Q&A: Influencing an Entire Department

April 22nd, 2014
David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I am the manager of a small intensive care unit. I struggle to get staff to commit to using a tool that would make our patient care rounds more efficient and ensure that we cover all aspects of care. How do I hold sixty-seven crucial accountability discussions?


The Messenger

A Dear Messenger,

Good question! Most managers, whether they work in healthcare or not, face this challenge. How do you implement process improvements that require new and reliable behaviors? Holding sixty-seven crucial accountability discussions sounds too time consuming and inefficient. I’ll suggest some strategies.

Work through a team. You’ll need the support of two groups: formal leaders and informal leaders. The formal leaders include all of the supervisors and managers in the affected area. The informal leaders include the opinion leaders throughout the affected area. Focus a disproportionate amount of your efforts on these two groups of people. Once you’ve gotten their whole-hearted support, ask them to help you bring everyone else on board.

Share your path. Don’t just share your final conclusions. Take the formal and informal leaders along the path you took as you learned about the process improvement. Tell the story of your initial doubts, your data collection, your evaluation, and what it was that eventually convinced you.

Identify obstacles and objections. Ask the formal and informal leaders to help you identify all of the obstacles and objections the process improvement could face. For example, Lisa, a brilliant nurse manager at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, MI was working to implement bedside reports—a process that involves patients and their families in shift-change handoffs. This influencer actively collected every concern she could find. Some of her findings included:

1. Overly involved families

2. Verbiage to use in front of patients

3. May not know Plan of Care

4. Addressing patient needs in the moment

5. Cognitive status issues

6. Time management

7. Meal prep interfering with rounds

8. Psychosocial issues

9. Sharing information that might be embarrassing to patient/family

10. Drug-seeking behavior

11. Worry about creating two reports

12. Every patient needing something when you are in the room

13. How to have time to review the Kardex?

14. How to find people to get/give report to?

15. Is this going to take more time?

16. Physician rounds interfering with report

17. What information can I share?

18. Use of phones during report

19. Transfer of patients during report

20. Waking up patients

Find solutions. Take people’s concerns seriously. Work with the formal and informal leaders to create convincing answers for each. Lisa asked her team to suggest solutions to real problems. For example, they decided to get phones for technicians so nurses wouldn’t have to leave during bedside reports.

Answer objections. Many concerns people have require answers, rather than solutions. They reflect a lack of understanding, rather than a flaw in the improvement process. Lisa asked her team to create two-minute answers to every concern. These answers were usually three to four bullets long. Here is an example:

Concern #9. Sharing information that might be embarrassing to patient/family

• We will already have permission from the patient. We’ll know what we can share and what we can’t.

• We will be the ones who ask family members to leave.

• Sometimes, the embarrassment is really ours rather than the patient’s.

Make sure all of the formal and informal leaders are confident they can answer these concerns. Ask them to take the lead in answering them.

Bring everyone on board. Hold a meeting—or a couple of meetings—to orient and educate everyone who needs to change or support the process improvement. Make sure the formal and informal leaders play important roles in these meetings. Remember, they are the people who will tip the balance.

Analyze and adjust. Anticipate and prepare for setbacks. Take extra care to find and quickly solve problems during the first few weeks that people use the new tool. Use the formal and informal leaders as your eyes and ears. They will learn about problems before you will. You won’t be able to anticipate every problem in advance but you can mitigate many issues by including this preparation in your plan.

I hope these ideas will help. The basic idea is to involve formal and informal leaders in a systematic way. Use them to first refine the improvement tool, and then to advocate and educate after it has been implemented. This process will be far more effective and efficient than sixty-seven separate conversations.

Good Luck,


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Success Story: Newmont Mining Uses Influencer Training to Enhance Workplace Safety

April 22nd, 2014

The Challenge

Workplace safety has always been a value for global mining leader Newmont Mining Corporation. The company utilizes many proven safety practices such as investigating incidents and taking corrective actions, creating proactive safety standards for management, and providing standard safety and technical training. As a result, the company achieved an enviable Total Recordable Accident Frequency Rate (TRAFR), the industry measurement of safety incidents that occur on the job per number of hours worked.

Still, the company continued to experience fatalities and serious injuries and, in early 2010, Newmont’s board of directors requested that the executive leadership team develop a plan to work toward eliminating fatalities and serious injuries in the workplace.

This directive led to the creation of a Safety Task Force, which developed six recommendations. First among the recommendations was to focus on Safety Leadership Behaviors. This meant company leaders had to figure out how to change behaviors to ensure that choosing safer behaviors became part of the company’s culture.

The Solution

Read our case study to learn how Newmont Mining used Influencer Training to identify vital behaviors, improve safety, and get the right results.

