Assertiveness Training: Empowerment

Assertiveness training is one of the most powerful tools therapists can provide; it helps individuals understand and discover personal empowerment.  Assertiveness training distinguishes the differences between being passive, aggressive, assertive, and passive-aggressive.  It also helps clients to understand and identify Redfield’s four control dramas: Intimidator, Victim, Interrogator, and Aloof. Assertiveness training will define true empowerment.


Styles of Control:

– Passive

– Aggressive

– Passive Aggressive

– Assertive


Passive Approach:

depressed teen1

Nobody can take your power from you unless you give it to them.  

People that have learned to take a victim position in life and seem to find a sense of power in being a victim are typically seen as passive.  The victim will always find someone that will feel bad for them or help them in some way.  However, behind the passive style is a person who has learned a style that works for them.  Ironically, no one likes to be called a victim.  When I suggest that a client is assuming the role of a victim they are usually upset and feel they are misunderstood.

It is not until they are empowered and have healthier personal interactions that they release being a victim.  Only then do they realize that the role of victim certainly had its own power, although it is an unhealthy power.

Let me clarify that after working with victims of severe abuse and trauma for years, I respect and acknowledge that what happened to them was not right. However, taking the role of sympathiser for them does not help them regain their power.

Susan was a single mother with three daughters, living in a two bedroom apartment, and working as a hotel maid. She received a call from a high school friend with a hard luck story.  The friend asked if she could stay with Susan for a few weeks in order to find a job and re-locate in Susan’s area.  Several months later Susan and her three daughters were still sharing one room while the friend had taken over the other room.  The friend was paying no room and board, doing no household chores and was not actively looking for a job.

In addition, Susan was footing the bills for her friend on top of her own.  In therapy Susan complained about how she was being walked on by her friend.  I suggested that she use the empowerment skills we had been discussing in therapy.  She said in complete exasperation, “I cannot set a boundary. I will hurt my friend’s feelings.”

Instead of confronting her friend, Susan chose to sulk and not talk to her friend so she could “get the message.” This was a passive way to interact with her friend. Avoidance is best friends with Passive.


Aggressive Approach:

The aggressive style is usually something that develops out of a sense of entitlement and is another common way for people to assume a sense of power. It can also be a compensation for having been a victim and the person deciding they never want to be hurt again; resulting in aggressive interpersonal behavior.

This person says whatever they want to, is only concerned about their needs and can hurt your feelings without thinking twice about it.

This aggressive style can cause severe damage to relationships and if it becomes the main method of gaining control over situations, can alienate people and cause severe anxiety for all involved.

With the example of Susan, she believed that setting a boundary with her friend would alter her passive behavior to that of being aggressive. Setting a boundary is not aggressive.  In this situation aggressive behavior would be yelling at the friend, putting her things out on the porch without warning, or physically assaulting her.

When people are aggressive they feel justified due to the situation producing an unhealthy sense of power. Contention with no regard for others is best friends with Aggressive.


Passive Aggressive Approach:

Passive-aggressive is a combination of two unhealthy styles of gaining a sense of power. In children, this is called Oppositional Defiant and can be extremely frustrating in relationships with children and adults.  A person using the passive-aggressive style is usually very passive and will agree with you face to face.

For instance, when you ask them to perform a chore such as taking out the trash, they might agree verbally. However, they have no real intention to do the chore. Even if they do man what they say, very seldom do they follow through with what they are asked to do.


A passive aggressive approach will give you the illusion of gaining power but in reality it robs you of integrity and consequently diminishes any possibility of healthy empowerment.

Case in point, this passive-aggressive behavior was demonstrated in a news article of a food server who was mad at his boss for what he felt were low wages.  Instead of talking to his boss about it he would spit in the food before it was served.  His behavior was extremely aggressive yet delivered in a passive manner. This behavior gave him the illusion of gaining power but in reality it robbed him of his integrity consequently losing any possibility of healthy empowerment.

Passive-aggressive behavior really makes things complicated when two people in a relationship do this to one another.

For example, Linda struggled to understand how her husband could commit to her to do chores around the house and the yard, but never actually do them.  She had asked him for weeks to move the kids swing in the backyard; he repeatedly would agree to do it tomorrow.   She finally exploded, yelling, “Are you going to move the swing or not?”  He replied that he had no intention of moving the swing until she cleaned out the coat closet, something he had asked her to do several weeks ago.

She had completely forgotten that she had told him she would do the task.  She also admitted she had no intention of cleaning out the coat closet because it just was not that big of deal to her.  They were locked in a repeated passive-aggressive duel.

Linda learned to take responsibility for her choices by being more honest with her husband.  With accountability she admitted to her husband that she felt overwhelmed at the prospect of cleaning out the coat closet, mostly for the reason that it was his stuff and she did not know which things he would be willing to throw out or keep.

When the passive-aggressive behavior was replaced by assertive behavior Linda felt empowered from within.  In the end, Linda and her husband cleaned out the coat closet together.  Once she recognized her own passive-aggressive behaviors it helped to reduce the passive-aggressive behaviors from her husband.

When coming out of being the victim or taking a passive position, the most common mistakes are to become aggressive or think that being assertive is aggressive. As with the example of Susan and her leech of a friend, I asked whether she thought her behavior was passive, aggressive, or assertive.

