How to Teach Assertiveness Skills in Therapy: 5 Techniques

Assertiveness skillsAssertiveness is a skill we can learn.

By getting better at it, we can improve how we communicate, relate to others, and ensure our needs are met.

Increasing assertiveness can be life changing for those of us who are shy, passive, or have a tendency to please others (Hill, 2020).

Training can help by removing or reducing the fear surrounding being assertive and encouraging us to stand up for ourselves calmly and positively, without aggression.

The following tools and techniques will help you or your client become more assertive while expressing thoughts and feelings respectfully.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free. These creative, science-based exercises will help you learn more about your values, motivations, and goals, and give you the tools to inspire a sense of meaning in the lives of your clients, students, or employees.

Teaching Assertiveness Skills in Therapy

Assertiveness training can be powerful with far-reaching benefits. For example, studies have shown that developing children’s assertive skills has the potential to reduce their likelihood of being bullied at school (Avşar & Alkaya, 2017).

In the workplace, assertiveness training is linked to reduced burnout and increased work commitment (Nakamura et al., 2017). When paired with self-confidence and respect for others, it can be the mark of a good, or even great, leader (Gallo, 2012).

Assertiveness training has proven valuable for building and maintaining relationships across all life domains and improving psychological wellbeing, with positive impacts on the following (Speed, Goldstein, & Goldfried, 2018):

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-esteem
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Serious mental illness (such as schizophrenia)

While assertiveness training can take many forms, it is often incorporated into other broader treatments. Despite different labels, it typically involves the following components (Gallo, 2012):

  • Understanding the context:
    Assertiveness is seen very differently depending on the culture and the environment (e.g., at work vs. at home). Balancing the degree of assertiveness with our needs remains a crucial element of assertiveness training.

  • Evaluating your assertiveness:
    It is vital for training to encourage awareness regarding our assertiveness. Our challenge is to interpret our behavior (passive, assertive, or aggressive) compared with our degree of success. Did we get what we wanted? Did we upset people along the way?

  • Setting goals and sticking to them:
    Training must sell the importance of preparing and practicing what we will say in future situations, real or imagined. Setting specific yet realistic goals, broken down into manageable chunks, can help clarify what we seek so we can approach difficult situations with a greater degree of openness.

  • Building relationships:
    Assertiveness should not destroy relationships. Assertiveness training must teach us how to be heard and get the resources we need while breaking down barriers through trust.

  • Being true to yourself:
    It can be easier to be assertive when we are authentic. If we are true to ourselves, our values, and our strengths, we can be more relaxed and self-assured.

  • Avoiding bullying or aggression:
    Perhaps the most delicate aspect of teaching assertiveness is to ensure the individual is not resorting to or relying on bullying or aggression. When performed well, assertiveness brings clarity and fairness to the table and establishes an environment where everyone’s thoughts are equally heard.

Balance is crucial to assertiveness. Too much or too little force is unhelpful or even damaging. There is no point getting what you want out of life while ruining your relationships with others (Gallo, 2012).

 

5 Techniques for Therapists & Clients

Assertiveness techniquesEmma Gray (2015), psychologist and therapist in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) says, “assertiveness is the ability to get our needs met without preventing others from doing the same.”

Ideally, both person’s needs are met when agreeing. For example, the buyer may be assertive when purchasing a car, but if both parties agree on a deal and neither are disgruntled, then the transaction has been successful.

Gray (2015) suggests that therapists can help clients believe their needs are no less important than those of others. The therapist discourages the client from passivity, passive aggression, or aggression, favoring an assertive approach whereby communication is clear, straightforward, and calm.

Assertiveness depends on several attitudes and techniques that can be developed and practiced as part of therapy (Gray, 2015).

Confidence and strong self-esteem are crucial to being assertive. We must come to believe that we deserve to have our needs met. To overcome an overly strong and critical inner voice that continuously provides negative evaluations, try out the following:

  • Maintain a daily log of achievements and successes to re-balance your internal focus on failure.
  • Write a list of reasons that friends and family may give for spending time with you.
  • Review the inner critic’s beliefs and thoughts to recognize their inaccuracy and unhelpfulness.

Managing criticism is never easy. If we handle criticism poorly or it mirrors our own harsh self-assessment, it can damage self-esteem and self-belief.

  • Review the criticism. Consider if it is accurate and constructive. If so, we can reframe it as an opportunity to learn, improve, and change.

Knowing what you want makes being assertive more straightforward.

  • Reflect on your values, needs, and goals. Pause and consider precisely what it is you want before attempting to be assertive.

Assertiveness is one cornerstone of good mental health. Once mastered as part of therapy, it can protect the client from anxiety and depression, and improve important relationships (Gray, 2015).

 

Coaching in Assertiveness: 3 Ideas for Your Workshop

Assertiveness training must be tailored to the environment (such as group, individual, face-to-face, or online coaching) and the client’s needs.

