Review: The Assertiveness Workbook

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development, personal growth, or career book.

assertivenessOver the past several months, I’ve reviewed a lot of books about entrepreneurship, building relationships with others, and climbing the career ladder. All of these techniques have one thing in common: they require you to stand up for yourself and be assertive. This is a point that often comes up in the comments for such book reviews and other articles about moving forward in your career or dealing with workplace problems. Either people aren’t assertive enough, they’re ridiculously over-aggressive (which creates conflict), or they switch between the two extremes (passive-aggressiveness).

All three of these elements usually result from a lack of a naturally-developed sense of appropriate assertiveness. Appropriate self-confidence, the ability to express your ideas, the ability to accept criticism without it destroying you personally, the ability to say “no” without guilt, and the ability to stand up for yourself all revolve around being appropriately assertive and, frankly, many people simply don’t have it.

For most of my life, I wasn’t assertive enough at work (I’m usually assertive enough in my personal life, but even there, I’m not always assertive enough). I was scared to death to speak in public. I’d often allow others to walk all over me, often ending in disastrous work situations. I was usually willing to state my ideas, but I would usually fold immediately in the face of criticism of those ideas.

The Assertiveness Workbook by Dr. Randy Paterson takes on the spectrum of assertiveness problems and strives to point people towards an appropriate, mentally healthy level of assertiveness in their lives. Having that appropriate level allows a person to easily stand up for themselves, their ideas, and their goals, enabling them to climb the career ladder and build what they want for themselves. Let’s dig in.

1. What Is Assertiveness?
Assertiveness is largely the realization that you are in control of what you will or will not do, but not in control of what others will or will not do. Passive people tend to not recognize the control of what they themselves do, while aggressive people tend to try to control what everyone does (and passive-aggressive folks alternate between the two in often-confusing ways). Assertiveness simply means sticking up for yourself – your time, your energy, your money, your work, and your ideas. Assertiveness strikes a happy balance between passiveness and aggressiveness, enabling you to control your own destiny without treading on others.

2. Overcoming the Stress Barrier
Stress often pushes us, revealing the nature we fall back on. Do we run away (the passive response)? Do we attack the source of the stress (the aggressive response)? Do we gossip and offer indirect attacks (the passive-aggressive response)? None of these are good solutions to stress. Instead, the best solution is to simply minimize the stress so that we don’t slip into our default biological “flight or fight” response – instead, we deal with it rationally, using a cool head, and often wind up choosing the best solution for the problem (usually, the assertive one). You can minimize your stress by eating well, getting adequate sleep, minimizing your caffeine intake, getting exercise, and trying to live a balanced life that mixes work, personal, and leisure time. You can also utilize quick stress responses that are outside the “fight or flight” dichotomy, like stopping and breathing deeply a few times.

3. Overcoming the Social Barrier
If you attempt to be assertive instead of your normal response to stress (whether it be passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive), the people around you might not react positively – not because assertiveness is bad, but because they’ve come to expect that you’re passive or aggressive. They might be confused as to how you’re acting and it might make the relationship worse in the short term. In a nutshell, bear with it. Instead of caving and resorting back to your previous behaviors, keep acting assertive. Things may get worse before they get better, but they will get better – for you and for the people around you. Relationship strain is natural and should be expected, but in the end, assertiveness will make you more valuable, not less, and will build stronger relationships. Be patient.

4. Overcoming the Belief Barrier
Many people build up a set of beliefs that reinforce their natural responses. Naturally passive people, for example, believe that assertiveness is selfishness and passivity is the way to be loved and valued – neither of which is actually true. Similarly, naturally aggressive people believe that full honesty is always the best policy and that if they’re not aggressive nothing will happen – neither of which is actually true. Paterson works through a ton of such beliefs in this chapter, evaluating why they’re not generally true and offering techniques for eliminating them from your life.

5. Reality Check
You are in charge of your own behavior, others are in charge of their behavior. That’s really the key point of this entire book. You can’t really control the choices of others, but you can control your own choices. Sure, you can use aggression to strongly influence other’s choices, but there’s a huge cost there – resentment happens whether you see it or not. Similarly, if you’re passive and let others dictate your choices, you become their doormat.

6. On the Launchpad: Preparing for Change
Assertiveness is what you do, not who you are. You may naturally be a passive person, but you can choose to act in ways that are assertive. You may naturally be aggressive, but you can choose to scale back on the aggression towards others. Instead, focus on what you’re doing when you interact with others. Stand up for how you spend your time and energy – and let others make their own choices. You’re going to make some mistakes along the way – that’s fine, just keep trying to find that sweet spot of assertiveness. One great technique is to minimize your communications – focus on making your messages as slim as possible, only communicating the bare assertive essentials.

