The Assertiveness Workbook: How to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships
Randy Paterson, Ph.D.
From the Preface to the 2nd Edition
Whew. What a journey it has been.
Many years ago now, I attended the annual meeting of the American Psychological
Association (APA), a bewildering forty-ring circus of talks, seminars, posters, and symposia spread over five days. The convention floors are quietest in the early mornings, when a good half of the attendees are still abed, many of them hungover from reunions with friends from younger, harder-partying days.
Not me. I knew hardly a soul and planned to make the most of my time. In a smallish room, there was a session on writing and publishing in the self-help market. Long before, I’d dithered between psychology and some form of writing as a profession. Having chosen the first path, I was interested to see if there might be a way to follow the other as well.
I was managing a prevention-of-rehospitalization group therapy program for seriously depressed individuals who had recently been discharged from inpatient care. Our eight-session program seemed to help them, but it was clear that the tiny segment on interpersonal boundaries was insufficient for many of our clients.
I had developed a second group protocol focused entirely on assertiveness skills—one that graduates of the general program could attend if they wished. This proved immensely popular, and the manual became part of a road-show workshop for mental health professionals. I became an assertiveness-training version of Johnny Appleseed, spreading “I” state- ments and “broken record techniques” from chipped hotel lecterns across the country.
I tucked the manual into my backpack before setting out for the APA publishing session and sat while a panel of clinicians described how they had turned their pet interests into books. In the front row, a tall bearded man listened attentively. At the end, he turned to the small group scattered around the room and introduced himself as Patrick Fanning, cofounder of New Harbinger Publications. He echoed the sentiments of some of the panelists about the feasibility of writing and actually publishing a book, then the session ended.
The downside of writing an assertiveness manual is that you can’t use shyness as an excuse for avoiding opportunities when they knock. How could I face my clients if I slunk off to an early lunch? I introduced myself to Fanning, bringing forth my photocopied manual and feeling a bit like a second-grader at show and tell.
“We don’t really have an assertiveness book,” he said. “Can I take this to look at?”
Two days later I had a draft contract, and a little over a year later The Assertiveness Workbook appeared. It gradually found its niche and over time became a standard in the area. I was approached by newspapers, magazines, and radio outlets when they needed someone to talk about assertive communication and interpersonal boundaries.
There’s nothing like appearing on radio to reassure you that you have not, in fact, truly “made it.” At the first call, you imagine that you and the host will have a leisurely hour to chat about the intricacies of head posture and feedback-giving.
Nothing doing. You’re sandwiched between the traffic and weather to provide five minutes of filler. The producer sits down and invariably says, “We won’t have much time, so we really want to get to the one core concept in your book. If they want more, they can buy it. So what can we say is the main focus?”
For months I stumbled over that question. What was the core concept? The book is essentially a couple hundred pages of tips. Which one is the key point? Where is the foundation stone? Despite having written the thing, I had no idea.
Over time, though, I came to realize that the entire book did rest on a single principle— one that is alluded to throughout that first edition but never clearly stated or placed at center stage. In the years since, that concept has been reinforced to me again and again. It’s the secret to all assertive communication—and it explains why assertiveness remains so elusive to so many people.
Ask anyone why they want to take an assertiveness course or read a book on the topic. “I have a really difficult spouse (or daughter, or brother, or parent, or best friend, or maid of honor, or boss, or doctor, or neighbor, or employee, or colleague),” they’ll say, “and nothing I do seems to have any effect. I need them to change.” Change how? Show some respect, stop having affairs, get a job, stop stealing my pens, move the fence, return my lawnmower, keep my secrets, stop crossing my boundaries, and for God’s sake, put the toilet seat down.
What sparks a desire for better assertiveness skills is the urge to change the world. And therein lies the problem—and the solution. And the one thing I needed to tell harried radio producers.
Assertiveness isn’t about controlling other people. It’s about controlling yourself.
That’s it. That’s the whole point. You don’t have to read the rest of the book now. You’re done.
It’s a bit awkward to stumble across the central theme of your book once it’s already in print. The realization sits there, like a popcorn kernel stuck in your teeth, for years. I should really go back and tighten the focus, you think. Someday.
As well, you get feedback from readers, and reviews online, and experience from shepherding your own clients through the content. You think, I wish there were a little more of this, or, I went on a bit long there. And you realize, after twenty years, that references to long distance telephone calls and desktop computers and broadcast television might be a bit dated, as is the absence of examples involving smartphones or email.
So here’s my chance. It’s been a while. Assertive communication is relatively timeless, so thankfully I don’t have to contradict much from the earlier edition. In two decades, though, times have changed and I’ve learned a thing or two.