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Defending against shaming attacks at work

Hello guys,

here is the context: one of the executive physicians (2 levels about me, a “higher-up”) of my team shamed me yesterday. He’s very tall, large, very very intelligent, very professional and has worked in several countries and did research. He’s the real deal.

At the end of the day we hand off the responsibility of patients to the team of physicians which will be taking care of them during the night and/or week-ends.

As I presented a patient, I said “this patient , THIS “name of syndrome” ...

He blew up. “What?!?”

Then he went on to lecture me as that I did not have respect of patients in my heart because I identified this person with their disease. I did not really know what to say as at this moment I did not know what had happened.

Actually he was pissed of for some reason (maybe I was part of it, don’t know) and he lashed out on me and the other resident for some minor mistake.

So  I learned that these handoffs are actually highly political. It’s actually an opportunity for the team to act out their rivalries. And we are often pawns in these. We either demonstrate our supervisor of the day ability or lack thereof. We also demonstrate ours.

I think it was a good idea not to defend myself if I did not understand what was at stake. However today I feel the shame in my heart as I accepted his judgment. I’m working on the whole “taking away the permission to hurt me”. I got hurt because this authority figure whom I respected abused me verbally even if subtly. Maybe he’s angry because I’m late in my discharge letters or some other reason I don’t know.

From now on I have 2 options: to assert or not to assert. I choose to assert as you know. I’m going to tell him that it was a misunderstanding, that we share the respect for the patients and that I purposefully said “patient, THIS” and instead of “with this disease” to remove a word to save time and not to identify them with their disease. It’s the truth.

Also mostly because I never know how much I should say about a patient during a handoff because it’s either too much or too little as they are poor at explaining how to do this simple task properly. I will omit the last part in this paragraph with him of course.

This also reinforced that even though I changed service I won’t be able to thrive in this environment. We spend a lot of time organizing stuff and writing documentation. There is also a lot of politics. We spent little time actually doing and learning medicine. So they over value what they bring to the table. Lausanne is a good place if you stay put and shut your mouth and play the game. But if you want to rise or innovate, not so much.

What do you think?

I will write a post soon and open a debate about defending oneself.

I see now it's in the wrong forum ("work"), would it be possible to move it please? Sorry and thanks a lot!

Hey John,

From the sound of it, I also like the option of asserting yourself.
It wasn't cool behavior to publicly attack someone's morals and ethics and imply he does not care about people. And it's fair to call it out.

It might not be the easiest talk to have, but that's OK.

One idea to make the message go down smoother, is to use his own request of treating people humanly as a positive frame.
Something like:

Let me first say that I really appreciate your message of treating people humanly.
That's what I also admire about you, and something I deeply buy into.
Which leads me to what happened the other day.
Even though the intention, to treat patients humanly, is great, I felt humiliated to be yelled / reprimand publicly at the handover meeting.

That's the standard assertion format with "I feel".

Higher power would be:

Even though the intention, to treat patients humanly, is great, I don't think it was fair to yell at me.

If you want to add a huge power move, it would be something like:

As much as we treat patients with human respect, so I expect the same basic human decency as a human being myself.

You might also add this one later, once you see he is not getting too defensive, and then it's safer to land it.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Hello Lucio,

thank you very much for taking the time to answer to me. Yes, I'm ready to challenge myself with this new step in assertion. As I wrote down this guy is very high in power: physically, in knowledge, in status, in professionalism. He also has a matching ego, but I would say so far I don't think he's pathologically narcisstic. He has a huge ego but I can see that he is able and has done introspection.

So I have to be very careful as it's the swiss medical context: hierarchical, polite, self-effacing. Thanks for having put the different shades and I will go with the first one. I'll stay only 3 months there and I'm the new guy.

So in this case you would use the word "feel" and talk about your emotions, even though it's a professional context and he's a higher up?

This person is both very high in intellect and emotions so it might fly. He might be one of the most intense person I met. I'm sure he faced his share of social challenges. But he comes from upper-middle class or upper class so he learned many of the social games both from his upbringing and from his profession. And I can see his parents were smart enough to steer him through life challenges by taking into account his extreme personality.

