Published on:

16th Aug 2022

Understanding Basic Assertiveness Techniques

• There are many ways to assert your own boundaries and limits without encroaching on others’. Try the stuck record technique (calmly repeating your limit without budging), the “positive no” (reiterate what you are saying yes to) negative assertion or negative enquiry (accepting and enquiring about criticism).

• The DESC model can help you stand up for yourself. Describe the facts of the situation, Express how you are being affected, suggest a specific Solution, then finish with a Conclusion/consequences, i.e. what will happen if the behavior is changed and what will happen if it isn’t.

• Humor is useful, but it needs to be the right kind. Positive humor styles (especially affiliative humor) are better for relationships. Avoid self-enhancing, aggressive or self-defeating humor styles.

• Use the platinum rule: Do unto others as they would want done to them. Listen, be empathetic and stay curious about other people’s perspectives, even and especially if they differ from yours. Ask what they want and need, and how they conceptualize of you, themselves, and the situation.

• A good apology needs a few necessary elements: expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, taking responsibility, repentance, offer for reparations, and a request for forgiveness.

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ule Assert Yourself! (Michel,:

Stuck Record Technique

If the other person keeps questioning, arguing, or pushing at a boundary, try simply repeating what you want again and again without becoming upset, angry, or sidetracked. If someone keeps deflecting or avoiding a question, keep repeating it to avoid getting carried away in distracting debate and pointless detail. The trick is to remain calm, be extremely specific about what you want, keep on track, and don’t give up!

“Could you cover for me on Friday again?” (Said by someone who has been repeatedly taking advantage of your kindness)

“I’m sorry, I can’t do it!”

“Oh, come on . . . just this once?”

“I’m really sorry, but no, I can’t do it.”

“Jeez. What am I supposed to do now? There’s nobody else to cover but you.”

“Yeah, sorry. I just can’t do it, though.”

The Positive No

This technique lets you communicate to the asker (and to yourself) that you're declining because you have good priorities that you're working on and saying yes to, and that you don't have the time or capacity to take on another commitment. We all want to be polite and maintain social harmony, so saying no while keeping things positive is a must.

“I’m sorry, but I’m spending time with my family that weekend.”

“Thank you for the invite, but I’ve had a long week and need some down time at the moment.”

Sometimes, assertiveness is needed not to turn down people’s requests, but to put up a kind of shield when you’re being attacked, intruded on, or criticized. Whether the complaint is legitimate or not, the way that people attack can mean you need to put up your shields and artfully deflect their negativity.

Negative Inquiry

This is an interesting skill in which we encourage the other person to be more assertive by purposely triggering their criticism. You're essentially seeking for clarification on specific statements made about you. These statements could be accusatory or critical in nature. The other person might not even notice you're controlling the discussion if you use this skill. For example, a person says, "The meal you cooked was awful!" but instead of going on the defensive and denying it or attacking them, you can respond with, “What is it about the meal that didn't taste good?”

This may seem counterintuitive, but it actually gives you the upper hand and makes you come across as more confident and in control. Suddenly, you are steering the conversation because you are asking questions and directing the topics that are discussed.

Negative Assertion

Using this technique, you accept your flaws and shortcomings by summarizing the criticism of those flaws and mistakes. This assertiveness skill helps you to maintain a calm demeanor in the face of criticism or complaint without getting overly defensive or unduly defending your actions. For instance, if the other person confronts you with something, you could respond by saying, “Yeah, I can be really rude sometimes. I should really be more aware of that.” You are basically communicating “tell me something I don’t know” and signaling the fact that you are not and will not be flustered by criticism! It can really take the wind out of the complainer’s sails, because you already know what they’re saying, so there’s little point for them to continue criticizing.

When you practice any of these techniques, try to remember your nonverbal communication, too. Stand up straight and speak clearly and simply. Remember “soft language”? When it comes to being more assertive, you want to actually downplay the softness of your language and err more on the side of being direct and clear rather than conciliatory.

When establishing a boundary, saying no, accepting blame, or apologizing, you need to keep it short, clear, and sincere. Don’t keep repeating yourself or change what you say. If you’re putting up a boundary, don’t weaken it by apologizing or making concessions. Depending on the situation, you can maintain politeness by simply smiling, using a warm or neutral tone of voice, and adopting a calm demeanor. If you really believe what you’re saying, it’s so much easier for others to.

