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Assertiveness Training
Act 1, Scene 1. You're standing in line at the bank. Suddenly, someone butts in front of you. When the cashier asks, "Who's next?," "Buttinski" answers, "I am." But you know you were next, and everyone else in line, including "Buttinski," knows you were, too. You're furious, your stomach is tied in a square knot, your palms are sweaty. And you know that no matter how you handle the situation, you aren't going to end up feeling very good about it.

Act 2, Scene 1. You're in an important departmental meeting. You offer up a brilliant idea that goes over like a burp in church. Twenty minutes later, the boss announces, "Say, that idea of George's wasn't half bad." Unfortunately, your name is Bill, and before you can claim credit where credit is due, old George grabs the lead and is off and running. Your ears are bright red, and you don't dare look up because you know that everyone else in the room knows that you have been ...well, you know.

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These and similar situations can and do occur every day. They occur at home with the spouse, the kids, the in-laws and the neighbors. They occur at the office with subordinates, peers and bosses. They occur with total strangers every day, everywhere.

These situations have two things in common. First, in each one, our wants and needs are in conflict with the wants and needs of others. And, second, to be equitably resolved, each requires that we assert ourselves in the face of perceived adversity, that we make our opinions, thoughts and feelings directly and immediately known. And that's the whole point of assertiveness training—' helping people learn how to stand up for themselves so that they make their positions clear without violating the rights of others.

Unfortunately, assertiveness training and assertive behavior in general seem to be widely misunderstood. Too many believe that the meek and the mild enroll in an A.T. course, and hours, days or weeks later are transformed into raving, fire-breathing world beaters with "Don't tread on me" tatooed on their chests in day-glo orange. A recent New Yorker cartoon captures it perfectly. Two surly, scowling fellows are seated at the bar, and one says to the other, "Oh yeah! Well, my assertiveness seminar can lick your assertiveness seminar any day!"

Cute, but wide of the mark. The point of A.T., is that humans, like other animals, tend to respond to conflict and confrontation in one of two ways— fight or flight. Long ago, Dr. Walter B. Cannon demonstrated we all posses that reflex physiologic response. The difference, according to Joseph Wolpe and other psychologists, is that humans have a third, learned alternative— problem solving. Translating fight, flight and problem solving to the realm of verbal behavior gives us the basic grist of assertiveness training— aggressive, passive and assertive behavior.

The fight response to conflict takes the form of aggressive verbal behavior, or defending ourselves in such a way that the rights of others are violated in the process. Aggressive verbal behavior is an attempt to "win" by humiliation and "put down." It is generally a dishonest, manipulative process. The flight response translates to non-assertive or passive behavior. Backing off, giving in and showing undue deference to others' opinions are all passive or non-assertive responses. Failing to stand up for one's rights or standing up for oneself in such an ineffectual manner that one's rights are easily violated characterizes the non-assertive reply to conflict and confrontation.

The problem-solving or assertive response is the "win-win" response assertiveness trainers promote to their trainees. This response is characterized as standing up for one's own rights in such a way that one does not violate the basic rights of others but does express one's feelings, opinions and needs directly, honestly and appropriately.

Dr. Patricia Jakubowski, University of Missouri-St. Louis, one of the early assertiveness trainers to concentrate on A.T. for women, suggests that non-assertive and aggressive communications have costs for both sender and receiver. Non-assertive or passive behavior, characterized by indirectness, self-denial, inhibition and emotional dishonesty, leaves the sender with hurt feelings, anxiety and anger toward himself. Equally important, the receiver frequently feels irritation, pity, disgust for the passive individual. The receiver of non-assertive communications sometimes feels guilt toward self and, sometimes, superiority.

Aggressive behavior also has unacceptable outcomes for both parties. The aggressive person is direct, all right, but also domineering at others' expense. His or her aggressive behavior cuts off communication at the out¬set, and his or her characteristically deprecating statements leave others feeling hurt and humiliated, angry and vengeful toward the aggressor. The aggressor pays the price of isolation; after all, if others are so inferior and he or she so righteous, who would dare be honest and open with him? The upshot is that aggressors often suffer both isolation and guilt. Both aggressive and passive communicators cheat themselves of the opportunity of experiencing "win-win" communications. But not so the assertive person, who communicates directly and expressively and treats others as equals. According to Jakubowski, the assertive communicator feels confident and "self - respecting" both during the communication and later. And the recipient of assertive communications feels respected and valued and has reciprocal feelings toward the assertive communicator.

According to Lawrence D. Schwimmer, author of The Assertive Approach: Do You Lack the Killer Instinct?, the payoffs for risking assertive behavior are both personal and organizational. Schwimmer basically agrees with Jakubowski that the personal payoffs are one's heightened sense of self-worth and the knowledge that others respect and value you as a person. But, Schwimmer believes, assertive communicators develop an asertive "mind set" that leads to an enhanced sense of freedom and independence, which, in turn, leads to an enhanced ability to perform effectively and deliver results. Part of this effect comes from the elimination of "meaning games." The "What did he mean by that?" and "Do I dare ask her to explain that to me?" games pro¬mote anxious reflection and invariably interfere with productive work. Another benefit is that individuals can genuinely concentrate on tasks, problems, plans and strategies in¬stead of guessing what the boss wants or will like.

