Assertiveness training is a form of behavior therapy designed to help people stand up for themselves—to empower themselves, in more contemporary terms. Assertiveness is a response that seeks to maintain an appropriate balance between passivity and aggression. Assertive responses promote fairness and equality in human interactions, based on a positive sense of respect for self and others.
Assertiveness training has a decades-long history in mental health and personal growth groups, going back to the women's movement of the 1970s. The approach was introduced to encourage women to stand up for themselves appropriately in their interactions with others, particularly as they moved into graduate education and the workplace in greater numbers. The original association of assertiveness training with the women's movement in the United States grew out of the discovery of many women in the movement that they were hampered by their inability to be assertive. Today, assertiveness training is used as part of communication training in settings as diverse as schools, corporate boardrooms, and psychiatric hospitals, for programs as varied as substance abuse treatment, social skills training , vocational programs, and responding to harassment.
The purpose of assertiveness training is to teach persons appropriate strategies for identifying and acting on their desires, needs, and opinions while remaining respectful of others. This form of training is tailored to the needs of specific participants and the situations they find particularly challenging. Assertiveness training is a broad approach that can be applied to many different personal, academic, health care, and work situations.
Learning to communicate in a clear and honest fashion usually improves relationships within one's life. Women in particular have often been taught to hide their real feelings and preferences, and to try to get their way by manipulation or other indirect means. Specific areas of intervention and change in assertiveness training include conflict resolution, realistic goal-setting, and stress management. In addition to emotional and psychological benefits, taking a more active approach to self-determination has been shown to have positive outcomes in many personal choices related to health, including being assertive in risky sexual situations; abstaining from using drugs or alcohol; and assuming responsibility for self-care if one has a chronic illness like diabetes or cancer.
There are a few precautions with assertiveness training. One potential caution would be to remain within assertive responses, rather than become aggressive in standing up for oneself. Some participants in assertiveness training programs who are just learning the techniques of appropriate assertiveness may "overdo" their new behaviors and come across as aggressive rather than assertive. Such overcompensation would most likely disappear with continued practice of the techniques.
One additional precaution about assertiveness training is that it should not be regarded as the equivalent of martial arts training or similar physical self-defense techniques. It is important to distinguish between contexts or situations in which verbal assertiveness is appropriate and useful, and those in which it is irrelevant. In some situations, a person's decision to leave the situation or seek help because they sense danger is preferable to an encounter with a criminal.
Assertiveness training is often included within other programs, but "stand-alone" programs in self-assertion are often given in women's centers or college counseling centers. Corporate programs for new personnel sometimes offer assertiveness training as part of communication or teamwork groups, or as part of a program on sexual harassment.
Assertiveness training typically begins with an information-gathering exercise in which participants are asked to think about and list the areas in their life in which they have difficulty asserting themselves. Very often they will notice specific situations or patterns of behavior that they want to focus on during the course. The next stage in assertive training is usually role-plays designed to help participants practice clearer and more direct forms of communicating with others. The role-plays allow for practice and repetition of the new techniques, helping each person learn assertive responses by acting on them. Feedback is provided to improve the response, and the role-play is repeated. Eventually, each person is asked to practice assertive techniques in everyday life, outside the training setting. Role-plays usually incorporate specific problems for individual participants, such as difficulty speaking up to an overbearing boss; setting limits to intrusive friends; or stating a clear preference about dinner to one's spouse. Role-plays often include examples of aggressive and passive responses, in addition to the assertive responses, to help participants distinguish between these extremes as they learn a new set of behaviors.
Assertiveness training promotes the use of "I" statements as a way to help individuals express their feelings and reactions to others. A commonly used model of an "I" statement is "when you _________, I feel ___________", to help the participant describe what they see the other person as doing, and how they feel about that action. "I" statements are often contrasted with "you" statements, which are usually not received well by others. For example, "When you are two hours late getting home from work, I feel both anxious and angry," is a less accusing communication than "You are a selfish and inconsiderate jerk for not telling me you would be two hours late." Prompts are often used to help participants learn new communication styles. This approach helps participants learn new ways of expressing themselves as well as how it feels to be assertive.
Learning specific techniques and perspectives, such as self-observation skills, awareness of personal preferences and assuming personal responsibility are important components of the assertiveness training process. Role-play and practice help with self-observation, while making lists can be a helpful technique for exploring personal preferences for those who may not have a good sense of their own needs and desires. Participants may be asked to list anything from their ten favorite movies or pieces of music to their favorite foods, places they would like to visit, subjects that interest them, and so on.
Preparation for assertiveness training varies from person to person. For some participants, no preparation is needed before practicing the techniques; for others, however, individual counseling or therapy may help prepare the individual for assertiveness training. For participants who may be more shy and feel uncomfortable saying "no" or speaking up for themselves, a brief course of individual therapy will help to prepare them psychologically and emotionally to use assertive techniques.
Aftercare can involve ongoing supportive therapy, again based on the individual's level of comfort in using the assertive techniques. For those who are comfortable using the techniques on their own, a supportive social network or occasional participation in a support group will be enough to help maintain the new behavioral patterns. The ultimate goal is for each participant to self-monitor effectively his or her use of assertive techniques on an ongoing basis.
There are minimal risks associated with assertiveness training. Personal relationships may be affected if those around the participant have difficulty accepting the changes in their friend or family member. This risk, however, is no greater than that associated with any other life change.
Another potential risk is that of overcompensating in the early stages of training by being too aggressive. With appropriate feedback, participants can usually learn to modify and improve their responses.
People who are very shy or self-conscious, or who were harshly treated as children, may also experience anxiety during the training as they work toward speaking up and otherwise changing their behaviors. The anxiety may be uncomfortable, but should decrease as the person becomes more comfortable with the techniques and receives encouragement from others in the program.
An enhanced sense of well-being and more positive self-esteem are typical results from assertiveness training. Many participants report that they feel better about themselves and more capable of handling the stresses of daily life. In addition, people who have participated in assertiveness training have a better sense of boundaries, and are able to set appropriate and healthy limits with others. Being able to set appropriate limits (such as saying "no") helps people to avoid feeling victimized by others.
A healthy sense of self-determination and respect for others is the ultimate outcome of assertiveness training. Such a balance helps each person work better with others, and make appropriate decisions for themselves.
Unusual results may include becoming too aggressive in setting boundaries, as if the individual is overcompensating. With appropriate training, role-play, and feedback, this response can be re-learned. Alternatively, for very shy individuals, a heightened sense of anxiety may be experienced when using the techniques initially. The nervousness or anxiety is usually due to the individual's concern about others' reactions to their assertive responses. Over time, the anxiety will usually decrease.
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Deanna Pledge, Ph.D.