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You're running late at the office and beginning to panic because you have to pick up the kids in 20 minutes. Your boss comes in and says there's an urgent assignment that has to be done right away. You'll have to stay late to work on it. You call your spouse to pick up the kids, but your spouse is getting ready to go out to a special reunion that was planned months ago, with friends who have made travel arrangements to be here.

How do you say no to your boss? How do you get your partner to pick up the kids (without jeopardizing your relationship)? How can you calmly deal with this crisis?

We've all been in similar situations. Maybe not quite so extreme, but very much like this. And how well have you coped?

Assertiveness is all about remaining calm and in control: not losing it, or maybe losing it just a little before you take a deep breath and look carefully at what is going on -- being able to express yourself, to set and maintain boundaries, and to really hear what people are saying to you. For example, when your boss rushes in with this urgent assignment, how urgent is it, really? Does it have to be finished before morning, or just before the end of the day tomorrow? Is there room for negotiation? Are you the only person who can work on it? Are you the best person to work on it? Or are you just the closest warm body (and somebody the boss knows will never refuse)?

In being assertive, you can listen to what your boss is saying and pin him down on the details. You might be able to convince him that John Smith or Jane Doe would do a better job because they are already familiar with the project. You can probably negotiate an agreement where you will take the work with you, pick up your kids, and get the job done by morning, at home, if it has to be done that quickly.

And how do you deal with your spouse? Can he or she pick up the kids while you call around for a babysitter -- and be just a little bit late for the reunion?

This situation does not have to end in a meek "of course I'll do it" in response to your boss's request. Nor does it have to end in a screaming match over the phone with your spouse. With some basic training in assertiveness, you can learn how to take that deep breath and step back from the situation so that you can look at it more objectively. You can build your self-confidence so that you are able to say "no" when necessary. You can learn to set boundaries so that people no longer take advantage of you, but you can do this in a way that doesn't alienate people, either.

Women, especially, are socialized to be "nice" and it is very hard for us to say no. We don't want to hurt people's feelings; we don't want to seem mean or unpleasant. We try to say no in other ways, but the message often either fails to get through or is misunderstood.

Being assertive does not mean being abrasive or angry. It does not mean being a "bitch" or pushing people around or getting your own way all the time. It's a way of being in control of a situation, of being heard, and of getting your message across in a calm but effective way.

Assertiveness is a skill that is essential in the society we live in, which is full of pressures and expectations that, realistically, we're not always able to fulfill.

Recommended reading: "When I Say No, I Feel Guilty" by Manuel J. Smith, an easy-to-read guide to developing your assertiveness.