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Assertiveness training (to help you know and defend your boundaries)

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You said “yes” to yet another responsibility at work that you don’t have time for. You let your friend borrow money, even though she never pays you back. You didn’t tell the waiter that they got your order wrong, so you ended up with a meal you didn’t even like. If things like this keep happening to you, you might wonder if you’d benefit from assertiveness training.

Below, we’ll go over some assertiveness exercises you can do to get better at standing up for yourself as well as some options for assertiveness training courses.

But first, what is assertiveness training?

Table of contents

What is assertiveness training in psychology?

Assertiveness training, also known as assertion training, focuses on helping you stand up for yourself, express your needs and uphold your boundaries without violating other people’s boundaries. And if you’ve never heard the term before—it’s not because it doesn’t work!

In a research paper entitled “Assertiveness Training: A Forgotten Evidence-Based Treatment,” Brittany Speed and colleagues explain that assertiveness training was popular in the 60s and showed a lot of promise, but for many reasons, its popularity fizzled out in recent years. It was first introduced by behavioral psychologist Andrew Salter in his 1949 book Conditioned Reflex Therapy (though he didn’t label it as “assertiveness training” at the time). 

Salter’s ideas were later picked up and expanded upon by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe, who believed that assertiveness training was an effective relief from anxiety. The thinking was that you couldn’t be assertive and anxious at the same time.

For instance, at work, you might feel anxious because you told someone you could take on another project, even though you don’t even have enough time to finish your own work. That anxiety would arise from a lack of communicating your boundaries (e.g., “I can’t help you with your project because I’m fully booked with my own work this week.”). In that situation, if you had been assertive and declined the project, you wouldn’t need to be anxious about completing all your work.

Today, assertiveness training can be carried out for business teams as part of a corporate training program, or it can be done one-on-one with a therapist or coach. You can even do assertiveness training on your own or sign up for an online course.

Aggressive, passive, assertive: What’s the difference?

Yes, there’s a difference.

“Assertiveness does not come from a place of aggression,” explains Licensed Clinical Social Worker Dian Grier. “When you know your value and self-worth, it becomes a matter of non-aggressively either asking for what you want or maintaining your boundaries.”

If you want to be more assertive, you must learn the difference between being aggressive, passive and assertive.

An example might help. Let’s say you have a colleague who has a habit of cutting you off during meetings. Here are three ways you might respond:

Aggressive

An aggressive response to your colleague’s interruption would be to continue speaking loudly over them or shouting something like, “Quit talking!” This response is aggressive, not assertive, because it infringes on the other person’s rights. Your colleague is allowed to speak at the meeting, too—just not while you’re speaking.

Passive

A passive response would be to go along with it and let your colleague cut you off while you go silent in the background. While this might seem like the most comfortable thing to do in the moment (especially if you disdain conflict), it’s unhealthy because you won’t get your needs met, and you’ll resent your colleague for it. Further, your colleague and others will never see your boundaries, and therefore, can’t uphold them.

Assertive

An assertive response would be to say something like, “I’m still speaking, and I’ll yield the floor to you when I’m done. Thanks.” In a few seconds, you’ve told your colleague what is and is not okay. You’ll get to say what you need to say, and when the appropriate time comes, your colleague will too.

6 assertiveness exercises that’ll boost your confidence

If you’re struggling to stand up for yourself, it can help to do some assertiveness training exercises. Think of assertiveness as a muscle—the more you use it, the bigger it’ll grow. And the great news is, you can do these assertiveness exercises from the comfort of your own home! 

1. Identify your boundaries and where they’re being breached.

Before you begin any assertiveness exercises, I recommend starting here. Being assertive requires knowing your rights, your boundaries and your needs. If you don’t know what your boundaries are, you will not be able to communicate them to someone else.

So sit down and list out all of your boundaries that you feel are being violated. If you can’t think of anything at first, start by thinking of all the times you’ve felt frustrated or treated unfairly this past month. Think of the times when you wanted to say something but didn’t. Usually, these instances point to a time when someone violated your boundaries.

For instance, you might write, “I wish I’d told my boss that I couldn’t take the phone call during dinner with my family.” This points to the boundary that your time with family is precious, and you do not want to do work during this time. Now that you know this, it’ll make it a lot easier to verbalize it to your boss the next time something like this happens.

2. Rephrase questions as statements. (Don’t ask permission.)

Are you constantly asking for permission when you don’t need to? This is a common ailment of someone who struggles to be assertive.

This came into play in my life recently when I was buying a car. I had changed my mind and wanted to buy a more expensive model, and I told my friend I was planning to ask the salesman if it would be okay to switch cars.

“You’re not asking for his permission,” she wisely pointed out. “You’re simply informing him of your new decision.”

That flipped the switch for me and completely changed my perspective on how I approach people about my decisions and boundaries. She was right! This was my money I was spending on my car; I didn’t need the salesman’s permission to change my mind.

I did as she said and went to the dealership the next morning and told the salesman, “I’d like to buy the blue car instead.” (But, I then quickly threw in, “Is that okay?” Old habits die hard!) 

