Assertiveness: PASSIVE responding to complaints, criticism and put-downs


(from Smith, 1989, pp. 104-112)

This is a way of dealing with manipulative criticism from other people. It follows these principles:

We do NOT: deny any criticism, get defensive, or counter attack with criticism of our own. In other words, we respond to this criticism as if we are a fog bank. A fog bank is very persistent, offers no resistance to our penetration, and it does not fight back. It has no hard striking surfaces from which a rock we throw at it can ricochet back at us, enabling us to pick it up and throw it at the fog once more. We can throw an object right through it, and it is unaffected. Inevitably, we give up trying to alter the persistent, independent, non-manipulable fog and leave it alone. Similarly, when criticized, we can assertively cope by offering no resistance or hard psychological striking surfaces to critical statements thrown at us.

Other ways of describing this assertive skill include agreeing with truth, agreeing in principle, or agreeing with the odds. It is a powerful verbal skill that can be used in everyday situations to deal with manipulative logic, argument, guilt- and anxiety-inducing statements.

We can use this skill in the following ways:

1. We can agree with any truth in statements people use to criticize us, e.g. if an overprotective mother keeps checking up on her daughter even after the daughter no longer lives at home, the daughter might respond to her mother’s criticism of implied or suggested wrongdoing with assertive fogging:

Mother: You stayed out late again. I tried to call you until twelve thirty last night. Daughter: That’s true, Mom, I was out late again last night.

2. We can agree with any possible truth in statements people use to criticize us. In the case of the daughter and her mom, if mom criticized her with a statement of direct wrongdoing, daughter might still respond with assertive fogging:

Mother: If you stay out late so much you might get sick again.
Daughter: You could be right, Mom. (Or, That’s probably true. Or, I agree with you, Mom, if I didn’t go out so often I would probably get a lot more sleep.)

3. We can agree with the general truth in logical statements that people use to manipulate us. In the case of this daughter’s mother, if she persisted in trying to impose her own rules of living upon her daughter’s lifestyle, daughter could continue to assert herself with verbal fogging:

Mother: You know how important looking good is to a young girl who wants to meet a nice man and get married. If you keep staying out late so often and don’t get enough sleep, you won’t look good. You don’t want that to happen, do you?
Daughter: You’re right, Mom. What you say makes sense, so when I feel the need, I’ll get in early enough.

A practice exercise using Fogging to deal with criticism

Critic: I see that you are dressed in your usual sloppy manner.
Respondent: That’s right. I am dressed in my usual way. [Fogging]

Critic: Those pants! They look like you stole them off the Goodwill rack without pressing them.
Respondent: They are a bit wrinkled, aren’t they? [Fogging]

Critic: Wrinkled is the understatement of the week. They are positively dreadful.
Respondent: You’re probably right. They do look a bit worse for wear. [Fogging]

Critic: And that shirt! Your taste must be all in your mouth.
Respondent: That’s probably true. My taste in clothes isn’t one of my strong points. [Fogging]

Critic: Anyone who dresses like that obviously hasn’t got much going for them.
Respondent: You’re right. I do have a lot of faults. [Fogging]

Critic: Faults! Is that what you call them? They are more like chasms. Your personality is one empty Grand Canyon.
Respondent: You could be right. There are a lot of things I could improve. [Fogging]

Critic: I doubt if you are able to do a job effectively if you can’t even dress properly.
Respondent: That’s true. I could improve my work on the job. [Fogging]

Critic: And you probably pick up your paycheck each week from the poor boss you are ripping off without feeling any guilt.
Respondent: You’re right. I don’t feel any guilt at all. [Fogging]

Critic: What a thing to say. You should feel guilty!
Respondent: You’re probably right, I could feel a bit guiltier. [Fogging]

Critic: You probably don’t budget the salary you cheat other people – hard-working people, not loafers like you – out of.
Respondent: You’re probably right, I could budget my money better, and I do loaf a lot. [Fogging]

Critic: If you were smarter and had some moral sensibility you could ask someone how to buy better clothes so you don’t look like a bum.
Respondent: That’s true, I could ask someone how to buy better clothes, and I certainly could be smarter than I am. [Fogging]

Critic: You look nervous when I tell you things that you don’t like.
Respondent: I’m sure I do look nervous. [Fogging]

Critic: You shouldn’t be nervous, I’m your friend.
Respondent: That’s true, I shouldn’t be as nervous as I am. [Fogging]

Critic: I’m probably the only person who would tell you these things.
Respondent: I’m sure you’re right about that! [Fogging with sarcastic emphasis]

Critic: You were being sarcastic.
Respondent: That’s true, I was. [Fogging]

Critic: You’re not here to learn to be sarcastic, you already know that! You are deliberately resisting how to Fog.
Respondent: You’re right, I already know how to be sarcastic and I probably am fighting learning something new. [Fogging]