As I said I'm ready to take my assertion skills to the next level. If I fail, at least I will learn from it. I can always apologize and explain my intentions behind it if it goes south.

Hey John,

When I wrote "it might not be the easiest talk to have, but that's OK" I actually reworded it from an initial strong statement to frame it more lightly.

But yeah, you know this chat will be a "stretch assignment", as they say :).
And that's good.

I actually thought you were at your last days of the previous assignment, and that would have empowered you.
But as the new guy then, yes, the power move option might be too high a risk.

Yes, I'd use the word "feel" in this case for two reasons:

  1. It's as much a matter of human feelings here, as of work. And, even more importantly:
  2. To soften the blow

It's a way of softening the blow, so it doesn't seem like you're trying to attack his authority or subvert the power dynamics.

Consider that he probably feels he has earned that power position (and it might be true). So when you talk to him as if you were dispensing certitudes -"you were way too harsh there"-, that's a judge power frame, and it's somewhat understandable that he might feel that his power positioned is not being respected.

This is also part of calibrating assertion, it can't be delivered always the exact same.

When some time ago we both agreed that the "feel" wasn't good at work, I was mostly thinking of more technical questions, and with colleagues and folks who were around the same level.

But this is a case where the human element is stronger.
And the power dynamics are different.
So it's probably a good political move to use "I feel", and it doesn't take anyway from the assertive power of re-enforcing the boundaries of fair treatment.

DELIVER SPEED

As a last note, I'd deliver that intro faster than you'd normally speak.
Not super fast, mind you, but a bit faster.

Speaking too slow it's a power move of its own, as it sub-communicates "I control the pace, and can impinge on your time".
Speaking a bit faster in that intro instead says "I really must tell you this, but at the same time I also know you're busy and I respect your time". Which is also why you want to keep the intro meaningful, but not too long.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Yes, I'd use the word "feel" in this case for two reasons:

  1. It's as much a matter of human feelings here, as of work. And, even more importantly:
  2. To soften the blow

It's a way of softening the blow, so it doesn't seem like you're trying to attack his authority or subvert the power dynamics.

Consider that he probably feels he has earned that power position (and it might be true).

I'm 100% on board with your reasoning.

Consider that he probably feels he has earned that power position (and it might be true).

He definitely has. He spent 10 years abroad in the US and UK in leadership positions and has a PhD.

DELIVER SPEED

As a last note, I'd deliver that intro faster than you'd normally speak.
Not super fast, mind you, but a bit faster.

I'm on board as well. As if to sub-communicate: I recognize that I'm a little ant in the ant nest. Then the rest is : I might be a little ant but I'm a little ant who still deserves respect.

If I understand you well, you would not linger on the misunderstanding nor even talk about it but just insist on the way he treated me?

I thought about talking about the misunderstanding. That the words I used were the wrong ones but that what I meant was what he meant.

Yes, it is a stretch goal, I agree.

I understand that you want to clarify that.
And I'd feel the same.

The thing is, talking too directly or too much at length about the misunderstanding risks of coming across defensive, like a justification and excuse-making.

Imagine this situation:

You'd tell a woman "you talk about men like they are dicks with a person attached, that's SO demeaning".
And then the day after she comes to you to explain the misunderstanding.
She says "no John, you got me totally wrong". And she explains how much she enjoys emotional connection, and that she's not about random sex, and that she's never had a one night stand and... See the power dynamics?
She'd be giving all the power to you (you become "the judge", setting the frame of what's moral/good, and she jumping the hoops to prove herself to you based on your expectations).

It's somewhat similar here.
If you stress the misunderstanding more than you stress the need for respectful communication, it seems like you're going to him to win him back, more than you are talking to him to demand proper communication.

That being said, clarification is still good.
One because it's true, and two because it's a good idea be on the same page with a higher-up.