3. Say it out loud.

How many times have you ruminated upon a situation where your rights had been trampled upon, only to think, “Ugh, I should’ve said ______.” If you struggle with being assertive, it’s likely that you keep a lot of what you want to say inside. 

Instead of holding it in, practice saying things out loud. That’s something that Sierra Dator, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, recommends to her clients.

“If we have never put anything into words, it's hard to be assertive and say it to someone else,” Dator explains. “I encourage my clients to start talking while they are driving, while they are washing their hands, or any other moment where they can practice talking assertively aloud. I also encourage clients to practice in front of the mirror, so they can build confidence in not only how they sound but how they look when they are saying it.”

4. Role-play with a friend.

Similar to the above exercise, practicing how to behave in a situation can make it easier to handle the next time it arises. If you want to be more assertive, try role-playing with a friend, therapist or someone else you trust. 

“They can pick something they might have a conflict about in real life, but I encourage people to pick something that's not highly disruptive emotionally,” says Licensed Professional Counselor Mikela Hallmark

Hallmark gives the example of a practice conflict over who accidentally left food out overnight.

“When they feel the stress of the conflict, they can then work to lean into it while still utilizing assertive skills they've learned.”

Practicing these skills has helped Hallmark in real-life situations, such as a moment when a former coworker disagreed with her. “They came into my office yelling and cursing,” she says. “That could have been a moment that I became stressed and backed away from the conflict, but instead, I was able to use my skills to calmly but assertively respond to them in a way that honored my decision while also not disrespecting myself or the other person.”

5. Make a list of obstacles you’ve overcome.

You’ve gotten through every difficulty in your life, and you have what it takes to do it again. Want proof? Make a list of 10 obstacles you’ve overcome. JF Benoist, a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor and founder of The Exclusive Hawaii, likes to use this exercise with his clients.

Under each item of the list, Benoist has his clients write down the qualities they possess that helped them to overcome that difficulty. For example, if someone graduated from college despite their dyslexia, they might write “determined” and “dedicated.”

Benoist recommends including specific examples of times when you stood up for yourself. Maybe you walked away from a toxic relationship, or maybe you confronted the coworker who kept taking credit for your work. Whatever it is, add it to the list.

Once you’ve got ten items on the list, Benoist suggests sitting down with someone you trust and asking them to read the list back to you. Have them start a conversation around the items, such as, “Wow, this one must have been difficult for you. Tell me more about it.” Then, you talk about all the ways you showed resilience in the face of that particular adversity.

“As you say these things, your body will begin to feel in its bones that yes—you are strong and can be assertive,” says Benoist.

When you’re done with this exercise, think of something you’ve always wanted to do—then go do it.

“By only setting this one goal for yourself, you’re able to easily attain it and begin to build up your assertiveness muscle.”

And yes, this assertiveness training exercise really works! Benoist tried it with a client who had quit med school early due to family issues. After doing this exercise and realizing her strengths, she returned to med school.

6. Write a letter.

Look, it’s tough for anyone to assert themselves in person. If you’re really struggling with stating your boundaries to someone face-to-face, try writing a letter. Whether or not you send the letter is not the point. The point is to get used to putting what you’re feeling into words. Once your sentiments are on paper, you may choose to send the letter, or you may choose to simply talk to this person face-to-face.

Assertiveness training courses

If you want to step it up and enroll in assertiveness training courses, many are held online and easy to access. Below are some popular online options to consider.

1. Assertiveness Coaching - F4S

Rather than a one-size-fits-all online course, consider a coaching program that can be personalized to fit your unique needs. Based on over 20 years of research, our assertiveness coaching will help you gain the confidence and skills needed to stand up for yourself and get more of what you want in life. 

The best part? You can get started for free and it only takes around 15 minutes a week to see major improvements.

2. Learning to Be Assertive - LinkedIn

More than 401,000 students have taken this online course since its creation in 2015. Taught by management speaker and author Chris Croft, Learning to Be Assertive walks you through techniques you can use to keep your cool and assert your boundaries in difficult situations.

3. Double Your Assertiveness, Confidence & Communication Skills - Skillshare

Created by entrepreneur and transformational coach Alain Wolf, this course teaches you effective ways to manage conflict, express yourself and communicate confidently.

4. Assertive Communication Skills Masterclass - Udemy

Taught by leadership coach Kara Ronin, this course has 4.5 out of 5 stars on Udemy and has enrolled nearly 9,000 students. It teaches you how to make clear requests, make yourself more visible in group situations and overcome fears so you can be more assertive.

Assertiveness training or not—you can become a better advocate for yourself!

Some choose formal assertiveness training either through a consulting firm or an online course because they feel it’s the best way for them to learn to stand up for themselves. And it might be! But just realize your options don’t end there.

You can always practice the above-mentioned assertiveness training exercises on your own or work one-on-one with a coach who can bring out your assertive side through their training and experience.

Whatever happens, being able to express your needs and boundaries is always worth it—even if you do so imperfectly.

“Risk is a part of assertiveness,” says Grier. “If you make a mistake along the way, that is a part of the process. Without mistakes, there is no growth. Just assume it is a part of learning and embrace mistakes without ruminating on the mistake. Once again, this is risk and usually reaps rewards.”

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