Assertiveness with humour

What is playful assertiveness?

In an earlier article on assertiveness I gave you a simple method for requesting changes when you encounter unhelpful behaviour from others. In this article I offer four playful ways to push back against unwanted judgments. These could be put-downs, unhelpful criticism, or labels (e.g. ‘You’re hopeless”).

Critics of assertiveness techniques sometimes claim that they can be heard as aggressive, thus alienating friends and family, and escalating arguments. While assertiveness may be useful when dealing with bullies they argue, it may be less so within relationships that matter.

This problem relates to personal boundaries: those lines we draw between ourselves and other people, and between our needs and theirs. The boundaries you draw between you and those who attack you should be solid, like a wall. Those you draw between yourself and those closer to you should be like a fence with gates. Enabling you to let some comments pass, while shutting the gate on those that are out of line.

Playful assertiveness gives you the option of pushing back on unhelpful remarks without provoking an argument (unless your friend/parent/child/partner/colleague actually wants one, in which case you can push back harder). Using mild confusion to fog the issue, agreeing with what might be true, and putting the ball back in the speaker’s court by asking for clarification and advice.

As always with assertive techniques you should remain calm, make good eye contact and keep your voice low for maximum effect. Use a light touch, and employ humour where possible.

The Vague Agreement technique

The simplest way to defuse criticism is to agree with it. This make it difficult for others to follow up on their line of attack. This technique is especially useful if there is some truth in what has been said. Agreeing in part with what might be true, while at the same time sounding vague about the rest.

Example: “You’re lazy.”

Response: “Yes. It’s my day off.”

Other responses:

Yes, I have been tired lately.

It’s true I got up late this morning.

I know, I get like that sometimes.

It helps to sound vague and off-hand when you use the Vague Agreement technique. As if the matter is of least importance to you.

The Fogging technique

As the term implies, fogging blurs the issue, creating mild confusion. It relies on making vague, off-beat or tangential replies that leave your critic hanging in the air. The effect is amplified if you sound slow and confused yourself.


“You worry me.”

Response: “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Other replies:

Do you worry a lot?

Now you’re getting me worried about you worrying.

Someone was telling me just the other day that worrying is bad for you. 

The Return of Serve technique

In this technique you reply to judgments with a question, thus putting the ball back in your critic’s court. Repeated questions will put them on the spot, focusing their attention more and more on their own assumptions, rather than on your supposed failings.

Use a note of genuine enquiry, avoiding sarcasm,  but piling on one question after another with each reply you receive.

Example: “You’re so slow.”

Response: “What bothers you about my being slow?”

More questions:

Why is speed important to you?

Is it slow speech you don’t like? Or is it something else?

How would you like me to go faster?

‘Request for Advice’ technique

Like the ‘Return of Serve’ technique this method uses questions to turn attention away from yourself, and back to the critic. Deliver your enquiries with an air of disinterested curiosity, adding on still more questions, until your critic comes to a standstill, or gives up altogether.

Criticism: “You should control your children better.”

Response: “What would you do in my position?”

More questions:

How do you control your children?”

Did that work for them?

Do you have any other tips for me?

Using the techniques in combination

You can use two, three or all four methods as the playfully assertive conversation unfolds.

For example:

“People say you are difficult.”

Response: “I’m sorry some people think that way about me.” (Fogging)


Reply: “You were very hard on X just now.”

Response: “I found that conversation difficult, I must admit.” (Vague Agreement)


Reply: “But you are difficult. Everyone says so.”

Response: “Why does that bother you?” (Return of Serve)


Reply: “You should make more effort.”

Response: “What efforts would you like me to make?” (Asking for Advice)

Should you notice that one person tends to repeat the same judgments whenever you meet, you can rehearse your responses beforehand. The more you use these techniques the more fluent you will become.

A podcast version of this article is available here.

Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

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