Recently I took a course on Emotional Intelligence, and I was surprised to learn that one of the attributes of emotional intelligence is being assertive. This surprised me because, growing up, I was always told that being shy is what girls were supposed to be like, that I should be afraid to hurt someone’s feelings and fear being not polite or disrespectful. As a side effect of this behavior, I nearly lost my ability to be assertive. I forgot to pay attention to my own needs, to be able to tell people if they are going too far or if they do things that hurt MY feelings, or if they being not polite TO ME, that they show disrespect TO ME.
And it is not just me. At this Emotional Intelligence course, another woman asked the trainer about what it means to be assertive. As it turned out, being assertive does not mean being aggressive, it means understanding your own feelings and needs, being honest to yourself and asking people to treat you the way you want to be treated. It means asking for a raise or a new project from your manager when YOU feel you are ready instead of waiting forever. It means saying NO if you feel like it. It means that in any situation, whether at work or at home, if someone does something you don’t like, you don’t just turn your back on the situation and walk away. Instead, it means going to this person and telling them how you expect them to behave and what you want.
And you know what? Things changed for me in a week. Before that, I was the one quietly taking meeting minutes during the meeting by sitting in the corner, “knowing my place”, and never speaking up because I thought I shouldn’t. However, as the topic was of my professional interest, and since taking meeting minutes was actually well below my professional qualifications and academic training, one day I just chose to speak up. I participated in a discussion and asked questions. And the next day, this person that I talked to included me in a brainstorming exercise, and I was able not just to participate, but to participate by adding value, by coming up with ideas no one else in the room thought of. Other ideas were in line with the ideas that another man, way older and more experienced than me, had. And that’s when I realized, I am no worse than these guys. I shouldn’t be holding back because of the fear or because I can be perceived as not being polite, because I do not care how I am perceived. I care about the project and about speaking up, contributing my ideas and adding value to the project. Surprisingly, no one told me to shut up and stay quiet. Nobody told me to stay in the corner. In fact, people started talking to me more, listen to me when I speak, and considering my opinion.
After this, nothing could stop me. I would go home and speak to my sister who is a difficult person to speak to (she is a teenager), and tell her exactly how I feel and what my expectations are. I spoke more freely to my parents and brother-in-law. I could tell them exactly what I think they should do and how to fix their problems and why. It felt liberating.
I felt more social. I started reaching out to friends that I did not write to before because I wasn’t sure they wanted to talk to me. I didn’t care anymore about my fears, I was too busy doing things I want. And you know what? Nobody said no. Nobody said, get out of here. In the movie “Back to the Future” they have this situation where Marty’s dad is a total loser in life, and when Marty goes to the past in a time machine (I know, but bear with me) and sees his father being young and not sure of himself, Marty learns that his dad actually writes books that he never heard of. So Marty asks his father, why doesn’t he show his books to anyone in the world who could appreciate them. So his dad answers him “what if they say I am no good? What if they say “get out, kid, you have no future”? I just don’t think I will be able to take this kind of rejection”. And if you watched the movie, you would see that until he overcomes this internal barrier, his life stays the same. Same thing here – until you become assertive, spend some time reflecting on your feelings and be sure to voice your opinion and expectations to ensure that YOU are comfortable with the way things are, you will be your own biggest barrier to success. When people say that some women that succeed are the one that are fearless, they lie. Everyone who is rational has fears. The women who succeed are the ones who assert themselves, who ask for what they want. And that’s why they get it.