Some Typical Examples
Assertiveness training really began in the late 1940s, in the writings of Andrew Salter, one of the founders of behaviour therapy. Over the following decades, many books were published on the subject. From these writings, emerged a number of strategies that became popular among people studying assertiveness. One of the best books on the subject, When I Say No, I feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith, describes several of these strategies in detail.
Involves calmly repeating your point as many times as necessary, like the proverbial broken record, without being drawn into arguments or verbal side-issues. Stating what you want patiently and persistently, without taking “no” for an answer. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Difficult situations often require persistence and nonassertive individuals often either give up prematurely or else become frustrated, angry, or irritated. Can you “not take no for an answer” without becoming irritated or raising your voice but instead persist calmly? The broken record strategy means sticking to your main point until you get an answer, without getting bogged down in discussing your reasons and trying to justify yourself unnecessarily.
Fogging refers to the image of a “bank of fog” that doesn’t resist attacks but isn’t affected by them either, if you were to throw sticks and stones at a wall of fog, they would just pass right through it. In assertiveness training, “fogging” refers to the art of acknowledging criticisms without being affected by them, or “agreeing” without really agreeing. That often takes the form simply of saying “I suppose you might be right”, “You could have a point”, etc., humouring the speaker without really taking their comments too seriously. This is often easier if you deliberately interpret their comments as criticisms of your behaviour, which may or may not be true, rather than as criticisms of your essential character. Of course, you may also adopt the view that any criticism has potentially a grain of truth in it, but isn’t necessarily worth taking very seriously. Does it really matter?
Negative assertion is similar to fogging but involves explicitly criticising your own actions, in a calm and detached manner, without necessarily apologising. Doing so steals the other person’s thunder, if they’re trying to criticise you. By openly acknowledging some flaw, but treating it as relatively unimportant, you make it difficult for them to create a fuss about it. Again, this is easier if you deliberately view criticisms as referring to changeable aspects of your behaviour rather than your essential character. For example, negative assertion might consist of saying, “You’ve got a point, yes, I did make a bit of a mess of that presentation, didn’t I?”
Negative inquiry is similar to negative assertion but it invites the other person to elaborate on their criticisms. For example, you might ask, “Just so that I can understand better, what is it about the way I handled things that you didn’t like?” and continue to ask “Was there anything else?”, until the other person has exhausted their criticisms. When calmly invited to express their criticisms and to do so in full, without resistance, people will often become less aggressive and criticism, when made specific, will often appear more trivial. This also encourages the other person to be more assertive with you, which is ultimately helpful, rather than being indirect or manipulative.
Finally, one of the most basic skills, especially when you feel yourself becoming overly angry or anxious, is to assertively state that you want to take time to think about your response. Taking a “time-out” or postponing your response shouldn’t turn into a habitual form of avoidance but it can be useful when you feel your emotions may be getting in the way of assertive behaviour or you need time to consider the best response. It can be difficult to do this at first but it becomes much easier with just a little practice, e.g., saying, “I’m started to feel a bit angry about this, I think we should leave it for now and both sleep on things, so we can talk about it tomorrow more calmly.” Or you might say, “I don’t quite know what to say; let me go away and think about it and I promise I’ll get back to you later with a more considered response.”
It’s relatively easy to learn assertiveness skills. You can plan specific examples of what to say and do in writing, rehearse strategies in response to specific situations in imagination, and test them out in reality. Pick one strategy at a time and try to use it as frequently as possible (without over-using it) for a week or two, until it becomes quite familiar. You can record progress on a simple self-monitoring record with columns headed, e.g.,
- “Date and time” of incident
- “Situation” you were in, and who was present
- “Goals”, i.e., what specifically you wanted to achieve
- “Strategy”, i.e., what you actually did, rate how helpful or effective your assertiveness strategy was (0-100%) each time
- “Outcome”, i.e., what actually happened, how others responded, etc.
The main thing is to record information that you find useful in tracking your progress and learning from your own experience. You might also note down “Learning”, i.e., what you would do differently next time.