Susan felt she was being assertive for the reason that she was not saying anything to her friend but putting up with it, pretending everything was okay. In reality, Susan was avoiding conflict and suppressing her personal feelings. Passive behavior does not work because the energy builds up until it erupts in aggressive behavior such as screaming at the friend or throwing her things out the door.



Healthy power or empowerment using assertiveness is in direct contrast to unhealthy passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive styles. How do we recognize healthy empowerment from unhealthy empowerment?  A person with healthy empowerment will not act at the expense of someone else.

It may be true that sometimes we act but have no idea what the impact is on others.   However, the empowered person is conscious and aware about how to navigate their life with confidence and purpose, as much as possible.  If an empowered person does do something that causes someone else grief and become aware of their actions, they will apologize and seek healthy ways for resolution, considering the other person’s needs.


Taking an empowered approach to life is a liberating feeling.  When you are empowered you take responsibility for  your own actions and do not feel the weight of other peoples way of being.  

On the other hand, if an empowered person feels tread upon or taken advantage of, they will let the other know and expect to be treated with the same respect.  While not everyone will apologize or strive for ways to make things right, this does not take away the healthy power of a truly empowered person. Love and respect for self and others is best friends with Empowerment.

George was extremely passive and felt as if he were constantly being taken advantage of by his two sons. He expressed to his sons that it was important that they helped him clean the garage on Saturday and without their help would not be able to get it done. When Saturday came, the boys left early to go snowboarding and George did the project without them.  By the time they returned home, George was angry. He yelled at them, saying he was tired of feeling as if his children were walking all over him like a doormat and accusing them of having no regard for him.

George would then become aggressive, punishing them by not talking to them for several days while taking away their privileges, which the boys would also disregard.  As he became empowered he recognized that his aggression only fueled more problems in his relationships with his sons.  He began by working through his anger before deciding on disciplinary action, as a result, began respectfully talking to his sons.

George took responsibility for his anger by acknowledging his own behavior of ignoring and belittling his sons.  This empowered him with something he could take action on that was within his control.  He could not control the actions of his sons but when he changed his own behavior the dynamics of the relationship changed. 

While it took some time, the boys recognized that George was respectful and they began to listen and respect their father. Empowerment is a feeling of being capable, kind, and caring, while requiring respect from others.  Empowerment stays true to your own values by taking responsibility for your choices.

Redfield’s Four Control Dramas:  Intimidator, Victim, Interrogator, and Aloof

  • Empowerment is honest.
  • Empowerment is respectful.
  • Empowerment considers the needs of others, as well as, the needs of you.

In The Celestine Prophecy James Redfield identifies four control dramas: Intimidator, Victim, Interrogator and Aloof that are unhealthy ways of gaining power.

Intimidator The intimidator takes an aggressive position with tactics such as intimidation and yelling.  The intimidator may use threatening behaviors that include being physical.  The intimidator thinks that a good offense is a good defense.  While they may use the other three types of behaviors for control they tend to use intimidator most often.  As you might guess, the intimidator fits well with a person who takes on the victim role for power.

making fun of kids

No matter what our circumstances present us with we can only control our reaction and behavior.  When we chose to be a victim we chose to giver our power away.  

VictimThe victim thinks that if they are passive no one can claim they are offensive. The victim usually finds someone to support them or, in worse cases such as domestic violence, can get sympathy and support from others like the police, etc.  The victim thrives on being enabled and is not interested in being empowered. They do not understand the intimidator and, interestingly enough, do not see their own intimidation tactics that can soon escalate a disagreement into a full blown fight.

Interrogator The interrogator is so subtle that he is almost undetectable at first. He will appear to be your best friend for the reason that they want to know everything about you and then use that information against you later.  The interrogator acquires information through asking a lot of questions.  They use this to gain power and control, or to outsmart others.  As a result, the interrogator can find themselves with a partner that will stonewall them and not give them any information due to the lack of trust that develops.

AloofThe aloof style is one of the most intelligent styles of the four.  It is tremendously difficult to know what an aloof person is thinking.  Stonewalling sends a messageof extreme power given that no one knows how to get through to them or how to gain power over them.  The aloof person has an impregnable wall that is very powerful because they give no information and cannot be controlled by anyone. Think of a castle with a high fortress wall.

While these control styles are common, they are unhealthy, they deny emotional honesty and are grounded in the idea that power and control is an offensive or defensive action.

In his bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey suggests win-win as a solution to power and control issues not win-lose.  Redfield in The Celestine Prophecy offers that empowerment is something that comes from within.

Healthy empowerment and assertiveness are incredible tools to eliminate anxiety.  They also contribute to developing healthy coping styles that do not seek for power just for the sake of power. True power is something that comes only from within, never from hurting others, or being inconsiderate of their feelings and needs.  They also help us to feel capable of accomplishing whatever we want to make of our world.

It is understood that empowerment is a process that takes time.  Look for feedback from trusted friends as you experiment with being empowered.  They may see more objectively; helping you fine tune standing up for yourself in a healthy assertive way or be able to see more clearly if you are being aggressive or passive.  Another way to work on empowerment is to write down your reactions to past situations that you can see coming up.


Join Empowered Life Solutions Today!

Stuart Harper, LCSW, RPT-S; Lead Writer at Empowered Life Solutions

“Every life has a purpose our mission is to help you find yours.”

References and Related Reading

Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of Highly Effective People.

Redfield, J. (1995). The Celestine Prophecy.

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