Hundreds of federal employees have taken training in it, hundreds more are waiting to take it and the government is spending thousands of dollars to provide it.
Those who teach it, and those who hire the teachers, disagree over what it is.
It is called assertiveness training and it has become a popular part of federal programs for women across the country.
The training workshops are supposed to help women (and sometimes men who wish to attend) unlearn certain kinds of self-defeating behavior patterns and find what one expert calls the "golden mean" between submission and aggression in expressing their feelings.
The growing dispute among experts centers who is qualified to conduct these sessions and whether the government should adopt standards to protect the less "stable" employee-participants from psychic harm or from learning "obnoxious" behavior patterns.
"If the government wants to purchase widgets, there are specifications, but in human relations, there are no spectifications," says Dr. Gloria Harris, a psychologist and expert in assertiveness training who is pushing the government to adopt rigorous standards.
Others maintain that such standards are unnecessary and would unfairly eliminate competent people from competing for government contracts to conduct the training workshops.
The dispute is partly about definitions: When a federal agency buys an assertiveness training workshop for its employees, is it offering them a form of behavior modification - psychotheraphy - that can be harmful to certain people and that should be conducted by a licensed psychologist?
Or is it offering an educational experience like typing or tennis lessons?
Some nonpsychologists maintain that assertiveness training is basically an old management training technique travelling under a faddish new label and that all of this talk of endangered psyches is a scare tactic used by psychologists to keep others out of the competition.
At present, the definitions vary from agency to agency.
Most assertiveness training workshops encourage the participants to discuss their individual problems, and to act out hypothetical conflicts (such as dealing with someone who cuts in line ahead of you, or with an overly demanding boss, or with a waiter who brings you the wrong order) and teach techniques for handling such situations. The workshops are not all conducted with the same scope and intensity, according to the experts, and not all participants are equally well suited to take the training.
Myrna Fogle, a staff assistant at the Department of Agriculture, is one of assertiveness training's success stories. After attending a three-day government sponsored workshop she was "inspired" to ask her boss for a promotion and raise she felt were overdue - and, she said, "it worked."
"The course gave me confidence and helped me realize that I was responsible for what happens to me and that if I don't look out for myself, nobody else will, she said. "I also learned how to say no to people without feeling guilty."
Though Fogle said she was no shrinking violet to begin with, she said she "couldn't believe the experiences some of the women shared with us about how shy they were. They'd go to pieces over nothing. One girl talked about how her boss made her do his personal errands and cleaning on her lunch hour, so that she didn't even have time to eat. She said after the workshop she felt she could say no to her boss."
Psychologists and training experts also tell stories about emotional reactions in some workshop participants, such as tears, or impulsive revelations about their sex lives, past suicide attempts or other personal problems. These reactions can be harmful to the individuals and to the group as a whole, they say, if not handled skillfully.
Some professional express concern not only about possible psychiatric casualties but also over what one terms the "host of abnoxious trainers and trainers and trainees who fail to separate 'assertion' from 'agression'
Such concerns reflect the ambiguities that abound in the psychologists services industry at large, with its assortment of "growth groups," of which assertiveness training is but one variation.
The federal Trade Commission is considering a petition that would require advance disclosure to consumers of the backgrounds of psychological service organizations and their personnel. The petition was submitted in January by Peter N. Geogiages, a student at the George Washington University Law Center, who said his researchshows that "promoters of these services actually operate with fewer legal restrictions than would apply to an ice cream vendor."
A number of influential persons and organizations - notably the American Psychological Assoication and, in the federal forum, the Civil Service Commission - have declined to take an official stand.
Meanwhile, those who compete for federal contracts to conduct assertiveness training workshops are left to . . . well . . . to assert themselves.
"Some people think this is some sort of 'cute' women's lib thing. Well, it is behavior modification, and it's a very potent tool," says Harris, who has conducted a number of assertiveness training sessions for federal agencies.
"People can get themselves fired, or have nervous breakdowns, if their group leaders are not qualified."
Harris is pushing federal agencies to adopt standards requiring licensed psychologists as workshop leaders. She also wants standards as to who should do the hiring and how much should be paid for the workshops.
Co-author of a textbook on assertiveness training, Harris is on the faculty of the Georgetown University School of Continuing Education and is a professor at American University. Harris says the government is not only risking harm to its employees but is also asking for legal trouble when it hires nonlicensed persons to conduct the sessions because they don't have malpractice insurance that licensed psychologists have.
Calling for payment standards, she said a federal agency once paid her $900 a day for conducting a three-day workshop apparently "just because that's what I asked for. I wish I'd asked for more . . . I may be cutting my own throat here, but I want this story out. I'm telling you you can get $900 a day with no competition, no system."
Sarah Risher is among those who might excluded, or forced to hire a licensed psychologist as coleader, under the standards favored by Harris. Risher has conducted assertiveness training workshops several federal agencies as well as nongovernmental organizations. She is not a licensed psychologist, but neither does she consider her workshops to be psychotherapy.
"I do it as an educational model where you learn specific skills, just as you would learn sailing, or basketweaving," she said.
Risher opened her consulting firm. Resources for Women, about a year ago. Her college degree is in philosophy, but she feels she is equipped to conduct assertiveness training workshops because, among other things, she worked with a Washington therapist for four years, has attended numerous psychology workshops and has led large groups in recreation programs for the Red Cross in Korea.
She said the kinds of emotional crises described by Harris "will not happen unless you structure a course for it to happen. But I also know, from past experience and my own leadership abilities, that I could handle it."
Another nonpsychologist who has provided assertiveness training for federal agencies is Denise Cavanaugh, owner of a consulting firm called Cook/Cavanaugh. She recently appealed a requirement by the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that its workshops include a licensed psychologist as senior trainer. The appeal was denied.
She said she does not think government agencies pay her "to solve people's personal problems. They pay us to improve people's skills at the office."
Ron Gurley, head of the employment development branch of APHIS, says he will continue to insist on using licensed clinical psychologists - "or as far as I'm concerned, we don't have the workshops."
Gurley introduced the first government workshop in assertiveness training two years ago at APHIS. The department has spent almost $47,000 on the workshops, which have enrolled 364 women so far.
Because of the Intense atmosphere at the workshops, he said, "many times people divulge things they would not ordinarily do in front of strangers. It hangs over them . . I've seen people freak out in these sessions. We've got to have somebody who can handle this properly."
He said the department has a back-log of over 500 women who want the training. "We considerit beneficial. We don't want to take a chance on somebody running down the hall and jumping through a window."
Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus of Rutgers University, known as a pioneer in the field, says assertiveness training has been "incredibly overdone ," that it is too often seen as an end in itself rather as part of a whole system of psychological support.
As long as certain participants continue to be "terribly anxious, seeking approval from others, you can teach them to be assertive forever and it won't be anything but superficial. And some of these (paraprofessionals) are training aggressive, really obnoxious individuals."
Some people on both sides feel Civil Service Commission could resolve the dispute if it wanted to, but that it "doesn't want to get involved."
According to James R. Beck, director of the Commisssion's bureau of training, his agency doesn't have the right to interfere. "Our prime concern (as described in the federal personnel manual)is that there not be an invasion of personal privacy or inducement of inappropriate stress in the training setting."
Beck said the Commission first became concerned about such considerations with the advent of psychological training groups around 1970. "But we never have given it a label. We try not to give labels to things, particul arly where we don't know what it is."