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A quick clarification:

I've included the examples to illustrate situations in which I am having trouble being assertive. I am not looking for solutions to these two specific situations. I am more interested in the general skill of assertiveness.

Background

I am on the autism spectrum and often have trouble being assertive without causing a conflict.

I've become timid and fearful about trying to be assertive due to past experiences where I've tried to be assertive but have instead been labelled as "difficult".


A good example of this is getting lunch with my coworkers. Being autistic, there are a lot of foods that give me sensory overload and so my diet is very restricted. When my coworkers talk about going to get lunch everyone (including me) will suggest places to go. Because I find it really uncomfortable to shoot people down, I typically try to ease both my and their discomfort by making a joke about the food at a certain place, to make clear I don't want to go there because I don't like anything on their menu, such as:

Well that could be good if you like salad for some reason.

The problem is that this results in them either excluding me in the future or labeling me as difficult to get along with. This is not my desired result, I'd like them to instead try to consider my needs. I once had a coworker tell me that she overheard a conversation between a few other coworkers to the effect of

Yeah, I really like Rainbacon, but I can't stand to eat with him. He's too difficult to agree on a restaurant with.

Another good example of where I want to be assertive is when looking for jobs. I've been considering leaving the job that I'm currently in, and as part of that process I've talked to several recruiters. I gave some basic details of what I was looking for (industry, technology stack, company size, etc...) when I started the process, but that doesn't seem to have helped. They've sent a number of job postings that I'm not particularly interested in for one reason or another. When I turn down the jobs I will usually give a reason along the lines of

I don't think this is the right fit for me because of X.

The typical response I get to this is something trying to convince me that reason X is an incorrect assumption in order to get me to reconsider.

I'd like to be more assertive about the kinds of jobs I want and don't want so that the jobs they send me are more in line with what I'm looking for, but I don't know how to best do that. I don't want to keep turning down the [less desirable] jobs they are sending because I don't want them to write me off as being too picky or difficult and just stop sending me jobs.


How can I be assertive about these things without making people think that I'm difficult to get along with?

  • With the recruiters, do you have a single contact that sends you several job offers or are you talking about several random recruiters contacting you through phone or linkedin ? – Aserre Feb 20 '19 at 15:13
  • @Aserre I have both scenarios happening. The issues happen more with the single recruiter sending several jobs – Rainbacon Feb 20 '19 at 15:15
  • Do you have a lunchroom at your workplace ? – Aserre Feb 20 '19 at 15:31
  • There's a break room where I could eat, but not a cafeteria where I could get food if that's what you're asking – Rainbacon Feb 20 '19 at 15:37
  • @cheshire "everyone (including me) will suggest places to go" – Rainbacon Feb 20 '19 at 17:20
7

NB: I'm autistic too and have been through near enough the same process myself so I'm providing info about what has worked for me.

I appreciate that you are looking for general solutions rather than the specifics you mentioned but I think there is value in looking at this through the lens of those examples - the advice though should be generally applicable and hopefully you'll be able to use these as something of a template.

Food choices

You say:

I typically try to ease both my and their discomfort by making a joke about the food at a certain place

and gave an example of this as:

Well that could be good if you like salad for some reason.

The problem with the example you gave is that if the person you are saying this to does like salad for "some reason" then you aren't making a joke that will ease their discomfort - you are making one at their expense by denigrating their food preferences. Which, depending upon how the person perceives the comments could be enough in my experience to earn the "difficult" label in of itself. But further than that it's likely to be labeled as "difficult" because you don't offer anything constructive towards the group's goal. You're putting all the workload back on to the others to come up with an alternative.

Essentially you are looking to offer constructive criticism on the other person's suggestion of where to eat and (from the link) it's falling short in a few areas:

Are You Focusing On A Desired Future?

The most effective feedback is focused on what you want to see rather than what's wrong. For example, if a colleague constantly interrupts others in meetings, you likely want them to talk less. Effective feedback might be, ”Would you consider listening more closely to others in our meetings? That may mean waiting for others to finish their thoughts and asking questions so they feel understood.”

so in this example the "desired future" is finding somewhere to have lunch that day, by not offering an alternative suggestion of where to eat you aren't focusing on this, rather you are focusing on what is "wrong" with the previous suggestion.

