Cultivating assertiveness as a woman

Do you often blame yourself for not speaking up or find yourself involved in frequent conflicts and feel dissatisfied with the result or outcome? Many women have a difficult time asserting their views or opinions fearing confrontation and the consequences. Communicating assertively is beneficial for one’s self-esteem, fostering healthy relationships and navigating workplace issues.

If you are a newcomer or an immigrant woman from a culture that considers speaking up as aggressive, disrespectful or rude, you may have learned to be passive and could have carried it with you when you moved to Canada. Some women resort to anger and other inappropriate responses due to the frustration that their concerns or voices are not valued, and they are only heard when they use confrontational styles. These women are perceived as being blunt, aggressive or difficult, putting their relationships and careers in jeopardy.
When working with women experiencing relationship struggles, have low self-esteem issues, who feel loss of control and are frequently stressed with unpleasant workplace situations, I find that learning assertive communication helps them respect themselves and gain respect from others too. Also, young girls who often become victims of bullying, sexual harassment and violence say they are able to speak up by setting clear and realistic boundaries with people in their lives after attending group assertiveness training programs offered in the community or working on it with professionals during counselling sessions.

Often women share that what they consider as assertiveness is considered as aggressive by others. So, it is important to understand the differences and make the necessary changes. Passive style involves trying to avoid conflict and to agree even if they disagree or feel differently about something. In an aggressive style one uses a loud voice, resorts to verbal attacks, dominates the conversation with little regard for the feelings of others. An assertive person is honest, clear and disagrees respectfully with someone when expressing their thoughts or feelings.

It is never too late for girls and women to cultivate assertiveness so they can stand up for what they believe in while respecting the rights of others. It may not be easy to change one’s behavior or communication style overnight, but it can be learnt with the right attitude, approach and practice.

Here are three strategies that can help start the process:
1. Learn to identify emotions and use “I” messages when describing or communicating with others. Struggling to identify and express emotions other than anger can result in an aggressive communication style. It is important that young girls are taught to identify a variety of feelings and express them with; “I” statements to focus on how they are feeling and how the behavior of others is affecting them. For example, instead of saying “You need to stop that”, it is more effective to say, “I get upset when you talk to me like that.”

2. Be clear about what you don’t like and what you want to accomplish or change in the behavior and/or the situation. This can help you set effective boundaries and get the outcome you want. For example, if someone is always asking you to pick up their child from school and you want that to stop, a response such as, “You are taking advantage of me” or a blunt “Sorry, I cannot do it”, may result in the end of that friendship. Instead, “I suggest you make alternate arrangements as I have a few things to take care of”, will clearly indicate how you feel about it without sounding harsh or apologetic.

3. Watch your body language, listen to others and choose your words very carefully. Listening actively and attentively to others’ perspectives is important. When you are sharing your point of view, maintain a pleasant and firm tone while maintaining eye contact with the person. Assertive communication should reflect confidence and respect everyone’s needs and rights. Try not to raise your voice or use body language that is threatening to others. If things seem to go out of control, say “Let’s talk when things are calmer”.

Women struggling with low self-worth, guilt, fear of rejection, losing or being dependent on a relationship have difficulties in asserting and refusing requests from people in their lives. Practicing assertiveness skills especially in a group setting can help participants realize, often for the first time, that women of all ages, race, income and abilities have difficulties in asserting themselves.

Developing compassion and empathy for self and for others, or even practicing skills in situations through role play, can help build confidence to speak up in both personal and professional life. The more you do it, the more natural it becomes. 

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