7. Becoming Visible: Nonverbal Behavior
This chapter comes straight out of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It offers a very long checklist of nonverbal behaviors for you to work on to make your presence felt in a room without dominating others aggressively. Integrating these individual behaviors can be difficult, so Paterson encourages people to practice each behavior for a week, focusing intently on that behavior, until it starts to become at least a little natural. I find that, for me, it takes more than a week of such focus for it to become a natural behavior.

8. Being Present: Giving Your Opinion
Passive people tend to not give their opinion at all, while aggressive people tend to state their opinion in such a way to make it clear that other opinions are wrong – neither one is cool. Instead, focus on actively expressing your opinion, but frame it well. State it from your perspective: “My take is…” or “I enjoyed it…” Don’t criticize other’s views – it’s quite likely that other reasonable people will have their own take that differs from yours. This works in almost any conversation and, when prefaced that way, is almost always welcome. If anyone attacks you for stating what you think – if you make it clear that it’s just your take – they are the ones who will come off as aggressive and rude, not you.

9. Taking the Good: Receiving Positive Feedback
Many people find it hard to accept compliments. They view it as unbalancing the situation and either should be ignored, devalued, or met with a reciprocal compliment. If you feel this way, the best thing you can do is let it go. Accept a compliment with a polite “Thank you” and move on with life, accepting the complement as a positive. Of course, sometimes compliments are given with an ulterior motive, but you cannot honestly know what the motives of others are. Instead, respond positively to the comment in the now and allow other actions and statements to reveal the other person’s true character.

10. Giving Helpful Positive Feedback
The best way to give good positive feedback is to avoid all ulterior motives. Never give a false compliment, nor a backhanded one. You should also try to compliment things that have already happened, like complimenting someone on a lovely dinner after the dinner. Avoid compliments where you’re trying to use the compliment to get something, like complimenting someone on their car when you need it for a ride. The best positive feedback is honest positive feedback that only serves to tell someone else what they’re doing well from your perspective. Anything beyond that begins to spoil the soup.

11. Taking the Valuable: Receiving Negative Feedback
What about negative feedback? Again, if someone offers you negative feedback, your best bet is to always hold back. Accept what they’re saying. Your only response should be for clarification or to explain without offering excuses. Don’t try to change their mind or argue with them – it won’t work and creates more of a scene. Later, reflect on what they’ve said and draw your own conclusions. Quite often, particularly from people with aggression issues, the negative feedback has little to do with you but instead has to do with their own hangups. Careful reflection will reveal whether the feedback is something you need to work on or something to ignore.

12. Constructive, Not Critical: Giving Corrective Feedback
How do you give negative feedback? This is very hard for passive people to do, but there are a few principles that can make negative feedback really helpful. First of all, state what you observed so that they understand the specific element you’re coming from. “Joe, you walked in at 9:15 and the store opens at 9.” Then, make it clear what about that action or statement is problematic. “Being late means that there’s no one to man the register, so others have to take up your slack.” Follow that with a suggestion on how to correct it or move towards some sort of solution. “Let’s go have a talk about why you’re regularly late.” That framework will create corrective feedback that works instead of just tossing off negative feelings.

13. The Assertive “No”
If you cannot say no to someone or something, you’re not in charge of your life. Learning how to say no doesn’t mean you’ve decided to ignore the needs and wants everyone around you. Instead, it’s merely a realization that your needs come first in your life. There are several strategies for saying “no” that really work. First, decide what you’re going to say before you even speak – if you don’t know yet, then don’t answer. Second, if you’re going to say no, be strong about it. Don’t try to soften the “no” or else aggressive folks will see it as practically a “yes.” Don’t apologize and don’t make excuses for the “no” unless you’re actually changing your statement from an earlier promise. Also, many aggressive people will continually keep asking if they want something – if you’ve decided to say “no,” keep saying it and don’t reword it (which is a cue that you’re starting to waffle).

14. Making Requests Without Controlling Others
Another part of balancing assertiveness well without falling into passivity or aggressiveness is to make requests that are clear but aren’t controlling. Paterson breaks such requests into four parts: describe, express, specify, and outcome. Describe simply means to describe the situation as you perceive it to be right now. Express means explaining how you feel about this situation – stick with “I” statements. Specify means identifying clearly (but briefly) what you’d like the other person to do to change the situation. Outcome expresses the results you hope to see if they fulfill the request. Surprisingly, it’s quite easy to condense these four pieces down into a total of just a few sentences, but they’re all needed to make a clear and fair request of others.

