The Three Faces of No

Halifax Daily News
July 16 1984

Mary is watching television. Husband Charles enters the room and changes the channel.

She speaks in an irritated tone: “Charlie, I was watching that. Please change it back.”

And, to her ever-lasting wonder and amazement, the sky does not fall in. She does not collapse and die. Nor does Charlie. He doesn’t even walk out the door, never to return.

Instead, he switches back to Mary’s channel and grumbles about her assertiveness training class.

“People’s capacity for irrational thinking is phenomenal,” says Nina Woulff, a director and clinical psychologist at the Atlantic Child Guidance Centre who runs weekly assertiveness training classes at Mount Saint Vincent University.

“Some fears are so catastrophic they keep people from being assertive. We have to smoke out the fear.”

Many clients, for example, think terrible things will happen if the say the wrong thing at a party. Everybody will look at them, they tell her, or they will be asked to leave. Their host will never talk to them again or hate them forever. So they keep quiet.

One way to confront those fears is to act a little bit odd, says Dr. Wouldff. Here are some tasks given to clients:

• Ask people on the street what time it is. When you finally get to somebody who deson’t have a watch, look at your own watch and tell them the time.

• Get on a crowded elevator and announce each floor as it goes by.

• Walk into a Chinese resataurant and ask if they make enchiladas.

Walk into a drug store and ask for polka-dotted condoms.

“The purpose is to prove you can do it and you won’t die. The sky does not fall in. Other people don’t die, though they may look a bit confused. There’s nothing really offensive in what they’re doing, they’re just acting a bit odd.”

Her 12-member groups used to be all-female, “but lately men have been more assertive about getting assertiveness training. They’ve been a little slow on th uptake but they’re finally catching up.” Now nearly half the people paying the $70 fee are male. Both sexes have similar problems but there are differences. Men are more concerned with being perfect; women with being liked.

Her typical client is a middle-aged mother, working part-time with several teenagers living at home.

“She is the quintessential doormat,” says Dr. Woulff. “She believes her purpose in life is to meet every request made by her family. She tries to fulfill her self-imposed fate with incredible rigor and wonders why, at age 45, she feels depressed, bitter and hard-done by.”

Without being aware of it, “she has become a slave. Everybody else can say no and express their own ideas, but she doesn’t have those rights.”

In the group she rediscovers the basic rights she gave away long ago, like the right to be different, express opinions, to say no without justifying it and to make requests of other people.

Since childhood some people are taught that self-sacrifice equals goodness. “That equation has to be changed. We teach them that unassertiveness is lying, and that’s not good.”

But it is good to be assertive and honest, she tells them. And, at the end of the seven-session course, most clients believe it.

“People have changed so much that their friends don’t recognize them,” says Dr. Woulff.

Even their posture changes. In the first week clients often sit curled in on themselvs with hands clasped together. They speak in a thin, high voice, stare at the floor and end every sentence with a question.

After seven weeks they sit in a more relaxed manner and dress in colors they like. They make eye contact and speak with conviction.

Clients also act differently. “They start rocking the boat —they’re not the same old doormat. Their families say “I wish you’d never started that assertiveness training class’.”

Relationships usually improve because “most people prefer to live with someone who is honest,” says Dr. Wouldff. “If you can express anger much beter, you can express loving much better.”

But not always. “Some people want a partner who is only an extension of themselves.” Often they are violent, with words as well as fists.

“In maybe 10 per cent of the cases, a person has to stop and think, “am I going to stay in this relationship?” Occasionally people have used the group to give them the strength to end a relationship.”

But you don’t hve to be inconsiderate to be assertive. People who are demanding, pushy and disrespectful of others are merely aggressive. Assertive people make requests, not demands, in a clear, honest manner without being pushy. They listen to others but protect their own interests.

But you don’t have to sound like the voice of sweet reason, either. Dr. Woulff has to coach clients to sound angry and annoyed if that’s how they feel.

“Assertiveness is not easy. It may be fun, playful and humourous, but mostly it’s hard work. No pain, no gain. It’s easier in the short run just to do what people want you to do. But in the long run you stay enslaved and embittered.”