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My journey to assertiveness

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Assertivity is something I am not as good as I would like to be. This current lack of skill manifests itself in my fear of conflicts and being rejected. So this is my journal to becoming more assertive.

09.06.10: Last week a female colleague (secretary) asked me: "why? you only take boys?" when I asked if the patient was a girl or a boy in a tone implying that I was homosexual. I said nothing in the moment and later I realized this was disrespectful. So I went back to her and asked her: "why did you say this last time?" in a very gentle way. She answered: "oh it must have been a 2 cents joke from mine". Conclusion: I'm happy I was assertive and she just deflated like a ballon.

11.06.20: Tonight, my supervisor as I was trying to write something on a computer while answering her question and had trouble to do both at the end of a long day and she said: "Ah, this is the typical mono-synaptic way of men of thinking". In the past I would have waited a couple of days as above. This time, I went back to her before leaving her and told her: "when you told me that, I think it was not very respectful". She said first: "it was a joke", then "you're right", then "I hear you", then after me saying nothing: "excuse me" (without meaning it) and after that: "it's good that you told me that" (happy).  Conclusion : I'm happy that I've been assertive with her, but I now understand that her agressivity towards me is real. I think in this case, either she does not like guys or she has a problem with me (or likes me), either way I think her behavior is disgusting.

At my work I work with an overwhelming majority of females. I don't even register it, since for me people are people. But I have to say that females can be VERY passive-agressive, as these are all females examples.

Writing this, made me remember that you wrote something about that in your book "Ultimate Power" about fake jokes (but real attacks, really), I'm going to read it. Only practice matters and I'm happy I decided to practice assertivity. Thanks to your website, I now see much better the power moves and the power players. I also see how far I still have to go as it seems they've been practicing their whole life.

Hey John,

Yeah, assertiveness is super important.
And it's quite rare, actually.

Most people are too much on the submissive side, but even more aggressive people often lack assertiveness, so they just actually move from submission to aggression, without that sweet spot in the middle.

Journaling: New Section

Man, love this idea of chronicling one's own development!

I do it and recommending others doing it, too.
But writing publicly is even better, as that tends to provide some pressure to improve the quality, and add lessons learned. Plus, one might get some feedback on it, too.

OK for you if I move this to a new section dedicated to journals?


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Oh, and some quick feedback on those interactions:

LOVE these examples.
Very, very good.

Secretary: Explain why it was not a good joke

With the secretary, you could have also explained why it was not a good joke.

For example, saying something like:

I appreciate good jokes, I like having a relaxed relationship with you.
But you know, there are also good jokes and not so good ones. Making jokes with boys in this day and age it's not exactly what one would want to hear (implying that pedophily is real, and it's not something to be joked about)

Explaining why you enforce boundaries is what can make the difference between someone who likes to throws his weight around, and someone who seeks respect within a collaborative and friendly relationship.

That's why it's a good habit to develop to explain why you are pushing back on this or that joke, or this or that behavior.
Also helpful in intimate relationships outside of work.

Supervisor: strike conciliator tone after you've enforced boundaries

When your supervisor started backtracking, you could have added "it's OK, no worries".

Once you made your point and got the apology, you don't want to always and necessarily go out of your way to dominate people or making them squeak until they come 360 -even if you might have the power to so-.
After you enforced your boundaries and got to the point where she said "you're right", or to point when she apologized, you could have striken the conciliatory tone.

It's as if to say "that was not cool, but now we clarified, you won't do it again, so now we are cool".
Ie.: you are strict on actions and words, but not on the person (big difference).

The conciliatory tone plus a smile would have also helped to mend the emotional side of the relationship and make it more friendly/collaborative, which is also good for your career.

Overall, thumbs up, well done.


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Explaining why you enforce boundaries is what can make the difference between someone who likes to throws his weight around, and someone who seeks respect within a collaborative and friendly relationship.

This is worth a pound of gold. I want also to specify that I work in pediatrics, so it was more of a boy vs girl than pedophilia as a context. But who knows? Her stupidity might go beyond my imagination.

Ie.: you are strict on actions and words, but not on the person (big difference).

This is great. With her I also have another problem. It's that I don't like her because she's so focused on the work that she's not really caring about the people (the team) and it showed in this interaction. So yes she's effective, yes she's fast, but so what? We work in a hospital not a factory. Many people tend to forget it. Be effective, fast AND kind.

Thank you very much for the feed-back, I'm considering myself a student of yours regarding all these topics so if you're saying I'm on the right track, it's encouraging to me. Regarding the journal section: yes of course!

The post that helped me changed my mindset is when I read on TPM that nobody has the right to disrespect me. That changed my mindset as nobody taught this to me before. Reading this helped me to challenge my supervisor. I think it was the post on not letting people undermine you.

I also want to stress that the reason I didn't say "it's all good" is because in her apologies, there was not the emotional part of acknowledging that I felt disrespected. All she's focussed on is showing her bosses how a good employee she is. Do you have an opinion on this part of the equation ?When somebody apologizes but doesn't put the emotional work into it?

Here is a follow-up: my supervisor apologized formally by email. I thanked her, accepted her apologies, told her that her words and gesture was honoring her and that on my side, it was all good.

