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Assertion Skills

Defensive Responses

The skill in sending assertion messages effectively involves learning to expect and deal with people's defensive responses. To do this, it is best to use the process outlined below.

Assertions are typically met with a defensive response. Even when the assertion is only attempting to remove the other person from our territory, the other person will experience this as a "push" and will almost inevitably want to "push back".

No matter how well we phrase assertion messages, people seldom like to receive them. Who wants to find out that they have trespassed on another's space and made a tangible and negative impact on that other? It is uncomfortable to learn that we have adversely affected another's life. That's why even the best assertion messages tend to trigger defensive responses in the receiver.

So, when you send a well-worded assertion message, don't expect an accolade. Anticipate an attack or some other form of defensive response.

Defensiveness in one person tends to trigger defensiveness in the other person(s) in the interaction. As the conversation proceeds, an upward spiral of increasing defensiveness often occurs, causing an escalation of aggressiveness and destructiveness in both parties.

This spiral is evident when one person asserts to another. Because the person receiving the assertion is apt to become very defensive, what they hear is often a distortion of what was said to them and they respond with hostility. This in turn triggers defensiveness which produces inflammatory remarks. The vicious cycle of mutual recrimination has begun. After much heat and heartache, the asserter's needs are still unmet, the relationship suffers and each person's self-esteem tends to be diminished.

A Six-Step Assertion Process

1. Preparation

2. Sending

3. Being silent

4. Listening

5. Recycling the Process

6. Focusing on the Solution

1. Preparation

Write down the assertion message before sending it. This helps diffuse some of your pent up feelings. When it is properly formulated, you will be confident that it is appropriate, brief, non-blaming and capable of getting you needs met.

Test the appropriateness of the message by asking:

Am I refraining from trespassing? If the message has a concrete and tangible effect, I can be fairly certain that I am not intruding on someone else's territory.

Is this a persistent concern? Though there will be some occasions when it will be appropriate to assert the first time someone trespasses on my space, these situations will be fairly infrequent.

Is there a base of rapport? An assertion that is sent before rapport develops is more likely to have severe repercussions on the relationship and on motivation.

Am I likely to get my needs met through an assertion? You should only send assertion messages to those people and in those situations where there is a high likelihood of getting your needs met.

Rehearse the assertion message before you use it. Use a partner to help in role-playing if possible.

Secure an appointment to converse with the person to whom you wish to send the message and allow enough time for it. Do not pick a time when the other is likely to be tired, irritable or hungry etc.

Select the location carefully, avoiding confrontation in view/hearing of others. Decide whether it should be on your ground or on the other's.

2. Sending

Don't begin the interaction with small talk.

When you send an assertion, your body language should demonstrate that you mean what you say, that you are not ambivalent about it and that you expect to get your needs met. At the same time, assertive body language demonstrates respect for the other person.

3. Being silent

After sending your brief assertion message with appropriate body language - Stop! Be silent. Your silence will allow the other person to think about what you have said or to say whatever is on their mind. (The other person's first response is usually defensive. Sometimes they will offers excuses, sometimes attack, sometimes withdraw. Expect the defensive response. The silence allows the other person time to express it and it needs to be vented before the other person is willing to meet your needs. Later on in an assertive interaction, the silence enables the other person to arrive at a solution that meets their needs and yours.)

4. Listening

Instead of reasserting, explaining your assertion, or becoming aggressive in response to the defensive response, it is important to change gear and listen reflectively. This helps diminish the other person's defensiveness.

You may receive data in your listening that modifies your need to continue with the assertion. You may discover a strong need of the other person that conflicts with your needs, so you may switch to collaborative problem solving. You may receive a lot of data about how that person views you or your relationship with them.

Because the words are spoken from a defensive standpoint they may be more extreme than the other person actually feels. Still, they are important and too valuable to ignore. Much of it would have gone unspoken if not for the assertion that you sent.

If you reflect, rather than defend yourself, you will be alerted to many ways the relationship can be improved. Do not respond to the issues raised at this time, apart from listening reflectively. There will be a more appropriate time for that later.

Hostile responses: The finest assertion message is often received as a hostile blow. Instead of really listening to the assertion, most people are searching for a counter blow at the time the assertion is being presented to them. The counter blow contains words designed to put you on the defensive and inflict damage. The other person does not usually deal with the subject matter of your assertion, but picks an issue selected for its ability to inflict high damage on you, with relatively low risk to them.