Use the DESC Model for Assertive Communication

ron and Gordon Bower in their:

The acronym stands for:

Describe the Situation—describe the behavior that is affecting you in a negative way, but stick only to the facts.

Express the emotion or effect—how you are being affected, using “I statements” that don’t assign blame.

Solution—suggest a specific outcome that would resolve the issue.

Conclusion/consequences—what will happen if the behavior is changed and what will happen if it isn’t.

Applying DESC in conversation sounds a little something like this:

(D) “Harry, I still have lots of pending tasks, and you’re giving me another task with a tight deadline at very short notice. (E) I feel so pressured and overwhelmed because I don’t know which one to prioritize. For the new task to be done, I would need some adjustments. (S) I hope we could set a meeting and talk about the re-prioritization of the tasks so I can manage my time effectively.  (C) This way, I could work productively and deliver great results on time.”

The idea with a statement such as the one above is that it asserts a boundary, expresses needs and emotions, and makes clear a way forward, all without raising any hackles or encouraging defensiveness in the listener. Just like with NVC, we hold our own experience with dignity and assertiveness, without being aggressive, demanding, or disrespectful of the other person’s experience.

Communication so often breaks down because a balance between rights can’t be found, and either we violate others’ rights or feel that our own have been violated. The DESC technique is designed to find that wiggle room in between and proceed without causing these communication breakdowns. If you often feel unconfident in asking for what you want, saying no, or expressing your feelings and opinions, this technique will help.

Here's another example where the focus is more on asking for a need to be met rather than drawing a boundary:

(D) “The baby is due in just one month, and you have not booked paternity leave at work. (E) I feel stressed out because I’m worried we will run out of time and you won’t be available to spend time with me once the baby comes. (S) Could you sort this out with your boss today? (C) This would mean I could relax knowing what our schedule will be.”

The DESC model can take a little practice to work with but will help you feel focused, especially when tempers are flaring and stakes are high. A few things to remember to make this technique really work:

• Pay attention to calm, neutral body language as you speak, and make eye contact.

• Be as brief as possible. You might be tempted to keep reiterating, give examples, or explain further, but this could cause resistance in the other person, confuse things, or come across as nagging or criticism.

• If appropriate, you can take the time to write it out, or rehearse a little if you need to speak in person. You could even practice with a trusted friend or colleague to calm your nerves.

• Do your best to not get distracted by side issues, tangents, or excuses—yours or theirs. If necessary, you could use the Broken Record technique and calmly repeat what you’ve said.

• Finally, watch out for issuing ultimatums in the last part, the conclusion. You should outline natural consequences of behavior without making threats or being manipulative. It’s better to focus on the positive outcomes of the suggested behavior rather than the negative consequences of people not complying with your request or boundary.

Learning to be assertive takes practice, but it will increase your self-esteem and resilience and, believe it or not, make others like and respect you more. The trick is that you need to genuinely feel that you are secure and confident in yourself, and not preoccupied with either pandering to others or being aggressive and dominating with them. If you can communicate this effectively, people will not feel threatened, violated, or intruded on, and so they’re far more likely to actually hear what you’re saying.

What do you do if people don’t listen? Or worse, what do you do if people respond to your DESC statement by being hurt and defensive anyway? To be frank, this is not your problem. The beauty of being assertive is that you are conscious of your own choice to be respectful, neutral, and focused on harmony. If you do what you can, you know that any hurt feelings or anger from the other person are not really about you. That’s simply their choice.

Sadly, you will encounter people who will attempt to push at boundaries in any way they can—for example, by making you feel guilty for asserting your boundary. Always remember that asserting a healthy boundary is your right (even your responsibility!) and that when done correctly, a boundary cannot cause anyone any harm. If your earnest requests are repeatedly unacknowledged and your boundaries repeatedly violated, then you always have the option of removing yourself from the situation.

Use Positive Humor Styles

According to a study by behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker and corporate strategist Naomi Bagdonas, humor is one of the most underappreciated tools at work. They call humor the "hidden weapon" for forging ties (as well as power, creativity, and resilience) in their popular TED Talk, and feel we should all have more of it. But not all kinds of humor are created equal!

ording to Martin et. al., the:

Affiliative humor makes others feels better. It fosters excellent workplace interactions by encouraging interpersonal engagement, and makes social interactions of any kind warmer and more fun. People who use this type of humor are more likely to tell jokes and amusing stories, amuse others, and enjoy laughing with them. The overall effect is to make everyone feel closer, more open, and less stressed.

