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 Standing Up For Your Rights Requires ASSERTIVENESS 
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Post Standing Up For Your Rights Requires ASSERTIVENESS
Standing Up For Your Rights Requires ASSERTIVENESS

All of us should insist on being treated fairly; we have to stand up for our rights without violating the rights of others. This means tactfully, justly, and effectively expressing our preferences, needs, opinions and feelings. Psychologist call that being "assertive," as distinguished from being unassertive (weak, passive, compliant, self-sacrificing) or aggressive (self-centered, inconsiderate, hostile, arrogantly demanding). As mentioned in chapter 8, the Women's Movement since the 1960's has been a powerful influence on millions of women: women have gotten better career opportunities, more rights to control their bodies, more help from husbands with child care and housework, and so on. These changes happened because women assertively stood up for their rights.

Because some people want to be "nice" and "not cause trouble," they "suffer in silence," "turn the other cheek," and assume nothing can be done to change their situation or "it is our cross to bear." The rest of us appreciate pleasant, accommodating people but whenever a "nice" person permits a greedy, dominant person to take advantage of him/her, the passive person is not only cheating him/herself but also reinforcing unfair, self-centered behavior in the aggressive person. That's how chauvinists are created.


Assertiveness is an antidote to fear, shyness, passivity, and even anger, so there is an astonishingly wide range of situations in which this training is appropriate. Factor analysis of several assertiveness scales (Schimmel, 1976) has suggested several kinds of behavior are involved.

• To speak up, make requests, ask for favors and generally insist that your rights be respected as a significant, equal human being. To overcome the fears and self-depreciation that keep you from doing these things.

• To express negative emotions (complaints, resentment, criticism, disagreement, intimidation, the desire to be left alone) and to refuse requests. See "I" statements in method #4.

• To show positive emotions (joy, pride, liking someone, attraction) and to give compliments. Accept compliments with "Thank you."

• To ask why and question authority or tradition, not to rebel but to assume responsibility for asserting your share of control of the situation--and to make things better. You are no one's slave.

• To initiate, carry on, change and terminate conversations comfortably. Share your feelings, opinions and experiences with others.

• To deal with minor irritations before your anger builds into intense resentment and explosive aggression.



Realize where changes are needed and believe in your rights.

Many people recognize they are being taken advantage of and/or have difficulty saying "no." Others do not see themselves as unassertive but do feel depressed or unfulfilled, have lots of physical ailments, have complaints about work but assume the boss or teacher has the right to demand whatever he/she wants, etc. Nothing will change until the victim recognizes his/her rights are being denied and he/she decides to correct the situation. Keeping a diary may help you assess how intimidated, compliant, passive or timid you are or how demanding, whiny, bitchy or aggressive others are.

Almost everyone can cite instances or circumstances in which he/she has been outspoken or aggressive. These instances may be used to deny we are unassertive in any way. However, many of us are weak in some ways--we can't say "no" to a friend asking a favor, we can't give or take a compliment, we let a spouse or children control our lives, we won't speak up in class or disagree with others in a public meeting, we are ashamed to ask for help, we are afraid of offending others, and so on. Ask yourself if you want to continue being weak.

One may need to deal with the anxiety associated with changing, to reconcile the conflicts within your value system, to assess the repercussions of being assertive, and to prepare others for the changes they will see in your behavior or attitude. Talk to others about the appropriateness of being assertive in a specific situation that concerns you. If you are still scared even though it is appropriate, use desensitization or role-playing to reduce the anxiety.

Consider where your values--your "shoulds"--come from. Children are bombarded with rules: Don't be selfish, don't make mistakes, don't be emotional, don't tell people if you don't like them, don't be so unreasonable, don't question people, don't interrupt, don't trouble others with your problems, don't complain, don't upset others, don't brag, don't be anti-social, do what people ask you to do, help people who need help, and on and on. Do any of these instructions sound familiar? They help produce submissive children--and adults.

There are probably good reasons for many of these rules-for-kids but as adults we need not blindly follow rules. Indeed, every one of these injunctions should be broken under certain conditions: You have a right to be first (sometimes), to make mistakes, to be emotional, to express your feelings, to have your own reasons, to stop others and ask questions, to ask for help, to ask for reasonable changes, to have your work acknowledged, to be alone, to say "no" or "I don't have time," and so on. The old feelings deep inside of us may still have powerful control over us. We can change, however.

Besides recognizing we have outgrown our unthinking submissiveness, we can further reduce our ambivalence about being assertive by recognizing the harm done by unassertiveness:

(1) you cheat yourself and lose self-respect because you are dominated and can't change things,

(2) you are forced to be dishonest, concealing your true feelings,

(3) inequality and submissiveness threatens, if not destroys, love and respect,

(4) a relationship based on your being a doormat, a slave, a "yes-person," a cute show piece or a source of income is oppressive and immoral,

(5) since you must hide your true feeling, you may resort to subtle manipulation to get what you want and this creates resentment, and

(6) your compliance rewards your oppressor. On the positive side, assertiveness leads to more self-respect and happiness. Build up your courage by reviewing all the reasons for changing.

Finally, there are obviously situations in which demanding immediate justice may not be wise, e.g. if you can get fired, if it would cause an unwanted divorce, if you might be assaulted, etc. Even in these more extreme cases, perhaps well planned or very gradual changes would be tolerated. Under any circumstances, discuss the reasons for becoming assertive with the other people involved so they will understand and approve (if possible) or at least respect you for being considerate of them, others, and yourself.

STEP TWO: Figure out appropriate ways of asserting yourself in each specific situation that concerns you.

There are many ways to devise effective, tactful, fair assertive responses. Watch a good model. Discuss the problem situation with a friend, a parent, a supervisor, a counselor or other person. Carefully note how others respond to situations similar to yours and consider if they are being unassertive, assertive or aggressive. Read some of the books listed at the end of this method. Most assertiveness trainers recommend that an effective assertive response contain several parts:

1. Describe (to the other person involved) the troublesome situation as you see it. Be very specific about time and actions, don't make general accusations like "you're always hostile...upset...busy." Be objective, don't suggest the other person is a total jerk. Focus on his/her behavior, not on his/her apparent motives.

2. Describe your feelings, using an "I" statement which shows you take responsibility for your feelings. Be firm and strong, look at them, be sure of yourself, don't get emotional. Focus on positive feelings related to your goals if you can, not on your resentment of the other person. Sometimes it is helpful to explain why you feel as you do, so your statement becomes "I feel ______ because ______." (see the next method).

3. Describe the changes you'd like made, be specific about what action should stop and what should start. Be sure the requested changes are reasonable, consider the other person's needs too, and be willing to make changes yourself in return. In some cases, you may already have explicit consequences in mind if the other person makes the desired changes and if he/she doesn't. If so, these should be clearly described too. Don't make dire threats, if you can't or won't carry out them out.

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:

1. 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."

2. 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.

3. 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.

Time involved

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.

Common problems

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.

Additional readings

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.


Always consult a qualified professional before acting on any information or advice you find on this site or anywhere on the Internet.


Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight

Mon Nov 21, 2005 10:38 pm
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Sounds like great advice Soul, I think many here will benefit from it!!!!!!!!!

But if you never try you'll never know, Just what you're worth -Coldplay

Thu Nov 24, 2005 1:49 am
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