Being assertive often means trying a new approach

Being assertive with the direct lawyer – a secretary’s perspective


We can go on training courses to learn how to be more assertive, but this does not necessarily mean we will be more assertive.


Building confidence in a new behaviour is sometimes about overcoming ambivalence that is, overcoming the barriers we put down for ourselves. Or it may simply be that changing a behaviour is not the most important thing for us. We don’t change a behaviour because we can more easily live with the consequences of not changing. We can put up with it.


Here is an extreme example of a secretary who came to decide she could no longer put up with it.


I met this secretary on an assertiveness workshop. She works for a partner in a law firm. The partner was described as being unfriendly, very direct and rude. The partner rarely spoke to the secretary and only in an efficient manner. There was no social chit chat. Sometimes the partner would walk over to the secretary and drop the work on her desk with a thud. The Secretary described the situation; ‘when I am at work they take away my adulthood’.


We discussed what assertive is, about it being a balance of both your colleagues’ perspective and your own opinion. Assertiveness is about standing up for yourself, whilst demonstrating an understanding for the other person’s point of view.


She understood exactly what assertiveness is. She said that saying no to this partner was not an option. I asked why. We discussed the kind of person this partner was, how other partners would treat them and what they might perceive as normal behaviour.


We discussed the options and I suggested that mirroring this partner, or being more direct with them might be just what they require and expect from people. The other secretaries in the room said you cannot say no to this partner. Whilst there is politics in any law firm and at a time of difficult trading we don’t want to get a reputation for being a trouble maker, we also have to consider our self respect. Plus my experience tells me that direct people respect directness and if anything being timid can make them more direct to the point of aggressiveness.


After some debate she agreed to try.


In part 2 of the training she told everyone what happened. At 4.30pm on a day when she needed to collect her kids at 5.15pm the partner approached with a handful of papers. Before the partner could act the secretary stood up and said ‘if that’s more work I can either do that or finish what I am doing, what would you prefer?’ Guess what happened? The partner said, ‘Ok’ and returned to her office. Astonished the secretary continued her assertiveness on other occasions, which in fact lead to a more efficient way of working. In time the partner started to talk with her and one day they even had a coffee together.


The secretary was delighted and the other secretaries were equally amazed.


Dealing with very direct people can be nerve raking but the reward can be great.


Assertiveness done in the right way can have amazing results. In this case the secretary overcame her ambivalence because she was at the end of her patience and the only other option was to leave.


This is a somewhat extreme example, but hopefully the point is well made.

Being assertive with the direct lawyer – a secretary’s perspective