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Kerrying On

The Frightening First Days of School

In the fall of 1952, I faced the prospect of attending school for the first time. The whole idea of going to school made me weak in the knees. My older brother had filled my head with bullying stories that gave me second thoughts about ever leaving home, let alone sharing the playground with a bunch of three-and-a-half-foot thugs.

“They better not beat me up,” I muttered under my breath as I started the long, lonely walk toward Larrabee Elementary School. Stupid second graders. They were the ones to watch out for, or so my brother said. Second graders, proud of their recent grade advancement and reeling from the abuse they experienced in the first grade, would be the hard-core bullies. It would be second graders who would steal my Twinkies, tear up my artwork, and give me a wedgie.

“Let’s see, I’ve got my marbles in my pocket,” I reflected. They were for recess, of course, but if I could make it safely to the playground, I could display my maturity by being good at shooting aggies. Then the bullies would leave me alone.

I was wrong. The second graders didn’t take my marbles by force, but they did cheat me out of them. I’d get ready to shoot my second-grade opponent’s aggie, and he would shout, “‘cover-zies’ for me and ‘non-cover-zies’ for you.” What?

Then, he’d cover up his aggie with gravel from the playground and force me to shoot my prize ball bearing at the pile. Next, because I had “non-cover-zies,” I couldn’t cover my ball bearing and he would uncover his shooter, shoot my steel marble, and put it in his pocket. By the end of the afternoon recess I had nothing left.

As much as I worried about the first days of grade school, when I finally graduated from the sixth grade, I worried ten times more about the first days of junior high school. I’d heard eighth graders wantonly stripped you naked during PE and threw you into the girl’s side of the gym. Or they locked you in your locker. Or they burned up your metal-shop project. Plus, there was always their favorite trick—“pantsing” you.

In 1958, wearing pants slung low and loose on your hips was all the rage. For a seventh-grader, it was also dangerous. Particularly if you were riding the city bus home while standing with one hand holding your French and history textbooks and the other hand clinging to an overhead strap. Just when you thought you were safe—wham! An eighth grader would yank your pants down to your ankles. The girls would scream, the boys would laugh, and you would be mortified. Heaven forbid your shorts had a hole in them—you’d have to move to Canada.

Given these hideous possibilities, the prospect of entering junior high school worried me a great deal. I was sure to be bullied the day I stepped onto the grounds of Fairhaven. I could feel it in my bones.

But first came summer. To keep me from fretting myself to a frazzle, my mom signed me up to pick strawberries. The job consisted of riding a berry bus filled with thirty or so twelve- to sixteen-year-olds far out into the country. Then, for eight hours you’d bend over a row of strawberries and pick the ripe ones in the blazing, life-sucking sun. And for all of this effort, if you were lucky, you’d earn five dollars a day.

I didn’t get lucky. I made just under two dollars my first day. At one point during that day, one of the berry bosses said I was suffering from heat exhaustion and forced me sit in the shade for an hour. I made no money during that time. We were being paid by the flat, not by the hour. Today, if you treated a twelve-year-old this way, you’d be charged with callous indifference or the illegal use of fruit. Maybe something worse.

But all wasn’t lost. At the end of the day, and to my total surprise, Hades quickly turned into heaven. The berry boss blew his whistle and we stacked our flats, boarded the bus, and headed home. Within seconds, someone started singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and we all joined in. Throughout the entire ride home we joyfully belted out every camp song imaginable. Like warriors returning after an exhausting and perilous battle, we celebrated our victory by singing songs about beer bottles on a wall and a girl walking into the water. It was splendid. I’m not sure I’ll ever eclipse the happiness I experienced those glorious days singing in the berry bus as we rode home after an exhausting day of harvesting strawberries.

As the season continued, and we pickers jointly faced chilling rain, the scorching sun, and shrinking berries, we bonded into a team of genuine field hands. Unlike sissy kids who did heaven-knows-what all day long, we pickers earned our way. And we helped each other. Boys helped carry girls’ heavy flats filled with berries. Girls taught boys how to pick faster. We were one in unity and purpose.

