Assertiveness Training

when i say no

South African psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe originally explored the use of assertiveness in his 1958 book on treating neurosis as a means of ‘reciprocal inhibition’ of anxiety (anxiety being inhibited by a feeling or response that is not compatible with the feeling of anxiety). Wolpe first started using eating as a response to inhibited anxiety in the laboratory cats. He would offer them food while presenting a conditioned fear stimulus. After his experiments in the laboratory he applied reciprocal inhibition to his clients in the form of assertiveness training.

Wolpe’s belief was that a person could not be both assertive and anxious at the same time, and thus being assertive would inhibit anxiety. Assertiveness training proved especially useful for clients who had anxiety about social situations. However, assertiveness training did have a potential flaw in the sense that it could not be applied to other kinds of phobias. Wolpe’s use of reciprocal inhibition led to his discovery of systematic desensitization (graduated exposure therapy). He believed that facing your fears did not always result in overcoming them but rather lead to frustration. According to Wolpe, the key to overcoming fears was ‘by degrees.

The goals of assertiveness training include: increased awareness of personal rights; differentiation between non-assertiveness and assertiveness; differentiation between passive–aggressiveness and aggressiveness; and learning both verbal and non-verbal assertiveness skills. As a communication style and strategy, assertiveness is thus distinguished from both aggression and passivity. How people deal with personal boundaries, their own and those of other people, helps to distinguish between these three concepts. Passive communicators do not defend their own personal boundaries and thus allow aggressive people to abuse or manipulate them through fear. Passive communicators are also typically not likely to risk trying to influence anyone else. Aggressive people do not respect the personal boundaries of others and thus are liable to harm others while trying to influence them. A person communicates assertively by overcoming fear of speaking his or her mind or trying to influence others, but doing so in a way that respects the personal boundaries of others. Assertive people are also willing to defend themselves against aggressive people.

Assertive communication involves respect for the boundaries of oneself and others. It also presumes an interest in the fulfillment of needs and wants through cooperation. Such communication ’emphasizes expressing feelings forthrightly, but in a way that will not spiral into aggression.’ If others’ actions threaten one’s boundaries, one communicates this to prevent escalation. In contrast, ‘aggressive communication’ judges, threatens, lies, breaks confidences, stonewalls, and violates others’ boundaries. At the opposite end of the dialectic is ‘passive communication.’ Victims may passively permit others to violate their boundaries. At a later time, they may come back and attack with a sense of impunity or righteous indignation. Assertive communication attempts to transcend these extremes by appealing to the shared interest of all parties; it ‘focuses on the issue, not the person.’ Aggressive and/or passive communication, on the other hand, may mark a relationship’s end, and reduce self-respect.

Assertive people feel free to express their feelings, thoughts, and desires; are ‘able to initiate and maintain comfortable relationships’; know their rights; and have control over their anger. This does not mean that they repress this feeling; it means that they control anger and talk about it in a reasoning manner. They ‘are willing to compromise with others, rather than always wanting their own way … and tend to have good self-esteem’ In connection with gender theory, linguist ‘[Deborah] Tannen argues that men and women would both benefit from learning to use the others’ style. … So, women would benefit from assertiveness training just as men might benefit from sensitivity training.’

Techniques of assertiveness can vary widely. Experimental psychologist Manuel Smith, in his 1975 book ‘When I Say No, I Feel Guilty,’ offered several, such as the ‘broken record’ technique: simply repeating your requests or your refusals every time you are met with resistance. The term comes from vinyl records, the surface of which when scratched would lead the needle of a record player to loop over the same few seconds of the recording indefinitely. ‘As with a broken record, the key to this approach is repetition … where your partner will not take no for an answer.’ A disadvantage with this technique is that when resistance continues, your requests may lose power every time you have to repeat them. If the requests are repeated too often, it can backfire on the authority of your words. In these cases, it is necessary to have some sanctions on hand. ‘Fogging’ consists of finding some limited truth to agree with in what an antagonist is saying. More specifically, one can agree in part or agree in principle. ‘Negative inquiry’ consists of requesting further, more specific criticism. ‘Negative assertion’ is agreement with criticism without letting up demand. ‘I-statements’ can be used to voice one’s feelings and wishes from a personal position without expressing a judgment about the other person or blaming one’s feelings on them.

Critics of assertiveness argue that it may be practiced in an unbalanced way, especially by those new to the process: ‘[One] problem with the concept of assertiveness is that it is both complex and situation-specific. … Behaviors that are assertive in one circumstance may not be so in another.’ More particularly, while ‘unassertiveness courts one set of problems, over-assertiveness creates another.’ Assertiveness manuals recognize that ‘many people, when trying out assertive behavior for the first time, find that they go too far and become aggressive.’ In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the heyday of assertiveness training, some so-called assertiveness training techniques were distorted and ‘people were told to do some pretty obnoxious things in the name of assertiveness. Like blankly repeating some request over and over until you got your way.’ Divorced from respect for the rights of others, so-called assertiveness techniques could be psychological tools that might be readily abused: The line between repeatedly demanding with sanctions (‘broken record’) versus coercive nagging, emotional blackmail, or bullying, could be a fine one, and the caricature of assertiveness training as ‘training in how to get your own way … or how to become as aggressive as the next person’ was perpetuated.

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