DON'T JUST STAND THERE - SAY SOMETHING: Can you be taught how to get your own way? Yes, say the experts, although the journey to assertiveness seems to require self-revelation and some squirmy play-acting. Helen Kirwan-Taylor rolled with the punches, so w

DON'T JUST STAND THERE - SAY SOMETHING: Can you be taught how to get your own way? Yes, say the experts, although the journey to assertiveness seems to require self-revelation and some squirmy play-acting. Helen Kirwan-Taylor rolled with the punches, so w

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When I told my husband that I was planning to attend a two-day assertiveness training course, he burst out laughing. The consensus among my fellow pupils wasn't that different. It was agreed - not more than 30 minutes into the first day by all 10 present (teacher included) - that the person least in need of assertiveness training in the room was me.

But as Jo Rawbone, former BT executive and our course leader, would soon explain, being assertive means 'standing up for your own rights in a way that does not violate the rights of others'; it does not mean shouting, stamping your feet, threatening, sulking or crying until someone gives up and gives in.

Before we could move into definitions and explanations, though, we had to do some warm-ups. Each of us was asked to give our name, occupation and a brief account of a situation in which we found it hard to be assertive.

Then we had to sum up our personalities in a T-shirt size slogan. The rather dishy Italian marketing executive sitting opposite me made his position clear - 'don't waste my time' was his nominated slogan. The pounds 695 (plus VAT) course by management consultancy MaST was, from what I could gather, an alternative to taking two consecutive 'duvet' days.

Asking 10 total strangers to 'share' and admit to moments of vulnerability is not the fastest way to get things going (particularly as three participants worked for the same bank). There was a lot of staring at ceilings and bouncing of pencils on tables. After much deliberation, the pretty but rather fed-up looking member of a media personnel department finally came up with 'drama queen'.

A formidable and very funny Mama Cass double, a bank employee who arrived cursing her company for having sent her (she viewed the course as a punishment), chose 'lack of confidence'. Her inassertiveness had to do with being overworked and having colleagues who annoyed her - by drinking on the job, for example.

The least assertive member of the group, a shy accountant with an abusive boss, said: 'Projecting yourself in group meetings.' My problem, I told the bemused group, was asking for what I want. For my T-shirt slogan I chose 'I get mad (when I don't get my way)'. Then it was time for school.

With a big bold pen and a large flip-chart, Rawbone took down our various definitions of assertive: sticking up for yourself, making your position clear, boundaries, knowing what you want and asking for it, not getting pushed around, etc. Then we got to open our MaST course book to chapter one (Attitude), page five: Johari's Window. This model, invented by two American psychologists, is meant to chart how people reveal themselves. I can't say I understood a word of it, although I did scroll down to a bit about hidden and transparent areas (there was something about bad breath, a blind area), then, mercifully, it was time for coffee.

At this point, the missing member of our group, a bolshie funeral director who needs assertiveness training like I need a new pair of shoes, joined us. Here was a man currently in legal action against his union - not someone who has a problem saying no.

After the break, we took a questionnaire on our 'driver' (the belief system that drives our behaviour). This consisted of 12 sections, each divided into five statements; for example, 'endurance is a valuable asset'. The more the statement applied to oneself, the higher the score.

Unfortunately, it soon became evident that in order to calculate the score you had to have studied maths, so several of the bankers were called on to assist me. Most of the women were heavily BP (be perfect), TH (try hard) and PP (please people) drivers. The men - particularly the funeral director and the dishy Italian (who by now had admitted that he really wanted to be a rock climber) - were BS (be strong). Although we had met only three hours earlier, our drivers were already obvious: no-one was remotely surprised I scored high on the HU driver (hurry up).

Next, we discussed the subject of self-image. This part you didn't need to pay MaST to figure out (ie, a positive attitude generally gets better results than a negative one). However, to reinforce how loath the British are to compliment themselves, each of us now had the excruciating task of writing down what we were most proud of and the personal qualities it took for us to succeed. We then got to share it out loud with the others. One of the team, a quiet graphic designer who spoke only three times in the two days, could not find a single thing to say about himself. The funeral director needed more time to think and the Italian couldn't really be bothered. I managed to forget my biggest accomplishment: my children (the group was appalled). Then it was time for lunch.

Lunch at the Regency Hotel in South Kensington was a very pleasant affair. The buffet - salmon, shrimp, as much roast beef as you want, with cheese and dessert trolley to boot - was almost worth signing on the course for. By now, most of us were getting into it. Courses are a bit like a holiday camp; after a while you stop complaining and start enjoying yourself.