Example: gathered around the dinner table, you tell a hilarious story of how you encountered a ferocious Doberman on the street yesterday, but you couldn’t defend yourself or run very fast because of the giant birthday cake you happened to be carrying. As you mime the ridiculous way you had to run to get away from the dog, everyone laughs.

Self-enhancing humor makes us feel better. It works to improve one’s own wellbeing by focusing on the positive aspects of life. It can be utilized in the workplace to inspire innovation and relieve stress.

Example: You’re bored at work and decide to play a prank on your colleague, keeping another close friend in on the joke, and laughing loudly when the trick is discovered. The victim of the joke may laugh a little, and others may find the whole thing funny, but the prank was done primarily to make you feel good, not them.

Aggressive humor harms other people. It can be recognized as a style that disrespects others in the mistaken belief that it will benefit the joke-teller. Aggressive humor is often not humor at all, but hostility masked as humor with the intent of putting someone down so as to feel better about oneself.

Example: You’re at a restaurant and the waiter messes up your order by accident. You call him over and, laughing sarcastically, say, “Oh, it’s okay, son, words can be tough sometimes, huh? Would it help if I wrote everything down in crayon for you?”

Self-defeating humor harms oneself. It is used to amuse others while inflicting suffering to oneself. Self-deprecation is about putting yourself down, and while it can be funny if you’re a professional comedian, the truth is it can often make others feel a bit uncomfortable, or at least they’ll form a negative opinion of you and your self-esteem! Self-defeating humor can sometimes release tension, but it seldom makes anyone feel good.

Example: Your friend asks about how your blind date went and you laugh and say, “Well, she didn’t cry and call the police when she saw me, so I’m counting that as a success.”

According to the research, affiliative and self-enhancing humor styles are positive while aggressive self-defeating are negative humor styles. As you can imagine, positive humor styles are more effective than negative ones at building relationships. Positive humor enhances work cohesion and coping effectiveness, and negative humor decreases knowledge-sharing and trust. People whose partners use a positive (affiliative) style of humor during discussions feel closer to their partners and less stressed. 

Maybe you’re thinking, “That sounds great, but I’m just not a funny person.” Don’t worry, it is possible to learn to be funnier, whether it’s at work or in your personal relationships. Here are a few tips:

• Don’t deliberately try to be funny; instead, try to make observations about what is true. Often, good jokes rest on perceptions that everyone shares and relate to. To do this, you just need to be observant.

• Don’t think of how to be a funny person, but think of what to say that will amuse other people, make them laugh, or put them at ease. Humor requires a lot of empathy!

• Unless you know a person extremely well, avoid making fun of them, excluding them, or pointing to vulnerabilities. There are much easier, less risky ways of getting a laugh.

• Avoid “inside jokes” that will only make part of your audience laugh, or else you may alienate some people.

• Avoid using humor to mask difficult conversations, such as giving hard feedback or acknowledging a serious negative situation. You may come across as insensitive, foolish, or tone-deaf.

• One easy way to bring more humor to others: take the initiative and find humor in your own life, even laughing at yourself. People who are positive, playful, and lighthearted are great to be around. Look for the funny side of things and laugh often yourself—it’s contagious.

Being funny takes practice and a little risk-taking. If you’re not used to being funny, start small. The next time you’re in a social situation of any kind, try to pay attention to what is amusing to you, and see if you can share that more often with others. Look for absurdities, unexpected outcomes, or ridiculous situations that don’t make sense. You don’t have to “be funny” just to draw other people’s attention to these little things!

Forget the Golden Rule, Use the Platinum Rule

f the book The Art of People,:

Kerpen devised his answer to this problem: the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would want done to them.” We are saying with this rule that our goal is not to give people what we ourselves want or apply to them our own frames of reference or values, but rather that will give them what they want according to their own frames of reference and values. Big difference!

Yes, it’s important to teach others about how to treat you, but that’s only one side of the coin. Because everyone has different difficulties, backgrounds, privileges, and blind spots, treating everyone the same is not really good enough. Kerpen’s example is that, just because he likes strawberries and cream, it doesn’t mean that using that as fish bait is going to get him anywhere when he goes fishing. He has to think about what fish like to eat! That’s easy enough, but how do you actually know what people want? Well, you find out! That’s what communication is for in the first place.

