Assert Yourself Without Being Assertive, and other Lessons I Was Told to Learn

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Over the last two decades, I have been given advice on how to better work on a team by stifling my voice. This will be a blog series on how to unlearn these lessons. In this post I will explore what I was taught and how it impacted me.

Assert Yourself Without Being Assertive, and other Lessons I Was Told to Learn

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by a former English instructor who suggested that Dr. Jill Biden, the new First Lady of the next administration, refrain from using the term Dr. as she is not a medical doctor. Among the many issues with the piece was the over-riding sense of misogyny of a man telling a woman how to refer to herself in any setting, much less a professional one.

It reminded me of how I once bought into this type of environment, believing that changing how I referred to my professional accomplishments would somehow validate the experiences of those around me. What it actually did was diminish my ability to be myself, as I watched people with much less education and experience push forward mediocre and underwhelming projects. I refrained from putting my own education and background to work when it was needed the most because I believed it was in the best interest of others.

What I ultimately learned is that I had been primed for years and years to diminish myself, always to the benefit of the majority, when my accomplishments should have reflected could have benefited the most marginalized among us. I am sharing an update of a post I made last year, in hopes that it helps others see their own experiences as part of a pattern and that what they have seen or experienced is real.

A Reminder of Facebook Posts Past

One of the many benefits of writing a blog based on my work experience is that I get to re-live and deconstruct the experiences that shaped my professional career. Likewise, one of the challenges of writing a blog like this is that I have to re-live and confront the experiences that shaped my career. I have often thought, in retrospect, what to say now that I know better. But in the moments these experiences occurred, I typically trusted those who were my supervisors. One such experience came back to me recently.

A couple of years ago, I wrote on my personal Facebook page an experience that had occured at work. I don’t remember the specific issue that happened in the office but I do remember how I felt that day. The event gave me enough pause to document it, and it showed up in my Facebook Memories recently:

From Facebook, October 2016

I think EdD programs should include a course on how to assert your education and experience, without condescension, among your peers and colleagues.

It’s been a struggle to bring up what I’ve learned or experienced, recently, without receiving feedback that how I’m sharing or what I’m sharing is [unintentionally] excluding others’ experiences.

I am thoughtfully reflecting on this, of course, because I don’t want to be perceived as a jerk. But it’s forcing me to think and rethink every conversation in the past year or so, and how I could have been ‘that guy’ who is clueless about how he impacts others.

And it’s forcing me to think that, even with a terminal degree and nearly two decades of experience, I might not know how to share what I think I know. Because I’m not sure my straight white male peers would have to continue to downplay their positions of privilege (of which my education is one) in order to be seen as a peer.

Rereading this three years later, my thoughts have changed. At the moment this was written, I remember trying to figure out how to be myself. Someone who was more, but wanted to be considered the same as others. This, even when my education and experience, and even my title, was vastly different than those around me. With my intersecting identities, it felt safer to shrink into my experience rather than grow into my expertise.

I plan to explore these experiences in a series of blogs. In this blog post I’ll post some of the experiences that happened to me, and those that I created, that was allegedly supposed to teach me something.

Was I the Only One Feeling This?

To this day, this experience continues to give me pause. And it’s made me wonder if there are others who have had this experience in their lives. I actively made sure I didn’t stand out from those who worked with me and around me.

I have never considered myself a shrinking personality. Since always, I have enjoyed standing out. I like to create and own my own narrative. Someone who is seen as outspoken and who shares what I think and believe. But these behaviors haven’t always been welcomed in my workplaces.

Reflecting now on who told me to stop doing this, I see a pattern. Almost exclusively White people now that I think about it, who identified as cisgendered. Some were supervisors, others were colleagues in the same office. Some of the feedback was direct, others were less obvious but reinforced within the division. But the feedback fell into the following categories:

Don’t Talk First and Offer Your Own Answers

The first incident happened at the start of my career. A supervisor called me out for always raising my hand when feedback in the group was solicited. As an external processor, talking out loud was one of the ways I made sense of any ideas I had. So talking first helped me throw out ideas that I may have had. She said it seemed like I was only interested in hearing my own ideas and not listening to others. Since I didn’t want to be known as someone who didn’t listen to others, I believed her.

For six months, I was asked to sit on my hands in meetings so that I could resist the urge to speak first. This is not hyperbole – I had to physically sit on my hands when in meetings.

I could offer a second or third idea. But I would no longer be called on first when I was part of a meeting. And I had to have fully formed ideas if I wanted to offer something to the group.

Hands raised with Xs over them
I was told not to raise my hand for six months and to avoid talking first in any meetings. How’s that a professional development skill to master?

And I would sit there, physically sitting on my hands, tight-lipped, while my peers talked freely without any such regulations. I joked about being asked to do this, but the shame I didn’t share was real. And during this time I was an interim director of a multicultural affairs department and one of the only people of color in the director’s role, but had to quietly manage the shame alone.

