How to Stay Assertive Around Intimidating People

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Assertive people stand up for themselves in an honest, respectful way. But you’re not alone if your assertiveness fades around certain types of people—authority figures, aggressive types, very outgoing personalities—people who intimidate you in some way. But “intimidation, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” suggests Diann Winger, LCSW.

And, although the trigger is different for everyone, feeling intimidated puts you at a distinct disadvantage when dealing with these individuals. Rather than speaking up, you bite your tongue. Rather than reaching win-win in a negotiation, you back down. Rather than standing up for yourself or saying “no” when needed, you don’t.

My own intimidation trigger is aggressive and manipulative people. A former small business owner startled me once by yelling at me so thoroughly, unexpectedly and publicly that it was all I could do to just keep my composure. I was unable to stand up for myself. While I did manage to sneak in a couple questions to help get to the bottom of the anger, I definitely was not assertive. The tirade left me feeling like I’d been run over.

Blame it on your brain

3d render medical illustration of the human brain cerebrumAs with most human emotion, psychologists reassure us that our brains are wired to keep us safe. Our feelings of fear or intimidation are our brain’s way of sounding the alarm at the first sign of danger. Despite this hardwiring, through awareness and practice you can change your comfort level and reactions.

Suggestions to make you more assertive when dealing with intimidating people:

  1. Know your values and learn more about your work. If you come from a position of knowledge, it’s easier to stay confident.
  2. Practice assertiveness in easy, less intimidating situations, e.g., suggest nicely to your loud co-worker that her noisy chatter is making it hard for you to work. (Read 7 Ways to Become More Assertive so You’re Less Stressed if you’re just starting to act assertively and need pointers.)
  3. Businesswoman arguing with colleaguesLook into their eyes without reacting. Don’t act tough or challenging, but rather smile and listen without fear.
  4. Mentally change the value of the other person. Imagine they’re a child or your employee rather than the two equals that you are.
  5. When you speak, speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard (without yelling). Don’t mumble. Repeat yourself calmly if needed.
  6. Visualize the intimidating person in a funny costume or clown nose, suggests Winger. You can use this suggestion either before a planned meeting or during the encounter.
  7. Remember the goal is to defuse the situation. So, don’t belittle or be confrontational with intimidating people.

It takes a lot of practice to be assertive all the time with every individual. Don’t let intentionally intimidating behavior or your own subconscious feelings about certain types of people keep you from speaking up. Standing up for yourself in a nonconfrontational way in every situation is within your grasp.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.