Assertiveness Training Practice Guidelines
Mary M Buxton LCSW, Inc.

Assertiveness Training Bibliography
Mary M Buxton LCSW, Inc.

  1. When I Say No, I Feel Guilty; Manuel Smith, Ph.D.
  2. Self Assertion For Women: A Guide To Becoming Androgynous; Pamela Butler
  3. The Assertive Woman; N. Austin & J. Phelps
  4. You Can If You Want To; Lazarus and Faye
  5. Your Perfect Right; Alberti & Emmons

Before We Begin…
Assertiveness training is based on a two-level approach.  There is a set of new verbal skills to learn as well as a new philosophy or way of thinking about situations to adopt. The verbal skills are presented in the training. It is important to get lots of practice in safe situations in order to learn them.  The new philosophy is presented in the Bill of Assertive Rights on the next page. Taking a second look at this list can help you feel more comfortable as you try out your new assertiveness skills.

The practice guidelines that follow are intended as a trigger to refresh your memory of what was taught in the training. This model of assertiveness training is based on the work of Dr. Manuel Smith, author of, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty.  His book is recommended as a supplement to this training. Please note that there is also a book list on the last page of this packet.


  1. You have the right to judge your own behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and to take the responsibility for the initiation and consequences upon yourself.
  2. You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying your behavior.
  3. You have the right to judge if you are responsible for finding solutions to other people's problems.
  4. You have the right to change your mind.
  5. You have the right to make mistakes-and be responsible for them.
  6. You have the right to say, “I don't know.”
  7. You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them.
  8. You have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
  9. You have the right to say, “I don't Understand.”
  10. You have the right to say, “I don't care.”


Taken from: When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, by Manuel Smith

I.  BACK TO BASICS: Communication Styles

There are four different styles of communicating with others that are important to understand and identify before learning assertiveness skills. The reason for this is that being able to label what is going on in your communication with others gives you some perspective and may help you decide what to do differently. Here they are:

  1. Passive - This type of communication is characterized by a low-energy level. The body posture may include lowered eyelids and little or no eye contact. The tone of voice is usually quiet and the person may seem to lack an air of confidence. Beware of sudden explosions when this person realizes he/she has let himself/herself be pushed too far for too long. Normally, the passive person may respond to your questions with “I don't know (sigh),” “I’ll do whatever you want to do,” “It doesn't matter.”  You may find yourself feeling guilty at getting your own way so often, or feeling very burdened and responsible for all of the decisions.
  2. Aggressive - This communication style is characterized by a high output of energy. The body posture may have an overbearing quality to it. This person may physically lean into the conversation. A loud tone of voice, and direct, glaring eye contact may season your conversation. The aggressive person may interrupt and often will not ask for your ideas or opinions. You may feel timid and helpless when in a discussion with an aggressive person. If you find yourself holding back on expressing yourself because you don't feel safe doing so, check to see if your friend fits the aggressive type.
  3. Passive-Aggressive - This type of communication is characterized by indirectness. The body posture may include any stance that could be described as nice, quiet, or sly. This is a very destructive communication style and it's often hard to identify. One indicator is sarcasm, which often leaves you confused about which was the real message ... the funny one or the serious comment. Sarcasm is a safe way to express anger because it catches the other person off guard. Another indicator of passive-aggressive communication is the mixed message. "I love your skirt, it hides your big hips." On hearing that statement you usually end up smiling on the outside and crying on the inside. So if you find yourself confused, insecure or resentful, check to see if your companion fits the passive-aggressive label.
  4. Assertive - Assertive communication is characterized by a direct, straightforward approach to others. The body stance is strong and flexible. It includes eye contact and a confident tone of voice. This person expresses himself/herself, listens, and does not always get what she/he wants. An assertive person is aware that a workable compromise or a win-win solution will be the best result for both in the long run. Saying yes and no, knowing what you want, and setting realistic limits are taking responsibility. Being in the company of an assertive person may seem threatening at first, and it can work out to be a satisfying way of communicating. (Please note that there is a difference between aggressive and assertive behavior!)