Eventually, the season ended and I had to face the dreaded seventh grade. As I read through the class rosters posted on the wall near the school entrance, I finally found my homeroom. Listed were the kids with whom I’d be sharing three classes a day. I knew only one other person on the list. One. It was going to be a lonely, scary year.

And then came the eighth-graders. A pack of four of them started walking menacingly toward me. “Hey #&% face!” one of them taunted. I grabbed the waist of my low-slung pants as the hoods inched forward. And then, just when I was about to be pantsed or worse, I heard someone shout, “Kerry! Aren’t you all cute and dressed up for school.” It was a ninth grader—not just any ninth grader—it was a berry-picking ninth grader. And she was a cheerleader to boot.

Soon a bunch of us pickers from the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades were gathered in the hall and reminiscing as the older students helped the younger ones find their way to their first classroom. It had never occurred to me that the older kids I had met and bonded with in the fields would show up at junior high school and be the star quarterback, or the head of the chess club, or a member of the cheer squad. Nor did I think they would be my advocates. But that’s exactly who they were and that’s exactly what they did.

I wasn’t bullied that year. I was welcomed. The next year as the eighth grade unfolded for me, I too became an advocate and protector. Like our predecessors, my classmates and I wouldn’t dream of bullying kids who had worked alongside us. We shared their dreams and fears; we had fought the berry wars together.

And so it should be everywhere. Building a sense of community helps us humanize others. We recognize ourselves in them, and treat them with the respect and kindness we all deserve. And that makes the world a better place.

Oh yeah, and one more thing. Thank your lucky stars that you never had to pick strawberries in the searing sun. For eight hours a day. Up hill. Both ways.

Crucial Conversations QA

Navigating Differences in Language

Dear Joseph,

One of my direct reports has a very thick accent. His job is to define business needs for our customers and hand them off to our database techs. When he does this orally, none of us understand much of what he is saying. I sense he is exasperated as well because he is trying his best and cares about his work. He has good writing skills, but he is not confident and resists writing anything unless pressed. The rest of the team tries to be patient, but gives up after a point. He is also very sensitive and feels hurt when we ask him to repeat himself. How can I tell him he needs to improve his communication skills?

Signed,
Lost in Translation

Dear Lost,

This will be much, much, much easier than you think. And as soon as you believe that—it will be much, much, much easier!

You are making two mistakes here that are easy to fix:

1. You are having content conversations when you need to have a relationship one.

2. You are feeding his defensiveness with your own.

First, it sounds like you are talking about database requirements when you need to talk about your working relationship. One of the most common mistakes in crucial conversations is talking about the wrong thing. If your real concern is, “we need a more efficient way of communicating,” but what you’re discussing is, “what kind of user interface does the client need?”—the real issue will drive everything. You’ll be discussing screen designs but underlying it will be nervousness, defensiveness, and hyper-sensitivity, because you’re not talking about what’s truly going on. Everyone senses it. Everyone knows it. But no one is saying it. So set aside a special time to have this very specific relationship conversation. Don’t wait until there is another frustrating interaction about customer requirements. If you do, then the conversation will be clouded and confused with the content issue on the table.

Second, stop focusing on your fears and start focusing on your goals. One of the reasons he is defensive about this issue is because he senses your fear of it. Research shows that when you feel fear, your body language telegraphs it to others—causing them to become protective. For example, if as you approach him, your voice is tight, you blink a bit too fast, and your arms are crossed over your stomach—he picks up these little behavioral signals and senses there is looming danger. It’s kind of like when you watch someone walk face first into a closed glass door and you reflexively put your hand to your own nose. Specialized neurons in our brains enable us to empathize by triggering shadows of the sensations we would feel if our bodies were in the same circumstances as someone we are watching. The same is true of emotions. You know what embarrassment feels like. It’s when you deliver the opening joke to your speech and no one laughs. Crickets. In fact, most break off eye contact with you and begin looking at their mobile phones. It’s painful. We feel something similar when we watch it happen to someone else (I call it ex-barrassed). Your stomach turns in knots even though it’s not you at the front of the room. This principle works in reverse during crucial conversations. When you show up all in knots, others sense it and begin to feel protective about the topic you are now stammering your way into.