Critic: Only someone dumb does that.
Respondent: You’re probably right, that may have been dumb of me. [Fogging]

Critic: You’ll never learn to do this.
Respondent: You’re probably right; I may never be any good at it. [Fogging]

Critic: You’re scratching your ear again.
Respondent: That’s true. [Fogging]

Critic: And you quickly pulled your hand away when I pointed it out.
Respondent: I did, didn’t I? [Fogging]

Critic: And my pointing it out made you nervous again.
Respondent: I guess you’re right. [Fogging]

Critic: You’re hopeless.
Respondent: You may be right. [Fogging]

Critic: And what kind of hair style is that you have? It looks like one of those worn by those dirty hippies.
Respondent: It does, doesn’t it? [Fogging]

Critic: And it looks just as dirty, too.
Respondent: That’s true. It could be much cleaner, couldn’t it? [Fogging]

Critic: You probably would like to live like them; never having to wash and rolling in sex.
Respondent: You could be right. Maybe I should think about that! [Fogging]

Critic: And you probably would enjoy all the sexual perversions they perform! [Fogging]
Respondent: That’s a point. You may just be right there! [Fogging]

Critic: Now that I think of it, you seem like the type that wouldn’t have to join a band of hippies to be taught sexual perversions. You probably know about them already.
Respondent: That’s true. I’ve made a lifelong study of sex. [Fogging]

Critic: Yes, but I can see from your sneaky, beady eyes that you have already put some of them into practice. [Fogging]
Respondent: You may be right. [Fogging]

Critic: You shouldn’t grin when you are told what’s good for you.
Respondent: That’s true, I shouldn’t. [Fogging]

Critic: All you do is agree with me.
Respondent: You’re right. [Fogging]

Critic: You sound like a yes-man with no spine or personality of his own.
Respondent: I do sound like that, don’t I? [Fogging]

Critic: You don’t sound like one, you are a yes-man!
Respondent: You may be right. [Fogging]

Critic: You’re doing it again.
Respondent: That’s true, I am. [Fogging]

Critic: I don’t think you can say anything but “Yes” to someone!
Respondent: I can certainly see why you think that. [Fogging]

Critic: Well, can you say “No” and mean it?
Respondent: Perhaps. [Fogging]

Critic: Don’t you know?
Respondent: We’ll have to see, won’t we?

Additional points on Fogging

1. It forces the respondent to listen to exactly what the critic says. If the critic says, for example, “you sound like …” the learner replies, “You’re right, I do sound like …”. If he says, “I think that you …” the learner replies, “I can see that you do think that …” or “I can understand why you would think that …”. The respondent responds only to what the critic actually says, not what is implied or what the novice thinks the criticism implies. It teaches the respondent to be a good listener, to listen to what is actually said – not to read minds – by the critic instead of interpreting what is said to conform to the novice’s own self-doubts and insecurities, what we all secretly feel or think.

2. It also forces the respondent to think in terms of probabilities – what he would be willing to bet money on, not in absolutes, in yes or no, blacks or whites, 100 per cent or zero. Indeed, the respondent may be a bit lazy on the job, but he still gets the job done. His hair probably does have some foreign matter on it, unless he just stepped into the classroom dripping wet from the shower stall. His sexual behaviour (or lack of it) would likely be described as perverse by aficionados at both ends of the erotic spectrum. In short, any critical comment will have at least a grain of truth in it, depending upon the relative vantage point from which his behaviour and personality are viewed.

3. Sensitive people might ask: “How can I agree with someone who tells me something that is not true. I’m not going to lie about myself!” Questions of this type are either prompted by deep feelings of insecurity about that very criticism that is “not true,” i.e. the critique strikes a bit too close to home for comfort, or the respondent has such a general lack of confidence in himself that he desperately needs to hang on to those positive things about himself; he is unable to suffer any slander about them.

In working with these people, an assertiveness trainer might say something like: “For example, if someone says you are dumb, what do you say? You aren’t dumb, are you? (Person always shakes head in negative.) Well, congratulations! You are very lucky, because speaking for myself, I’m very dumb. Sometimes I do very stupid things. Other times I’m brilliant, but a lot of times I’m dumb. Also dumb in comparison to what? In comparison to famous scientists, I’m a village idiot. On the other hand, in comparison to a lot of people I know, I’m a positive genius. So when I’m told that I’m dumb, I can readily agree with it. You’re probably right; compared to some people, I’m really dumb, and compared to myself, sometimes I’m a real clod. So I listen to what people tell me about myself in all things, and give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they may be right, but then I still make my own judgment about it and do what I decide.


Smith, M. J. (1989). When I say no, I feel guilty. New York: Bantam.

Related posts
Assertiveness: Introduction
Assertiveness: Our Rights
Assertiveness: ACTIVE responding to complaints, criticism and put-downs

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