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Crucial Conversations QA

How to Be Both Assertive and Diplomatic

Dear David,

I am a young executive who has managed to climb the corporate ladder at a rapid pace. My current boss of seven years has been part of my success as he closely mentored me and exposed me to the right individuals—allowing them to see my work and leadership. With my recent promotion, he is expecting me to be more assertive with colleagues and even customers.

My dilemma is that I tend to have a diplomatic rather than assertive approach, and believe this leadership style has contributed to my success. My boss is more aggressive, outspoken, and even intimidating. In previous conversations, he has made it very clear that I need to speak up and assert myself. How do I balance assertiveness with diplomacy?

Kindly,
Mr. Nice Guy

Dear Mr. Nice Guy,

I like your question, because I’ve had to answer it myself. I want to be successful, but not if it means being a bully. I want to be nice, but not if it means being taken advantage of. Fortunately, these are Fool’s Choices—false dichotomies that only appear to be trade-offs. In reality, you can be successful without being a bully, and you can be nice without opening yourself up to exploitation. It’s a question of skills.

The What: Your manager thinks you are compromising the organization’s interests in order to maintain positive relationships. This is a common trap you can avoid. The key is to know what you want out of an agreement. Below are a few tips:

1. Focus on interests, rather than positions. Hold firm to your core interests, while being flexible about how these Interests are achieved. Remember, it’s about achieving your interests, not about winning an argument.

2. Involve your manager in determining core interests. The two of you need to agree on what you want to achieve.

3. When determining interests, encourage your manager to take a broad and long-term perspective. Don’t get caught up in silo warfare. Instead, ask what’s best for the enterprise.

4. Know your BATNA—your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Have a clear Plan-B that you will follow if you can’t achieve your interests. The more confidence you have in your BATNA, the more comfortable you will be walking away from an unacceptable agreement.

5. Challenge others to look beyond their position. Help them identify their interests and broader purpose. In addition, inquire about their fears or their worst-case scenarios. Focus on creative ways to achieve their interests as well as yours, while insuring against their fears.

The How: Find ways to be both tenacious and sensitive. Be clear and specific without becoming disrespectful or abusive. Below are a few tips:

1. Be assertive and outspoken when describing your interests. Not mean, but passionate, specific, and resolute. Make sure people know you are committed to your interests. This doesn’t make you a bully, unless you shut down their ability to respond.

2. Encourage others to be equally assertive and outspoken in describing their interests. Don’t allow your strong opinions to prevent them from sharing their perspectives. Their silence might produce short-term compliance, but create long-term problems. We suggest the following guideline: “The only limit to how strongly you can express your opinion is your willingness to be equally vigorous in encouraging others to challenge it.”

3. Be clear about your BATNA. Show that you are ready to walk away from unacceptable agreements. This puts pressure on others, without making it personal.

4. Be Factual. Don’t exaggerate, spin the facts, or speak beyond the facts. Explain the source and relevance of the facts you employ. The facts establish common ground and are the foundation of your credibility.

5. Recognize when others are moving to silence or violence. When others are withdrawing or becoming overly aggressive, stop what you are doing, and step out of the content. Take the time to determine why they are feeling under attack. Have they lost sight of your common purpose? Do they feel disrespected?

6. Restore safety, but don’t compromise your interests. The mistake would be to restore peace by giving in. The better solution is to restore safety by reaffirming your common goals and your respect for them. Once they realize you are a friend, not a foe, they will be ready to return to dialogue. Then, when you return to the content, you do so without having compromised your interests.

I hope these ideas help you be both sensitive and tenacious. I’d love to hear how others manage this dance between passionate, outspoken commitment and reasoned, diplomatic dialogue.

Best of Luck,
David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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2 thoughts on “How to Be Both Assertive and Diplomatic”

  1. 1. It could be that you and your boss have different skills and comfort levels with your competencies. Or
    2. It could be that you are leaving “money” on the negotiation table. I would ask why your boss wants you to behave differently.

  2. I hope readers followed the hotlink I included when I explained BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). It takes you to the Harvard Law Schools Program on Negotiation. A reader correctly pointed out that many of the suggestions I made come from this group’s work. I should have cited them more liberally. I love their work.

    The team at Harvard includes Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, authors of Getting To Yes. But their team is large and varied, and they’ve produced hundreds of publications and training materials. They work on a global scale, and are thought leaders in the negotiation and conflict management arena.

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