Origins of A.T.
Though assertiveness training— learning to Stand Up, Speak Out and Talk Back!, as the title of a popular A.T. book suggests— is touted as a cure for shyness, a method of getting one's due from merchants, mechanics, friends and lovers, and, most recently, a general communications skill, its origins are somewhat less ambitious.

Originally, A.T. concerned itself with the resocialization of people who had long been institutionalized. Specifically, psychologists found that one problem faced by those leaving residential mental-health-care facilities and penal institutions was an inability to deal with life's "little murders," as Jules Feiffer calls those daily af¬fronts and insults that victimize us all. Fear of failure, coupled with conditioned passivity, made instant vic¬tims— and rehab failures— of those who had spent an extended period of their lives away from the societal mainstream. The solution was to train releases to "stand up" for themselves in an appropriate fash¬ion— in other words, to assert them¬selves.

The earliest work was conducted by A. Salter and reported in his 1949 book, Conditioned Reflex Therapy. Salter prescribed assertiveness train¬ing for anxiety problems ranging from shyness to claustrophobia. Joseph Wolpe later narrowed that universe to situations where people experience unadaptive anxiety in interpersonal situations.

Both philosophically and technically, current A.T. owes much to Wolpe and Lazarus' 1966 book, Behavior Therapy Techniques. This classic text first expressed the view hat assertive communication is a ight. The authors' clinical experinces led them to conclude: "...individuals have certain basic assertive rights which they are not only entitled to exercise, but which they should do in order to achieve a healthy adjustment in life."

Assertiveness as a right was proclaimed again in the popular 1970 sook, Your Perfect Right!, by Psyhologists Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons. Current emphasis on the belief that not speaking up for one's rights may lead to neurotic, somatic and pathologic disfunction probably helps explain the mistaken notion that assertiveness training is aimed at Shy Violets and Casper Milque toasts. In fact, A.T. is a communi¬cation training process useful in a number of contexts and as helpful to the over-assertive as to the under assertive. Since most of us tend to be inappropriately passive or aggressive from time to time, practicing appro¬priate assertiveness helps fine-tune our communication skills.

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The training
There are probably as many types of assertiveness training as there are trainers. Some trainers emphasize a mental-imagery approach, while others concentrate on role playing. Others depend on video modeling and vicarious learning. Some even concentrate on changing one's thinking patterns, or "cognitive restructuring," as it is called.

Regardless of individual differences among trainers, most assertiveness training tends to follow the Wolpe-Lazarus model. That is, the training deals with specific "here and now" communication problems the trainees are experiencing. There's usually some form of modeling; that is, appropriately assertive behavior is both demonstrated and discussed. And, finally, some type of practice is specified, usually in the form of systematic approximations to the problem of each trainee. Research on assertiveness training techniques suggests that different strokes work best for different folks The separate and combined effects o such variables as practice, behavior rehearsal, instructions, coaching modeling, video role play, verbal rein for cement, self-report, discomfort questionnaires and biofeedback al have been investigated and shown t be useful at one time or another.

With so many ways to slice the cake, it can be difficult to pick the right training approach for your organization or for a given group of individuals. To expedite the choice, we offer these rule-of-thumb guidelines.

1. Know thy instructor. Examine the prospective A.T. instructor's credentials carefully. From whom did he or she learn A.T., and how many groups has he or she assisted in before soloing? Because A.T. is so new, however, credentials are no guarantee of competence.

2. Take the course. Before exposing others to the proposed program, try it yourself. When you do, ask yourself these questions:

• Does the instructor "take care" of the trainees?
• Does the instructor individualize the program? That is, is the pro¬gram structured to help people work on individual communication problems?
• Are appropriate models developed to help each individual with his or her specific problem area? A person who is appropriately assertive in the office but tongue-tied in a dating situation won't benefit much by learning how to ask for a raise or question a car repair bill.
• Does the training include practice and feedback? If the instructor merely tells the group to "give George at least as many positive strokes as negative strokes," be¬ware. Instead, the instructor should detail specific verbal and non-verbal behaviors to watch for and report on—for example, "Was the statement direct and to the point?," "Was eye contact present?," "Did the statement accurately reflect the speaker's goals?"

3. Assess results. Talk to people who have taken the training. Find out, specifically, how it helped them. Do they say, "It generally taught me to..."? Or can they give specifics: "I was able to walk up to Charlie and..."?

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In the end
The goal of A.T. is assertive behavior and clean communications among people. Nothing more, nothing less. Assertive behavior is simply a technique for clearly expressing one's needs, thoughts, hopes, opinions and dreams. The need for assertive communications arises when people are in honest disagreement, in conflict. When any training— be it assertiveness training, transactional analysis or tap dancing— helps people face conflict, confront disagreement and walk away with their self-respect in¬tact, without bad feelings or bitterness, what more could we ask?

Source : Training Magazine, March 1979

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