STEP THREE: Practice giving assertive responses.
Using the responses you have just developed, role-play (method #1) the problem situations with a friend or, if that isn't possible, simply imagine interacting assertively. As recommended in method #1, start with real life but easy to handle situations and work up to more challenging ones expected in the future. Use the many other suggestions given in method #1.
You will quickly discover, if your friend plays the role realistically, that you need to do more than simply rehearse the assertiveness responses. You will realize that no matter how calm and tactful you are, how much you use "I" statements, and how much you play down a desire for change, it will still sometimes come out smelling like a personal assault to the other person. The other person may not be aggressive (since you have been tactful) but you should realize that strong reactions are possible, e.g. getting mad and calling you names, counter-attacking and criticizing you, seeking revenge, becoming threatening or ill, or suddenly being contrite and overly apologetic or submissive. Your friend helping you by role-playing can act out the more likely reactions. In most cases, simply explaining your behavior and standing your ground will handle the situation. But, there are helpful special techniques for responding to criticism and when the interaction is not going well.
When we are criticized, there are various ways of attacking back. We may be sarcastic, get mad, or criticize back. We assume "I count, you don't." That's aggressive. We may cry, be quiet, or get away. We imply "You count, I don't." That's passive. We may pretend to forget but get even by procrastinating, being late or slow, being silent or whiny, bad mouthing the critic, or doing any thing that drives him/her up a wall ("Oh, I didn't know that was bothering you"). That's passive-aggressive. Instead of these kinds of reactions to criticism, McKay, Davis & Fanning (1983) recommend using one of these approaches reflecting a "We both count equally" attitude:
- Acknowledge that the criticism is true, if it is. Don't make flimsy excuses but do give honest explanations (if you have a valid one). Examples: "Yes, I have put off doing the report." "Yes, I was late this morning but my car wouldn't start."
- Even if you don't agree with most of the criticism, you can single out some part that you do agree with and indicate where you agree, disregarding all the disagreements. Examples: "You could be right about..." "I understand how you feel about..." This is really ducking the issue but that may be what you want to do.
- Listen carefully and ask for clarification until the person's views are understood. Focus on his/her main point and ask, "What is it that bothers you about...?"
In most interactions, it is not just one person assertively asking for changes, but rather two people wanting to express their feelings, opinions or wishes (and maybe get their way). So, each of you must take turns being assertive and then listen empathetically...that's good communication if it results in satisfactory compromises.
Finally, assertiveness is used to confront difficult situations and people. Some people just won't take "no" for an answer; some kids continue arguing and arguing; some people don't realize how determined you are until you repeat the message many times. One technique is called the broken record: you calmly and firmly repeat a short, clear statement over and over until the other person gets the message. Examples: "I want you to be home by midnight," "I don't like the product and I want my money back," "No, I don't want to go drinking, I want to study." Repeat the same statement in exactly the same way until the other person "gets off your back," regardless of the excuses, diversions, or arguments given by the other person.
There are other techniques to use when the communication is breaking down, for instance the topic may have gotten changed, one or both people may be losing control of their emotions, or the interaction may be at an impasse: (1) shift the focus from the issue at hand to what is happening between you and the other person. "We are both getting upset, let's try to stay reasonable," "We have drifted off the topic, can we go back to ____?" (2) If you need time to think or to calm down or if no progress is being made, consider taking a break: "That's important, let me think about it. Can we take a 10-minute break?" "I need to sleep on that before making a decision." "I'm too upset right now to discuss it, I'll be ready to deal with it at 3:00 tomorrow afternoon."
STEP FOUR: Try being assertive in real life situations.
Start with the easier, less stressful situations. Build some confidence. Make adjustments in your approach as needed.
Look for or devise ways of sharpening your assertiveness skills. Examples: Ask a friend to lend you a piece of clothing, a record album, or a book. Ask a stranger for directions, change for a dollar, or a pen or pencil. Ask a store manager to reduce the price of a soiled or slightly damaged article, to demonstrate a product, or exchange a purchase. Ask an instructor to help you understand a point, find extra reading, or go over items you missed on an exam. Practice speaking and making small talk, give compliments to friends and strangers, call up a city official when you see something unreasonable or inefficient, praise others when they have done well, tell friends or co-workers experiences you have had, and on and on. Keep a diary of your interactions.
Perhaps as little as a couple hours is needed, if you only have one or two situations in which you want to improve. If you are generally submissive, count on several hours for understanding, preparing, practicing and actually changing.
