Assertiveness: The Misunderstood Miracle Skill! (REPEAT)

The following is a synopsis of a weekly Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group lesson, based on the work of Marsha Linehan out of the University of Washington. it is also a repeat of the first blog, but covered the last week of january 2017 so it is reposted here.

New Disclaimer: I LOVE doing this, I think it is desperately needed, and I WANT to do it. However, I have zero time to do it so, while I am committed to giving it my all, I may fall behind or skip a week or two. I apologize in advance for that, and for the fact that I will not be spell checking, fixing formatting, or doing a read through before I post. No offense, but I gotta draw the line somewhere!

This week’s group was not technically a DBT skill, but a general Cognitive Behavioral Therapy skills: Assertiveness. This module is Interpersonal Skills, a module most group members feel is very helpful. I like to start this module with a definition of relationships, followed by a discussion of Assertiveness; what it is and how to do it. This, I feel, is the foundation of healthy communication, which is what this module centers around.

The most interesting thing about assertiveness, is the myths that surround it. I teach assertiveness to EVERYONE at some point, because it is that crucial of a living skill. There have been a few times that I’ve integrated this concept into Health and Wellness Seminars for large corporations, full of talented, hard working, professional people from all walks of life. Here are some of the very common responses I get when i ask “What is assertiveness?”

  • “Being a bitch”
  • “Telling it like it is”
  • “Telling someone off”
  • “Being aggressive”

To me, assertiveness is a hugely important daily living skill, that is essential for healthy communication and thereby, healthy relationships. To people who answer me with those responses, it is something to be avoided, and something that will make others uncomfortable. Ultimately, people confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness.

The communication continuum consists of 4 basic styles of communicating. These are:



Passive                               Assertive                                     Aggressive

  1. Passive: Those of us who are more passive are mostly disrespecting ourselves with this style of communicating. If I feel hurt, angry, fearful, etc. inside, and I ACT AS IF I don’t feel these things when I communicate, then I am probably being passive. For example, Imagine that I ask a waiter for a coke and he brings me a sprite. I am very disappointed and even angry inside. He comes back around and says, “Is everything ok here?” and I say “Yes thank you”. But it’s NOT ok!. I just communicated very ineffectively, robbing myself of what I want. It is also not fair to him, because he doesn’t know that I am unhappy, so he can’t fully do his job without this information. If I’m passive, I will leave a big tip anyway, because I don’t want to upset anyone.

2. Aggressive: This is the opposite of Passive, and therefore equally unhealthy. Those of us who are aggressive are disrespectful to others in our efforts to get our   needs met. This is clear in our use of raising our voice, calling names, making threats and/or accusations, bullying, destroying property, being physically or sexually aggressive, etc. Both aggressive and passive behavior are attempts to control others, in opposite ways. If I am passive, I try to control others by avoiding conflict, not making them angry, etc. If I am aggressive, I am trying to control someone by intimidating them into doing what I want. For example, imagine that I ask a waiter for a coke and he brings me a sprite. If I am aggressive, I will become loud, make a scene, insult him, and leave no tip.

3. Passive-Aggressive: This is a style of communicating that many people talk about, but are unsure really of what it is or how to handle it. Like passive and like aggressive, Passive-Aggressive is an unhealthy style of communicating that is either more passive in style, or more aggressive in style. For the purposes of explaining this in writing, I have created a fourth unhealthy style of communicating called “Aggressive-Passive”.

  • Passive-Aggressive: Imagine that I order a coke and the waiter brings me a sprite. If I handle this Passive-Aggressively, I will not say anything to the waiter, smile and pretend everything is ok, but leave a very small tip with a note that says “next time, do your job”. This is passive aggressive because it is more passive than aggressive, but it is a mixture of both.
  • Aggressive-Passive: Imagine that I order a coke and the waiter brings me a sprite. If I handle this “Aggressive-Passively”, I will make a loud joke that people around me can hear, like “Wow I didn’t realize that this was OPPOSITE day!”, leave a crappy tip that is crumpled up into a tiny ball, stick my gum under the table and spill my sprite all over the table. This is aggressive-passive because it is more aggressive than passive in my intrusion on other’s good time, work day, etc.

