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IS IT WISE TO BE ASSERTIVE?

assertiveness9When I first started to teach a graduate course at the University of Minnesota on conflict resolution, from time to time a student would ask me to compare what I was teaching to assertiveness training.

assertiveness5 “From what I know about assertiveness training,” I explained, “it teaches a very narrow skill that can be helpful at times, particularly for very shy people.  But it doesn’t adequately explain that for different situations alternatives to assertiveness may be the wiser course of action. The DIG Conflict Model that I am teaching provides students a toolbox with several tools that they can choose from.  Depending on the situation, one tool can be better than another to increase personal power and wisely resolve conflicts.

“For example, when I was twelve years old, I was playing some basketball in a Brooklyn playground during summer vacation.  After the first game, I was very thirsty and I thought about getting a drink at the fountain on the far end of the playground. But while I was playing, I had noticed a couple of bullies over by the fountain giving a hard time to kids smaller than they were.  The bullies were clearly bigger than I was.

assertiveness12“Assertiveness trainers, it seems to me, would have me go over to the fountain.  If the bullies got in my way, I should just stand up to them, perhaps asserting over and over again that I want to get a drink until they let me have a turn at the fountain.

“Although that is certainly one option that I could have chosen to use, before risking having the cookies pounded out of me, I first considered other options.  Perhaps I could come up with an approach that would achieve my goal of getting a drink in a less risky manner (see post titled The ABCs OF Power:  The Letter B).  It quickly occurred to me that my apartment is just a block and a half away.  In those days I could run like the wind. So, in two minutes I was back home safely drinking all the water that I wanted.  I then filled up a 36-ounce bottle with water and took it with me to the playground so I ended up having plenty of water after the next few games.

basketball playground“The next day that I played at the playground, I noticed that the bullies were gone.  When I went to get a drink at the fountain, I asked some of the kids who were playing there what happened to the bullies.  A couple of them told me how they had gotten their big brothers to tell the bullies to cut their crap out. In terms of the DIG Conflict Model, they had formed a coalition with their big brothers to achieve their goal and it worked.  For the rest of the summer we all got our drinks at the fountain without any more conflicts.  And so, here is an example in which I believe a conflict was resolved in a satisfactory manner with less danger than assertiveness.

“Let’s look at another example of how the DIG Conflict Model’s approach differs from assertiveness training.  candy counterIf you are at a movie theater and you want to buy some candy, as long as you manage to go up to the candy counter and purchase what you want, you have pretty much fulfilled all the requirements of being assertive.  But when I was a teenager, I worked at a candy counter.  I found that some of my customers treated me in a way that was distinctly more pleasant than others who used a cold, impersonal style.  As I thought about this, I noticed that the pleasant customers, when it was their turn on line, took a brief moment to look me in the eye and give me a respectful nod of the head.  Rather than using a demanding voice that ordered me to get what they wanted, they said in a pleasant voice, ‘Can I have some…’ or ‘I would like some…’ After I got them what they wanted, they again looked me in the eye while thanking me.

assertiveness1“Both styles—the cold impersonal demanding style and the more pleasant respectful style—took the same amount of time and both approaches led to customers always getting the items that they wanted.  Nevertheless, the DIG Conflict Model advocates that when we choose an approach to achieve what we want, we consider the golden rule—‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’  Since I preferred the more pleasant respectful style when I was serving others behind a candy counter, I began to use a similar approach whenever I went up to a candy counter as a customer.  I don’t think assertiveness training encourages people to think in this way.”

being-assertiveThe first few times that I responded to the question that asked me to compare what I was teaching to assertiveness training, the questioners seemed satisfied with my answer, and I then went on with the rest of my lesson.  But one day, a woman replied to my answer by voicing an objection.  “I have taken an assertiveness training class,” she said, “and your description of assertiveness training doesn’t match my experience at all.  For example, my instructor advocated being respectful while being assertive.”

assertiveness6Now, I could have asserted over and over again that I was right and she was wrong until she either stopped disagreeing with me or sat down and remained quiet, but I responded quite differently.  First, I summarized what I heard her say.  After she indicated that she was satisfied that I understood her position, I paused to think about it for a few moments.  I then replied, as follows:

“My views about assertiveness training are based, admittedly, on very little experience.  I have never actually taken an assertiveness class and learned about it from a couple of professors who both discussed the approach very briefly, maybe in five or ten minutes.  One of the professors, for an assignment, had the class read a chapter in a book about the topic and when we met for class afterwards, we discussed what we had read for a few minutes.  Therefore, I think it does makes sense that I learn some more about assertiveness so I can give a fairer reply to these types of questions.  Thanks for raising this concern.”