 

Do’s and don’ts of assertiveness

It can be challenging to provide a definition of assertiveness that meets all situations. Instead, by considering a list of potential do’s and don’ts, we can tailor assertiveness accordingly (modified from Shaw, 2020):

Do’s

  • Express needs clearly and directly, without feeling guilty.
  • Stand up for your beliefs even when others disagree.
  • Communicate efficiently and effectively.
  • Maintain a positive attitude and growth mindset.
  • Be confident about sharing your opinions and feelings.
  • Persevere and persist until your needs are met.
  • Analyze and prepare before taking action.
  • Take pride in who you are and what you have achieved.
  • Be courageous – use your skills to achieve your dream goals.

Note that with each point, there are caveats. Consider who you are dealing with, when you are making the demands, and how far you can push without damaging future relationships.

Don’ts

  • Avoid sounding muddled, unsure, or lacking clarity.
  • Don’t feel guilty for expressing feelings, beliefs, or needs.
  • Make sure you’re not agreeing with others to maintain the status quo or in the face of peer pressure.
  • Refuse to beg for what is legitimately yours.
  • Don’t concede in the face of unexpected difficulties.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be easily led or swayed by others.
  • Don’t be afraid to dream.

 

Three-legged stool

Gerard Shaw (2020) describes assertiveness as a three-legged stool. When the stool has all three legs, it performs well. If one is missing, then you and it will fall.

During your workshop, discuss the three aspects of assertive behavior (modified from Shaw, 2020):

  • Know what you want.
    Be clear with yourself and others about what you want and when.
  • Say what you want.
    If you do not communicate what you want clearly, how will others know?
  • Get what you want.
    Through clear communication, persistence, and determination, you are more likely to get what you need.

Discuss with the group what happens when you lose each ‘leg’ versus having all three.

 

Getting What You Want guidance

Use the Getting What You Want assertiveness guidance sheet to understand how to reframe your request assertively. These points can be explored during a workshop.

 

Top 7 Activities, Worksheets, & Exercises

Assertiveness formulaThere are plenty of activities that are helpful in understanding, identifying, and developing assertiveness in clients.

The following tools support some helpful techniques.

 

Assertive Formula

Andy Molinsky (2017) recommends a three-part formula to promote speaking up and being more assertive in everyday life and the workplace.

Use the Assertive Formula worksheet to create a clear and direct statement of the point you would like to make.

 

Challenging Assertiveness Interactions

When we are calm and rational, we often gain fresh insights into how we reacted and how we might do so differently in the future.

Use the Challenging Assertiveness Interactions worksheet to capture an event and categorize your response.

 

Assertiveness Review

Assertiveness, like many of our behaviors, can become a habit. It can be helpful to reflect on the situations we find ourselves in and how we would like to react in the future.

Use the Assertiveness Review worksheet to think about when and how you would like to be more assertive.

The answers offer insights into where you need to focus attention and work to become more assertive.

 

Typical Assertiveness Responses

We often respond to people with standard, sometimes unthinking, responses. It can feel as if acting differently would surprise them and feel uncomfortable for both parties.

Use the Typical Assertiveness Response worksheet to consider three people in your lives who may be surprised or even alarmed if you responded assertively.

 

Assertiveness Background

Our degree of assertiveness is shaped by our upbringing, environment, and relationships we have formed.

Use the Assertiveness Background worksheet to review what affects your degree of assertiveness in present-day situations.

Consider whether your upbringing or people in your life at present should impact whether or not you adopt an assertive outlook in the right situations.

 

Assertiveness Beliefs

Along with our relationships and our environment, beliefs can significantly impact our degree of assertiveness.

Use the Assertiveness Beliefs worksheet to understand the impact of your beliefs on how you respond to particular situations.

Restrictive beliefs may stop you from being assertive. However, you can weaken their grip by repeating a revised belief, such as, “I deserve to say how I feel and ask for what I want.

 

Role-play exercise

Use the scenarios captured in the above worksheets to create role-play exercises in group or individual therapy and coaching sessions. Encourage clients to play both the person being assertive and the listener.

It can be helpful to change how the listener responds to the assertive client to allow the client to become better practiced at reacting to multiple situations.

 

Group Therapy: 2 Activities for Your Group Sessions

Group therapy is ideally suited to assertiveness skills training. It facilitates role-play and an open discussion of the difficulties of being assertive.

 

Group discussion of beliefs affecting assertiveness

Sharing thoughts and opinions on how beliefs affect our responses can help us understand why we react the way we do.

1. Discuss the following beliefs in a group discussion, asking for examples from the group members’ day-to-day lives (modified from Paterson, 2000):

  • Typical beliefs we hold that support being passive:
    Assertiveness means always getting your way.
    Being assertive means being selfish.
    Being passive means I am more likely to be loved.
    I am only valuable when I am doing things for other people.
    It’s not polite to disagree.
    If others have a different view, then I must be wrong.
    My opinion doesn’t matter.

  • Typical beliefs we hold that support being aggressive:
    If I’m not aggressive, I will get walked over.
    If I am not aggressive, nothing will get done.
    I’m entitled to be angry.

  • Typical beliefs we hold that support being assertive:
    I should not have to ask; people should be more considerate.
    I am afraid of failing in my assertiveness.

