Don’t Get Even-Get Equal

Ben and Jerry did it with Pillsbury. Engineer Allan MacDonald did it with NASA. Dan Rather did it with Richard Nixon. Columnist Ellen Goodman, however, admits it didn't work with the carpet cleaner.

How about you? Can you hold your own when confronted with difficult people and situations? Are you "too polite" to hang up on obnoxious telemarketers? Are you stuck at the bottom of the "pecking order" at work? Can you stand up to the office bully when he tries to intimidate you to get his way?

"We all need 'survival tactics' - ways to respond when others are trying to push us around," say California psychologists Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons. "Nobody likes that one-down feeling that comes when you can't quite express what you really want. But when problems come up in social situations, too many people assume their only choices are to be pushy or be pushed. Manipulating others is not the answer to personal powerlessness."

"There's a huge difference between appropriate self-expression -- assertion -- and pushing others around -- destructive aggression," Alberti explains. "Assertiveness is, first and foremost, a matter of personal choice. If you know how to act assertively, you are free to choose whether or not you will."

"You'll need to learn new attitudes and skills for handling social situations that have been problems for you," adds Emmons. "The key is to focus on equal-relationship assertiveness." Bottom line: Don't put others down to put yourself up.

So how do you learn to be effectively assertive? "The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice," quips Alberti, an amateur trombonist.

  • Start by recognizing that it's okay to speak up for yourself.
  • Learn the basic skills (it's not what you say, it's how you say it).
  • Work to overcome obstacles, including your own inhibitions.
  • Practice your new skills in non-threatening situations first, with a coach, if possible.

Dealing with others when you're not face-to-face is a little different, of course. "The new media of communication - online, cell phones, social networking, and more - demand more than ever that individuals have the skills to express themselves - and defend themselves when necessary - even in situations when you're not in direct contact," Alberti points out.

Recognized as experts in the field of self-expression, the pair have advocated, taught and written about assertiveness as a tool for promoting equality in human relationships for nearly four decades. Their work has been widely acclaimed for its contribution to such varied fields as civil rights, corporate management, and individual self-development.

Alberti and Emmons are authors of the international best-seller, Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships. Their guide to "standing up for yourself" without stomping on the rights of others was published in May 2008 in a completely revised and updated ninth edition (Impact Publishers).

The book, with over 1.3 million copies sold since the first edition in 1970, is the assertiveness training guide most widely recommended by psychologists and other professional therapists, and includes detailed procedures, examples, stories and exercises. Your Perfect Right was ranked fifth among all self-help books in a national survey of psychologists reported in American Journal of Psychotherapy, Psychology Today, and The New York Times.

The new edition has been thoroughly updated and expanded with extensive discussions of email and social networks, social intelligence, personal boundaries, persistence, recent brain research, anger expression, dealing with social anxiety, giving and receiving criticism, facial expression research, and what to do when assertiveness doesn't work.

And the authors don't limit their approach solely to individual behavior. "Ultimately," Drs. Alberti and Emmons point out, "those acts which are in the best interest of our fellow humans are in our own best interests as well. Effective assertive communication can build positive, equal relationships between people - the most valuable assets any human being can have."

Robert E. Alberti, PhD, is a psychologist, editor, consultant, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Michael L. Emmons, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice and consultant to educational, government and business organizations.

Adapted from Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (Ninth Edition) , by Robert E. Alberti, PhD, and Michael L. Emmons, PhD. Available at online and local bookstores or directly from Impact Publishers, Inc., PO Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016, http://www.bibliotherapy.com/ or phone 1-800-246-7228.

Page last modified/reviewed by athealth.com on February 3, 2014