The Assertive Bill of Rights

  1. I have the right as a human being to have needs, and my needs are as important as the needs of others. I have the right to ask (not demand) that other people respond to my needs.

  2. I have the right as a human being to have feelings and form opinions. Furthermore, I have the right to express these in ways that respect the feelings and opinions of others.

  3. I have the right to expect respect from other people. It is incumbent upon me to also show the same respect for others. Respecting others does not mean that I allow them to take advantage of me or disregard my needs.

  4. I have the right to choose whether, in a particular situation, I want to or can reasonably meet other people's needs or expectations.

  5. I have the right to say no.

  6. If I frequently compromise my needs or sacrifice my rights, I am teaching others to take advantage of me.

  7. If I live my life in such a way as to always avoid conflict or the possibility of hurting someone under any circumstances, I will end up hurting myself and others in the long run. It is only through the honest (and timely) expression of needs, feelings, reactions, and thoughts that I can ultimately develop satisfying interpersonal relationships. When I am assertive, everyone will benefit in the long run.

  8. If I stand up for myself while simultaneously showing respect for others, I will gain self-respect as well as the respect of others.

  9. By being assertive with others and explaining how their behavior affects me, I am giving them the opportunity to change their behavior and respecting their right to know where they stand with me.

  10. I do not have the right to demean, intimidate, or manipulate other people into meeting my needs. I do have the right to ask, however, and to attempt to persuade while respecting their right to refuse.

A Useful Framework for Assertive Behavior

Assertiveness training has been found to be a very effective stress-management technique for a wide variety of populations (Brehm, 1998). When learning to become more assertive or polishing your assertive skills, it can be very useful to have a framework or steps to follow in order to know how to construct a potentially effective assertive response. This applies on the job or in your personal life. You should find the following four-step framework helpful, especially at those times when you may be tongue-tied, for you can always fall back on these steps. This framework is not the gospel; you don't always have to follow this format, and this is not the only effective way to proceed. But nonetheless, it is still a very useful summary of how to construct an assertive response.

  • Step One: The Problem Behavior. The first step is to identify the problem behavior. It is important to keep your language to specific discussions of observable behaviors; do not address personality characteristics. For example, it is much more effective to say, “I am aware that you have not completed several reports that were due,” rather than, “Lately you have been so lazy!” The first sentence is merely a description of behavior (or lack of behavior) you observed, whereas the second sentence includes value judgments. If you make value judgments or comment on personality characteristics, particularly in a derogatory fashion, you are just likely to anger the other person, even if your description is totally accurate. You stand a greater chance of resolving the issue and getting the other person to listen to you if you limit your descriptions to observable behavior. If you merely tell someone he or she is “an idiot,” it only demeans the person and gives absolutely no information about what he or she did or did not do behaviorally to have merited that insult. Whenever possible, your language should include “I-statements.”

  • Step Two: Effects. Next, identify what effects the problem behavior has on you. There are two types of effects. The first is the difficulties or inconvenience that the problem behavior causes for you or your organization, and the second is how you feel about the problem behavior (angry, confused, hurt, disappointed, and so on). In some cases only difficulties are involved, in others only feelings, and in some instances both. In some cases where both are involved, you may opt only to mention the difficulties and keep the feelings to yourself, such as in situations where you are dealing with strangers or peripheral acquaintances. This can often apply in a business situation as well, where it might be far more appropriate to deal with the problem behavior at hand than to express personal feelings.

  • Step Three: Consequences. It is very important to note that this step is optional. Here you identify the consequences of the problem behavior if it persists. Basically, you are saying what will happen if the person does not stop the problem behavior. It is not always appropriate or possible to specify consequences, and that is why this step is optional. Sometimes the situation only calls for you to express how you feel about something, and specifying consequences would be overkill. At other times it may be more strategic to wait to specify consequences and determine whether there is a need for escalation later on if the person refuses to change or acknowledge that there is a problem. Never specify a consequence that you are not thoroughly willing or able to follow through with, for then you run the risk that the other person will call your bluff and your credibility and clout will be damaged. If there are no consequences you can readily state and follow up on, then skip this step entirely.

  • Step Four: Alternatives. The last step involves specifying alternatives to the problem behavior. What is it that you would like the other person to do instead of or in addition to the problem behavior? You may think that this should be obvious and you don't need to spell it out, but many times, just because it is obvious to you what the person ought to be doing, it may not be obvious to him or her. Other people are not mind readers. If you are going to give feedback, give it fully and let others know clearly and diplomatically what your expectations are. Once you have elucidated your expectations and have some inclination from the other person that he or she is receptive, you need to ask for a commitment for change. Do not be afraid to ask people to commit themselves to behaving differently. If they verbally agree to change, they are more likely to follow through.

