Back to Blog
We start learning to share our thoughts and feelings with others from an early age, but expressing unpopular opinions gracefully is not a skill that always develops easily. I remember hearing that people who were shy or uncomfortable in social situations should work with computers or be engineers, but it turns out that, no matter what you do, effective interpersonal communication is a must in order to get work done in a team and to maintain a peaceful environment. Regardless of your graduate program or chosen profession, you will have opportunities to experience differences in opinion and approaches with peers, colleagues, mentors, advisors, and supervisors. I haven’t always been comfortable navigating conflict, but I’ve learned some strategies that have helped me to be assertive by expressing my perspectives in a manner that is considerate of alternate opinions.
I have not always been an assertive person or really, even a person who is comfortable talking. In fact, as a child, I was incredibly shy. People were shocked to hear me speak when I was in middle school. I attended a small, rural public school where my mom worked for the school system, and my sister was a memorable personality, so my teachers knew me before I knew them. I never spoke up for myself and so was an easy target for childhood bullying. Not only that, but I was fearful to ask questions in school and so felt frustrated and confused when a new concept that I did not understand was introduced.
High school, as it goes for many, was not a pleasant experience. I was not popular by any stretch of the imagination, probably because I did not really talk to anyone. I did not share the interests of my classmates and preferred to spend my weekends in the ballet studio or with my nose in a book. But college was a completely different experience. I thrived in college. There was more diversity than I had ever experienced, and it was easy to connect with people in an academic environment. As I connected with peers and professors, I also had positive experiences discussing differing values and perspectives with mutual respect. My anxiety about meeting new people reduced, and I found myself turning into a social butterfly. It turned out that I was a better communicator than I thought. Kuntze, van der Molen, and Born (2016) investigated the association between personality factors and assertiveness and found that whether an individual was introverted or extraverted did not seem to determine their skill as a communicator.
As I connected with peers and professors, I also had positive experiences discussing differing values and perspectives with mutual respect. My anxiety about meeting new people reduced, and I found myself turning into a social butterfly. It turned out that I was a better communicator than I thought.
In college, no goal was more important than acceptance into graduate school. After I ended my career as a dance major, I took an introductory psychology course and met with a therapist and knew that I absolutely wanted to be a counselor as well. I researched graduate programs in clinical psychology and clinical mental health counseling and chose to pursue Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I met with a faculty member in The University of Alabama’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program and set my sights exclusively on that program. It was during the three years of training in this program that I learned some important lessons about being appropriately assertive.
Interestingly, the most important lessons were not covered in counseling textbooks about communication and were not even specific to the counseling profession. These were lessons about advocating for myself, respecting other perspectives, and working as part of a team. Most of what I learned about assertive communication was through experience with advisors, mentors, peers, coworkers, and friends, and many relationships in my life have benefitted from this learning.
Becoming a Self-Advocate
Lazarus (1973) argued that, “The main components of assertive (or emotionally expressive) behaviors may be divided into four separate and specific response patterns: the ability to say "no"; the ability to ask for favors or to make requests; the ability to express positive and negative feelings; the ability to initiate, continue, and terminate general conversations” (p. 697). I learned some important lessons and developed the ability to communicate, even with those individuals I viewed as intimidating, in an effective and appropriately assertive manner. I have shared them below and, though I am a counselor, this is absolutely NOT counseling advice. These are lessons from one humble former introvert to another.
1. Stand up for yourself when you need to. As a lowly grad student, it does not always feel like you have license to ask for things. I can think of one time, early in my graduate program, when I reached out to the department chair with a significant request. I did so humbly and with consideration for all involved and presented a very logical request, without emotion. In this instance, my request was granted. Even if it had not been, I think it would have been worthwhile to ask for what I needed and to show to the faculty that I took initiative when the situation called for it. I accomplished this by sharing what I needed and why I needed it while offering a solution that was reasonable for all involved.
Inherent in standing up for yourself is setting boundaries and saying “no” or recognizing your limits. At one point in graduate school, I had four jobs, a rigorous course load, and no time for self-care. I had to make the difficult decision to walk away from one of the jobs, running the risk of disappointing others, to take care of myself. Professionally, it has been important for client care and for my own health to recognize when my caseload is too large and to ask for help at times.