Dealing with questions: In addition to showing hostility, some people defend themselves by asking questions. This is a way of derailing assertions in a non-confrontational way. While they've got you answering the question, you aren't asserting and the other person is not coming up with solutions about how to vacate your space and meet your needs. Don't answer a question when you are asserting; reply with a reflective response instead. Every question can be converted into a statement and reflected back.

Side-stepping debates: Some people respond to assertion by debating. By refusing to engage in a debate and by listening and responding reflectively, you can get your needs met and probably strengthen the relationship at the same time.

Coping with tears: For some people, tears are a major coping mechanism when confronted with an assertion. Crying is often a manipulative way to avoid confrontation and to avoid any behavioural change. Do not let tears control you. Recognize that the tears may be real and that the person may be genuinely sad. Reflect the fact that they are sad about being confronted, but then gently and firmly reassert.

Overcoming withdrawal: Where the person responds to an assertion with total silence, you may still see a response in the body language that suggests disapproval or despondency. In response, you can provide a lot of silence, reflect on what it appears to you to mean and then reassert.

The general strategy for dealing with defensive responses is always the same, i.e. listen reflectively (especially to the emotions) and reassert.

Helping the other to understand you and the solution: You can find yourself so busy reflecting the other person's defensive responses that you overlook statements they eventually make which tell you that they are beginning to acknowledge the validity of your assertion. The recipient of an assertion message is often very indirect and vague when they begin to move from defensive mode to problem-solving mode. The hint may be dropped in the middle of highly defensive remarks. If you can note it and reflect it back, you will shorten the process and decrease the stress both of you may be experiencing. People are often quite guarded when they acknowledge your discomfort or offer a solution. If you can catch the slightest indication, reflect it back then offer silence so they can explore it further.

5. Recycling the Process

Once you have sent your assertion message, provided the other with silence in which to think or to respond and reflectively listened to the predictable defensive response, you are ready to begin this process all over again. Because the other was defensive, they will probably have been unable to understand the situation from your point of view. You send the identical message again. Follow it with silence. Then reflect the expected defensive response.

Effective asserting hinges on a rhythm of asserting and reflecting. After asserting, you must remember to listen. You must keep to your intention to assert without becoming aggressive. Remember to reassert - don't get so involved in listening or consoling the other that you neglect your own needs or your interaction will have become submissive when you intended to assert.

Persistence is the key thing. Typically it takes three to ten repetitions of the assertion message (interspersed with silence for the other's solution or defence and your reflective listening responses) to change the other's behaviour.

6. Focusing on the Solution

One of the reasons that assertion messages work so well is that they do not back the other person into a corner. The other does not have to say yes or no to a solution that you suggest. They may think of something that meets their needs too. And, when they arrive at that solution, they can offer it as a gift, rather than a concession that is grudgingly wrested from them. This allows them to retain their dignity. When they offer you the gift of a satisfactory solution, even after what may have been a heated exchange, you will both feel better. The process of reconciliation will make the relationship even stronger.

When the other comes up with a solution, make sure it meets your needs. Be flexible and open to a broad range of possible options, but if your needs are not met by the other's proposal, it is important to say so. After turning down an offered solution, it is well to allow for a lot of silence. In that time, the other may come up with another solution or they may become defensive again.

Don't insist that the other person be cheerful about meeting you need. All that you can ask from an assertion is that the other's behaviour be changed.

Paraphrase the solution back to the other. That way you can be sure that you both have the same understanding. The paraphrase also reinforces the solution on the other's mind.

Say, "Thanks". The process you will have just completed may have been so arduous that you forget elementary courtesies.

Arrange a time when you will check with each other to make sure that the solution is working. Sometimes a solution proposed with the best of intentions does not work out well and a new arrangement needs to be devised. Occasionally, the receiver of an assertion will come up with a solution they don't intend to implement. When you arrange to check back to see how well the solution is working, the other realizes that you mean business and that such games will not work with you. 


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Acknowledgement: The content of this page is based on
Chapter 10 of People Skills by Robert Bolton, PhD
(Simon & Schuster's Touchstone, 1986 paperback)