This also applies somewhat:

Is Your Criticism Personal?

Constructive criticism focuses on the behavior and the impact and relates it to the expectation that has been set previously. It also focuses on new behaviors could yield positive impacts. Harmful criticism often directs comments about the person and is impacted by the bias the provider has. It's harmful because it's not usually paired with a constructive new action the person can take.

You said "if you like salad" - implying that the problem is with the person who likes salad.

So what would be a better alternative?

Keep the "negative" feedback about the suggestion from spilling into criticism of anyone else's values, and offer a constructive way forward for the conversation. e.g:

They do a lot of salad on everything at Sue's Salad Shack and I'm not keen on that. I'm of a carnivore, how about we go to Bill's Beef Buffet instead? They do Bill's Salad Special there if that's suitable for you so we could both get something you like?

You've stated your preferences, not made any implied value judgments of anyone else's preferences, shown you are trying to take their preferences into account and given the conversation somewhere to go from there.

Job hunting

From how you describe it I'm assuming this is in the context of recruiters contacting you about opportunities they are looking to hire for. This is a slightly more complicated example than above since the "desired future" is subtly different for each party. The recruiter's goal is to fill the opportunities they have been hired to recruit for, yours is to get jobs that you want to be hired in. That doesn't mean there isn't a way to kill both birds with one stone. Again the key here is to give the conversation an avenue to move on to. Rather than just

I don't think this is the right fit for me because of X.

Simply extend it in a direction that gives them something to work with:

I don't think this is the right fit for me because of X. I'm looking for a role that offers Y.

Assuming they are half-way competent at their job they will know that you are someone they can fill jobs with, they just need one's that offer Y rather than X. If they've got one on the books they can then move the conversation to try matching you with that one instead. If not then in future you won't be in their mental Rolodex as someone who "says no" you'll be someone who "matches with jobs that offer Y"

It's rather irritating for you if "Y" was one of the criteria you gave earlier and you are basically repeating yourself but the key thing here is that you are basically ending the statement on positive note - the vague "yes" to jobs that offer Y rather than the all negative "No" to jobs that have property X

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2

This is a difficult problem! I'll try to break it down into the elements that I see as most relevant: how "difficult" are you, and how "difficult" do you seem? I've tried to keep the situations and skills general, but it's hard to talk about without more concrete examples. If I've erred in focusing too much on a specific situation please let me know and I will try to distill out the general bits more clearly.

The main thrust of my advice is that being proactive about expressing your limitations, extra-open to compromise where it's possible, and being prepared to do what it takes to make things smoother for others (again, where possible) are likely to help a lot. Feel free to assert what you need, but recognize that demanding that your needs actually be maximally met, all the time, can be a way to legitimately earn a label like "difficult". Being assertive is not the same as actually getting what you want/need.

1. How "difficult" are you?

The quotation marks are because difficult is a subjective judgement, but the underlying events that drive making that judgement are a bit more cut-and-dried. My writing is not perfect, so I'm explicitly declaring here that I am not applying any moral assessment of anything that follows in this section. Any appearance of such is me failing to express myself clearly.

This will vary by specific situation, but ultimately if you are hard to please then demanding (or appearing to demand) your preferences can reveal that. If 95% of the restaurants your coworkers suggest are unacceptable to you, then, regardless of reason, accommodating your desires simply is challenging for them if they want to eat with you. They can either limit the restaurants they are considering, or go without you.

There are things about your needs that I can't know or guess at. If you are deathly allergic to shellfish, but your coworkers really want to go to a restaurant that serves only shellfish, then obviously that isn't going to work. If, on the other hand, you can eat shellfish and you simply prefer something else one day, then a compromise might be possible in which you don't get your maximum preference on that day.

All of this is to say that it's not necessarily just a labeling issue. If it is, in fact, difficult to choose a restaurant that's acceptable to you, then there may not be a way to satisfy your needs which doesn't reveal that.

What can be done?