Now, obviously, these four styles of communicating are not all bad or all good. For example, an aggressive person can be an asset to your work group and an exciting person to be around. So much depends on the intent of that person and whether or not their communication style is an appropriate fit for the situation at hand. Now, once you have practiced and watched for these four communication styles in your daily life, you have placed a good cornerstone for assertiveness training.


The most common alternative to assertive communication as an approach to getting what you want is manipulation. Manipulation has a bad reputation with communication specialists, but it is used a lot. So, let's suspend judgment for a while and consciously learn to manipulate. The reason for learning how to manipulate is that you can then identify when it's being done to you or when you are doing it! Next time you want someone to do something for you use absolutes. “You never give me anything,” or “"you should do that for me,” are stock manipulative phrases. Or, if you don't want someone to do what they are planning, try, "you always get to do what you want to do." This is a great show-stopper because it puts the other person on the defensive and they get so busy trying to prove to you that they haven't always done it that they forget about their original intentions. So you get your way, but you also get a truckload of bad feelings and ill will to go with it. Trying to prove yourself right and the other person wrong is another great manipulative ploy. Now, the tricky thing about manipulation is that it usually works to get you what you want. However, there's a price to pay and that is that it invalidates what you get. The mother who manipulates her adult children into spending Sunday with her usually spends the time together worrying that they're only with her because she "forced" them to be. Just as with the communication styles, manipulation is not all bad. Sometimes it is benign and works quite well for both parties. Again, sensitivity to the situation and intent will guide you as to when it can be used harmlessly.

Now a word about identifying when you are being manipulated. Often you will feel a body sensation like a tightness or sinking feeling in your stomach . Some people grit and grind their teeth in response to manipulation. When pushed, people will often speak of a vague sense of anger but have a hard time justifying why they might be angry. Next time you find yourself with these symptoms, stop and check for manipulation.

Please take some time to practice exaggerating manipulation so you get a good handle on it. Also, keep your eyes and ears open for the subtle and not so subtle ways in which others manipulate. There's lots to be learned!


Persistence is the first assertiveness skill. We usually do not get what we want because we give up too soon on asking for what we want. Or we can get sidetracked into defending or justifying our position. Persistence or broken record proposes that getting what you want is a numbers, game. If your child asks you for a candy bar 5 times, then you can say no 6 times. The key to doing this is to stay unemotional and repeat a stock phrase. An example of this is "I understand and I'm not interested," or “I understand and I still want…” Having a standard phrase protects you from getting side -tracked and helps you stay low-key while repeating your response. It does seem awkward but using a standard phrase at first facilitates your learning when habit and the emotional stakes are high. Expect that the other person will resist you and try even harder when you first start to change. If you do continue with your newly acquired persistence, then they will soon learn that you mean what you say and that you don’t give up. Persistence often works best in commercial situations. It is also useful in close relationships when combined with other assertiveness skills. The foundation for persistence is knowing what you want. The alternative to persistence is to withdraw or to escalate the conversation into a battle of wills. Take some time to practice persistence or “broken record.”