So how can you avoid making the conversation harder than it needs to be? Focus on your goals. This is a mental exercise first, and a conversational one second. Ask yourself, “What awesome, wonderful, out-of-this-world gift can this conversation give to the other person if it goes well?” Get that goal clear in your mind.

For years, I marveled at Kerry Patterson’s ability to give me incredibly direct feedback without making me feel defensive. I remember the first joint writing project I did with him twenty-five years ago. I handed him my first draft. He read it and basically said, “This is awful.” But it didn’t hurt. I wondered why. Over time, I came to realize it was because he had a clear vision in his mind of how good a writer I could be. And he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of helping me get there. When he approached me, he wasn’t fidgety, worried, or clenched up. He was open, excited, and optimistic. He’d start peppering me with instructions about how to improve it, and since he didn’t seem to think the current dismal state of the piece was a big deal—I didn’t either.

You have an incredible gift to offer your colleague. Come into the conversation enthusiastically. Focus on the thought, “I want to have a fabulous and productive working relationship with you for many years. And I want you to be able to succeed with every other English-based team you work with in the future. This conversation can help you do that—isn’t that awesome!”

Then get to the point. Don’t beat around the bush or you’ll telegraph fear. Say, “Our unfamiliarity with your accent makes it really inefficient to communicate sometimes. I want to find a way to make it much, much easier for you and all of us to get things done. Let’s talk!”

I can promise you that if this is your attitude coming in, you’ll generate safety rather than sensitivity.

Best Wishes,
Joseph

Influencer QA

Addressing Health in the Home

Dear Crucial Skills,

Over the past year, my wife has developed an unhealthy pattern of caring less and less about her physical appearance and is now considerably overweight. Whenever I try to discuss the potential impact on her quality of life, she becomes very defensive and says, “You don’t love me anymore.” I counter and say, “Actually I do love you and am very concerned about your health.” I’m concerned about her being overweight as well as her lack of sleep. She works various shifts in her job and continues to be an extremely devout mother to our twenty-three-year old daughter who suffers from a terrible disease. But I believe she is sacrificing her well-being. I even tried to explain that soon she will be unable to provide for our daughter if her health deteriorates. What can I do to better approach this topic?

Regards,
Frustrated Spouse

Dear Frustrated Spouse,

Your question provoked a question of my own: when does a crucial conversation become an influence challenge?

Here is what I mean by that: with any crucial conversation, our goal should be dialogue—sharing our perspective and hearing and understanding others’ perspectives. If the goal of a crucial conversation is to convince or compel someone to see things our way or come to agreement with us, we will often do a great job of explaining our point of view and a poor job of understanding theirs.

My guess is that your goal, like that of most concerned spouses, is to help your wife recognize the damage she is doing to her health and help her take steps to improve her health. In short, the goal is to have her see the situation as you see it. And this is the tricky part of a crucial conversation, because if that is your goal, it often doesn’t go as well. When we see a loved one traveling down a life path that we view as destructive or harmful, it is natural that we would want to talk to them and convince them to change. That is appropriate and loving. But, it is also not within our control. We can raise the issue with caring and candor, but then we must acknowledge that others have a different perspective and may not want to change. This is when a crucial conversation becomes an influence challenge.

While I imagine how disappointed you must be that your wife does not see the situation as you do, that doesn’t mean you are left without resources with which to help her. The reality is you are influencing her right now. People are social animals and we are all influenced by the social and structural forces around us. Right now, there is a huge force influencing your wife’s behavior—her commitment to caring for your daughter. There are other forces as well, including you. This means you can choose to look at your own behavior and consider ways in which you can be an influence force for good in her life.

Let me give you an example. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating and Slim By Design (and good friend of VitalSmarts), has shown in his research that 72 percent of the eating decisions made in a home are made by what he calls the nutritional gatekeeper. This is the person in the home who purchases the food and plans and prepares the meals. Consider what would happen if you became the nutritional gatekeeper in your home. What a blessing that would be in your wife’s life as she struggles to care for your daughter and balance the other stressors in her life. Imagine coming to her and saying, “Sweetheart, I will take this burden off your shoulders and handle of all our food needs.” Then, it would be up to you to plan and prepare nutritious and delicious meals that your wife will enjoy and that will lead to her improved health.

