The Assertiveness Workbook: Excerpts

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The Assertiveness Workbook: How to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships
Randy Paterson, Ph.D.

From the Introduction: Being There

Two kinds of people pick up books on assertiveness. Some want to polish their image. They have a face they present to the world, and sometimes it cracks. Sometimes the mask falls off. Sometimes people see through it. They want to learn how to hold the mask more firmly, how to present it more rigidly, how to prevent others from seeing them so easily. They have rejected themselves, and they have decided that they want to choose the personality (or lack of it) that they display to the world. Often they want to learn how to control others more effectively. How to push others to agree with them, see their way of doing things, do it their way.

Some of the skills in this book may help them in their quest. But the book isn't written for them. At least, it's not written to help them in the way they want to be helped.

Assertiveness isn't about building a good disguise. It's about developing the courage to take the disguise off. It's designed to help the other group of people. The ones who have already tried wearing a mask, and have found they can't breathe very well with it on. They want to go out into the world naked-faced, as themselves, but not defenceless. They want to be themselves in a way that doesn't push others off-stage. In a way that invites the people they meet to be more fully themselves too.

Assertiveness, then, is about being there.

Many people in today's society fear conflict and criticism. They believe that in any conflict they would lose, and that any criticism would crush them. They feel that they have no right to impose their views - or for that matter, themselves - on the world. They have been trained from childhood to believe that their role is to accept and live up to the standards that other people impose. Being visible, being flawed, holding opinions, or having wishes of their own all leave them open to attack.

Is this you?

The solution is to be invisible. To offer no opinion until others have done so, and then only to agree. To go along with any request. To impose no boundaries or barriers. To prevent yourself from ever saying "no." To give up on directing your own life. To pacify those who might disapprove of you. To hide your ideas, your dreams, your wishes, and your emotions. To dress, act, and live in order to blend into the background and disappear. To exist not so much as a person but as a mirror for other people: reflecting back their ideas, their wishes, their expectations, their hopes, and their goals. To reflect and thereby vanish. Anything to keep yourself from really being there.

Unfortunately, this solution does not really work. Humans are not meant to be invisible, or to live as reflections of the lives of others. Extinguishing the self is not an option. It leads to greater fear, more helplessness, sharper resentment, and deeper depression.

Other people see life as little more than a competition. If they are not to become invisible themselves, then others will have to be invisible. There is no choice. Their own views must be accepted. Their wishes must be honored. Their way must be everyone's way. And should anyone not give in, the anger will flow. The issue will be forced. And the wishes, hopes, and desires of others will be ignored or trampled. To be there, other people (with their inconvenient attitudes and opinions) will have to be absent.

Is this you?

The competitive approach doesn't work either. The anger is never really satisfied. When others give in, it is never joyfully. And they begin drifting away to the exits, leaving the angry person alone to resent the desertion. The effort to control others makes life uncontrollable.

The real solution? To be there. Not to be perfect. To expose our flaws, our irrational emotions and opinions, our strange preferences, our incomprehensible dreams, our unaccountable tastes, and our all-too-human selves to others. To be there. Not so that others will bow down to us, or hide themselves from us. But in a way that invites others to be there as well. A way that acknowledges the right of everyone to be every bit as irrational, flawed, and human as we are.

Assertiveness is all about being there.

In this workbook you will learn about many of the basic skills and ideas involved in being more fully present in your world and your life. Many of these skills you already know. Some may be new. In order to bring them into your life it will take practice and effort. S



Organization of this book

Which parts of this workbook should you use? Probably all of it. Most people will find that at least part of each chapter applies to their own situation. There may be certain areas, however, in which you have particular difficulty. You will want to pay special attention to the chapters on those topics.

Part One

Entitled "Understanding Assertiveness" Part One covers most of the concepts involved in being assertive. Chapter One defines the four primary communication styles: assertive, passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive. Because these definitions form the keystone of everything that follows, you should be sure to read the chapter. It includes exercises designed to help you determine which of the styles you use the most, and which situations you find most difficult. It also presents reasons why the assertive style usually works better than the alternatives.