The questioner seemed satisfied with my reply, and afterwards, I did take the time to look more carefully at the assertiveness approach.  Here’s some of what I found out.

assertiveness2According to a Wikipedia article:

Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive…. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines assertiveness as: “a form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof; this affirms the person’s rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of another (assuming a position of dominance) or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one’s rights or point of view”.[1]

Wikipedia’s section on assertiveness training states:

“The goals of assertiveness training include:[4]

  • increased awareness of personal rights
  • differentiation between non-assertiveness and assertiveness
  • differentiation between passive–aggressiveness and aggressiveness
  • learning both verbal and non-verbal assertiveness skills.

assertiveness3As 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.”

assertiveness10This article also has a section titled “Communication.”  Among the descriptions that are provided is, “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.[5]

book jacketWhen I began to flip through a few of the many books on assertiveness, I found that there were numerous approaches offered under this umbrella.  Some like, Too Nice for Your Own Good: How to Stop Making 9 Self-Sabotaging Mistakes by Duke Robinson, seem to approach the topic from a no-nonsense position. Others, like The Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness: How to Express Your Needs and Deal with Conflict While Keeping a Kind Heart, by Sherrie Mansfield Vavrichek, appear to teach techniques that take into account a genuine concern for all involved parties.

assertiveness11And so, in the end, I came to realize that my original description that contrasted my approach with assertiveness was far too simplistic.  And when answering the question, Is it wise to be assertive?, my answer is, “Often there are some helpful ideas that fall under that umbrella. It is hard to be clear about this because there are simply way too many approaches that are referred to as assertiveness training to give a more definitive answer.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

READING ABOUT EMOTIONAL MATURITY IS OFTEN NOT ENOUGH
Insults Because of the Desire to be Left Alone

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

7 Comments

  1. I always wonder why people continue to address issues that are fundamentally inter-personal by focusing on the behaviour of one person. One of the fundamental parts of relationships is the belief in behavioural consistency. We choose friends based on it and relate to people we know in ways based on prior experience, we feel we know them. Changing the characteristic ways a person behaves towards others isn’t just a matter of an individuals skills, it evokes powerful feelings of indignation in others. Their whole social network conspires to force a person to behave as they believe they should. Significant changes in interpersonal behaviour risks their current relationships. Some trainer suggest that this is a price worth paying a judgement based on their own values but this is both irresponsible and arrogant. You get similar issues in conflict management, bullying, childhood experiences and understanding our own behaviour. I know a lot of people working in clinical fields don’t bother with a lot of these skills based approaches as they appear to be largely ineffective and potentially damaging.

  2. Hi George Hoggarth. Much thanks for your thoughtful comment. There is much truth in what you write.

    At one point you write, “Significant changes in interpersonal behaviour risks their current relationships.” Yes. At the same time there is a chance that the changes that some choose to make can enhance current relationships. I have a dear friend who was drinking a great deal of whisky each night and at one point, after some serious incidences, he decided to give up alcohol. His friends and family, including me, saw this change as an enormous improvement and we stuck by him. This occurred over 20 years ago and he remains healthy, whereas many, including his doctor, had serious doubts of his living anywhere near that long if he continued as he had been. And so, people make choices about making these types of changes, hopefully informed choices, and they then observe the consequences, perhaps adjust, and so on.

    You also state, “I know a lot of people working in clinical fields don’t bother with a lot of these skills based approaches as they appear to be largely ineffective and potentially damaging.” There are indeed several studies that, consistent with your statement, ended up with very disappointing results. For example placing aggressive children together in a group to teach them improved ways to deal with conflict usually leads to worse outcomes than no intervention. The kids tend to pick up more support from their peers to act aggressively than what they get from the adult teacher of more mature social skills. But my reading of the literture leads me to the tentative conclusion that there are social skills programs that have learned from previous failures and now are achieving lasting (20 years later) positive results.

    My personal experience of teaching these skills for over 30 years has led me to believe that I have hit upon an approach that is often helpful.

