"You're one of those strong women, aren't you?" The homeowner who was asked this question said she wasn't sure if this was a compliment or something else. So, being extra careful to use a friendly tone of voice, she asked the contractor what he meant by "strong woman."

He hemmed and hawed and said something about "knowing what she wanted" and being "assertive." Though he was quick to assure her that he liked strong, assertive women, she got the distinct impression he was not altogether comfortable with her assertiveness, and likely wishing he'd never asked the question in the first place.

In focus groups, women repeatedly comment that salesmen seem uncomfortable or even intimidated when they are direct and assertive. When women are too assertive, whatever that mysterious measure is, they're branded with that great big "B" word or worse. And, yet, when they don't quite make it to an acceptable measure of assertiveness, they are politely dismissed as inconsequential as buyers, whether they are acting independently or as a couple. It turns out that striking the perfect balance between charm and assertiveness is challenging at the very least. Many women have deemed it a fruitless effort, so they don't even try.

But, it's no cakewalk for men, either. How to approach and deal with strong, assertive women has been among the top three issues which men ask me for coaching, and that has been consistent throughout the 12 years I have been coaching and speaking on the topic of "selling to women and couples." In fact, salesmen commonly say, "I don't understand why, but I'm uncomfortable when I'm dealing with (assertive, confident, strong) women."

And, most of them go on to explain that they truly value these qualities in women. Many have daughters, and they want them to be strong, assertive women. They explain that they are baffled and even aggravated with themselves that this is an issue for them at all.

One contractor stated it this way: "I'm intimidated by confident women and I don't like it." He pulled himself up, stuck out his chin, and barked out, "I don't like it because I'm used to being the one who intimidates, not the one who is intimidated." After a long pause, he quietly said, "I realize that this is my problem." That's a powerful acknowledgement and the first critical step toward solving the problem.

Walking The Tightrope

Now I do not believe for one minute that men or women, whether buyer or seller, get up in the morning with the express intention of aggravating one another, yet it's clear we're capable of doing that with very little effort. As the rigid, traditional gender roles of the 1950s collapsed and the roles have evolved and blended, we're still trying to tame this tightrope.

Is this an issue only for older men or is it applicable only to certain geographic areas of North America? I can tell you emphatically it is not. I deal with this issue just as frequently with twentysomethings as any other age group and from every area of North America.

So, what's going on? Are men being honest with themselves when they say they truly value strong, assertive women on one level, and at the same time are uncomfortable or intimidated to interact with them on another level? Perhaps, since it's entirely possible to believe two very different things at the same time, though it is uncomfortable.

Our unconscious mind collects all our experiences, the good ones and the really bad ones. We get new and different information and ideas all the time, and we work to make sense of it. And, the greater the conflict in those beliefs, the greater the discomfort will be. Psychologists call this mind-splitting discomfort, cognitive dissonance. Here's how it works.

While we're busily going about life, our unconscious mind is dutifully collecting our experiences. And, those experiences come from many sources, including the people that we hang out with, the seminars we attend, and the books we read, to name a few. This is a very big deal, since we form our attitudes and beliefs from this collection of data, whatever condition it's in, healthy or toxic. We'll be making all kinds of decisions based on these attitudes and beliefs. Stay away from men and women with, what master motivator Zig Ziglar, calls "stinkin' thinkin'!"

When faced with a new or difficult situation, such as dealing with confident, assertive women, your unconscious mind will go to work instantly. It will silently flip through all those experiences, looking to quickly answer the question, "What do I know that looks like this?" It will likely turn up many experiences, some good ones and some bad ones.

Now it's your decision - and you get to choose what experiences to think on. If a bad one, what can you learn from it? Yes, you can choose to learn from the experience, even if it was a bad one and even if she was suffering from a bad case of stinkin' thinkin'. As my grandmother used to say, "Sweep around your own door step first."

Purpose to find opportunities to interact and actively engage with strong, assertive women beyond the sales environment. Contrary to what you may have heard, confident, assertive women do not eat nails for breakfast. You'll discover they nurture their children, take the dog to the vet, get the oil changed in the car, participate in community events - and oh, by the way, make or directly influence the purchase of lots of HVAC equipment.

Sharon Roberts is a consultant who specializes in selling to women and couples. Please send your comments to Sharon@r2assoc.com.

Publication date: 11/28/2005