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( 1973 ) 4, 697-699


On Assertive Behavior: A Brief Note

ARNOLD A. L A z ~ t r S 1

University College, Rutgers University

After spelling out four specific components of assertive behavior, it is
emphasized that the bulk of the literature devotes undue attention to the
negative aspects of anger and attacking behaviors, while ignoring the virtues
of positive reinforcement in this context. The importance of training clients
to emit loving and caring responses is underscored.
The main components of assertive (or emotionally expressive) behaviors may be divided into four separate and specific response patterns:
the ability to say "no"; the ability to ask for favors or to make requests;
the ability to express positive and negative feelings; the ability to
initiate, continue, and terminate general conversations.
People who are deficient in "assertive behavior" will display incapacities in one or more of the above-mentioned areas. An excellent
assessment procedure for determining whether or not a client requires
"assertive training" is to inquire under what specific conditions he is
inclined to accede to unreasonable demands, is unable to make reasonable requests, fails to express his feelings, and feels socially and interpersonally inhibited or at a loss for words. Each area requires specific
retraining because (in my experience) the degree of generalization or
transfer from one assertive area to another is very slight. Thus, a client
may learn to say "no!" and stand up for his rights, but he may remain
deficient in asking for favors or in expressing positive feelings.
Effective interpersonal functioning in our society seems to require
competence in the various areas alluded to above. Since Salter (1949)
emphasized the importance of "excitation" (emotional freedom) and
Wolpe (1958) described "assertive training," the literature on behavior therapy has burgeoned with accounts of verbal, nonverbal, indi1Requests for reprints should be addressed to: Arnold A. Lazarus, Department
of Psychology, University College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey
Copyright O 1973 by Academic Press, Inc.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.




vidual and group procedures for promoting these so-ca/led "assertive

behaviors." As mentioned elsewhere (Lazarus, 1971) it is unfortunate
that the bulk of these reports tend to place undue emphasis upon the
ability to contradict and verbally attack other people. While these authors
may have been influenced by Wolpe's (1958, 1969) emphasis on "aggressive, anger-expressing behavior," it cannot be over-emphasized that
there is little to be gained (and perhaps much to be lost) from the
acquisition of abrasive and obnoxious interpersonal behaviors in the
guise of "assertive training."
Numerous manuscripts describe the precise ways in which people
are being programmed to mete out punishment, to deal with their
intimates as adversaries, to ignore the needs of others, and to make a
fetish of gaining the upper hand. Individual and group maneuvers range
from "shout training" to hostile nonverbal gestures intended to make
other people feel ill at ease. ~Vhile there are undoubtedly some interpersonal situations where these hostile tactics pay emotional dividends,
is it not far more effective to educate people in applying the obvious and
subtle nuances of positive reinforcement? Time spent teaching people
how to emit forthright expressions of love, adoration, affection, appreciation, and the specific verbal and nonverbal facets of compassion, tenderness, warmth and other positive feelings often undermines the need for
anger responses and righteous indignation.
Perhaps a personal vignette will place this brief note into perspective.
Recently, while shopping for shirts, I was served by an extremely surly
and unobliging salesman. He was brusque and most unhelpful. I found
myself feeling progressively irritated by his manner. Now what would
be an adaptive assertive response under these circumstances? Should I
personally upbraid him? Should I employ a oneupsmanship tactic and
hint that a visit to a dermatologist might do wonders for his acne? Should
I report him to the manager?
Each of the foregoing responses represents an attack, with or without
justification. It is in fact poor psychology, for aggressive behaviors often
serve to escalate counter-aggressive and defensive responses. Instead
of attacking hini, I simply said: "You seem to be having a hell of a bad
day. Is something wrong?" He responded by informing me that his wife
was in the hospital and that he was anxious about her. I expressed my
sympathy and inquired whether he would care to tell me what was ailing her. She had undergone an emergency appendectomy the previous
day and still had a fever. I managed to make some reassuring comments
about modern surgical techniques and broad-spectrum antibiotics. He
appeared immensely relieved and his entire demeanor changed immediately. I left the store 10 rain later with my shirts and with a good



feeling that m y "'assertive behavior" had brought comfort to a fellow

h u m a n being while enabling me to obtain the exact merchandise that I
was seeking.
LAZARUS, A. A. Behavior therapy and beyond. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.
SALTER, A. Conditioned reflex therapy. New York: Farrar Strauss, 1949.
WOLPE, J. Psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition. Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1958.
WOLPE, J. The practice of behavior therapy. New York: Pergamon Press, 1969.