Fine-Tuning the Assertive Steps

When asserting yourself it is often very helpful to incorporate a style known as empathic assertion. Here you convey sensitivity to the other person over and above expressing your feelings or needs. When it is possible to proceed in this fashion, empathic assertion is often highly effective because it helps to establish rapport and minimize defensiveness on the part of the other. It involves making a statement, usually in Step One, that conveys recognition of the other person's situation or feelings followed by another statement where you stand up for your rights and suggest other alternatives. It requires that you put yourself in the shoes of the other person and let him or her know that you have at least some understanding of his or her situation or feelings, but you still have your own needs to take into consideration.

Likewise, there are times when your initial efforts to be assertive are discounted and you will need to escalate. Escalating assertiveness describes a situation in which you start with a minimal assertive response and, for whatever reason, it does not work. At this point you do not back down, but rather become increasingly firm and escalate without becoming aggressive. Here you may opt to include Step Three (consequences), because the other person has not responded appropriately to less firm statements on your part. Here you can gradually increase from a request to a demand— or when someone is asking something of you, increase from stating a preference of “no” to an outright refusal. Escalating assertiveness could also mean switching from an empathic assertive approach to a more firm, cut-and-dried approach.

When you assert yourself, others will often use a variety of tactics to derail you before you get your point across. The most common tactic involves the other person interrupting you to tell their side of the story. Do not allow this. Firmly speak up and say, “Excuse me, I'd like to finish what I am saying.” If they persist with interruptions, escalate and say, “Please stop interrupting me. I will give you plenty of time to reply, but now I would appreciate it if you would let me finish.” Another side-tracking tactic is deflecting. Here a person responds to your assertion by bringing up things from the past, often irrelevant, that you have done to aggravate him or her. The best way to handle this is not to take the bait. Refuse to let the conversation be drawn in another direction, even if the complaint is valid. If it is valid, you should promise to deal with it after your issue is resolved or thoroughly discussed. For example, you could say, “That is not relevant. If you want, we can discuss that after we get through this.”

Using the Four-Step Framework

Scenario 1
  • Step One. “I thought you had made a commitment to being more considerate toward students in our last evaluation meeting. Yet today I noticed that when two students asked for information you said that you had better things to do than be a babysitter. And you need to know that yesterday a parent called and complained that you made very sarcastic comments to her son.”

  • Step Two. “I am very disappointed that you did not take my feedback in our previous meeting more seriously. And I am also very concerned that your attitude toward students is hurting the ability of this office to help our students.”

  • Step Three. “If you do not heed this warning I will be forced to terminate your employment here at Any Town Middle School. This is your final warning.”

  • Step Four. “You need to develop more patience and consideration toward students. You need to be more diplomatic and tactful when dealing with them. And you need to realize that part of your job does require that you meet students' needs. I want to meet with you weekly to discuss how to handle sticky situations so we can prepare you to deal effectively with the student body. Are you willing to make a commitment to change your attitude?”

Scenario 2
  • Step One. “I have been with this company for four years now and I am very pleased that you are happy with the quality of my work. Several times over the last few months I have, at your request, taken on increasing volumes of work. In order to finish I have to work overtime and/or bring work home, for which I do not get paid because I am salaried. And I have not gotten a salary raise in two years.”

  • Step Two. “Given all the extra work I have taken on, I am easily doing the work of two employees. Although I have been willing to do the extra work out of loyalty to the company, I do not feel I am being adequately compensated for the work I am doing.”

  • Step Four. “I truly feel I deserve at least a 10 percent raise. My taking on extra work, over and above my job description, saves you from hiring someone else full or part time. I deserve to get some of that savings back in terms of increasing my salary. Can I receive a raise at this time?”

    Note: If this should fail and the boss refuses then escalate and include Step Three.

  • Step Three (option 1). “If you cannot see clear to raise my salary at this time, then I have no choice but to refuse to take on any more extra work. My job description does not indicate that I am responsible for those tasks.”

  • Step Three (option 2). This option is designed to use your leverage (the fact that you are a highly valued worker) to persuade your boss to give you a raise. “If you cannot see clear to raise my salary at this time, then I may have to begin searching for a new job. If I am going to be doing work at this level, then I deserve to be paid for my efforts. I know I can make significantly more money at other companies. My preference would be to stay here, but I may have no choice if you cannot raise my salary. Can I count on you for a good reference? By the way, keep in mind that if I have to leave, you may need to hire two people to handle the load that I have worked. So I believe it is in everyone's best interest for you to give me a raise.”