Avoid Referencing Your Past Experiences Doing This Work

In nearly twenty years of work in student affairs I have worked in most student life offices in some capacity. I have worked in student activities, multicultural affairs, and union management. I have coordinated Orientation programs and developed coursework for first year seminars and RA courses. Recently, I have done assessment and evaluation and residence life. I have done large event planning and student policy development, training and supervision.

Strangely, I have been told when I give feedback, referencing my past experience doesn’t allow anyone else to try new ideas. Even if the idea I am presenting is new to the current institution. While I was hired to bring my past experiences with me to the job or office, I just couldn’t talk about them in front of my peers even if it directly related.

This pretty much summed up how I was supposed to talk to my peers in my office. And I am not really exaggerating.

It was like sitting on my hands, again. I could only stare blankly at my peers as they brainstormed ideas that I might have had. Or seen something work more successfully. But I just couldn’t say how to improve it referencing my past.

Your Education is Too (Fill In The Blank) for Us

Reflecting on the Facebook post I showed above, it occurred to me this same thing happen to me before. I worked in an office where I was one of the few people with a Master’s degree in higher education. So when I talked about how to use student development theory to guide our decisions, I was reminded that my education was too (fill in the blank):

  • hard to implement
  • challenging to understand
  • distant from the students we were working with

So while I had the same amount of work experience as others, or sometimes more, in the field I worked in it was challenging to talk about where I learned what I knew. I found it ironic when I talked to students about these same ideas, they wanted to know more. What I was told was “too something or other for our students” to understand never actually happened.

I believe this is what people thought about me when I tried to share what I knew about a subject or topic I was well-versed in.

So I stopped talking about what I had learned, from grad school or at conferences I had attended. I still showed people, but I stopped talking about how I knew what I knew. And it felt like sitting on my hands, all over again.

Messages I Told Myself

Not all of the messages came from people around me. Some were messages I told myself, believing I could create these environments where I didn’t stand out. One issue came back to me as I was brainstorming this blog post.

So when this happened for the last time in my last office, after I received my terminal degree. In fact, after I started my job at this college I recalled the personal conscious decision to avoid being called Dr in front of my name. None of the senior leaders in my division or elsewhere on campus used Dr as an honorific. Based on my past experiences, I didn’t want to draw attention to my education because it had been used as a way to separate me. I thought I would be more actively included if my title was the same as everyone else.

File That Under Unintended Consequences

And it backfired on me, anyway. Our office was responsible for coordinating a campus leadership awards ceremony. Each of our staff introduced another staff member to give out awards. When my name was being edited into the script, I asked for the Dr. title to go before my name. I had earned the doctorate and it felt appropriate at this high-profile event.

And my supervisor, believing he was being humorous, said ‘oh you’re trying to be fancy now, are you?’

GIF of Iggy Azalea from the song Fancy, with the text I'm So Fancy over

I think this what people believed I meant when I wanted to start being addressed by a title I had earned.

Mind you, this was a close friend who had hired me so being humorous with each other was something we did all the time. But the change in my face when he said that told him that wasn’t my intention. But it did start a conversation among my peers in the office asking if they had to start calling me Dr from that point on.

And that wasn’t what I wanted to start at all. Now it wouldn’t have been inappropriate either to be called Dr. before my last name. But this type of attention on my title made me feel very self-conscious. I’m still unsure if self-imposing a rule hurt or helped me in the long run.

I Believed the Spin

Sitting in these memories for the last week has been interesting. For the most part, I have enjoyed working with and for each office I found myself in. And I actively looked for ways to improve myself, particularly when working with others. Back in the day, when speaking to others about these experiences, I tried to spin them as positively as I could.

I was being told to be a better listener, right? My ego needed to be checked with my privilege, right? Not everyone went to an elite private school, Joseph. We’re all equals around here, so act like it.

But reflecting on these moments I noticed a pattern. I can see the spin may not have been the intended impact. Now I can see anytime I tried to assert myself as an expert, I was told to be less than.

Raise my hand less, don’t offer feedback first, avoid comparing your own past experiences to highlight a better idea, act average.

Is it my own ego that wants to shout “I know something about college students!” or my own decades of experience? I can’t speak to anyone else’s experiences, but asking me to deny my own experience is like denying me agency to be a professional. And looking back now, I wonder if its why I struggle with asserting my expertise outside of a workplace.

What I Was Supposed to Learn Versus What I Did Learn

What I learned, either intentional or not, was that I need to have my expertise and voice validated first before speaking. I need to ask permission to speak up and speak out in case someone wanted to speak first. Others might know less than me, but they need to have their ideas validated so I can remain part of a team effort.

Since the college where I worked closed, I have struggled with developing my own agency to do anything. After decades of being told to be less than my own potential, I am having to unlearn these lessons. It all starts by this serious self-reflection but it will need to be replaced by something else.

Next week, I’ll write about how I plan to explore unlearning these lessons learned. I hope that by identifying the root causes I can replace them with more positive inner rules. Or at the very least, I can stop allowing people to stifle my ability to lead and learn on a team.

Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals, and those supervising professional staff, for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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