Since childhood, girls are socialized to be cooperative and blend into a group. Girls who stand out in anyway are often ostracized and expressing strong opinions is usually frowned upon. Boys, on the other hand, are socialized to be competitive. Their individual strengths and strong opinions are valued. "This pattern persists into adulthood when men are generally viewed as autonomous leaders when they express strong opinions," explains Hillary Wishnick, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the West Chester-based Bridgepoint Psychological and Counseling Services, "while women are often viewed negatively for expressing the same opinions, i.e. viewed as not being a team-player. So, in general, it is usually more challenging for women to be assertive."
Assertive communication finds a balance between meeting your own needs as well as the needs of the listener. "The aggressive communicator meets her own needs at the expense of the listener while the passive communicator does not meet any of her own needs and often does not express much of what she thinks or feels at all," explains Laurie Little, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and owner of the Florence-based Little Psychological Services. "Learning how to become an assertive communicator takes time. It is a skill to be learned and practiced."
Sharing your Opinion
Sharing your opinion, whether it is the same or different from those around you, is often a difficult task. Knowing what to say and when to say it is important. "A good way to express an opinion is to own it as your own by using 'I' statements," explains Wishnick. "Timing and setting are also important considerations to determine if it is an appropriate time and place to speak up. Generally, it is best to avoid 'you' statements, which can make opinion-giving feel more confrontational."
Be sure to identify your opinion as such before you start speaking. This sort of opener alerts others that what you are expressing is your own personal view and it allows room for others to share their opinions, whether the same or different. "People who are too forceful and blunt in giving their opinions are likely to turn people off, and the point they are trying to make may become lost due to the negative reactions they elicit from others," explains Sara M. Mills PsyD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Mt. Lookout. "It is helpful for these types of people to gain understanding of how their approach is affecting other people and modify it so that others want to hear what they have to say." Mills states that this can be obtained by demonstrating respect for the views of others, modifying their tone of voice and also intensity of their delivery.
When effectively sharing your opinion with others, you want to be sure that you are being clear without being rude or hurtful. "One must first have the underlying belief that everyone is equally entitled to their own opinions," explains Little. "Your own opinions, feelings and needs are just as worthy and important as everyone else's. Statements that imply that your opinion is 'the truth,' or that denigrate another's perspective, can alienate others or appear aggressive."
Speaking up When Shy
For a lot of women, it is easier to know what to say, or what you want to say, than it is to actually verbalize it. Overcoming shyness is an important part in learning to share your opinion. You have to realize that what you are saying is important and others will value you for speaking up. When listing ways that shy people can speak up for themselves Susan D. Gray, the regional director of education at Health Management Corporation, WellPoint Inc., says that, "they don't know that what they have to say is worthwhile. Know who you are speaking up to. What matters is speaking up in a way or manor that is perceived valuable. Find the hook, common language and go for it."
Knowing that you may not be the only person with a particular opinion can help when sharing. There may be others who agree with you and that can help to build confidence. "Oftentimes, we don't speak up when we believe that our opinions are in the minority," explains Little. "Remind yourself that there may be others who are feeling the same way, but are also hesitant to speak up. Also, remind yourself that your opinions are equally as valid and worthy as everyone else's opinions."
Along with the benefits of speaking up, you can also think about the costs of not doing so. "Are you being respected? Are your needs being met? Are you taken seriously?" asks Wishnick. "By evaluating this, one can determine whether the risk of speaking up outweighs the risk of not being respected at work and in interpersonal relationships."
Defending your Cause
When you are defending your cause, it is crucial to at least acknowledge the existence and possible validity of other points of view. "If a person comes on too strong by implying or stating that their view is the only right way, others will get turned off," explains Mills. "On the other hand, it is good to be passionate about a cause and to express this passion. If you truly believe in something and are consistent in the way you demonstrate this, others are more likely to appreciate your sincerity, even if they disagree with your views."
Stay focused and be sure not to be overly emotional about your cause. "It is important to stay calm," explains Little. "Although one can feel very passionately about a cause, if it is defended with too much emotion, the listener is less likely to take you seriously."
If you listen to others, you can usually find out what is important to them and the business. "Once you identify this fact, then frame what you want to say in the context of what they see as valuable," explains Gray.
If you are clear and to the point, there is a better chance that people will understand what you are saying and possibly agree with your cause. "Have a simple clear message, explains Wishnick, "own it with I statements, and repeat the message numerous times without wavering or changing your opinion."
If you feel like you are being lost in silence and your opinion and cause aren't being heard, you should reassure yourself that your opinion does matter and believe that your feelings are worth discussing. If you want specific helpful ideas and tips, Mills, Wishnick, Gray and Little list ways in which you can speak up for yourself, defend your cause and not get lost in silence.
"If you don't believe in yourself or that your thoughts or feelings are worth discussing, then it may be time to look at how your self esteem/self worth has gotten so low," explains Little. "You can address this issue through self help books, journaling and/or psychotherapy. If you know your opinion matters but you just don't know how to communicate it, then it is primarily a skills deficit which can be addressed with communication skills training classes, or therapy with an emphasis on teaching assertiveness skills."
Little also suggests writing your statement on an index card and carrying it with you to remind yourself of it throughout each day. She also explains that defending your cause often takes preparation. Rehearsing what you want to say beforehand is essential when expressing your feelings.
When it comes to overcoming shyness, Mills believes that people often have to practice and work up to being able to state their opinions assertively and openly. " If someone is shy, it might be enough for them just to be present while a group is discussing an issue," Mills states. "That person could increase their comfort level within the group, perhaps by first asking some clarifying questions, and working up to making a short comment about their own opinion. For people dealing with shyness, I think a good approach is for them to push themselves a little bit out of their comfort zone, but not so far out that they are unable to tolerate the anxiety. This is a process and it takes time, patience, and practice, and possibly, if the person is dealing with significant social anxiety, professional help from a trained mental health professional."
Easier said than done? Maybe not. Push yourself in a way you may not normally and you may be surprised with the results. "Choose not to be silent," states Gray. "instead choose to be a contributor."