Here are a few pointers for applying the platinum rule, which may take a little practice:

Step 1: Take the initiative and first communicate how you want to be treated. To promote an environment where everyone feels empowered to speak up, one must first speak up for oneself. This may mean being very clear about your boundaries and asserting your limits by saying no when necessary.

Step 2: Listen and allow for a response. It is vital to set your ego aside and commit to actually learning more about the person in front of you. If someone has communicated to you that you’ve missed the mark and misunderstood them, accept that feedback gracefully without pushing back. After all, if someone says, “No, that’s not right, this is what I want,” then you can’t argue with them, can you?

Step 3: Use empathy. It sometimes takes effort to understand what makes someone tick by simply talking with them, but don’t let assumptions and bias get in the way. Importantly, you don’t have to understand or agree with someone on their preferences and desires. You just have to acknowledge and speak to them. Start by acknowledging that other people can think, feel, and reason very differently from us—and that this isn’t a problem!

Step 4: Stay curious. You can learn about how other people work by asking questions—and continuing to ask them even after you start to learn more about them:

What do they need?

What do they want?

How do they understand their situation?

What are they trying to achieve?

How do they conceptualize their problems?

You are not just trying to understand a single opinion or thought, but getting a more three-dimensional understanding of the whole framework they use to understand their world—even if it’s very different from your own.

Let’s take a look at some examples that will make this all clear.

You’ve been tasked with leading a newly assembled team at work, and a new hire is assigned to this team. This new employee is from another country that’s culturally very different from your own. Even though you pride yourself on being an egalitarian, easy-going, and friendly kind of person, you realize that just because you value this way of working, it doesn’t mean they will. You take the time to learn a little about the culture they’ve come from and realize that theirs is one that favors firmer and more authoritative leadership.

Though you personally would love a boss who tried to be friendly and relaxed with you, you also understand that they would prefer more formal and clear demarcations between your roles. Because you used the platinum rule, though, and not the golden rule, your interactions with them are so much more harmonious. Even though you don’t quite agree with their perspective or even understand it, they still feel respected and understood by you.

Or let’s say you are dating someone new and one day have your first disagreement. They’re super upset because you haven’t yet introduced them to your family; you’re confused because they never even mentioned wanting to meet them, and the only reason you hadn’t was because it hadn’t even occurred to you yet. If you followed the golden rule, you might think, “Well, I don’t see this as a big deal, so why are they making such a fuss?” and you’d fail to see that what you think is only half the story—because the way that they’re conceiving the problem is entirely different. When you treat them in the way that they want to be treated (i.e., recognizing the things they care about even when you personally don’t care about them), then your communication will be much smoother.

Give Proper Apologies

Even when we’re doing our best and our intentions are as good as they can possibly be, we may still cause offense or say the wrong thing. Knowing how to apologize is an invaluable people skill that may prove more useful one day than all the humor and charm in the world!

nflict Management Research in:

We’ve all heard terrible apologies (“I’m sorry you were offended . . .”), but here’s how to craft one that will create more harmony:

1. Expressions of regret

You sincerely have to be sorry for what you’ve done. You need to show the other person that you’re not apologizing because you’re forced to, but because you genuinely are remorseful. Tone makes all the difference!

2. Explain what went wrong

Be careful here—explain, but don’t make excuses or justify. What you want to do is explain your thought processes, outline what happened and why, and try to show the reasoning, even if flawed. You’re not trying to get yourself off the hook or blame them, but rather show them that it wasn’t really your intention to hurt them. Try to put them in your shoes without diminishing what you’ve done.

3. Acknowledge your responsibility

You need to be brave and accept that yes, things went wrong and it is, essentially, your fault. If you try to wriggle out of your culpability, blame someone or something else, or downplay the harm done, you’re not taking responsibility, and you’ll likely make the situation worse. Take responsibility squarely on yourself, no ifs, ands, or buts.

4. Declare your repentance

This simply means that you say you won’t ever do it again, and really mean it. Feeling bad that you did something stupid and hurt someone is one thing, but it can go a long way to smoothing ruffled feathers if the other person genuinely believes you’ve learned a lesson and won’t repeat the same thing again. Don’t assume this goes without saying. You need to say it!

5. Offer to make things right

Even if you apologize sincerely, you might have left the other person with a real problem on their hands. Offer to help fix that problem or undo at least some of the trouble you’ve caused. It’s great to say you won’t do something again, but far better to take active steps toward making sure you don’t. Pay for damages, or make a gesture that puts things right, even if just symbolically.

