The other day I felt a great wave of relief. I’d spent weeks planning a tough meeting for a client, and, thank goodness, it went well. Strangers came together as stakeholders in a new change management initiative. People laughed, made agreements, and started new relationships. I felt relieved – no, pretty good – as I was collecting notes, markers, and flip charts.
Then one of the participants, an older gentleman, came up to me and said, in a dull voice, “Well, young lady, thank you for your efforts.”
I was stunned and annoyed, but I didn’t show it. Smiling, I said nothing besides, “You’re welcome.”
Calling me a “young lady” and thanking me for my “efforts” when the meeting was a smashing success made me feel inadequate and diminished. This person had been a contrarian throughout our session, whose occasional biting remarks tested me as a facilitator. Now, in a private moment, he had the last word, because I fell silent.
I don’t like power plays or fighting for dominance, but I do like standing up for myself. The problem is, believing in it and acting it out are two different things!
We all get tested on our ability to stand up for ourselves (even the gentleman above, I’m sure). And sometimes we are the ones who test others and need a reminder about how to treat others respectfully. The question is, what do we do when we are treated disrespectfully? How are we accustomed to dealing with it?
A confession – I’m often silent. And in staying silent, I reinforce my sense of powerlessness. In the moment, I’m paralyzed by shock – I can’t believe this person said that! I also avoid conflict. I think to myself, “I don’t want to embarrass them by calling them out in front of everyone.”
That’s how I was socialized into the world. It’s my conditioned deference, and it’s especially true if the person in question is older or in some sort of position of authority. I defer to elders and to authority figures because I grew up believing it’s the respectful, proper, and polite thing to do. Hold your tongue, let it go. All of us who have grown up in an authoritarian family or culture, or spent a great deal of time with autocratic leaders and managers can relate to this.
Rather than remaining silent, I’d like to practice new skills to reclaim my footing when I’m thrown off by passive-aggressive or otherwise upsetting behavior. Here are some examples:
Make it an inquiry
I hear: “Well, young lady…”
I say: “Oh, interesting. How young do I look?”
I hear: “Well, some of us are a lot more efficient than others.” (A comment I recently heard elsewhere)
I say: “Hmm. What do you mean?” Or, “What makes you say that?”
Make it a correction
I hear: “Well, young lady…”
I say: “Actually, I’m 43 years old” (and say it with a smile). Or, “Actually, not so young. But I appreciate that my youthful looks are so deceiving.”
I hear: “I appreciate your efforts to help us…”
I say: “Not efforts. Great success – don’t you think?” (smile again)
Buy time and promise to revisit the encounter
I hear: “Well, thank you for your efforts.”
I say: “Efforts? Let’s talk later and debrief on that.”
Backpedal and rewind
I hear: “Well, some of us are a lot more efficient than others.”
Later I say: “I’m thinking about what you said a few minutes ago. Can we talk about efficiency for a moment? You know how much I value quality and depth.” or “I’m remembering our conversation from this morning. Do you have a few minutes?”
Reclaiming our footing not only defends our dignity, but it also helps us relate to someone in a different way, so we can learn something about each other. This is how we build deeper – or at least more honest – relationships. This is how we come to understand each other better, how we make corrections to our perceptions and behavior. This is how we create community within the workplace.
And it’s so hard – and risky – to do. When I’m the one with the offending remark or behavior, I’m so grateful when someone trusts that I mean no harm, that I make mistakes, and they forgive me. It’s much easier to do that when we make time for the inquiries, the corrections, the revisits, and the backpedals. That’s my promise to myself. I will speak up for myself, and for the sake of others and for community-building.