The Skill of Being Assertive
How to effectively get what you want from others or say no
Many of us find it difficult to be assertive and to effectively communicate our needs and wants to people. We may also struggle to observe our own limitations and assertively say no to their requests.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) offers an interpersonal effectiveness skill, which we can remember with the acronym ‘DEAR MAN’. This skill is designed to support us to be effective and assertive in relationships when we have a specific objective in mind.
You may find it helpful to write out a DEAR MAN script in advance of an interaction, and to rehearse it so you feel confident and fluent when making your request, or when saying no to theirs. Follow these 7 steps:
D – Describe
First, briefly describe the situation by stating the relevant facts. Be objective and concise, and ensure to sieve out any judgements or opinions at this stage. Stick to the facts!
Why? This helps to orientate the person to the situation and will ensure they understand the context of your request.
Example: “Last week you said that you would clean the house. It is your turn. You have not done this.”
Tip: You may find it helpful to write out 2-3 factual statements in brief bullet points. Then go back and review each of them. If you and I could disagree on any of these statements, then it is likely to include an opinion. Reframe these points into purely factual statements that neither person can dispute.
E – Express
Next, clearly and concisely express your feelings and opinions about the situation. Do not expect the other person to read your mind here.
Why: You are helping the other person to understand how you feel about the situation and why the request is important to you. As the other person cannot read your mind, they may not have understood or considered the situation from your perspective before.
Example: “As I am working from home at the moment, I feel overwhelmed and frustrated when the house is messy.”
Tip: To support the person to hear you without feeling attacked, an effective way to do this is to use “I” statements. For example, ‘I feel…’, instead of ‘you made me feel…’.
A – Assert
Now we need to tell the person what we want – this may be a request or we might be saying no to theirs. Be clear and concise here, so there is no room for confusion about what you are asking for.
Why: We have all made the mistake of expecting someone to know exactly what we want from them without actually having to tell them. And, sadly, most of us will have learnt by now that people really are not mind readers! To avoid confusion, misunderstanding and disappointment, it is important to clearly assert your request.
Example: “I would really like it if you could clean the house today.”
Tip: This may feel uncomfortable at first. Remember that practise makes perfect and you will build confidence over time via repetition. Rehearsing this script in advance will also help to improve your confidence and fluency in the moment.
R – Reinforce
Now we want to increase the likelihood that the other person will grant our request or respect our limitations when we say no. We can do this by positively reinforcing their behaviour in advance of their response, by highlighting a rewarding and positive consequence for doing what you ask.
Why: Relationships are built on reciprocity. A dance of ‘give and take’ is important to all effective relationships.
Example: “I would really appreciate if you could prioritise cleaning the house today. I know I would be a lot more relaxed and happier to be around, and we could enjoy our home together this evening by watching a film.”
Tip: Carrots are more effective than sticks! That is…positive reinforcement (rewards) are more effective in encouraging us to engage in a behaviour and increase the chance of us wanting to repeat it, than when we are presented with negative consequences (threats of, or actual punishment).
M – Mindful
Stay present minded and focused on your interpersonal goal by sticking to your script.
Why: It is easy to become distracted and go off topic, and when this happens, your objective can get lost in the ether.
Example: Your housemate may offer several reasons why they have not cleaned the house and don’t have time to do so currently. They may even accuse you of being the ‘messy one’ and the reason that it is not tidy!
Tip: Keep your ‘eye on the prize’ by staying focused on your interpersonal goal. You may need to use the ‘broken record’ technique by repeating your script a number of times if the person is trying to take you off track. And…Don’t bite the bait if you come under attack. Stay cool, calm and collected. You may choose to end the interaction if this occurs, and return to it at another time when emotions have cooled.
It may also be effective to validate their emotions and/or circumstances here. For example, “I understand that this is a particularly busy time for you AND I would really appreciate it if you could clean the house today”.
A – Appear Confident
It is likely that if you are using this skill, that you may not feel confident asking for your request, or of saying no to theirs. ‘Appearing’ confident is key here in helping you to develop confidence over time, even if you do not feel it in the moment.
Example: Make eye contact, speak calmly, slowly and clearly, open up and relax your body posture, shoulders back, head up, don’t hunch over or whisper!
Tip: When we feel uncomfortable in an interaction, we can sometimes behave in ways that inadvertently undermine our selves. For example, speaking quietly, shuffling our feet and looking down at the floor. Even if you do feel uncomfortable try to appear confident by adjusting your tone and body language. This will help your confidence to increase, and make it more likely that the other person will take you seriously.
N – Negotiate
Sometimes we have to be willing ‘to give to get’. This may be more effective than adopting an ‘all or nothing’ position, or believing that you are ‘right’ and they are ‘wrong’. If the other person cannot grant your request, be willing to reduce your request to meet what they can offer. Similarly, if you are saying no to their request, perhaps consider whether you are able to offer a compromise or support them to problem solve.
Example: “I understand that you do not have time to do it today as you are working late. Would you be willing to do it tomorrow morning?’ or “How do you think we can resolve this so we both feel happy?”
Tip: A reduced offer or a compromise may be better than nothing at all, so try not to cut off your nose to spite your face! You may even try ‘turning the tables’ by asking the other person to come up with an alternative solution.
Blog written by Saiyuri Naidu, Assistant Psychologist and Dr Emily Smyth, Clinical Psychologist