15. Countdown to Confrontation
Sometimes, confrontations are unavoidable, particularly when someone is demanding more than is realistic or socially unacceptable. Confrontations are occasionally part of appropriate assertiveness, as long as you prepare for that confrontation in a rational fashion. First, state the issue to yourself and make sure you understand why this is an unresolved problem. Next, figure out the symbolic value – at the core, why is this a problem? Is it a realistic conclusion (“he makes sexist comments and demands ridiculous things of me, so the problem is that he’s sexist”) or unrealistic (“he leaves the toilet seat up so he doesn’t love me”)? Next, figure out what you want to come out of the confrontation – do you want a behavioral change or do you want a person to reflect and make a personal change within themselves? Ask yourself if it’s really you that needs to change, and make sure you’re picking a worthwhile battle here. Then, choose an appropriate place and time and make sure you’re safe during this confrontation (as some aggressive people tend to not react well in such situations).

16. Constructive Confrontation
The biggest key is to focus on relaxing during this. If things get intense, emotions tend to take over and no resolution to the problem can happen. Try to keep your voice even and don’t show off obvious signs of agitation – if you feel that way, take a time out. Focus on making it clear how the problem is negatively affecting you. Don’t focus on “winning” but on making your concerns heard. Don’t bring up old history, either – let sleeping dogs lie and focus on the issue at hand. Avoid absolute statements like “You always…” as they’re usually wrong and send the discussion down a bad path; instead, say that something happens “… more often than I’m comfortable with.” Try to find solutions that are based on common ground, recognizing that both sides have needs. Don’t get angry and if there are periods of silence, just wait them out. Doing these things will make confrontations much more palatable and likely to achieve a result you want and less likely to result in ongoing problems.

Is The Assertiveness Workbook Worth Reading?
To put it simply, if everyone in the workplace actually used the ideas in The Assertiveness Workbook, the workplace would be a wonderful place to be. You’d have a good idea where others stand and people wouldn’t commit to unrealistic things. Confrontations would be handled without disaster and people with good ideas would be unafraid to express them but wouldn’t use them as weapons, either.

Naturally, the first step you can always make in creating such a workplace is to do it yourself – be assertive, not aggressive or passive or (worst of all) passive-aggressive. If you find that you fall into one of the other areas, The Assertiveness Workbook can be really useful in helping you assert yourself without trampling all over others.

One final note: this is closer to a “book” than a typical “workbook.” Though there are a few blanks to fill in throughout the book, most of the suggested thought exercises are better done in another notebook, not in this workbook itself.

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  1. Kevin says:

    Just to clarify: Passive-Aggressive behavior is not “switching” between two extremes (passiveness and aggressiveness). It’s passive behavior which masks negativity while avoiding overt confrontation.

    An example: your wife wants you to get a reservation at a restaurant you don’t want to go to. Rather than engage in a conversation about why you don’t want to go to that restaurant, you agree to call for a reservation, but don’t make the call. When that comes to light, you simply say you forgot. This is passive-aggressive behavior.

    You are resisting through passiveness, rather than overtly aggressive behavior.

  2. Steve says:

    Thanks Trent. This is one of those post that fall into the category of “Things I already know but a reminder never hurts”. It also reminds me that even things we do well can always be improved. Hopefully, this will help me be more mindful of others peoples styles and prevent me from being accidentally offensive. I’m aware I can sometimes be too assertive.

  3. Katie says:

    Thanks for reviewing this book. I never would have picked it up of my own volition, but the ideas really resonate with me. I’ve been having some problems lately and coming to similar realizations myself. It’s nice to hear the ideas I had in the back of my mind articulated nicely from the book and your summary. In the past, I’ve kind of glossed over some of the reviews, but I really am glad I read this one in its entirety!

  4. bellN says:

    Thanks, Kevin for a very clear description of passive-aggressive behavior.
    The book sounds interesting. The problem I have with this and most books about behavior – is that I find that most people are completely unaware of how they appear to other people. Even worse than being unaware, there are some folks with a complete disconnect between how they think they appear, and how they really come across. That leaves you with someone trying to improve themselves (by being more assertive, perhaps, or some other type of self-improvement) when that isn’t the real issue causing their problems with people, or at their jobs, or at home or wherever.

  5. Kathy says:

    I think I will pick up this book. I have had confrontations with the aforementioned extroverted aggressive supervisor in the friends post a few days ago, and the section on constructive confrontation really piqued my curiosity. The constructive criticism section also caught my eye, too. At my work, they changed how we do our reviews and now our peers rate us and we all get to rate our supervisor, too. I have some things to say, but I am working how to say it constructively.

  6. femmeknitzi says:

    Wow. I REALLY need to read this book. Hopping over to Amazon right now!

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