Where does the biggest monkey sleep? Wherever it wants to

February 28, 2024

A psychotherapist explains how to learn to take what you want from life and career.

The only way to avoid workplace conflicts is not to work at all.

Sooner or later, at work, we have to ask for an extra day off, a promotion, or a salary review. You also need to be able to say no in a timely and professional manner when someone tries to push someone else’s work on you or asks you to “go to the office for a little while on your day off”.

If you are afraid to say no, this fear will definitely play against you at work.

And while other colleagues are having a long rest, you will be working on a day off and waiting for a promotion that you may never be offered.

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Finding the right work-life balance can lead to a more fulfilling and successful career.

Why we are afraid to say “no”

Next to the strongest fear of death for humans is the fear of rejection.

Observations of natives have shown that among primitive people, expulsion from the tribe is considered the worst punishment – after all, an outcast rarely manages to survive alone and is likely to die a slow and painful death.

Modern neurobiological research has shown that the fear of rejection by others is still relevant: a person who has been excluded from a group experiences a level of mental pain that feels similar to physical pain, as it activates the same areas of the brain. It is the fear of rejection that makes us obey the rules of the group.

Sometimes even too much.

But if thousands of years ago, exclusion from the community was a truly deadly threat, today it is not.

On the contrary, the inability or fear of standing up for one’s rights can now be harmful: for example, it can slow down development in terms of career.

And people who know how to stand up for themselves will be more successful in the modern world, both in their personal and professional lives.

Why we have the right to say “no” sometimes

There is nothing illegal about being confident, defending yourself, saying no or demanding more.

Back in the eighteenth century, all these ideas were included in the Bill of Rights, which was later used by American psychologists to compile the so-called list of assertive individual rights.

It says, in particular, that you have the right:

  •   *  Sometimes put yourself and your needs first
  •   *  Protest against unfair treatment and criticism
  •   *  To express your own opinion
  •   *  Make mistakes until you find the right way
  •   *  Saying: “No, thank you”, “Sorry, no”
  •   *  Change your mind or choose a different course of action
  •   *  Asking for a review or change of an agreement that you are not happy with, etc.

However, not everyone manages to learn the skill of assertiveness, i.e. healthy confidence.

It is especially difficult to develop it on your own if you have been told by adults in the sandbox since childhood, “Don’t be greedy, give your toy to another child to play with”.

Or they devalued your protests and tears because “it’s just a toy”, thus denying you the right to an opinion or feeling.

What is assertiveness and why is it still not customary to be assertive?

Assertive behaviour starts with the principle that “my needs are important and my opinion is important”.

So, to be confident, you need to have a healthy self-esteem. And its formation is influenced, among other things, by the realities and historical conditions in which we live and our ancestors lived.

Passive – assertive – aggressive: how to find a balance

To understand the difference between healthy confidence and arrogance, let’s look at a simple example.

Imagine that you have received payment from a client, but there is a small amount missing (for example, a few hundred hryvnias). There are three strategies you can use in this situation:

#1. Aggressive

The person will create a scandal, immediately deciding that they are being deceived, and will be confident in their rightness.

They will contact the client and demand an additional payment. “I will be in the black, and the other person will be in the red.”

#2. Passive

A person refuses or sacrifices their value for the benefit of another.

He thinks: “I must have given the wrong amount in the first place”, “I did a poor job”, or “it’s a shame to bother you for such a small amount”. The person would rather sacrifice a few hundred hryvnias to avoid a difficult conversation. “I’m in the red, and the other person is in the black.”

#3. Assertive

A confident person is more likely to think that there must have been a mistake and calmly contact the client to clarify whether there was a misunderstanding or a mistake by the bank. After all, he knows that for a smaller amount of money he will not have the same motivation to do his job well.

This is the “I benefit and the other person benefits” strategy.

These strategies are based on three types of animal behaviour in nature. And yes, indeed, we can distinguish the category of so-called assertive animals.

Assertive animals are, for example, elephants or antelopes.

They are quite strong and sturdy, but they are herbivores, they do not attack others first for profit or pleasure, like predators. Often, assertive animals have their own developed physique and defences – horns or tusks – which they use only to defend their borders if they are attacked.

Interestingly, these are the animals that gather in herds and social groups.

Where does the largest monkey sleep? Wherever it wants.

This is the postulate for assertiveness: you can take up as much space in your life as you need, take what you need from the world, and achieve your goals in peace.

Assertive behaviour is about having the right to pursue what you want, defending your values and boundaries when necessary, but not being the first to attack, respecting the boundaries and values of others.

The dangers of passive behaviour

At the same time, there are also so-called passive animals in nature, mostly small and weak, such as a mouse or a hare.

Interestingly, when they need to defend themselves, they often choose to run away, cover their tracks, mimic or even pretend to be dead to avoid conflict.

In this analogy, people who choose passive behaviour over asserting their rights direct their aggression at themselves, downplaying the importance of their own needs: “maybe I don’t deserve a higher salary?”, “I’ll agree to work on a day off so that there are no problems”, “I won’t remind my boss that I have completed successful projects for a promotion so that I don’t look arrogant”, “the company is going through a difficult time, they don’t need me now”.

There is a danger in this. After all, it is important for such people that others notice their sacrifice and appreciate an employee who works so hard and persistently, hoping for a well-deserved reward, the same promotion.

However, most of the time, colleagues will think that if a person doesn’t ask, they don’t need it.

Thus, passive behaviour can result in frustration, a crisis of values, and even depression.

How to train your assertiveness

#1: Values

Identify for yourself and write down a group of values that you believe in the most, and train yourself to defend them first.

For example, you believe in human dignity and decency. This is what will help you resist impudence and say, “Excuse me, you can’t do this to me, I respect human dignity and will not tolerate impudence towards me.”

#2. Analyse your behaviour and reactions

Try to notice when you agree to something out of politeness or fear, and when you do it because you really want to help.

There’s nothing wrong with agreeing to take a day off or work overtime if you care about the challenge and the project. What’s wrong is if you agree to do so under duress.

By analysing your reactions, you will gradually learn to feel yourself and your own boundaries. And later, you’ll practice them, saying “no” more often when you’re not ready for more.

#3. Give reasons for your refusal

If you are asked to do someone else’s work, try the “refusal + explanation” formula. This will make it easier for you, and you won’t feel like an insensitive person.

For example, instead of “No, I can’t”, write something better: “Unfortunately, I will not be able to do this job. It is not in my area of expertise, so I am unlikely to do a good job.”

In the second wording, you can see that the balance of caring for both your own interests and those of the client is maintained.

You refuse the task not only because it will be better for you, but also because it will be more profitable for the manager and the business if the task is done by another specialist who understands the topic better than you.

#4. Don’t make excuses

You may be overcome with feelings of fear or guilt when you stand up for your boundaries, which will make you overly justify or apologise.

This is something you shouldn’t do. Instead, use the approach from the previous point and motivate your refusal by explaining why you are saying no.

#5. Don’t be afraid to look bold when asserting yourself

Try at least once to do something that you think will “look bold”.

For example, declare your desire to try your hand at a more difficult project, initiate a change in the team, or remind them of the promised salary review.

Write down the result. This will help prove that what you perceive as daring in your imagination can be absolutely normal in reality. And then it will be much easier to practise “healthy impudence”, i.e. assertiveness.

#6. Remember that you and your opinion are important

Remind yourself of these basic beliefs every time it seems that it is too much to refuse, to ask for more for yourself.

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