A painter complained to me that her friends, the organizations where she volunteered her time, family members, and the few gallery owners with whom she dealt regularly took advantage of her.

I asked her what her role was in this unfortunate dynamic. She responded at length—but she never really answered. I wondered aloud if her very communication style—the way she had just responded to me—had been developed over time to spare her from saying things directly and clearly. I wondered if she spoke evasively and at length to save herself from saying short, strong, confident things. She pondered this for a long moment—and then agreed.

She admitted that she had a terrible time saying no to people or directly announcing what she wanted and needed. This inability, which she could easily trace to childhood dynamics, resulted in people walking all over her. In therapy, we might have explored the childhood part of this dynamic at great length. As this was coaching, I went directly to the solution. I asked her to try speaking in sentences of no more than six or seven words and to say in those sentences exactly what she meant.

We role-played a bit. The first issue was the way that her husband, who had recently retired early, kept visiting her in her studio space to chat about inconsequential matters. I asked her to craft a sentence of seven words or less that communicated what she wanted to say to him: that her painting time was precious to her. Her first efforts were grotesquely long, apologetic, and weak. Finally, after many tries, she arrived at: “I can’t chat while I’m working.” “Can you say that to him?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “How does that feel?” I continued. “Very, very scary.”

Next we role-played a situation she was having with the fellow who did some printing work for her. He was the only person in her area equipped to do this printing work and she liked both the work he did and his prices. But he was always inappropriate with her, saying things like “You know, I have feelings for you” and “Most husbands don’t understand their artist wives.” “What do you want to say to him?” I asked. Having just practiced, she was now quicker to respond. “I need you to stop that,” she said. “I am coming here to have prints made, period.” She laughed. “That’s two sentences, and one’s a little long. But that’s the idea, right?” “That’s exactly the idea,” I agreed.

This is your work. No one else can do this for you. By the stances you take, by the words that you use, by the “vibe” that you give off, you let people know that you will not be anybody’s dishrag. You manifest your confidence by saying strong, clear things and by maintaining appropriate boundaries with the people with whom you interact.


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