How to be assertive without stepping on people’s toes?

How to be assertive without stepping on people’s toes?
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

One of my best qualities can be one of my biggest turn-offs for people. I'm great at solving problems but I tend to blurt out what I think is wrong from the outside without getting closer and helping from the inside.

Being assertive without stepping on toes has been an 8-year struggle for me. But I finally have a little insight. Previously when I saw a problem that needs to be solved, I would start to feel uncomfortable. I need to bring this problem up, it's going to cause tension, and people are going to get mad.

But in consulting, that's the job. I need to bring it up with the person in charge and give them options on what they should do. I know the issue is going to cause tension when I bring it up, so my mind tells me it's better to blurt it out the first chance I get. Then we're able to work through the issue together as a team.

But what I've learned, someone has been living with that tension. Maybe they don't understand the problem the same way I do and just feel the effects. But they don't know what to do, or it's not in their power to fix. When someone else points out the issue in a way that's accusing, all you do is inflame their pain and give them a target to direct the pain towards.

It's better to understand and empathize with the person most likely feeling the pain. Ask "how" questions instead of why or what. If people know you are the advocate for them or someone they care about. They are more likely to see it's not about what they did wrong but, how they can make things better for themselves or the people they care about.

I'll give an example of this unfolding in the real world.
Spoiler, it didn't work. I was too rough, I didn't get close and work together.

I've always wanted to own a restaurant. I've watched almost every Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares, yes even the original UK version.

So I was excited when a friend asked me to join him for a marketing meeting with a local bar. That night I dropped by the bar for a little research. The employees, which were the only ones there, we're talking about how bad business had been. How they all planned on getting different jobs after this place closed. Most had already put in their 2 weeks notice.

As the night went on and my food arrived, I mentioned hearing their conversation. "Guys, why do you think the bar is having such trouble?" I was shocked at how much each of them cared. They laid out each issue and how they would fix it. But they all agreed the restaurant's model didn't make sense. People were always confused and annoyed during their first visit and that 90% of people were never coming back.

The next day at our meeting, after the small talk and some marketing questions. I had to say something.

I led with this, "usually, I prepare for a marketing meeting by researching the business's online presence and competitors. But this time I dropped by the bar last night for a beer and to get to know the place." The young marketing manager was excited by this and said "our current marketing agent wouldn't even eat a free slice of pizza and people don't seem to care about what we're building."

I continued "I'm so glad you said that because I noticed some issues that I want to run past you." I proceeded to lay out everything I learned the night before. To my surprise, the marketing manager countered everything I said and concluded that I was wrong and couldn't have learned all that in one night.

Still with the employees in my mind and how they were hurting. I responded "You're right. I didn't learn that all by myself, your employees told me."

I recounted what was said and made sure to stress the employee's care and concern for the business. I ended with it's better to have a period of discovery now before starting any big marketing projects. Especially because they need to market for 3 visits and not just one. Right now 90% of people never come back for a 2nd visit, and that any marketing dollars would be wasted.

Unfortunately, I haven't heard back from our young marketing manager friend. I did apologize to my friend who set the meeting for not giving him more warning. He said he understood and agreed with my points, but I needed to find a better way of presenting the facts so we didn't lose customers.

I totally agreed and will definitely put what I've learned to good use. What about you? Do you have a similar story? Does this still apply to a boss/employee relationship? Share in the comments, see you in the next one!

Written by Cody W Tucker

Eternal optimist. Founder of TMV Social and Nebraska's Best business directory.
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