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Q&A: Above and Beyond? How to Deal with a Strong-willed Employee

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I manage a small technical team. One particular member of my team is a seasoned high performer who is very strong-willed. This person enjoys being the “hero” in the customer’s eyes by sometimes intentionally making commitments that lead to unnecessary and excessive overtime. Because of exempt status, this person is not eligible for overtime compensation and the company has no comp time policy. The employee has expressed an opinion of entitlement to compensation for this overtime, especially since the work brings in significant revenue directly to the company. This has put me, as his manager, in an uncomfortable and awkward position when I have had to address the issue. Despite repeated requests to stop this behavior, the employee persists in making commitments “for the good of the customer” even though we have told the employee we cannot provide compensation for overtime work. How should I deal with this?



A Dear Manager,

What we have here is an archetypal crucial conversation! Clearly the stakes are high, you and your seasoned high performer see it differently, and the emotions have kicked in. As I have read and reread your question, my mind has been flooded with options. I have tried to sort through the flood to find a few bits of advice that I think are most cogent, noting that because I don’t know the context or history, some of this advice may be less cogent than I would hope. Nonetheless, here is some advice in chronological order.

Consider your options. All people facing crucial conversations have at least three options. You can remain silent, turn to violence, or hold a crucial conversation. If you choose silence, you are essentially giving the employee your permission to continue acting this way. However, most people don’t really remain silent—they gossip. And that generally unravels and hurts the relationship. Or you can choose violence—you can bottle up your emotions until you explode with accusations, sarcasm, or worse. Neither of these first two options, which are very common, will help. So the first bit of advice concerning how to deal with this is to speak up with candor and courtesy.

Get your head and your heart ready before you open your mouth. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Ask yourself: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act this way?” Do you really understand the reasons this seasoned, high-performing employee is acting this way? Have you asked him? Does this employee feel like you care and that you are trying to understand? Are his reasons limited to serving customers and compensation? Could the employee be identifying a big problem that you, as a supervisor, need to help solve? What is your purpose? What is his purpose? What is the Mutual Purpose? When we have an issue with someone, we are often too quick to generate conclusions that oversimplify. So make sure you have done your best to understand.

It’s likely you’ve noticed that the first two bits of advice deal with you and not the other person. Each of us needs to make sure we work on us first. We don’t want to charge into a conversation with incomplete and clever stories, with our faces showing that we have held court in our heads and found the other person guilty. Once you have carefully engaged in the first two pieces of advice, you can then proceed.

Talk about the real issue. Over the years we’ve talked and written about determining what conversation to hold using CPR—Content, Pattern, and Relationship. The problem that many of us suffer from is that we talk ourselves blue in the face about the wrong issue. We choose simple over complex, easy over hard, and incident over pattern. I’m not sure what the real issue is with your employee. Maybe the issue is a pattern of making inappropriate commitments to customers. Maybe the issue is a sense of entitlement about the lack of overtime pay or perhaps compensation in general. Maybe the issue is that you have made repeated requests and he has not made a firm commitment. These are things to think about. I will say that clearly you must address a pattern and probably a relationship issue. Again, without knowing the context, let me suggest a couple of approaches for when you open your mouth.

Speak up about what really matters. Of course, you want to make it safe to talk. Safety would include privacy (not having spectators), timing (choosing a time when you won’t be rushed or stressed), and purpose (clarify up front what you are trying to accomplish and ask if now is a good time for the two of you to talk).

You might begin by saying, “We’ve chatted at least three times about making commitments to customers that require overtime and your feeling that it’s not fair that you not be compensated for this. I’ve asked you numerous times not to make these commitments and you know the compensation policy. I’d like to understand and I would also like to talk about this so that we don’t have this issue recur. Is my purpose clear?”

What you have done here is clarify an outcome. You are not merely trying to solve the problem of his making commitments to customers; you are trying to eliminate a pattern and to build a relationship so that you can trust him when he makes a commitment. What the solution is, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a motivation problem and when you share the consequences of the employee’s actions, he or she may understand them and comply. Maybe it’s an ability problem, and when the two of you identify how your employee can say no to customers, you’ll have a solution. Maybe you’ll learn something that will cause you to support a salary increase for the employee or a change in a process or policy. When you start the conversation, the outcome is not predetermined; but when you finish the conversation, the next steps and commitments should be very clear—as in Who Does What by When, and Follow up.

There is no magic solution to challenges like the one you are facing. There are some tested principles and I’ve based my advice on them. All of these tactics and principles stem from the Law of Crucial Conversations: If you’re stuck in some aspect of your life, at work or at home, there is a crucial conversation you’re not holding or not holding well. Get better at crucial conversations and get better at everything.