If it's true that assertiveness leads to better outcomes in most situations, why isn't everyone assertive all the time? Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Being assertive requires 1) that you have some very specific skills, and 2) that you use these skills when it is appropriate to do so. Even when you have the right skills, something may hold you back. Chapters Two through Four describe the barriers to assertive behavior.

Chapter Two reviews the impact of stress on communication, and how the stress response actually pulls us away from using the assertive style. Suggestions are provided on how to reduce stress in your life and overcome stress-related barriers to effective communication.

Chapter Three discusses how the expectations of others can make it more difficult for us to be assertive. Over the years you may have unintentionally led others to expect nonassertive behavior from you, and they may react less favorably than you might think to the changes you want to make. Chapter Three also considers the effect of your gender on others' expectations.

In Chapter Four you are invited to consider your own belief system, and how it might impose barriers to assertiveness. Becoming aware of self-defeating beliefs is an essential step toward discarding them. You might never behave assertively until you have surmounted the belief barrier.

Chapter Five suggests a series of positive, supportive beliefs for you to consider. These beliefs are associated with assertive action, and can assist in guiding your decisions about the way that you communicate.

Once you have dealt with the barriers to assertive behavior, you are ready to begin practicing the skills involved. But first, Chapter Six provides a checklist of some last-minute concepts, tips, and guiding principles to take with you on the journey.

Part Two

Part Two is entitled "Becoming Assertive", and focuses on the actual skills used in assertive communication. Each chapter in this section includes one or more practical exercises designed to help you to master the skills. It will be important for you to make these exercises a priority if you really want to develop your ability to communicate in an assertive way.

Nonverbal communication tells others about our expectations, attitudes, and level of confidence. Even the best assertive communication can be undermined by a poor nonverbal style. Chapter Seven reviews the various elements of nonverbal behavior and compares the assertive, passive, and aggressive styles (the passive-aggressive style typically mimics passive nonverbal behavior). A series of exercises provides strategies for honing an assertive nonverbal style.

Are you able to express your opinion effectively while leaving room for others to think differently? This essential relationship skill lies at the heart of the concept of being present with others, and is presented in Chapter Eight.

Chapters Nine through Twelve consider the issues of providing and receiving feedback in relationships. Chapter Nine opens the topic by considering a skill that seems simple, but is a surprisingly frequent source of difficulty: receiving compliments. Some of the most common traps are covered, along with the distorted thinking underlying them.

Next we consider the giving of positive feedback. Most people are stingier with positive feedback than they need to be, and this reluctance is motivated by a variety of fears. Chapter Ten challenges these ideas and provides specific recommendations for giving positive feedback that is useful to the person receiving it.

In Chapter Eleven the value of negative feedback is discussed, along with the difficulty of gleaning useful information from the criticism we receive. Suggestions are made for defusing the anger that frequently accompanies negative feedback, as well as for narrowing criticism to the real issue at hand.

Chapter Twelve covers behavior that many people avoid and that most others cannot do effectively: giving negative (or constructive) feedback. Strategies are given for providing such feedback in a way that is useful and not hurtful. The accompanying practice exercises are designed to increase your comfort with these situations.

Who's in charge of your life? Chapter Thirteen argues that if you aren't able to say "no" then it certainly isn't you. The ability to refuse unreasonable requests is an essential skill of self-determination. This chapter considers the fears that hold people back and provides a set of skills involved in setting and maintaining personal boundaries.

Chapter Fourteen puts the shoe on the other foot by discussing strategies for making requests of others. Some people avoid making requests altogether, while others make demands rather than requests. A structured four-step strategy for phrasing requests is presented, plus a set of exercises designed to increase your confidence and comfort in translating your plans into action.

All of the skills in the book come into play when you find yourself in difficult conflict-laden situations. The final two chapters deal with confrontation. Chapter Fifteen argues that confrontation is an essential though sometimes painful aspect of almost any close relationship, and that adequate preparation on your part can make confrontations go much more smoothly. It provides a ten-step preparation strategy that considers issues such as defining the real problem, envisioning your goal, assessing your own responsibilities, and choosing your time and setting. Chapter Sixteen deals with the confrontation itself, and presents fifteen strategies for keeping the discussion on topic and moving toward a solution.

Throughout, remember that this is a workbook. You will find self-assessments, exercises, practice session advice, and so on. These are essential elements in learning to be more assertive.