Cyclone Tauktae, Facebook, and 11 lessons in assertiveness

Updated: Jun 10

A round-up of my experiences and experiments with assertive expression around the time of this dangerous cyclone, followed by 11 tips for you

Cyclone Tauktae, Facebook, and 11 lessons in assertiveness
Feel free to utter this life-saving word when your plate is full.

Image: Andy T | Unsplash


The last seven days have been a roller-coaster one. After my jubilation over pitching to a publication in months, I experienced the true effects of Cyclone Tauktae, which passed by India’s western coast early that week.


Yes, it impacted my city, Mumbai. But we never thought our home would be so badly hit as to have a major part of our ceiling collapse. Yes, you read that right.


It started off as a few fallen chips of plaster. Dad was taping that section of our ceiling to prevent more of it from landing on the floor in bits and pieces when he had to answer nature’s call. The moment he left, the entire portion came crashing down with a heart-stopping thunderous noise, scattering huge, thick chunks of rubble all over the room and sending the tube light askew. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. Clearly, it was a case of a higher power protecting us.


If that wasn’t enough, the same night, once the clean-up and scraping were done, I stumbled upon a triggering Facebook Story that made me shake from the unpleasant feelings it kindled within me.


I had to report for my project the next day, but the dual shock meant I couldn’t catch a good night’s sleep, and I feared being unable to type even a single character out of both sleep deprivation and distress. My Morning Pages somehow happened effortlessly as always, and I crossed the #500DaysOfJournaling mark as well. Yet, I was apprehensive it would be the opposite scenario with my professional writing.


While in the shower, I made a decision. When I was back in my room, I phoned my client and confided in them about both instances. Yes, both—though I didn’t delve into the details of the second one. I assured them I’d give my work my best shot, and that if I was unable to continue, I’d drop off any time. Needless to say, my client responded with all their permission, cooperation, understanding, and support.


Later on, my wifi conked off, so I had to wrap up after half my working day. That was when I realised I was enjoying my work so much I wanted to do a full day of it and felt motivated enough for the same. I wonder if it was due to the interesting nature of the work itself or because I expressed myself assertively to my client, got my thoughts off my chest so that they stopped scaring and bothering me from within, and secured a zero-pressure environment for myself to perform in. Anyway, I used the early time off to catch up on my sleep and woke up only after a full two hours of it.


Another unusual thing occurred that day. Bit by bit, I began to gain clarity on several life issues, including the one concerning the Facebook Story.


I have two theories about how these aha moments may have happened.


Firstly, I think my daily journaling habit may have “emptied my cup” enough to get me the ample amount of headspace I needed to receive insights on these various matters.

My journaling notebooks. Image: Sonika Agarwal
My journaling notebooks. Image: Sonika Agarwal

Secondly, it could have been due to my constant practice at learning to communicate and express myself better. I can now assert that there’s no point bottling up your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, leaving them unaddressed or unexpressed, and letting them occupy a major portion of your mind and screw you from within. There’s nothing brave or courageous about it, contrary to what our culture, films, and TV shows have been teaching us. As for the triggering event on Facebook, I know I’m on my way to a solution, thanks to the increasing clarity of thought I’m getting now.


If you’re at a point in life where you’re having a hard time expressing yourself assertively, here are some tips I’ve learned over the week that can help you, too.


Remember that speaking out > bottling up

Bear in mind you have more to lose by “stewing from within” than expressing what’s going on within you. Not only will the act of concealing your thoughts and feelings wreck your mental and even physiological health. In a professional setting especially, you may also witness instances like falling in the weeds, overwork, or burnout because you didn’t speak on time.


Factor in every thought, belief, feeling, emotion, and opinion

This is something I would also do while writing PiKu & ViRu (buy/download here). It’s only recently I started applying this mantra to my life situations, though.


Don’t leave any emotion—not even the tiniest ounce of it—unaddressed. Take everything into account—including the conflicting and contradictory thoughts and beliefs—while you’re working on your speech or solution.


Our unpleasant emotions generally mean they’ve smelled a problem that needs the earliest possible resolution. Trace the origin of your emotions, and you’d have detected the issue at the root. Note it down so you know what needs to be talked about and resolved.


Have a solution-oriented mindset

When you address the issue with the person concerned, ask “how” questions and operate from the mindset that nothing’s impossible. Don’t be bitchy—offer a solution or request for one.


Focus on what you want

Visualise what your preferred resolution looks like, define it. If you’re not sure what it is, figure out how you’d like to feel once it materialises—whether you’d be happy, relieved, calm, and at peace.


Seek help

There’s no harm if you want to consult a trusted someone before having that crucial conversation. In all likelihood, you’ll learn about some fresh angles to your problem you couldn’t have come up with by yourself. Just ensure this person has valid reasons behind discouraging you if they do that. Keep asking “how” questions and insist on getting concrete, action-oriented answers for them that you can implement right away. Try telling them, “What would you do if you were in my place?” This can help the other person see things from your point of view and understand your mindset. Point it out to them if you don’t agree with their advice, suggestions, or remedies. They should think of other satisfying alternatives then.


Put everything down on a page

Writing down or typing out your thoughts, feelings, solutions can help you see everything in a glance and plan your conversation better.


Learn to say no

There’s still too much stigma attached to the word ‘no’. We see no-sayers as malicious villains instead of the smart, intelligent, and assertive people they are. So, when your plate gets full or if you’re uncomfortable at the thought of doing something, don’t be hesitant to utter this life-saving word.


Brush up your language skills

Downton Abbey has played a starring role in helping me improve my assertiveness skills.
Downton Abbey has played a starring role in helping me improve my assertiveness skills. Image: IMDb

I read books and watch shows such as Downton Abbey, which is a textbook in expressive dialogues. I can’t tell you how useful this British series has been when it comes to weaving words and phrases to creative effect. I’ve also gleaned learnings from my own blog post on the 50 business lessons I’ve learned from Anthony Bourdain’s bestselling book Kitchen Confidential. I’m glad I wrote it—it’s become a bible for my work life now. Language skills also equip you for moments of spontaneity in your conversations.


Brace yourself for your inner critic

This nasty voice is going to pounce on you before and after you express yourself. At first, it’ll relentlessly discourage you from addressing your issues with the concerned person in the guise of “protecting” you and keeping you safe. After you go ahead with your plan, it’ll beat you up for throwing your life or career under the bus by speaking up and “offending” that person. If this voice bothers you and makes you second-guess, just let some time elapse. Give it a few hours or a day, and this voice will automatically shut up and stop making you feel guilty or regretful. BTW, this blog post titled “Experiencing Guilt and Shame after Speaking up” proved to be of great help to me; do read it.


Use “we” language

By including this word in your conversation, you essentially tell the other person your problem is theirs, too. They’ll then feel equally compelled to find a solution.


Embrace the nervousness, fear, and anxiety—they are inevitable.

As my dad says, “Catch the bull by its horns.” Go ahead and speak up, despite your fears and other emotions.