Several problems have been mentioned above. Some people refuse to admit their submissiveness. Some are afraid to change. If you do change, some of your friends, relatives and/or co-workers may have difficulty accepting such a basic change in personality. Tell them why you want to be different; most will support you. If you ask for changes in others, you are likely to be resisted and maybe resented. Appeal to their sense of fairness.
It is not uncommon for a formerly passive person to be so successful in changing that he/she becomes overly demanding. Perhaps the new found power goes to his/her head and he/she becomes aggressive and obnoxious. If you can remain just as sensitive to other people's rights as you are to your own, this isn't likely to happen.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
Assertiveness training has been used with shy, anxious, depressed, stressed, aggressive and other kinds of persons. There is "relatively convincing evidence" that assertiveness training is effective, i.e. it changes the trainee's behavior, at least in situations similar to those used for practice during the training sessions (Rimm & Masters, 1974). It is not certain that assertiveness generalizes to "novel" situations, i.e. ones you haven't practiced or thought about.
Furthermore, considering the hundreds of articles and the 15-20 major books proclaiming the usefulness of assertiveness training, it may surprise you that there is very little scientific evidence that the trainees' marriage, work place, friendships and family relations are improved after learning to be assertive in a seminar (Eisler, Miller, Hersen & Alford, 1974). Amazing, isn't it? In fact, there are hints that an untrained spouse of a trainee may become less assertive, more socially anxious, and less sure of his/her social skills (Kolotkin & Wielkiewicz, 1982). So it may be wise for married couples or friends or work groups to take assertiveness training together, emphasizing cooperation and congeniality.
All the research observations referred to in the last paragraph apply to formal training provided by graduate students or professionals. There is almost no data about the effectiveness of reading about assertiveness on one's own and practicing with a friend. Certainly the impact of self-taught assertiveness on friends and loved ones is unknown; it sounds convincing that a pleasant, considerate, fair but assertive person would make a good partner, but perhaps what seems considerate and fair to one person may seem aggressive to another person. As we change, we should be alert to the possibility of making life worse for others. Much research is needed.
Alberti and Emmons (1978, 1986), who were the original writers in this area, believe that assertive training works only with people who are not entirely passive or continuously aggressive. For the extremes, they recommend psychotherapy. Likewise, if the people around you will react hostilely to your being graciously assertive, perhaps you should see a lawyer. Refusing to make the coffee may result in losing your job or a promotion, so move cautiously. It may be wise to postpone a confrontation until the time is right.
There is no known danger, although some research has suggested that certain men believe that sexual aggression, such as kissing, fondling, and even intercourse, is a little more justified, if the women has initiated the date, gone to the male's apartment, let the man pay for everything, etc. A female being assertive or unassertive is not going to cause a rape (that is a male sickness), but all of our behavior has implications in other people's minds--and some of those minds are chauvinistic, weird, inconsiderate, etc. In general, you are surely much safer being assertively honest, rather than overly shy, needy and dependent, afraid of hurting someone's feelings, uncertain of what to say, and so on.
Mental health professionals consider Alberti & Emmons two books to be the best in this area (Santrock, Minnett & Campbell, 1994). Books that justify aggressiveness, the use of intimidation, and self-centered looking out for #1 are not recommended by professionals. Elgin (1980) and Piaget (1991) offer help countering a "control freak" or a verbally aggressive person (see references below). Video and audio tapes about assertiveness and dealing with difficult people are available from CareerTrack (1-800-334-1018).
Adler, R. B. (1977). Confidence in communication: A guide to assertive and social skills. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Alberti, R. E. & Emmons, M. L. (1975, 1986). Stand up, speak out, talk back. New York: Pocketbooks.
Alberti also has six audiotapes: Making yourself heard: A guide to assertive relationships. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers .
Bloom, L. Z., Coburn, K. & Pearlman, J. (1976). The new assertive woman. New York: Dell.
Bower, S. A. & Bower, G. H. (1976). Asserting yourself: A practical guide for positive change. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Elgin, S. (1980). The gentle art of verbal self-defense. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Elgin, S. (1995). You can't say that to me! Stopping the pain of verbal abuse--an 8-step program. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Jakubowski, P. & Lange, A. (1985). The assertive option: Your rights and responsibilities. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Piaget, G. (1991). Control freaks: Who are they and how to stop them from running your life. New York: Doubleday.
Phelps, S. & Austin, N. (1987). The assertive woman: A new look. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.