    My Best, Jeff

    • Hi Jeffrey, I just realised that I responded to one of your comments in the group but maybe that’s because they were the ones I thought most interesting – I’m not a stalker, honest 🙂
      Anyway, I totally agree that people may make significant changes in their behaviour and have a real positive effect, if I didn’t think that it would be a bit pointless working in Mental Health. My comment was based on one of the basic principles in the social psychology of relationships, that there is a strong issue around consistency in our interpersonal behaviours. If we didn’t believe that we can reliably predict someones behaviour then every encounter would be like a first meeting. When we get to “know” people it makes our encounters easier and less stressful.
      Its suggested that there are innate influences that prioritise the processing of social information, social anxiety being the most common anxiety disorder and for people with processing deficits, social stimul seem to cause the most difficulty. So I know that social skills are extremely important and a persons social competence is strongly linked to mental health. I think perhaps the main issue is on whats taught and how its taught, assertiveness seems to be one of the more prescribed forms of social skills training and its heavily politicized.
      In most form of skills training there has been a drift towards the more cognitive elements of decision making in an attempt to improve decision making, problem solving and flexibility. I agree as methods have developed there is at least some evidence of better outcomes.
      I suppose when I see the words assertion training I immediately think of the standard package, usually targeted at women and heavily influenced by feminist ideologies. I think it was this view that prompted my cautious response. There were so many examples coercive pressures to demand rights, the overvaluing of honest communication (game playing being important in close relationships, for fun) and then damaging social consequences. I was also aware of the dismissive responses of some trainers (they will be better of in the long run) to things like divorce.
      I think in the current social climate of fear, where children get little opportunity to develop SSkills unsupervised and interact electronically we are living through one of the largest experiments in social psychology ever known, and have little clear idea of where it will lead. I certainly hope your right that our methods are more effective, I have the horrible feeling we will need such methods more and more.

  3. Hi George,

    Much thanks for the clarification. Relevant to our discussion, I just received the following notification of a very recent publication about a study involving social skills training for individuals with a schizophrenia classification.

    Randomized Clinical Trial of Cognitive Behavioral Social Skills Training for Schizophrenia: Improvement in Functioning and Experiential Negative Symptoms.
    Granholm, Eric; Holden, Jason; Link, Peter C.; McQuaid, John R.
    Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Jun 9 , 2014, No Pagination Specified. doi: 10.1037/a0037098

    Abstract
    Objective: Identifying treatments to improve functioning and reduce negative symptoms in consumers with schizophrenia is of high public health significance. Method: In this randomized clinical trial, participants with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder (N = 149) were randomly assigned to cognitive behavioral social skills training (CBSST) or an active goal-focused supportive contact (GFSC) control condition. CBSST combined cognitive behavior therapy with social skills training and problem-solving training to improve functioning and negative symptoms. GFSC was weekly supportive group therapy focused on setting and achieving functioning goals. Blind raters assessed functioning (primary outcome: Independent Living Skills Survey [ILSS]), CBSST skill knowledge, positive and negative symptoms, depression, and defeatist performance attitudes. Results: In mixed-effects regression models in intent-to-treat analyses, CBSST skill knowledge, functioning, amotivation/asociality negative symptoms, and defeatist performance attitudes improved significantly more in CBSST relative to GFSC. In both treatment groups, comparable improvements were also found for positive symptoms and a performance-based measure of social competence. Conclusions: The results suggest CBSST is an effective treatment to improve functioning and experiential negative symptoms in consumers with schizophrenia, and both CBSST and supportive group therapy actively focused on setting and achieving functioning goals can improve social competence and reduce positive symptoms. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved)

    • Thanks for this, in the UK there is quite a push to find useful psycho-therapeutic techniques that can help those with psychosis. I worked with the developer of one S.S. approach in which problems were set for the people to solve, the solution always targeting the need to initiate conversations and working out what information you needed to get. The group leaders then selectively reinforced (social R+) any attempt to solve the problem (not the performance), it was in fact making the effort that was rewarded. I think that the very focused methods on the cognitive skills needed to produce the behaviour is very interesting but actually validating them is difficult, most studies are small and uncontrolled.

  4. I agree with you, George, regarding how important it is to do studies designed to validate the social skill development approach. Programs that seem to be of value can either simply waste funds or even worsen outcomes.

    By beginning at my first blog post and then moving forward to the next post, one by one, the blog offers a free curriculum to deal with many important social and emotional skills. Of course ideally a mental health practitioner would go through each blog post with the person learning the skills so that there can be some discussion and role-plays, and therefore the cost for the professional’s time makes the approach not quite free. And I do not have the scientific data to defend that my approach is effective. On the other hand, I have borrowed from the programs that have been most studied and found to be effective, and from my own experience teaching these skills for over 40 years, I have come up with examples that use comics or dramatic events that enhance the interests of the learners. What I mean by this, is that when I began to teach these skills in the way that the manuals suggested, there were times when the students’ interest would wane. In time, by trial and error, I came up with some approaches that, at least for me, was able to keep the students coming to the lessons, for they were always voluntary, and I received the positive feedback that led to what I would retain.

    Much thanks for your interest.
    Jeff

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