6. Ask for forgiveness

This is the very last thing you do. You apologize because it’s the right thing to do, and not because you want to be quickly forgiven or absolved of your guilt. Many people think this is the most important part of an apology, but Lewicki thinks it’s actually the least. He feels that what’s more important is rebuilding trust, making things right, and actually learning to be better. Importantly, you only ask for forgiveness—you are not entitled to it, even if your apology is perfect. Don’t keep asking, and don’t make people feel guilty if they’re unwilling to forgive. You’ll only worsen matters if you suddenly act like the wronged party!

Though these steps seem like a lot, you can include them all pretty quickly if your offense was only minor (it’s a bad idea to give an overwrought apology for a relatively small mistake!). Here’s an example of a not-so-great apology, followed by that same apology that includes all six elements and will likely restore harmony far more quickly. The scenario is that you were looking after a friend’s cat and left the door open when you shouldn’t have, causing the cat to run away and promptly get run over by a car.

Written apology 1: “I’m sorry about what happened to your cat. He ran out on his own, and I couldn’t help it. I’m completely torn up about it all and I feel horrible—please promise you won’t be too upset? I couldn’t live with myself if you didn’t forgive me.” (Notice how the focus is on them and their feelings, how no responsibility is taken, and how forgiveness is demanded rather than asked for?)

Written apology 2: “I am absolutely devastated about Bubbles and am so horrified about what’s happened. I never intended any harm, but I wasn’t paying close attention and didn’t secure the front door latch, so it was slightly ajar, and that’s when Bubbles must have slipped out. It was an accident, but nevertheless it was completely my fault and I accept total responsibility for what happened. I know there’s no way I can bring Bubbles back, but I can assure you I will never be making this mistake again. For one thing, I’ve fixed the front door latch! I hope you’ll let me pay for all the vet services, and though it doesn’t make things right, I’ve also sent some flowers to you and your family. Again, I’m sorry and hope one day you can forgive me.” (All six components present!)

Lewicki did other experiments on apologies and wanted to understand whether failures of competence (i.e., it was a mistake) or failures of integrity (i.e., you knowingly did something wrong) were affected by these six elements in an apology. In experiments where participants were considering the apology of a job applicant who had done something wrong in their last job, it turns out that the reason for the problem mattered. “Overall, though, the two studies showed that participants were, in fact, less likely to accept an apology [ . . . ] when the job applicant was shown as having a lack of integrity versus lack of competence,” said Lewicki.

So, an honest mistake is more easily forgiven than a malicious choice to cause harm or act immorally. If you’re apologizing for the latter, you’re going to need to work extra hard to be forgiven!


• There are many ways to assert your own boundaries and limits without encroaching on others’. Try the stuck record technique (calmly repeating your limit without budging), the “positive no” (reiterate what you are saying yes to) negative assertion or negative enquiry (accepting and enquiring about criticism).

• The DESC model can help you stand up for yourself. Describe the facts of the situation, Express how you are being affected, suggest a specific Solution, then finish with a Conclusion/consequences, i.e. what will happen if the behavior is changed and what will happen if it isn’t.

• Humor is useful, but it needs to be the right kind. Positive humor styles (especially affiliative humor) are better for relationships. Avoid self-enhancing, aggressive or self-defeating humor styles.

• Use the platinum rule: Do unto others as they would want done to them. Listen, be empathetic and stay curious about other people’s perspectives, even and especially if they differ from yours. Ask what they want and need, and how they conceptualize of you, themselves, and the situation.

• A good apology needs a few necessary elements: expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, taking responsibility, repentance, offer for reparations, and a request for forgiveness.

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About the Podcast

Social Skills Coaching
Become More Likable, Productive, and Charismatic
While everyone wants to make themselves and their lives better, it has been hard to find specific, actionable steps to accomplish that. Until now...

Patrick King is a Social Interaction Specialist, in other words, a dating, online dating, image, and communication, and social skills coach based in San Francisco, California. He’s also a #1 Amazon best-selling dating and relationships author with the most popular online dating book on the market and writes frequently on dating, love, sex, and relationships.

He focuses on using his emotional intelligence and understanding of human interaction to break down emotional barriers, instill confidence, and equip people with the tools they need for success. No pickup artistry and no gimmicks, simply a thorough mastery of human psychology delivered with a dose of real talk.

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Russell Newton