If you have a lot of restaurants or foods that are absolutely unworkable for you then obviously you'll have to avoid them. But because you may have more of these than many people, accommodating your needs may be more burdensome than accommodating others' needs. Offsetting this means you need to be more flexible than others might be when you can. If you veto several restaurants because you cannot eat there, then it may be reasonable for you to accept a restaurant where you can eat, even if you're not especially in the mood for it that day. Every suggestion after a veto is already them compromising for you, and that's worth keeping in mind.

And there will be cases, at least some times, in which the best thing you can do will be to remove yourself from lunch that day. If you've rejected X suggestions the group was otherwise open to, then you have become the obstacle to lunch that day. This perception gets stronger as X gets larger. If you ultimately settle on a place to eat, but your coworkers are not excited about it, then they will associate their mediocre lunch experience with accommodating you. These are directly contrary to your goals, and so if a good consensus choice for a place to eat is not forming then it can be worthwhile to remove yourself as an obstacle:

It seems like we're not at all in the mood for the same stuff today. I don't want derail everybody's lunch, so why don't you guys go on to [the top pick among them], and I'll catch you next time?

All of your needs and preferences still exist with this approach, and are not violated or compromised, but by removing those things as obstacles to what your coworkers want to do you stop being "difficult" and instead become are a good experience for the group.

2. How "difficult" do you seem?

You probably have a solid understanding of what foods you can and cannot eat comfortably, what leeway you have in compromising, and other factors which apply to these situations. Other people will not. So coworkers can't be expected to know the full list of relevant details and will instead just notice the outcomes.

If your coworkers don't know why you're saying no, they can't reliably give better suggestions or contextualize your vetoes. They'll just know that you are saying "no" to a lot of suggestions, and if you're often the lone "no" vote in the group then it will make clear that the group could have chosen a restaurant already, maybe several times over, if not for trying to accommodate you.

There are a few ways you can handle this. The more readily-understandable your needs, and the more "accepted" they are as needs, the more you can expect coworkers to at least try to take those into account. Going with the shellfish allergy above, if your coworkers know that you will likely die if you try to eat at a restaurant serving shellfish then they will (hopefully!) not suggest such a restaurant. If they only know that you reject all seafood restaurants, and don't know why, then it might be cast as a preference and earn you the "difficult" label:

I'm hungry for Red Lobster, but Rainbacon never wants to go there!

What can be done?

  • Track how often you say "no", both in specific encounters and over time.

If you are the one rejecting broadly popular choices significantly more often than others are rejecting choices, then you can easily gain a reputation as "difficult". And when you do say "no", follow up with something positive if possible-- a suggestion that you liked, or some guidance about what you're open to. Make it easier for people to provide a suggestion you can approve.

  • Try to get ahead of needing to say "no" by providing information on what you can't do

If you have a shellfish allergy, letting your coworkers know should prevent a lot of suggestions for seafood restaurants. Being told an arbitrary "no" feels very different from deciding not to make a suggestion because you know someone else can't or won't accept it. Help them determine what you might say yes or no to, so that their suggestions can take that information into account.

  • Make your own suggestions

I assume you already do this, it's a good way to break the cycle of people submitting suggestions for your approval and then being denied. Depending on how restrictive your needs are, it might work better to suggest places that you know are popular with your coworkers rather than your own favorites. As above, they are already compromising by accommodating your rejection. If everyone else is getting their sixth choice, it is not really reasonable for you to get your first choice. Certainly not often.

  • Be quick and earnest in supporting suggestions that you're OK with

If someone else makes a suggestion that works for you, support it! Whether or not that's the place that's picked, you saying "yes" is an important balance to when you need to say "no". Again, it doesn't have to be a suggestion you're really excited about, it's vital that you be seen making an effort to get to "yes" when you, alone, are also seen issuing a lot of hard "no"s.


I've not discussed anything about the recruiters here because I think that that situation is very different from the coworker/lunch situation. The latter is an ongoing social interaction with no particular end point or goal for anyone involved, while the former is a professional interaction with a profit motive for the recruiter and a running cost-benefit calculation they are making.

It's the recruiter's job to find job opportunities that interest you and that you fit well, but they have strong incentives to send you more jobs than fewer. Any job you take will get them their commission, and no matter how many leads they send you're only going to accept one of them.

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