I wish you well in stepping up to this conversation,


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Q&A: Keeping Your Workers Safe

Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

Our company has worked long and hard to improve workplace safety and we’ve made some great strides. I have good employees that work for me and I’m sure none of them come to work with the thought that they will have an accident that day, but unfortunately it sometimes happens. Why would employees continue to take risks or shortcuts that lead to accidents?

What Can Be Done

A Dear What,

I congratulate you and your company on your success. Recently in the U.S., many of the most obvious workplace threats have been reduced or eliminated, making American workers far safer.

However, in 2007 more than 5,600 people were killed on the job and more than 4 million were injured.¹ In addition to this tragic human toll, these injuries cost firms more than $48.6 billion.² Clearly, there is much more that needs to be done.

Most of the gains in workplace safety can be attributed to improvements in equipment, policies, systems, and training. However, the issues left to address are the informal, cultural challenges.

Here at VitalSmarts, we conducted interviews and surveys among more than 1,500 employees from more than 20 firms. Our research revealed that the ugly secret behind most workplace injuries is that someone is aware of the threat well in advance, but is either unwilling or unable to speak up.

Specifically, we uncovered five crucial conversations that exist in most organizations that are politically incorrect or uncomfortable to surface. Ninety-three percent of employees say their workgroup is currently at risk from one or more of these five “accidents waiting to happen.” In fact, nearly half are aware of an injury or death caused by these workplace dangers.

The five crucial conversations of a safety culture are:

1. Get It Done. These are unsafe practices justified by tight timelines. According to the results, 78 percent of respondents see their coworkers take unsafe shortcuts. These common and risky shortcuts are undiscussable for 75 percent of the workforce.

2. Undiscussable Incompetence. These are unsafe practices that stem from skill deficits that can’t be discussed. Sixty-five percent of respondents see their coworkers create unsafe conditions due to incompetence, and 74 percent of workers say safety risks sustained by incompetence are undiscussable.

3. Just This Once. These are unsafe practices justified as exceptions to the rule. Fifty-five percent of respondents see their coworkers make unsafe exceptions. Only one in four speak up and share their real concerns with the person who is putting safety at risk.

4. This Is Overboard. These are unsafe practices that bypass precautions already considered excessive. The majority of respondents—66 percent—see their coworkers violate safety precautions they’ve discounted. Almost three out of four either say nothing or fall short of speaking up candidly to share their real concerns.

5. Are You a Team Player? These are unsafe practices that are justified for the good of the team, company, or customer. Sixty-three percent of respondents see their coworkers violate safety precautions for this cause. Only 28 percent say they speak up and share their concerns with the person.

The missing ingredient in a safety culture is the willingness and ability to effectively hold those who are engaging in unsafe behavior and practices accountable.

In order to create a culture of safety, everyone must have the skills to hold others accountable. These are the skills we train in Crucial Accountability workshops. The other essential component is to use the Six Sources of Influence to motivate and enable the team members to be accountable.

I witnessed a dramatically successful strategy work for a team on an oil rig working to reduce accidents and injuries and a team at a hospital improving patient safety. They both implemented a 200 percent accountability initiative.

After being trained in Crucial Accountability skills, as part of an Influencer plan, the workers agreed that they were 100 percent accountable to abide by the safety protocols. They also committed to be 100 percent accountable to speak up when they saw someone else violating safe practices. Each signed a “200 percent accountability” poster and gave others permission to confront them if there was any question about their own compliance. With amazing speed, workers reported a change in their culture and an improvement in the vital behaviors that lead to a safer workplace for workers and patients.

Accountability is the implicit assumption that underlies every safety program. Yet as our research shows, this assumption is more fiction than fact. Consequently, accountability is the critical weakness of most approaches to safety. If people don’t hold each other accountable for acting on observed threats, then more training to help them recognize threats will be of limited value. Silence, not blindness, is the problem.

This research also points to an exceptionally high-leverage strategy for improving workplace safety. If leaders focus on the five undiscussables and transform them from undiscussables into approachable accountability conversations, they can expect dramatic improvements in workplace safety.

All the best in your worthy effort to keep your people safe.


¹Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, July 2009.

²”2008 Workplace Safety Index,” Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, 2008.

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Help—My Child is Addicted to Electronics!

April 1st, 2014
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

My fourteen-year-old son seems to be addicted to electronics. If we let him, he will spend ten hours a day on his tablet, computer, or XBOX. I want him to choose to do other things, and to do something worthwhile over the summer. Is there a better approach than “cold turkey”?