Passive-aggressive communication is easy to recognize because it is confusing, unclear, and just doesn’t feel quite right. Sarcasm is a good example of passive-aggressive communication, as sarcasm comes from anger. A great response to passive-aggressive communication is to ask the person for clarity. For example, if the waiter in our scenario were to come out and see the note or the mess our Passive-Aggressive person left, he could say “I’m sorry sir/Ma’am, it looks like you are dissatisfied with something, could you explain what the difficulty was?”. Calling someone out on passive-aggressive communication gives them an opportunity to be more effective in their communication, which leads us to our final style of communicating…

4. Assertive: This style of communicating is the only healthy one listed here. Assertive communication is so many great things, how could it be bad?! It is:

  • Clear
  • Direct
  • Honest
  • Respectful to all parties

Assertive statements consist of 3 simple parts:

  1. I feel___________________
  2. Because__________________
  3. Next time/I would like____________________

Assertiveness may not always include all 3 parts, but the more complicated conversations or more meaning flu relationships in our life absolutely must have all 3. For example, if the waiter brings me a sprite instead of the coke that I ordered, I don’t necessarily need to express to him that I feel disappointed about it. I can simply say, “Excuse me, I ordered a Coke and you brought me a Sprite, could you please bring me a Coke?”. That would be fine and would not need a deeper, more meaningful explanation. However, if I am communicating with my husband, my child, a dear friend, etc.; and/or if I am communicating about something more meaningful or that caused a deeper emotion to arise in me, then I absolutely need to include all 3 parts. But why? Let’s look at each part one at a time.

  1. I feel___________________. The famous “I statement” is extremely important to begin with. When someone starts a statement with “You….”, it will immediately put the other person on the defensive, make it harder for them to be open-minded, and increase the chance of a bad outcome. In addition, we need to be able to communicate with people on an emotional level, in order to deepen our relationships. Finally, we all need to take responsibility for our own emotions. Instead of saying, “You make me so angry”, I can say “I feel angry”, which empowers me to resolve my own feelings, rather than giving the power to someone else. It is very hard to argue with someone’s feelings, so if someone does try to argue them, you can just say, “I’m just telling you how I feel”. This really works to decrease conflict or unproductive arguing.
  2. Because__________________. This second part is also essential for effective communication, since we don’t want the person to have to guess, or assume why we feel the way that we do. For clarity sake, we need to tell the person exactly what happened that made us feel that way.
  3. Next time/I would like____________________. The final piece to a good solid assertive statement is to tell the person what we want. Like the second part of our statement, we need to be clear with others about what we want and need. This takes some time to think through, so it is probably a good idea to do so before we try to assert ourselves. If we feel the need to assert ourselves before we can be clear about this, we may want to say, “can you please give me some time to think about what I want or need?”

Assertiveness is a magical tool because, no matter WHAT someone says or does in response, we can feel good about our actions and communication. If we handle something with respect, clarity, and honesty, that is ALL that we are responsible for. Here are some final tips to remember in practicing assertiveness:

  • No one is born assertive. It is a skill that we all need to practice and develop over time.We often go from one extreme to another in the process, but don’t give up.
  • Assertiveness means that our words match our demeanor, so our tone of voice, eye contact, posture, facial expression, etc. need to all match, and be balanced. Rolling eyes is passive-aggressive, not making eye contact is passive, glaring at someone is aggressive, etc. So, practice proper non-verbals.
  • Timing is important. We want to be sensitive to other’s ability and willingness to hear us. The goal is to be heard, so we need to do so at a time when the person isn’t distracted, overly stressed, overly emotional, etc.
  • Don’t get discouraged if someone doesn’t take it well. What’s important is MY behavior, not the other person’s, and I cannot control what I get back from people. While it may be disappointing to have someone be aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive in response to our assertiveness, remember that not everyone is learning and practicing this skill, so focus on being proud of yourself rather than being frustrated with the outcome.

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