This is just one of the many ways you could help change and redirect the sources of influence in your wife’s life. The point is not that this is the magic bullet answer for you in your situation. You will need to figure that out for yourself. The big idea is that too often we have a crucial conversation with someone and think that the goal is to get them to recognize the problem so that they will change their behavior. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it is up to us to allow them their agency and decide what kind of an influence we want to be in their lives.

Best of luck,
Emily

BS Guys

How to Avoid Social Backlash in the Workplace

Research shows that women who speak up at all are risking more than men. Something as minor as telling observers that a CEO “tends to offer his (her) own opinions as much as possible,” and that, “Compared to other CEOs, Mr. (Ms.) Morgan talks much more than others in power,” caused observers to respect Mr. Morgan more and Ms. Morgan less.1 This approval or disapproval was based on gender alone. It isn’t fair.

Speaking up in forceful, assertive ways is even more risky for women. They are burdened with cultural stereotypes that typecast women as caring and nurturing.2 Speaking forcefully violates that cultural norm and women experience a more punishing backlash than men.

In a landmark study, Victoria Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann asked the question, “Can an angry woman get ahead?”3 Their study documented the unequal penalty women experience for showing anger at work, but then went further to explore the reasons behind this gender effect. Their results suggest that the penalty occurs because observers attribute women’s anger to internal characteristics (“she is an angry person,’’ or ‘‘she is out of control”) while attributing men’s anger to external circumstances ("he's having a bad day," or "things were out of control so someone had to take charge").

What this previous research, along with our own, confirms is that emotional inequality is real and it is unfair. And while it is unacceptable and needs to be addressed at a cultural, legal, organizational, and social level—individuals can take control. We wanted to develop specific skills women can use on the job to be forceful, assertive and honest—without experiencing social backlash. Our first step was to recreate the social backlash and emotion-inequality effects in a controlled laboratory setting. We wanted to demonstrate the effects in a reliable way, so we could test ways to reduce them.

We created videotaped interactions so we could control what observers would see. The videotaped interactions featured either a male or female actor and took place in a meeting room seated at a table. The actors used identical scripts and we coached them so that their performances were as similar as possible. The only difference was that one actor was male and the other was female.

In this first study, 4,517 participants played the observer role. Each saw a single 30-40 second performance, and then rated the “manager” using a 20-item survey. The chart below illustrates the social backlash and emotion-inequality effects we observed. The bars represent the percentage drop averaged across status, competency, and worth, in that order.
Emotion-Inequality Graph A
Next, we decided to test whether brief framing could reduce the emotion-inequality effects. We tested three frames: a Behavior Frame, a Value Frame, and an Inoculation Frame.

• Behavior Frame: The actors described what they were about to say before saying it: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.”
• Value Frame: The actors described their motivation in value-laden terms before making the statement of disapproval: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.”
• Inoculation Frame: The female actor suggested it could be risky for a woman to speak up the way she was about to: “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”

In this second study, 7,921 participants played the observer role. Each saw a single 35-45 second performance, and then rated the “manager” using the 20-item survey from Study 1.

Each of the frames worked. The chart below illustrates the positive impacts of the different frames.
Emotion-Inequality Graph B

This study shows that framing statements can help to solve social backlash and emotion-inequality effects. We believe that each frame works in a different way.

Behavior Frame: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.” We think the Behavior Frame works by setting an expectation. It makes sure the statement that follows doesn’t come as a surprise. Without the frame, observers are blindsided by the force of the emotion and may assume the worst—that the person has lost his/her temper. The frame works by preventing this negative conclusion.

Value Frame: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” We think the Value Frame works by giving a positive reason for the emotion. In fact, it turns the emotion into a virtue by turning it into a measure of commitment to a shared value.

Inoculation Frame: “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”

We think the Inoculation Frame works by warning observers that they may have an implicit bias. It causes them to try hard to be fair, or to adjust their judgment in an effort to be fair.

We were a bit surprised at how well it worked and we are skeptical that the Inoculation Frame will work if used repeatedly. It could be seen as “playing a card”—in this case the “gender card." Our concern is that it may create short-term benefits, but damage a user’s reputation.

