with me on Tuesday for 10 minutes to discuss this?”
Respecting others’ needs doesn’t mean remaining silent about our own, letting others walk all over us or meeting their every need. Rather, it means compassionately and clearly acknowledging the other person’s needs and making requests (versus demands) to meet our own. Because you deserve to have a voice. We all do.
Cooperation concept image available from Shutterstock