2. Think before you speak, and make sure your non-verbals are not aggressive. This seems like a no-brainer, and maybe it is for everyone else. Rarely is the first thing that comes to my mind the most tactful, and I firmly believe that we have filters for good reasons. I have also always been pretty expressive, and my inclination is to allow my face to convey my emotions.
Pipas and Jaradat (2010) assert that non-verbals may tell our audience more about our level of aggression than even our words do. I had one professor in graduate school who, now that I think about it, probably intentionally ruffled feathers. She knew that, as therapists, we needed to be able to keep a poker face and manage conflict productively, that is, without being ruled by emotion. Now, there is a time and a place for raw, in the moment, genuine emotion. A therapy session, conversation with your mom, or venting with your best friend for example. A professional discussion with a supervisor, colleague, peer, or boss is not that time. I have learned that people take me much more seriously when I approach difficult conversations with calm rationality and keep a check on my body language.
I also learned that not everyone cares what I think. In learning contexts, I am challenged to consider my perspectives and those of others critically, with an open mind.
3. Know your audience and your role. Ever had anyone ask you, “How do you really feel about it?” Be careful about where you answer that question. You never know where there are listening ears or watchful eyes. I recently heard about a counselor who made a remark on a personal social media page that impacted her professionally. As professionals or future professionals, we are held to high standards and are expected to maintain a degree of professionalism in public settings. You may be safe “venting” to your best friend, but you may want to do so at home rather than in your university’s coffee shop or in the lab. It’s a small world out there, and I would not say anything in public that I would not be comfortable with the public hearing.
I also learned that not everyone cares what I think. In learning contexts, I am challenged to consider my perspectives and those of others critically, with an open mind. Rather than focusing on attempting to persuade the individual to see things from your point of view, it is important to consider their feelings and perspective with respect (DeLellis and Sauer, 2004).
4. Pick your battles. Pipas and Jaradat (2010) define assertiveness in the following way, “Assertiveness is the ability to represent to the world what you really are, to express what you feel, when you feel it necessary” (p. 650). I was the coordinator for our counseling lab, where students conducted recorded sessions and where our community clinic was housed, for a couple of semesters. I look back and cringe that I focused on minute details that, in hindsight, were not that important. I saw it as my job to make things better but was thinking in a pretty rigid way. I have learned that there are some battles that are worthwhile. Advocating for myself and for my clients is my responsibility and necessary for best practice. However, I often evaluate whether the issue I am focused on is something I need to fight for or if I am “shoulding” (e.g., things “should be different,” “I shouldn’t be treated this way.”).
I have come a long way from being a shy and quiet kid who did not like to speak up or assert herself. Progress in being appropriately assertive sometimes came through positive reinforcement and, at other times, learning from my mistakes. Sometimes, when you are just learning to stand up for yourself, you go a little too far and may seem aggressive (looking at my younger self here). When that happens, you might be amazed at the responses you receive when you humbly admit fault, apologize, and display effort to correct yourself. Some of the most important lessons that I have learned are to stand up for myself when I need to, to speak thoughtfully and to communicate in a way that validates the other person, to be considerate of my role and audience, and to carefully choose when to assert myself.
Again, this is NOT counseling advice. For specific tools, handouts, or training in interpersonal skills, check out your university’s counseling center or student resource center’s website. I find these resources often have helpful handouts for students and faculty addressing common social situations.
DeLellis, A. J. & Sauer, R. L. (2004). Respect as ethical foundation for communication in employee relations. Laboratory Medicine, 35(5), 262-266. doi: 10.1309/ycxmgvrue94krx6e
Kuntze, J., van der Molen, H. T., & Born, M. P. (2016). Big five personality traits and assertiveness do not affect mastery of communication skills. Health Professions Education, 2, 33-43. doi: 10.1016/j.hpe.2016.01.009
Lazarus, A. A. (1973). On assertive behavior: A brief note. Behavior Therapy, 4(5), 697-699. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(73)80161-3
Pipas, M. & Jaradat, M. (2017). Assertive Communication Skills. Annales Universitatis Apulensis Series Oeconomica, 12(2), 649-656. Retrieved from http://www.oeconomica.uab.ro