The Assertiveness Workbook: Notes & Review

the assertiveness workbook

The Assertiveness Workbook (2000) focuses on developing assertiveness as a communication style and habit, and helps readers become more assertive with exercises and diary-keeping.


About the Author: Randy J. Paterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist, author, and trainer. 

4 Styles of Communication

There are four styles of relating with others:

  1. Passive: Afraid of asking, taking a stand, or sharing an opinion. An approach designed to avoid conflicts at all costs, that leads to the failure of enforcing personal boundaries, defending one’s own time and priorities, and letting others take advantage of them, and walk all over them
  2. Aggressive: Feel entitled to control others. (Tries to) force others to do what the aggressor wants, no matter how others feel.
    He seems stronger and in control, but it’s often motivated by fear and, in the long run, this approach loses power, since people resent the aggressive guy.
  3. Passive-Aggressive: Wants to be aggressive and has the same anger but, often out of fear, acts more like a passive, and then aggresses others subtly and covertly
  4. Assertive: Directly states opinions, demands what he wants, and knows and accepts that others are ultimately responsible and in charge of their own behavior

Assertive Style

The assertive individuals:

  • Feels in charge of his own behavior
  • Asserts his boundaries clearly and directly
  • Recognizes that others are in charge of their own behavior
  • Does not seek to force others to change their behavior but leaves it up to them
  • Can state that there will be rewards -or consequences- depending on what the other person decides to do

Tips to become assertive

  1. Push through the pushback: if you were passive, some people might not like the new you. If they push back, it’s great news, you’re empowering yourself. Push through their pushback
  2. Resist the urge to go back to comfortable routines: people will initially misread your behavior because they were used to a different you. If you were aggressive, they might think you’re not being “strong enouhg”. Keep being assertive and clear instead of going back to yelling and aggressing
  3. Change with one person at a time: changing all at once might be difficult. Consider changing with one person at a time, or in one environment at a time (work, relationship, family, or friends)
  4. Start when you’re feeling good: if you’re at a difficult time in your life, consider starting when you have more strength and power. Becoming assertive might strain some of your relationships before they get better. But don’t this be an excuse to postpone! Unless you’re really in dire straits, go for it

Beliefs underpinning assertiveness

The author lists the beliefs underpinning all of the different styles, as well as how to overcome.

Here, we will focus on the beliefs of assertiveness:

  1. I’m in charge of my, behavior others are in charge of theirs: this is the central belief of assertiveness
  2. I decide for myself what I will and will not do
  3. People can ask me whatever they want
  4. And I can decline whatever they ask because this is my life
  5. I am my own judge, I don’t have to justify myself to others
  6. Others don’t have to justify themselves to me

Also see: “judge power dynamics“.

DESO: A model for assertive communication

Paterson modifies Bower and Bower’s model of assertive communication and comes up with the “DESO” formula.

The goal of “DESO” is to frame the situation, say what’s wrong, make your request, and predict an outcome.
Using DESO can help you word your assertive requests.

It stands for:

  • Describe: describe and define the situation and what’s going on. If it’s about someone’s behavior, make sure you stick to a specific behavior, and that you don’t turn it into a criticism, which attacks the personality
  • Express: express and state how you are feeling in the situation
  • Specify: Specify what you would like to happen
  • Outcome: Describe what happens if the person goes along with what you want and, potentially, what will happen if they don’t. It can be a reward or a punishment but, sometimes, the outcome is simply you being happier, or feeling better -“if you do X, I will feel so much better”

Paterson says that most people overuse punishment as the outcome, and he recommends instead to use it very sparingly.
Instead, frame those negative outcomes positively. Instead of “unless you clean your dishes from yesterday, no dinner tonight”, you can say “as soon as you clean yesterday’s dishes, I will go ahead and start cooking our dinner”.

Be cautious using assertiveness with violent individuals or in violent relationships

Assertiveness is about setting boundaries and reclaiming your power.

Some individuals might not like that but, in most situations, that’s their issue, not yours.
However, in some fringe cases, with some people and in some relationships that are either violent or teetering on the verge of violence, your new assertive attitude might spark a renewed wave of violence.
The violent or manipulative partner, seeing his grasp on the relationship slipping away, might try one last-ditch effort to “put you back in line”.

