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Negative Assertion

What is Negative Assertion?

Negative assertion is one of the methods for coping with criticism recommended by Manuel J Smith in his book When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. It involves acknowledging genuine mistakes that you have made or actions that you have committed that with hindsight you regret, or else straightforwardly admitting features of yourself or your behaviour that you would prefer to be different.

Many of us react defensively when someone makes a criticism of us or of some aspect of our appearance or behaviour even if that criticism is valid. Perhaps the reason for this is that we feel that if we admit to a mistake or to having done something 'wrong' or to having performed less well than we would like, then this means that we are a 'failure' or 'bad'. Actually, admitting genuinely to faults or failings is often a positive thing to do as your critic may then feel disarmed and appreciate your acknowledgement. You may also have a platform from which to make positive changes if you want to, without feeling guilty.

Example of Negative Assertion

Peter has gone to the barber and come back with a haircut which doesn't look great. He know it looks bad but he feels a bit embarrassed by it. When Annette points this out to him he is about to react defensively. Then he remembers the technique of negative assertion so instead he calmly agrees:

Annette: 'Oh dear, that haircut didn't quite work out for you did it!'

Peter (about to react defensively then decides to use negative assertion): 'You're right. I probably shouldn't go to that place again!'

Annette: 'They didn't even trim your eyebrows either!'

Peter: 'True that would probably look better. Next time I'll try a different barber.'

As can be seen from the above short example, negative assertion is about being open in acknowledging criticisms or negative comments which are true. This can be difficult to do, because our instinct is often to deny or be defensive. Remember it is OK to make mistakes or not be perfect.

How is Negative Assertion Useful?

If you act defensively when people offer truthful criticism of you then through your defensiveness or denial you may fuel further prolonged criticism from the other person or prompt another unhelpful reaction from them. Also you yourself may start to feel guilty or bad about how you have acted, so simply acknowledging the truth and holding your hands up to having done something you regret is often sensible. It can take the sting out of the criticism and lead to a more constructive relationship going forward.

When Negative Assertion Can be Unhelpful

If admitting your mistake or error may have significant legal implications then it may be sensible not to use negative assertion. Manuel Smith gives the example of a car accident and suggests that it is not necessarily wise to admit to fault at the scene of the accident but instead to exchange insurance details. The technique is intended for use in social dealings not in potential legal conflicts!


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