Now, we have a much better relationship and now she trusts me more and supports me more.

So, this is to say that being assertive was the right choice both for my self-esteem and self-respect and my relationship with my supervisor.

Another victory I want to share:

Yesterday, I was going to give my colleague a case she wanted to handle (a suture as she likes surgery) out of courtesy but she was already seeing a patient so I had to do it myself in the end for the sake of the patient's time (was waiting) and my chief was asking me to do it.

She reacted (though I told her first I would let her do it) and told me: "you're annoying ("t'es chiant" in french)" in an angry tone, which in french is not something you tell a colleague and it's quite rude. If said in a playful tone between good friends while joking around or lovers while flirting  it's ok, otherwise it's a no-no (in french).

So I thought I was going to write her a message but then I thought I'm going to tell her face-to-face. But we were not going to work together before 2 days.

So I called her up and told her that between colleagues it's better if we don't talk like that. She apologized and (she's a power player) tried to frame it as I was over-sensitive since I was calling her, which I reframed as I like things to be clear (clarification) and I like to tell things and people tell me things (transparency, honesty, directness and truth) and that the sooner the better (not letting fester hard feelings). I kept the collaborative frame and warmth ("I hope you could enjoy the sun today") and told her that in the beginning I was also doing a lot of overtime that is normal (supportive frame). I also used a firm but warm tone of voice during the phone call. So I ended the interaction on a high note. I also did not frame it as I was coming from a moral authority or judging her ("it happens to me as well"), which let her open up about a similar situation when she did not tell a medical student and then they could not talk about it anymore after that.

So here are the lessons I learned, which I think can be beneficial for other forum members:

  1. Every opportunity to be assertive is an opportunity to learn how to be assertive in a better way: this means that it's better to do it badly than not doing it at all. Practice, practice, practice.
  2. If you are not being assertive, you are carrying the burden: unloading it as early as possible is self-love and self-respect.
  3. It's better to be the professional colleague than the "friend" colleague: respect trumps being liked in the workplace and in life in general.
  4. For communication:
    1. Talk face-to-face if you can
    2. Call on the phone if you cannot talk face-to-face
    3. Send a message if you cannot call on the phone

It's a classical move that when you enforce your boundaries, it will be framed by the other party as you being butthurt. That's where the genius move from Lucio comes from: to explain why you enforce your boundaries. It makes you vulnerable and personal and it actually gives you power. A calm and friendly tone of voice will also negate the above attack.

I'm applying the knowledge I'm gaining from the course and from the forum and it works quite well for me.

Lucio Buffalmano and have reacted to this post.

Great stuff, John, great stuff!

Another possible good way of framing you enforcing the boundaries is to tell beforehand that you respect the person.

Sometimes I do when I have strong disagreement with someone, then I might say something like:

Look, let me preface this very quickly. We are not what we say. You are bigger than whatever you say, and bigger than your beliefs as well. That's why I believe we can be though on things we say, while being respectful of people. And I respect YOU as a person, OK?
Now, that being said, here what I completely disagree with....

You can see it a similar situation in action from a movie scene as well in this recent post here: has reacted to this post.
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This is very powerful information. Thank you very much!

Thanks also for the encouragement!

Here is one of my encounters today:

I was at work and an attending surgeon (1 level above me and from another field, so not directly a higher-up) comes to me while I was typing stuff on my computer and she says (yes it's a woman):

"Are you scratching your balls?" in a loud and aggressive voice (yes she really said that as an introduction)

I was shocked and dumbfounded and lost for words. The 2 nurses nearby where also embarrassed.

I said something like: "I just finished to see a patient and currently typing his file"

So she tried to avoid it by changing the frame: "I did not say you were doing nothing" (I did not say you were lazy)

I said: "Well, I'm a bit shocked"

And she said something I don't remember"

I repeated: "Well I'm a bit shocked" (I really was)

She said: "Oh this new generation" (like we are all wimps now and they're so tough, whereas I'm probably older than her but she does not know it because I look young)

Then she apologized (she was red as a beetroot).

"M. (other resident) is busy right now but I need help to do a cast (for a broken leg)"

I said "sure I come right away". She apologized once more after that. I think 3 times in total. I also said to her: "it's forgiven" (Power move, yes). In the past I would have said "It's forgotten" or "it's nothing", but I know better now.

Then (new social intelligence) I asked one of the nurse an external feed-back and she said that she would have used humor instead of what I did but that there was such a difference in tone when she approached me that she was really embarrassed.  So I think I did a good job.

I agree I could have used humor.

Thank you Lucio, your material is working great.

You can see here that a woman in surgery who supposedly had a tough time and had a lot of sexist attack throughout her career used the same bullying tactics on a bystander (she's not even my direct supervisor, as she's in surgery, so I was just there at this moment) as she's been exposed to. That also shows that even the people who got abused can fall into the same trap. I choose to be a honest and respectful man. Whatever other people are doing.

Oh, and yes it was a showdown, and I won. Hopefully I read the material yesterday about it 😉

Final point: after that I spoke to her on the phone and of course she was nice and respectful. I won. By "I" I mean the value of respect has won.

Value-adding not value-subtracting.

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