2. Ask the group to think of other beliefs that influence being passive, aggressive, and supportive.

3. Which beliefs do you hold, and which could you replace them with that would be more healthy?

 

Assertiveness response checklist

Following from the last exercise, ask the group to review the next set of positive statements that encourage assertiveness (modified from Paterson, 2000):

  • I am my own judge.
  • I am not responsible for other people’s problems.
  • Others are not responsible for solving my problems.
  • I decide what I will and will not do.
  • I don’t have to justify myself to others.
  • Others don’t have to justify themselves to me.
  • My life is my own, and I have the right to turn down requests.
  • Mistakes don’t control our lives.
  • I don’t know everything and don’t have to.
  • I have the right to ask for emotional support or help.
  • Others can offer advice, but I may not follow it.

Discuss with the group which statements you will repeat to yourself in future assertiveness situations.

 

Fostering Assertiveness in Kids: 3 Fun Games

Assertiveness in kidsLearning by playing games can help young children develop new skills and get a better understanding of their emotions and thought processes.

 

Mystery bag

Place unknown objects into a drawstring bag and ask children to take turns reaching in, feeling, and guessing what it could be.

Discuss how it can take courage to explore and try out new things. It is okay to be unsure of yourself, but that shouldn’t prevent you from trying something.

 

Role-play meeting people

Meeting new people can be difficult and sometimes makes children anxious. It can be fun for children to practice introducing themselves to their favorite teddy bear or a puppet.

After the activity, head to the playground or a friendly environment to safely practice what they have learned.

 

Practice sharing who you are

Ask the child to draw a self-portrait in the center of a piece of paper. Then ask them to add labels in various colors that describe what they like and what makes them feel good, including close friends’ and family members’ names.

Discuss how we are all different and the things that make us special and unique.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Resources

As part of the Positive Psychology Toolkit, an online library with over 370 exercises, tools, and interventions, these tools are suited to improving assertiveness skills:

  • Setting Boundaries in Difficult Conversations
    It is vital to understand your boundaries and set limits on how you will allow others to treat you.

  • Exploring Domains of Self-Worth
    Self-esteem is crucial to your assertiveness. This tool helps you understand the domains that influence your sense of worth.

  • Building Self-Efficacy by Taking Small Steps
    Behavioral change can positively impact the brain and is often best handled in small steps.

These worksheets can also be beneficial:

  • Rights of Assertiveness
    This list of rules reminds us that we have certain rights when it comes to being ourselves and being assertive.

  • Assertive Communication
    Being assertive when communicating allows us to voice our thoughts more openly and directly.

  • Assertiveness Obstacles
    Recognizing the obstacles we put in the way of being assertive can be the first step in removing them.

 

A Take-Home Message

Knowing that we can grow our assertiveness is good news. It is broadly accepted that, along with self-esteem and self-confidence, assertiveness is vital to life success and mental wellbeing, offering protection from damaging mental health conditions (Gray, 2015; Gallo, 2012).

We should begin by knowing we are in charge of our behavior, while others control theirs. If we decide to react angrily, we must recognize we risk damaging relationships. If we take a passive approach and let others walk over us, we are unlikely to meet our needs.

With appropriate assertiveness skills, we should be heard and our needs should be considered. We must then decide how we proceed if our request is refused.

Try out some of the techniques, tools, and worksheets in this article for yourself or with clients. Use them to become more aware of habitual behaviors and responses, and consider how you could handle things differently in the future.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free.

If you wish to learn more, our Meaning and Valued Living Masterclass© will help you understand the science behind meaning and valued living, inspire you to connect to your values on a deeper level, and make you an expert in fostering a sense of meaning in the lives of your clients, students, or employees.

  • Avşar, F., & Alkaya, S. A. (2017). The effectiveness of assertiveness training for school-aged children on bullying and assertiveness level. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 36, 186–190.
  • Gallo, A. (2012, August 21). How to be assertive (without losing yourself). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2012/08/how-to-be-assertive-without-lo
  • Gray, E. (2015, March 17). How to be more assertive. The British CBT & Counselling Service. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://www.thebritishcbtcounsellingservice.com/how-to-be-more-assertive-part-1/
  • Hill, C. (2020). Assertiveness training: How to stand up for yourself, boost your confidence, and improve assertive communication skills. Author.
  • Molinsky, A. (2017, August 31). A simple way to be more assertive (without being pushy). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2017/08/a-simple-way-to-be-more-assertive-without-being-pushy
  • Nakamura, Y., Yoshinaga, N., Tanoue, H., Kato, S., Nakamura, S., Aoishi, K., & Shiraishi, Y. (2017). Development and evaluation of a modified brief assertiveness training for nurses in the workplace: a single-group feasibility study. BMC Nursing, 16(1).
  • Paterson, R. J. (2000). The assertiveness workbook: how to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships. New Harbinger.
  • Shaw, G. (2020). Alpha assertiveness guide for men and women: The workbook for training assertive behavior and communication skills to live bold, command respect and gain confidence at work and in relationships. Communication Excellence.
  • Speed, B. C., Goldstein, B. L., & Goldfried, M. R. (2018). Assertiveness training: A forgotten evidence‐based treatment. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25(1).

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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