By the afternoon, we were ready for the real work: play-acting. Having now defined what it means to be assertive (my notes say: express yourself openly, satisfy your own needs without hurting others, not attacking, true gain is mutual, respecting others' rights), we were ready to tackle difficult situations. In pairs, we each had to make a request and have it turned down. Rawbone laid down the law: no apologising before you start, be direct, short, do not justify yourself, do not resort to flattery and, most important, give the other the right to say no. My brief was to ask to borrow earrings from the pretty personnel director. She stated her reason for saying no: last time you lost them. I begged. She relented.

Next, we were given a few tips for refusing requests: keep the reply short; start sentences with no; give a reason, not an excuse; avoid 'I can't because ...'; don't apologise; and honestly state limitations. If the person persists, ask for more information and time to decide. If the person still persists, repeat the refusal, slow down, emphasise words, but don't search for better reasons. Though the group work bordered on silly (everyone was giggly), it was clear that saying no is something virtually no-one knows how to do.

This was the moment when we all reached for our pens. Rawbone took hers and wrote 'saying no' on the board. There are three models of assertiveness, she explained: passive/non-assertive (which includes my nemesis, the passive-aggressive); assertive; and aggressive. Assertive people are apparently masters of their drivers, behaviour and language: in other words, they know how to say no without saying OK two minutes later.

Rawbone, a talented mimic, gave us a few examples of how people ask and refuse (her theatrical flair became more apparent as the day wore on) 'When making or confronted with a request, the passive person often apologises; the aggressive attacks,' she said, 'whereas the assertive person thinks: 'I have a right to express my opinion, my opinions are valid, I have a right to be treated with respect, I can choose how to behave.' Assertive people follow a bill of rights, which includes the right to ask for what I want, say I don't know without apology, and refuse requests.'

Of course, this is all fine and dandy in theory. But Rawbone is no beginner. She put the following sentence on the projector: 'A lecture is the process whereby information gets transferred from the book of the lecturer to the notebook of the students without passing through the mind of either.' So, Rawbone announced, day two was about putting day one into action.

The following morning found us all eager to get started. Rawbone drew four letters on the flip-chart: DESC. This is MaST's assertiveness cribsheet: Describe the situation, Explain your feelings, offer a Solution, then mention the Consequences (or, as her colleague put it, threaten gently).

Though I am famous for sending back restaurant food and taking on Miele when the repair man fails to show, I do not march into my editors' offices and demand a pay rise (unlike some of my colleagues); I meekly hope they will figure it out for themselves. Thus, I was chosen to practise being demanding (oops, assertive) on Rawbone herself. My first attempt (aggressive) came off as a threat (pay me or else).

My second was pathetic (I compared myself to my colleagues). 'Always use 'I' statements,' Rawbone advised, 'such as 'in the light of ... I now think ...' State which parts of an argument you agree or disagree with. Express doubts in a constructive way. Of all the different types of power to use, the only effective one is personal power.'

In front of the group, I had to ask for a contract (from a tough editor who would most likely give me a flat no) in an assertive way (no apologising, joke-telling, fidgeting, etc). I was to use the DESC technique. Here goes: I consider myself a valuable contributor. I am here to request a contract with you. I know you pay only x amount a year. This would allow me to focus exclusively on your publication.

I might just as easily have asked her to hand over her wallet. It took three attempts to say it and even then it felt about as natural as wearing stiletto heels at a wet garden party. Without so much as a bottle of Chablis to loosen up with first, I don't think I could have managed. Still, I got the point: if you don't ask, you don't get. (Moreover, if I had Rawbone as an agent, I wouldn't have to bother.)

The funeral director practised taking on a member of a union. The accountant practised telling his bully boss that, though they called him names, he didn't have to agree with them. Mama Cass told off her colleague without resorting to beta-blockers and the Italian confronted a menacing colleague. Before breaking up, we had to swear to practise our skills in the big bad world but not immediately. 'You don't want to march into your boss' offices on the first day and demand a pay rise,' Rawbone said, 'especially if they know you've just taken this course.'

Taking a management course focuses the mind. You soon discover who around you is and isn't assertive (and, more to the point, who has taken an assertiveness training course). But though I have yet to march into an editor's office and demand a contract, I regularly practise saying no (mostly to my children). I am far more conscious of my rights when it comes to work (nothing like saying no to get a reaction).

But, sadly, I still haven't made any inroad on the home front. My nanny recently asked for another long holiday. When I declined (following the DESC principles), she answered: 'Well, then I'll leave.' I later discovered she'd been on an assertiveness training course.

MaST International 01628 784062.

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