Scenario 3
  • Step One. (empathic assertion) “I know you have been going through a really rough time, and that it has been very hard for you to keep up with your work. You know that I really feel for you and have tried to help in many ways. But the fact is that for the last three months you have relied on me to finish many things for you. Lately you seem to expect that I will stay overtime to finish your work while you leave early to take care of your situation.”

  • Step Two. “ Now I am falling behind in my work because I am spending so much time doing your work. And I'm starting to feel as though you are taking advantage of me, as if you just expect I will be there forever to pick up the slack for you. I do not want to feel resentment and have that hurt our friendship.”

  • Step Four. “I can no longer continue to help you with your work at this level. It was one thing to fill in for a few days or even a week or two, but this has gone on for months. I need for you to phase back into your job full time. I know you may not be able to do that overnight. I suggest we have a meeting and work out a schedule where you gradually resume doing all your work, perhaps over a two-week period. I would appreciate it if you could agree to that. I know you can do it, particularly if we do it in steps.”

Scenario 4
  • Step One. “Mr. Reynolds, it is very important that we discuss the new rule about working overtime. (empathic assertion) I know that you had nothing to do with the new ruling. I do not blame you in the least. But this is creating a problem for both of us. Your work habits are such that you come to the office late and don't really begin getting down to business until the afternoon. As a result, I have had to stay overtime on almost a daily basis in order to get all the paperwork finished and filed on time.”

  • Step Two. “If I do not stay late, then important papers may not be filed on time. Our clients and your reputation will suffer and I will feel as though I am not doing a good job. I am now concerned that I will be put in the difficult position of having to work overtime for free, which I feel is unfair to me. Working overtime takes away from my time with my children and makes it hard for me to keep up with responsibilities at home. I was willing to do it when I could earn a significant amount of extra money.”

  • Step Three. “I am not willing to work overtime on a regular basis unless I am compensated for my time. I may have to leave without completing important papers.”

  • Step Four. “But I have some ideas about how we can resolve our mutual dilemma. First of all, you could agree to pay me out of your own pocket for overtime work, and then I will be glad to continue as before. If that is not acceptable to you, then we need to work together on time management. You need to come to the office by 9:00 A.M. and use your morning time more productively. If you are able to get the paperwork to me earlier in the day, then I will have no difficulty in completing and filing all necessary papers by 5:00 P.M. I am willing to meet with you early each morning to help you organize your morning time more productively. We have to do something different because clearly we cannot continue functioning the same way. Which of these alternatives would you prefer?” When asserting yourself with individuals in authority over you, it can be very effective to offer several options and ask them to pick one. That way they retain the illusion of being in control (that is, they get to choose) and will often admire your ingenuity in developing solutions.

Scenario 5

It is best to approach this from an empathic-assertive perspective. The female manager needs to build collegial relationships and establish rapport with her colleagues, as well as educate them about the ramifications of chauvinistic attitudes. She should begin by asking the other manager to meet privately with her in her office.

  • Step One. “Mitchell, I thought it was important for us to meet in order to coordinate our activities as co-directors of this project. I am having difficulty working with you on this project, and I wanted to explain why so we could hopefully get past this and develop a good working relationship. (empathic assertion) I know that having a woman working in this position is new for this company and perhaps a bit uncomfortable for you. I can understand that. But I do bring knowledge and expertise that this project really needs. There are a number of things you have done that are creating problems for our team and for me. I have frequently observed that you are counteracting directives I have given to other team members. Lastly, although we agreed I would be in charge of purchasing, you have taken steps to purchase equipment without consulting me first.”

  • Step Two. “If we work at cross-purposes to one another, the project will suffer and we will both come out looking bad. It will also take twice as long to finish if I tell our team to do one thing and then you send them out to do something else. Not to mention how that affects our working relationship.”

  • Step Three. “You know full well I could get you in a lot of trouble if I went to the company president and told him about how you were undermining me on the project. If we are unable to forge a more satisfactory working relationship, I will not hesitate to take this step.”

  • Step Four. “But what I would really prefer would be for us to work well as a team. That means we meet regularly and work off the same agenda with the same steps. I expect you to respect my directives and orders, and I will respect yours. We need to create a division of labor and then stay out of each other's way. If you disagree with me, please come to me first and discuss it and I will gladly listen to your feedback, before you negate my decision or orders. This project will certainly fail if we can't learn to work together as a team. Can I have a commitment from you to build a better working relationship with me?”
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