Talking Back (In Three Easy Steps)

How can there possibly be a downside to growing up in a loving, functional family? It seems impossible—the stuff of urban legend, right?—but I learned that it was possible. Decades of listening to people’s stories about their childhood led me to the conclusion that the day I was adopted, I won the freaking lottery. Seems that I grew up in the last functional family. Warm, generous, healthy, fair, communicative, friendly, reliable, and consistent in every way.

I didn’t learn about abuse or trauma or neglect. I didn’t learn emotional survival skills, because there was no need to. I also didn’t develop robust skills around confrontation.

Fast forward to college and young adulthood. Still, there were few opportunities to learn how to push back, say no, or negotiate. This changed when romantic relationships entered the picture, and it was time to learn some new skills.

Ask for What You Want
In marriage, I found out about the importance of speaking up for yourself and making your needs known. I had to force myself to find my voice and ask for what I wanted, even if I wasn’t sure the answer would be yes. Especially when I wasn’t sure. I had decades of experience writing about what I wanted in a diary or journal. Paper is neutral; paper doesn’t talk back. I was great at writing but not so great at voicing or defending my opinions. It was time to find that voice. I wrote these words on a Post-It note, stuck it on my computer monitor, and burned it into my consciousness:


It was time to stand on the principle that speaking your truth can never be wrong. Feelings, no matter what they are, are valid. It was time to say what I was thinking out loud—in words, I say!—not in the safe, cozy pages of a journal. And it was time to get accustomed to saying what needed to be said now, not tomorrow or a week or month or year later. The new rule applied double when it came to politics, religion, and the stickiest topic of all, sexuality. Eeeep!!

Learn to Say No
Fast forward through both personal and professional challenges. I discovered that it was time to learn how to say no and how to negotiate. ln the workplace, there were the conversations with coworkers and supervisors that I wanted to avoid but pushed myself to make happen. The “can you put in some overtime” question came up. I gathered my courage and asserted my commitment to work-life balance.

Sometimes I did say yes to evening or weekend work but not without checking to see if I could do so without resentment. “We need people to sign up for the_____.” “The _____ party is tonight. We’d love you to come.” “Who can work on the _____ over the weekend?” Each one was an opportunity to build those assertiveness muscles, pay attention to my own mental/emotional wellness, and stick to my principles.

Challenge Yourself
Fast forward to the phase of life when you’ve got the basics down—you feel good, competent, capable, even wise in many ways. Time to go to the next level. I knew that I had mad skills in a number of areas, but the one thing I had never been good at was approaching strangers. All my life, I swam with the same school of fish and never needed to initiate a conversation with someone outside my pond. Bring out the big guns, baby. I signed up for training as a life coach, a field where I would be forced to talk with complete strangers on a regular basis. I also challenged myself to get comfortable starting conversations and chose environments where I was 99% certain my approach would be welcomed. These baby steps led to talking with people in the grocery check-out line, at the bank, the bus stop, the doctor’s office, the movie theater—pretty much anywhere. I knew I had mastered other skills in life that took a lot of practice, and if I had done it before, I could do it again. I did.

So, kids, what have we learned about assertiveness? Here’s my three-point summary:

  • It may be scary and difficult.
  • It may take a long time.
  • With practice, you can do it.

Find your own motto. Write it on your own sticky note, and post it where you will see it every day. Practice with friends and in safe situations—and then less safe situations. You can and will master this new skill. Your life will be far less stressful, and the decisions that you make will feel undeniably true. At long last, you will be living your authentic power.

Lori Stephens, pNLP, CCP is a writer, editor, publisher, Certified NLP Practitioner, Whole Person Life Coach, and the founder of ROAR Life Coaching. She specializes in Exit Strategy Coaching—helping people who are ready to quit a soul-crushing job, walk away from a toxic relationship, exit a repressive social or religious group, come out as their true sexual or gender orientation, or in some other way claim their true path. She can be reached at

Photo credit: Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash

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