Explain Your Intent Before Stating Your Content

Speaking forcefully creates a social backlash for both men and women—though it’s more severe for women. This backlash occurs when observers use the emotion to draw negative conclusions about the speaker’s intent. The backlash is reduced when the speaker takes a few seconds to explain his/her positive intent before stating the content.

We tested three of the statements a person could use to explain his/her intent—Behavior, Value, and Inoculation Frames. We can conclude that the Behavior and Value Frames are effective and are safe to use repeatedly. The Inoculation Frame works in the short term, but we won’t recommend its repeated use until we’ve tested it more thoroughly.

If not acknowledged or managed well, emotional inequality and social backlash can adversely affect an individual’s career and can prove costly to an organization’s effectiveness. We believe the implications of this research will empower individuals and leaders to engage in and encourage candid discussion while minimizing negative impacts.

1Victoria L. Brescoll, “Who Takes The Floor And Why: Gender, Power, And Volubility In Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 56, no. 4 (2011): 622-641.
2Alice H. Eagly and Steven J. Karau, “Role Congruity Theory of Prejudice Toward Female Leaders,” Psychological Review, 109, no. 3 (2002): 573.
3Victoria L. Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann. (2008). “Can an Angry Woman Get Ahead? Status Conferral, Gender, and Expression of Emotion in The Workplace,” Psychological Science, 19,no. 3 (2008): 268-275.

Sincerely,
David

Crucial Application

One Simple Skill to Curb Unconscious Gender Bias

View the results of our study in the infographic below or download a copy for yourself.

Curbing Gender Bias Infographic (2)

Kerrying On

How to Nail a Difficult Social Script

The following article was first published on September 17, 2008.

The doorbell rang and Becca, my then seven-year-old daughter, skidded up to the door, opened it, and found her best friend Crystal standing there. “Can you come out and play?” Crystal asked.

“No!” Becca abruptly responded. And then our sweet, sensitive, and normally thoughtful daughter slammed the door in Crystal’s face. I was mortified. How could this have happened? When had Becca become so rude? I asked her what was going on.

“I’d like to play with Crystal,” Becca explained, “But Mom says I have to clean my room first.”

“Do you have any idea how Crystal felt when you slammed the door in her face?” I asked.

“No,” Becca said as she blinked her eyes in confusion. “Well, let’s go take a look.” I walked Becca upstairs and looked out the window where the two of us spotted Crystal walking back to her house with a gate and demeanor that said, “My best friend just rejected me.”

“It looks like she feels bad,” Becca commented.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“You just implied that you didn’t want to play with her and then you slammed the door in her face. That can hurt.”

“Oh,” Becca responded with a frown.

“What could you have done instead?” I inquired.

“I don’t know,” Becca offered with a weak smile.

At first I thought Becca was trying to avoid a scolding by claiming ignorance, but I quickly realized that she wasn’t playing a game. She really didn’t have a clue. And why is that? Because as a member of the human species, Becca was born with a tabula rasa—or “blank slate.” Her brain didn’t come hard-wired with all sorts of knowledge. She certainly wasn’t born with the knowledge of how to handle a peer’s request to play with her when she already had conflicting orders from her mother.

Contrast my daughter’s blank slate with, say, your typical guppy. When baby guppies, or “fry,” are first born, they immediately swim to a piece of plant-life. Then they undulate next to the plant in perfect synchronization as the plant moves in the current. They disguise themselves in this manner because they are born to parents who don’t nurture and protect them, but rather hunt them down and eat them. The bad news: tough parenting. The good news: guppy parents imbue their offspring with knowledge before birth that serves them the rest of their lives. The second they are born, guppy fry know how to hide themselves, swim to perfection, feed themselves, etc.

Humans aren’t born with such instincts. This gives them the invaluable ability to make choices. However, this ability comes at a heavy cost. Humans’ tabula rasa makes them both ignorant and vulnerable. Humans aren’t born street-wise like the leery guppy.

In order to survive, human parents have to protect their young for a long time. In fact, humans are given what has been labeled an “extended” childhood. They are treated as tots for much longer than any other living creature. (And with the advent of the in-home theater, big-screen TV, and video games, human childhood now often extends into the 30s. But that’s another issue.)

