A few months ago, I was having a problem. I’d been encountering fruit flies on the first floor of my apartment, mostly in the kitchen. At first, I mostly ignored them, occasionally swatting them away from my food or face.
But over time, they started to grate on my nerves. I couldn’t cook or eat without them flying around my face or on my plate or glass. Fed up, I made it my mission to try to squash them.
I became obsessed. I’d look around the kitchen to see where they were hiding. Anytime I’d see one, I’d try to swat at it or grab it. I’d be able to kill one or two, but most of the time I would miss. After about a week of failure and frustration, I started to think about my strategy.
The reason I was missing the flies was, obviously, because the flies didn’t want to be killed. They didn’t want to be swatted or moved. They didn’t want to leave. They just wanted fruit.
Instead of wasting my time and energy trying to swat the flies, I devised a new strategy. I got a plastic cup and put an apple slice in it. Then I covered the cup with plastic wrap and poked a small hole at the top, just in case any “visitors” decided they wanted to sneak inside. That night, I put the cup out near where the flies usually congregated and went upstairs to sleep.
In the morning, I came downstairs and checked my results: five fruit flies were trapped in the cup. With a simple trap, I had caught more flies in one night than I did looking for and swatting at them for two weeks. And the best part – I didn’t have to make the flies go in. They did so willingly.
That experience has always left an impression on me because of how similar it is to dealing with people. We’re often told that the best way of dealing with people is to just be assertive. State what you want, set clear boundaries, stand up for yourself.
But that only tells people what you want. Or what you think. Or how you feel. It doesn’t really consider their point of view. So they aren’t really motivated to do what you want them to.
Being assertive might make you feel better in the moment, might help you build up your self-esteem or self-confidence, but it’s not necessarily effective – for the very fact that it’s one-sided. No one really cares what you want or if they are stepping over your boundaries. They only care about what they want.
Dale Carnegie actually has a great exercise to counteract this. If you’re trying to get someone to do something, or stop doing something, instead of just being assertive, ask yourself first: “How can I make this person want to do it?” Then you can move forward with a strategy.
In my own experience, as a workforce developer and a one-time public school teacher, I get much better results and cooperation from people not when I “assert” what I want them to do, but when I frame what I want in terms of what they want (or don’t want).
The tenant in the apartment next to yours is playing loud music in the middle of the night. Instead of asking him to lower the music because you’re trying to study or sleep, you can tell him this instead: “I understand you want to play your music loud. But I’m afraid that if you don’t turn the music down, then the landlord might be notified, or worse, the police might be called in.”
You are in an online music contest and you want to get your friends to vote for you online. Instead of directly asking for their support, be political and contact each friend one by one and offer them something they’d like in exchange for a vote: “I’ll buy you a shot next time we go out,” “I’ll write a song about you,” “I’ll give you a back massage,” etc. (Note: only do this if you’re looking for votes and don’t really care if your friends like your music or not.)
You can see how simple (and obvious) this strategy is, yet how uncommon it’s actually practiced. And it works great for someone like me, since I’m not very assertive in the first place.