So it’s up to you to exercise caution, distance yourself, or start your new assertive journey with physical distance, well-prepared, in public, or with your friends around.

Life Tip: Only fight battles you can win

I like this passage:

Life is short.

You only have so much energy.

Why waste it unless the effort will get you somewhere?

If you have been trying for thirty years to get your mother to stop asking when you will get married, give up. Let her ask. If you have been trying for years to get your partner to be faithful, perhaps it’s time to stop trying—and either accept the behavior or end the relationship.

Randy Paterson

Paterson links it back to a core tenet of assertiveness: controlling your behavior, and letting go of controlling others.
He says that all the time wasted on battles you can’t win have one thing in common: you’re trying and trying, and hoping against hope, that you will be able to change people and control their behavior.
Give that faulty belief up, and you’ll enjoy a better life.

More Wisdom

Only sets boundaries you are willing and able to defend: if you say something and don’t follow trough you lose all your credibility

Cultural relativity only up to a certain point: the cultural factor is important to discern what exactly is assertive, but some degree of assertive behavior is appropriate in every culture

Don’t defend your opinion, it’s low-power: some people have an ingrained belief that the worth or validity of their opinion -or their own worth- depends on their ability to defend their position.
The author correctly say that this belief place you in the powerless position of having to change someone else’s mind.

Take responsibility for your feelings or requests: don’t say that something is wrong because “nobody else does it”, or because “every other husband does it this way”.
It’s cop-out to avoid taking responsibility, and it invites an easy argument that will only sidetrack you away from your request.

To deal with covert aggression, ask for clarification: the author correctly poins out that to deal effectively with covert criticism, you want to ask them what exactly do they mean as a way of drawing them out.
For example, if they give you a dirty look, you can ask “I’m not sure what that expression meant, can you please elaborate”. This is what I call “show me the hand technique“, and it’s a standard technique of uncovering covert aggression.
Also see “how to deal with microaggressions“.


  • I’m not convinced that aggression originates in fear

The author says that aggression “almost always originates in fear”.
I’m not too sure about that.

  • I’m not convinced that “control over others is a delusion”

The author says that “control over others is a delusion”.

But that’s not true.
Control over others is solid power dynamics. It’s not a delusion. It happens, it’s real, and pretending it’s not there does not help to make the case for assertiveness.

  • Sometimes feels like splitting hair between “demanding” and “stating your wants”, and frames persuasion as if it were a bad thing

The author says that when you state outcomes, such as the consequences of not following through, which can include rewards or punishments, you are not “demanding anything” or “tiring to control their behavior”, but “simply stating what you feel and what you will do”.
To me, this feels like splitting hair.

Also, I don’t see the point of denying that influencing others can be someone’s goal.
It’s not like there is a moral prize for those who don’t try to influence and persuade others. Influence and persuasion is how we get things done in this world.

  • Being specific and realistic all the time comes at a persuasion cost

The author exhorts the reader to stick to reality when it comes to outcomes, and that too many people exaggerate.
However, painting a picture of future victory and greatness can help persuade others. And sticking to reality too much can make someone a bit dull and boring.


  • Perfect for beginners: the exercises, quizzes, and self-assessments make it a great resource to follow on the journey towards assertiveness
  • Great wisdom: you will learn a lot with Randy Paterson
  • One of the best overviews on feedback giving and taking: and all correctly put into the perspective of assertion


On the honest of assertiveness:

Assertiveness isn’t about building a good disguise. It’s about developing the courage to take the disguise off.

On the power of “no”:

Who’s in charge of your life? If you aren’t able to say “no” then it certainly isn’t you.

Looking at the effects of praise and compliments from a social exchange point of view.
Defensive-mindset” people feel like they are a drain on their social power, but the opposite is true:

Thanks, praise, and compliments do not put us in debt to others; they support and encourage the behavior we like.


“The Assertiveness Workbook” is a wonderful resource on communication skills and assertion.

Randy Paterson is an advanced analyst of social and power dynamics, and I can recommend this book to anyone who wants to develop their assertion skills. Especially those who are beginners and/or who want a plan to follow, since Paterson provides lots of exercises at the end of each chapter -plus a scorecard to help you keep track of your progress0.

Also check out:

Or get the book on Amazon

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