I mention this whole tabula rasa deal because as a parent, I often expect my own children to know things that they have no way of knowing. Becca didn’t know the polite and effective way of saying “I can’t play right now.” She wasn’t born with this knowledge and she hadn’t learned that particular script from people she had observed. But for some reason, I expected her to know it. Fortunately, I caught myself before I chastised Becca and decided to teach her how to better handle the situation.

“Let’s role-play,” I suggested to Becca who looked back at me with suspicion. “I’ll go outside, ring the doorbell, and ask you to come out and play. What could you say to me that wouldn’t hurt my feelings?”

Once again Becca peered up and shyly admitted, “I don’t know.” I kept forgetting. Becca didn’t have this script in hand yet. I’d have to help her out a bit.

“How about this?” I suggest. “You say: ‘I’d like to play with you, but Mom says I have to clean my room first. Afterward I’ll come over and get you.’ This lets Crystal know that you’re excited to see her but have to do something first.”

I step outside and ring our doorbell. Becca opens the door and I cheerfully inquire, “Can you come out and play?”

Becca repeats back to me the exact words I told her. She’s on the right track. Unfortunately, she says the right words in a rather abrupt tone.

“Try it again,” I suggest. “This time, smile when you say it.” So she tries it again. “Now, this time, emphasize the word ‘like.’” She tries the interaction one more time and nails it.

I took a moment to teach my daughter a social-interaction script. I didn’t wait for her to pick it up from the street or awkwardly fashion one of her own. I didn’t talk about it in the abstract. Instead, I used what is known as deliberate practice. I suggested a specific set of actions and words. I live-modeled the actions. Becca then tried the actions on her own and I gave her immediate feedback. She tried again and I gave her more feedback. Only after she mastered the script—both words and delivery—did I stop.

Right now, tens of thousands of people are attending workshops and seminars that teach leadership, parenting, and other human-interaction skills. Participants frequently attend these courses with the expectation that they’ll learn how to better perform as a leader or parent. But most training participants will only be taught how to think like a leader or parent. There will be no scripts or practice. There will be no feedback. People attending traditional classes will learn theories, not master new behaviors.

Exclusively cognitive (as opposed to cognitive and behavioral) instructional methods continue to remain popular despite the fact that much of what should be taught is behavioral in nature. Leaders and parents do a lot of behaving, and just like my daughter who needed deliberate practice in order to master the door script, they require instructional methods to master the leadership and parental scripts they’ll need to survive.

Imagine if people took this attitude when learning how to figure skate. Suppose that you’re a gifted skater and a potential student asks you to coach her, but with the following request. “I want to learn how to be a master figure skater, but please don’t demonstrate what I need to do. If you do demonstrate, don’t ask me to watch. If you do ask me to watch you do something, don’t ask me to do it. If you do ask me to do it, don’t give me feedback. And finally, if you do give me feedback, wait a long time—and then make it vague.”

If you want to learn how to do something, you must observe prototypes, practice what you observed, receive detailed and clear feedback, practice again, and receive more feedback. Anything short of this and you’re tinkering, not learning.

So I got it right that morning with Becca. I recognized that she didn’t know how to handle the door script. She hadn’t been born with the idea firmly wired into her brain and after watching others in action, her tabula was still pretty rasa. I didn’t lecture Becca about what to do. Instead, we engaged in deliberate practice.

I wish I had done more of that—not that Becca didn’t grow into a sensitive and caring adult. She did. It’s just, I wonder what the world would be like if adults, parent, leaders, and training designers alike didn’t merely offer up heaps of generic advice or clever lectures on changing behaviors, but instead actually taught and coached effective behaviors? One can only imagine.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Approach a Suspected Thief

The following article was first published on January 23, 2008.

Dear Crucial Skills,

Someone stole money from me and I have a hunch it was a roommate. How would you approach this confrontation? Our relationship is neither strong nor bad, just fairly new.

I’m not sure how to ask her without making her feel unsafe. And I definitely can’t imagine her saying “yes” even if she really did take the money. What should I say?

