Wednesday, September 13, 2006

a lesson in assertive communication

This morning my boss and I are going over some items of business:

Boss: And where are we with “Director of Something on Campus” about
“Certain Project”?

Me: Ball’s in his court. I sent him my stuff, he said he and “Subordinate of Director” would review it and call me to set up a meeting.

Boss: When did you send it to him?

Me: Maybe a month ago?

Boss: Will you follow up please and ask him the status?

Me: Yep.

I send “Director of Something” an email and copy Boss:

Hi “Director”! I’m following up with you regarding “Certain Project”. My recollection is that you and “Subordinate” were to “do some stuff with the stuff I sent you”. After your review of “stuff”, I believe you were going to get back to me with a proposed time to meet? I know "Boss" is anxious to get started, so if I’ve dropped the ball here I apologize. Where are we with this? Mary

Not a minute after I send this off, Boss comes into my office and shuts the door. She opens her mouth to say something, but hesitates. She’s thinking about it…she’s looking up at the sky to see the words to use…and then says:

Boss: A lesson in Assertive Communication 101 for you…

Me: Oh boy…

Boss: You know you did not drop the ball on this one. I need you to be more assertive on this.

Me: [sigh] Yeah, okay.

Boss: I know that “Director of Something” is far more likely to drop balls than you are, but your taking the wishy-washy approach doesn’t help me prove that.

Me: Right. Sorry.

Boss: Don’t be sorry! Stop being a girl! Girls are sooo good at saying “sorry”,
almost as if they have to in order to the fill the gaps in conversation! It’s a girl thing to do! Don’t be a girl!!!

[I look at her sheepishly.]

This isn’t a scolding, Mary. I say this to you because you’re smart and I care about you and you’re going places. Do you have the last email you sent “Director of Something” where you confirmed that the ball was in his court?

Me: Yes.

Boss: Send that to him again. Copy me. Tell him you’re following up from this email of such-and-such date.

Me: Okay.

Boss: Don’t be a girl! Be a woman! Not a girl!

Boss comes in five minutes later with a two-page article for me entitled: “Communication with Conviction” by Dave Jensen of dated 21 November 2003. She’s highlighted the following excerpt for me: “Do women have any unique communication issues that can affect their career progress?” Then later in bold face, it reads: Stop saying “I’m sorry.” Women apologize much more frequently than men, even when they haven’t done anything wrong.

My take-away: My boss is a strong woman who has had to kick a few keysters to get where she is; and no doubt about it she deserves the respect she most certainly has from her colleagues. But this is not a gender issue; this is a communication issue. It is something that both men and women have to develop. One commenter wrote “avoid the extremes, either too confrontational or too soft.” I agree. Isn’t that true for everyone though?

Now that I'm really thinking about it, I do see my own fetish with assuming blame before others have the chance to assign it to me, even when I know it’s not mine to own. Somehow I think this will “soften hearts” and set an example of openness; it will take people off the defensive if I don’t accuse or insinuate. I’ve seen this tactic work most effectively with other women, perhaps because it is a familiar strategy to us and, like a friendly game of Candy Land, we are happy to follow the rules we all know and love. But as far as communicating with men, I have to say it’s probably had less effective results. Perhaps what all my so-called humble, misplaced admissions do for men, in general, is send the message that I can be easily undermined, I will take the blame for everything if you want me to, and above all I am not one to be taken seriously.

The more I think on it, the more I begin to see evidence of this propensity with nearly all men, not just in the workplace. Holy crap! Maybe that’s what I’m doing wrong!

Peggy always tells me she has seen me make no bones about calling out any woman I love on her crap whenever I see her undermine herself or do something that stands in her way of happiness. I never mince words when I see one of my girls in trouble, or if she’s done something unfair to me and I need to set it right. I am not afraid to speak confidently with women. I am not so with men. (unless, of course, he happens to be homeless.)

HOWEVER, I still think this is a communication issue, not a gender issue. And that is so not a contradiction. I have imposed this disparity on myself based on painful experiences and personal choices. I blame myself for this, and rightly so this time! (Ironic, isn’t it?) My communication style with men is different from that with women because I choose to make it different, that doesn't make it a gender issue - - just Mary-is-a-little-screwy issue. Men aren't asking me to be spineless. To the contrary I’m sure!!!

Man. I have GOT to figure this out already. Quite the day for startling self-revelation! I need a Diet Coke.

I know I don't even know you, so I could be WAY off in this one, but it seems to me that your behavior toward your boss (a woman) was similar to the behavior that she's telling you that you need to fix. You apologized and you were sheepish---she had to reassure you that she was not scolding you. Again, I don't know you, but maybe you are more assertive with those you feel equal to. That would put men in an "unequal" category and also bosses and authority figures.

Yay? Nay?

Regardless, I think that it is much more of a female trait to assume blame and apologize.
I suppose I agree, Cic. And excellent point you bring up about the power differential. Regardless of gender, if there is a power discrepancy, there goes my sense of empowerment!

Are you available Tuesdays and Thursdays? Noon to Five? What's your hourly rate?
One of my attorney mentors once told me that I need to work on advocating for myself, especially as I look for a job. She said I need to go right to the edge of what I'm comfortable with, and then go a couple of steps further.

I know she's right, but it's difficult because I am a) a peacemaker, and b) don't want to be seen as a snot/pushy. But who wants a lawyer whose not a little pushy, right?

{Are you using Blogger Beta? Because it's being difficult with my comments}
Kell: unfortunately, I am on beta. worst mistake. they say the "feature" of being able to post comments on a beta blog as yourself are "coming soon." dumb Blog. Stupid, ugly, dumb.

btw: I had totally forgotten that INFJ's do desire peace over all most times. You and Cicada are really helping me figure this out. Coolness!
I loved this blog. Your boss sounds like a wonderful woman. And I must say, having know you in a different situation this is not the Mary I know. I didn't even know what this blog was going to be about and when I read "if I've dropped the ball here, I apologize", I thought why would Mary add that? I think Cicada may be right that this is about power. It sounds like your boss thinks of you as an equal (which is wonderful) so you should too. Love you.
D: you're so right! I don't think I apologized for anything in graduate school!

except that one time when I totally blew up at Scott in class, remember that? Holy cow. That was so funny.
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