This second assertiveness skill gives you a way to defuse criticism. Fogging is based on agreeing with your critic like a fog bank. You will begin to look on criticism as feedback and "only one person's opinion." You are the ultimate judge of your own behavior. We usually respond to criticism by experiencing self-doubt, denial, defensiveness, escalating into an argument, and counter-criticizing. These responses create a vicious cycle and we feel nervous, angry, or guilty. Fogging is a new tool in which you agree with your critic but you agree with the possibility or probability that what they say is true. You aren’t saying that they are right. You are saying" that the odds are that what they are saying could be correct at some time or somewhere in this universe. Anything could happen once, right? You remain calm. Fogging allows you to unhook from criticism on a gut level and to listen. At the same time fogging allows the other person to feel heard. By fogging you also exhaust your critic. It takes more energy than most people have to continue criticizing someone who won't react. Stock phrases to use in fogging are: "That could be true...," "You’re probably right...," "Sometimes I think so myself: Remember that criticism is difficult for all of us, so get ready to put in lots of practice to learn fogging and the other skills to deal with criticism. Start by having someone criticize you repeatedly on some secure area of your life such as appearance, cooking or driving. Do not pick a sensitive area of your life, or you will be courting disaster. Practice fogging in safe areas first and move into working with more difficult topics or people once you have over-learned your new skills. Learning in this graduated manner teaches you that the skills do work and that you can feel in control in the face of criticism.


Negative Inquiry is an assertiveness skill to be used to deal with criticism in intimate relationships. You do exactly the opposite of what you naturally feel like doing in the face of criticism... you ask for more negatives! Some stock phrases to help you do this are, "What is it about that that bothers you?" or "Tell me more about what it is that you don't like." Once again you attempt to exhaust your critic by pumping him/her for more negatives. This skill is great for smoking out the real issue that is bothering this person that is in a close relationship with you. For instance your partner may complain about your being too much of a "company person" when the real issue is that he/she wants to spend more personal time with you. The skill of negative inquiry can help you reach this understanding of the problem. Then the job of the two of you is to negotiate for a workable compromise or a win-win solution. This means that both of your needs and limitations have been considered and that each gets as much as possible of what they want. Here is where knowing what you want and persistence can be used in a positive way.

So your role when using negative inquiry is to ask for more negatives and to listen (not agree). Try to define and agree on a problem as a result of your listening. This does not mean that you are a problem, but maybe that a behavior of yours is coming into conflict with something that your partner needs or wants. Practice, practice and more practice will help you learn this skill. Remember to start out in safe situations and build from there. Fogging and negative inquiry blend well but are better learned as separate skills at first.


Negative Assertion - Use negative assertion to agree with your critic when the criticism is valid. For instance, "You’re really stupid!" Your response might be, "That’s true, losing my plane ticket to Brazil was REALLY stupid. I aqree." This response unhooks you from the criticism by being specific and limiting the scope of the criticism. Agreeing also defuses the critical moment so that the situation will net escalate. You remain in control and the ultimate judge of your own behavior. You can allow yourself to make mistakes. Congratulations!

Disagreeing with Criticism - You have a right to disagree with criticism based on facts. For instance, your apartment manager calls to complain that you blasted your stereo after 11 P.M. the previous evening. Your response might be, “I have to disagree, I was in bed asleep by 10 PM. Please double-check your complaint and let me know what happens.”


People who have difficulty with criticism often have difficulty with praise. We usually react to praise by denying it or by false praise in return. Either way it becomes uncomfortable for both parties involved. Next time try, "Thank you." Once you have had some practice on that, try asking for praise the next time you do the dishes or take the garbage out.

Other times when praise is a problem are when you disagree with the praise, when you sense that the praise may be false flattery intended to get something from you, or when the praise is so vague that you get nervous about how or what to repeat for a positive response. Whew! Now let's find workable responses to each of these problems. If you disagree with the praise simply say, "I appreciate the compliment and this report is not up to my personal standards." If you sense the false flattery, say thank you and watch for a feeling of obligation on your part when the praise is followed by a request. You can accept the praise and reject the request. “Thank you for the compliment and no I don't care to lend you $50.”  Finally, if you find yourself nervous and tense after receiving vague praise, ask for more specific praise. “What is it about that presentation that YOU liked?”  Don't worry about being accused of fishing for compliments. You are trying to get specific feedback.

Praise is scarce and criticism is rampant in our daily interactions with ourselves and others. Try a little "positive assertion" and see if you feel differently. Compliment yourself on the things that you have done. Give others positive comments about the work they have done.

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