Signed,
Baffled

Dear Baffled,

I sympathize with your situation. Something bad has happened. You can’t generate any plausible explanation other than theft. And yet, it’s hard to see this new roommate as a thief.

One of the hardest times to motivate yourself to speak up is when you aren’t whipped-up in righteous indignation. You doubt yourself and you don’t want to cause pain to a potentially innocent person. On the other hand, this is also the best time to speak up because you are in exactly the right frame of mind for real dialogue. You’re humble enough to be wrong and caring enough to worry about the impact of your approach.

Of course, what you do depends upon the strength of the story you’re currently telling yourself. So I’ll offer some advice for three scenarios. You choose which fits:

1. No evidence. The only reason you’re even thinking your roommate may have taken your money is by process of elimination. In other words, you don’t think she stole it but you can’t think of any other explanation.

In this circumstance you should bring up the missing money. Share the facts—not your story (that you wonder if your roommate stole it). If your roommate had nothing to do with it, this will help involve her in the search or alert her to problems that could continue to plague both of you. Simply say something like, “Last night, I had two $100 bills in my purse. I left it in the kitchen and this morning they were gone. Have you had anything come up missing recently?” If your roommate was involved, this conversation will either put her on notice that you’re aware of something fishy or lay the groundwork for a future, more direct, conversation. But, I don’t recommend this very vague approach if you have more reason to suspect your roommate.

2. A little more evidence but a lot of fear. You have a number of reasons to suspect her (e.g., she had two $100 bills when you went out to eat last night) but have reasons to believe a conversation would do more harm than good (she has a hot temper and carries a Taser).

In this situation, you’ve concluded that the potential upside of a conversation is not worth the downside risk of conflict. The big mistake people make in this situation is indecision. They waste time feeling resentful about reality rather than simply accepting their own assessment and making a hard choice to either a) adapt to the insecure environment by securing your valuables; or b) move. Get over it—if you’ve decided you aren’t going to speak up, accept responsibility for that choice and decide how you’ll deal with the future.

3. A little more evidence but nothing to lose. You have a number of reasons to suspect her and nothing to lose by trying the conversation. The worst that can happen is that she denies it, resents you, and you move out. The only difference from the second option is that you’ve opened up the possibility for her to acknowledge her actions and for you to come to some resolve. Here are some ideas for holding the conversation.

  • Don’t open your mouth until you’ve committed to Plan B. Decide what you’ll do if either she denies it and you’re still suspicious or she denies it and the relationship sours. If you’re prepared for this eventuality, you’ll feel a bit less stress in the conversation.
  • Begin with a sincere and emphatic apology. “I have a concern and I feel terrible about even bringing it up. But I know if I don’t, it will nag and bug me and get in the way of our relationship. May I talk with you about it?”
  • Take her carefully down your path to action. Carefully and non-judgmentally share your data. Take all the time you need and don’t skip any element of what feeds your concern. Then, very tentatively, share your conclusion. “The other night I had two $100 bills in my purse when I left it on the counter. I know I did because I opened my billfold to remove $5 for cab fare when I got home. The next morning it was gone. I racked my brains to think of what could have happened to it. Then when you and I went out to eat that night you had two $100 bills.”
  • Acknowledge your suspicion but be tentative. At this point she knows what you’re leading to. You must very quickly restore safety in two ways: 1) by letting her know you hate this conclusion—even though you worry about it; and 2) by letting her know if she made a mistake you can still respect her. “I know this sounds horrible for me to even ask. But can you see why I’d be wondering? Since I can’t come up with any other explanation about how it could be missing, I decided I needed to talk to you rather than leave it festering between us. And I want you to know if you did make a mistake, I’ve done so in my life too.”
  • Open the dialogue. Now it’s her turn. “Did you—for any reason—take the money from my purse?” Be prepared for her to be hurt and defensive. If she is, do not back down. Continue to ask her to help you reconcile the concerns while assuring her all you want to do is work it out.

This is tough, but the costs of not speaking up will be much higher than the risks of taking action now. Be humble and honest and you’ll have done all you can. Finally, if you decide to leave, do so quickly and graciously. When you refuse to let others paint you as a villain, you enable them to examine themselves rather than justify their transgressions using your vengeful response.

Best wishes,
Joseph