To avoid making it too much of self one-down, you could either:

  1. Clarify after you've drawn your boundaries
  2. Embed the clarification within the boundaries re-affirmation

This part here already was addressing the misunderstanding:

That's what I also admire about you, and something I deeply buy into.

To which you might add something like:

The other day at the team meeting I xpressed myself poorly.
I wanted to save time, and instead it came across as if I didn't care about the patient, which is the exact opposite of who I am.
I chose this job because I care deeply.
That's the first thing. And second, I also wanted to tell you that..

Such as, as long as it's 50/50, you're good.
If the justification takes more than 50%, then you'd be leaving too much power on the table.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

@Matthew, was a post of yours lost, or did you delete?

I seem to remember some good stuff I had read and thought "gotta reply to this".

If the former, sorry about that, I asked SiteGround to check something on the website and maybe the rolled the website back of a few minutes to fix some missteps.

DRAWING BOUNDARIES RIGHT AWAY

Matthew said something about enforcing your boundaries right away.

It's difficult when you're caught off guard.

This is why one good idea could be to just throw a quick comment in here, which would work like frame shocking:

Him: (shouting) how can you call a patient by his deseases, don't you have some respect for a human being?
You: That's very aggressive, I don't accept that

Or:

You: That's rude to yell at me like that

Something similar, short and quick with which you reject the tone of the communication, without addressing the content.

It's possible he keeps on yelling, and that you will not have a chance to add anything more.
It's OK, you've drawn your line in the sand already. And the more he yells, the more he confirms that he is being out of line.
You can shake your head while he keeps yelling, and you'll look far superior (covert power move, but it's a high-quality move in this situation).

It "just" takes some pelotas, but a single quick sentence is far easier, and far more natural, than coming up with a proper reply.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Very generous of you to check.
I was typing out a response to John's 2nd post. (The reply to your first reply)
But you wrote a reply to his post faster than me.
I did not realise this till I submitted the post.
The context changed, so I decide to delete the post.
But now I realised now that it still roughly fits the context and flow.

My Suggested Response

I was suggesting drawing a boundary assertively with

  1. a collaborative tone
  2. professionalism from the lens of a conducive environment and productive problem-solving.

I wanted to clarify the situation earlier.
Yes, it was intense.   (acknowledge the fast-paced nature of the situation so the yelling may not be completely out of place)
We both had the same intentions of treating patients humanly.  (align on a common objective and build rapport)

That being said, I don't think it was fair to yell at me.  (assert your boundary that being yelled at is not acceptable)
If we treat our colleagues with the same level of respect as our patients,  (making it less personal and showing concern for the team's atmosphere)
we could move the situation forward swiftly in a calm manner.  (collaborative problem solving)

I highly respect your authority in this domain.  (give him back power)
It would allow me to learn how you approach these scenarios better with a level-head.  (frame a postive mentor-mentee relationship)

Framing this as how you would like to work together which men prefer rather than a more personal matter. (From Power University, Career Strategies)

It may be quite long, and hard to deliver at a faster cadence as mentioned in the previous posts.

Handling the Yelling on the Spot

It does seem challenging to enforce your boundaries right away when caught off guard.

My original response was a bit long:

Him: (shouting) how can you call a patient by his diseases, don't you have some respect for a human being?
You: Yes, this situation is intense. You seem to have a different opinion. How can we approach this calmly?

Maybe we could shorten it to

Him: (shouting) how can you call a patient by his diseases, don't you have some respect for a human being?
You: Let's be calm. (indirectly saying that shouting is out of place)
How do you prefer to address patients? (his way of addressing patients is his preference but not a law)

If I imagine myself to be in this context, I may say something like

Him: (shouting) how can you call a patient by his diseases, don't you have some respect for a human being?
You: What do you prefer? (in a firm tone)

(Then draw boundaries afterwards)

But this is more direct and draws boundaries right away. Very efficient.
I will go for this in my situations as well.

Quote from Lucio Buffalmano on November 29, 2020, 3:29 pm

You: That's very aggressive, I don't accept that

Or:

You: That's rude to yell at me like that