Blue Line

Back to the future

May 4, 2015  By Dorothy Cotton

It’s funny how things go in and out of style. When did cupcakes become such a hot item – and whatever happened to fondue? There are skirt lengths and lapel widths, open concept kitchens versus formal dining rooms, aviator glasses versus the Harry Potter style…

Sometimes, there seems to be no reason – like hemlines and lapel widths. It’s just a fad or style, and things just sort of fade away for no particular reason. Even in psychology and medicine, things come and go.

Other times, changes have to do with increased knowledge and new evidence. There are things we used to think worked (blood letting or certain kinds of psychotherapies, for example) which turned out to be a bad idea. Sometimes, it is a little bit of both.

I was cleaning out my bookcase the other day and found a dusty old paperback book on assertiveness training crammed behind a stack of journals. I think that was all the rage back in the 1980s. The basic premise is that there are generally three ways of responding to challenging communications: be passive (wimpy – let the other guy have his way); be aggressive (the hell with you – I am getting MY way); or be assertive – the middle ground where you stand up for your own point of view while also recognizing that the other person also has rights and does not deserve to be stomped on.


The term “Assertiveness” refers to the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive. It is a way of expressing your opinion or wishes without stepping on the toes (or rights) of others.

I just had a quick look on the web site for and was a little surprised to find that it still sells a few books on this topic. However, they all seem to advertise themselves as being aimed at wimps – passive people who have trouble standing up for themselves and let others walk all over them. Interestingly however, it appears that one thing that might have been lost over time is the OTHER group of people traditionally targeted for assertiveness training – the aggressive person who walks all over others.

Why would you want to teach assertiveness to aggressive people? Because they tend to increase rather than decrease the level of aggression in those around them. In this context, when I talk about aggressive, I mean verbally aggressive: people who bully through language without using any physical aggression.

Verbally aggressive folks can enter a scene that might be a little unstable and turn it into a riot within seconds. It really is quite impressive, in a very counterproductive way! We all know people like this. They tend to make you want to do the opposite of what they say – even when you might actually agree with them.

The same day I found the dusty old paperback book I also read an article in the Harvard Law Review <1> discussing how the “warrior mentality” in policing (as opposed to the “guardian” approach) may cause more problems than it solves. Author Seth Stoughton comments that there is much in the way we have traditionally trained police officers that tends to make them aggressive rather than assertive – and that this is not without significant negative consequences. He notes:

He also quotes former sheriff Sue Rahr, who is currently both the director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and a member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“We do our recruits no favor if we train them to approach every situation as a war,” she said. “To do so sets them up to create unnecessary resistance and risk of injury.”

Stoughton is not an ivory tower academic but rather a former police officer. I am inclined to think he has probably been there/done that. His argument that we need to educate, indoctrinate and train officers a little differently is pretty compelling.

Rather than reminding them at every possible juncture that their lives are on the line and that in every interaction someone is likely aiming to do them in, it might be more productive to encourage a guardian orientation. The article provides some interesting examples of how to do this (I suspect nothing new to most readers, but worth being reminded of now and then).

Police are not, of course, the only people who need to exert influence or control over other people. Those of us who have been parents – or guardians – know that sometimes you have to make people do what you think best even if they don’t agree.

Most of us also learn that coming down like a ton of bricks usually does not get you the results you want in the end. There is no doubt police often have to take control of a situation and somehow get people to do what the officer wants, as opposed to what the person might want to do. There’s the whole use of force continuum that addresses how one might best do that. However, while the model mentions “communication,” it does not have a great deal to say about it.

The Harvard Law Review article was written in response to a distressing series of police-related events in the US this year that have made all of us really stop and think. In a rather convoluted way, it appears that this column is about change. In some ways, we need to go backward, while in other ways we need to go forward.

Sometimes we lose track of things that actually worked (why did we stop doing assertiveness training?) and sometimes we keep doing things that don’t really work all that well (lots of people are rethinking that use of force model nowadays).

Other times the world changes and we need to adapt; is it time for the warrior to give way to the guardian? I guess this where that essential competency of “continuing learning orientation” comes in. We really do need to keep evolving.


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