Parent of an e-addict

A Dear Parent,

I like the way you framed your objective: “I want him to choose to do other things.” That’s a completely different influence problem from “I want him to stop.” As a father of six children, I have often been tempted to go for the quick fix of the latter rather than the steady influence of the former.
The latter could be accomplished by simply spilling iced tea on the problematic devices, then feigning remorse as they short out in a puff of smoke. The former will require not only more thought, but more patience and character on your part.

1. Is the problem the problem? Before you decide that electronic games are the problem, do your best to determine whether games are a way of medicating against or isolating from some other problem—like bullying, depression, anxiety, loneliness, or other social or emotional problems.

2. “Addiction” isn’t a metaphor. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry . . . . This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” Some evidences that a behavior has become “addictive” include: “inability to consistently abstain, feelings of craving, and diminished recognition of negative consequences of one’s behaviors.” You don’t need to ingest a substance to develop addiction. Behaviors alone can similarly contribute to brain reward circuitry impairment. My personal belief is that many of us (including myself) have unhealthy relationships with technology that create negative emotional and relationship consequences. So let me applaud you for your sensitivity to the potential developmental damage technology can do to your son.

3. Interview, don’t lecture. Don’t begin the conversation with your son using conclusions and wisdom (e.g. “I think you’ve got a problem” or “Reading is better for your brain”). Instead, come in with curiosity and a desire to connect. Trust is permission to influence—and he controls the granting or withholding of trust. Show an interest in his interests. Spend time with him. Affirm him. And when sufficient safety exists, broach the topic. “Hugh,” you might say, “on a scale of 1-10, how satisfied are you with the way you spend your time? How confident are you that it is taking you where you want to be and creating the life you want right now?” He might be defensive when you first ask this. He may suspect it is a manipulative tactic to open the way for your judgment or lecture. If so, reassure him it isn’t. Be honest that you have feelings on the topic, but push your agenda aside, and sincerely open yourself to his feelings. If he answers, “Well, okay, I guess. Maybe a six,” you now have some common ground to discuss. “Wow. Really? I would have thought you’d say a ten. What makes you less than perfectly satisfied with how you’re spending time?” Your only hope of helping him make different choices is to honor his feelings and autonomy from the first conversation. Interview, don’t lecture. This does not mean you can’t express opinions at times, but keep your airtime in careful balance with his interests.

4. Wake him, don’t make him. In order to sustain bad habits we must maintain ignorance of their consequences. If you want to help him “choose” differently, you’ll have to help him experience the downside of his habit as viscerally as he now experiences the upside. What he knows today is that grabbing a controller and logging into a game is associated with feelings of engagement, enjoyment, social connection (if he plays online games), mastery, and perhaps safe solitude. If he is to choose something different he will need to feel that other choices will create better consequences. This is tricky. But it’s also a fundamental problem you need to solve. The first step is to help him engage in experiences that will awaken him to either the negative consequences of his current choices, or the positive consequences of other choices. For example, you could ask him to conduct an experiment to help him become more mindful of his experience.

Emotion tracking. See if he would be willing to keep a simple journal of how he feels before and after playing games for long periods. Be prepared in advance that some of his journal entries will confirm the positive emotions he feels while playing. Have him similarly experiment with other activities (some enjoyable family activity, an outing with friends, etc.) and report how he feels during and after. Talk openly with each other about this data as a way of helping him make more conscious choices.

Abstinence Test. Share the definition of addiction. Invite him to experiment in discovering his own way to discern healthy gaming and unhealthy gaming by attempting a brief abstention experiment and recording his feelings during it. Discuss openly how it felt and what that means to him.

What could be better? Invite him to think of activities that might create more enjoyment and health that could be far more fun for him than gaming. Encourage and support him in experimenting with a single attempt at an activity, then discuss his experience.

5. There’s a difference between forcing him to change and refusing to enable. Realize that you are an accomplice in his choices. You are subsidizing his choices by maintaining home duties for him, providing the equipment, providing the comfortable environment, etc. You need to accept responsibility for how you are providing a structural influence that makes gaming easy by providing devices. You don’t have to do this. In fact, you shouldn’t. You should have boundaries with everything you offer. Just because you provide a bed doesn’t mean you have to consent to him lying in it twenty-four hours a day. Providing food doesn’t mean you have to serve up Twinkies every time he wants them. You get to say, “Here’s what I’m willing to offer—and no more.” Now, since your objective is to influence his choices, not control his behavior, I’d suggest you strike a balance by differentiating between boundaries and advice. You might say, for example, “I think it would be wise to limit your use to an hour or so per day. That’s something you’ll have to decide. However, I am willing to provide the opportunity for you to play up to three hours per day—and five on weekends—provided your grades are good and your homework is finished.” I offer this as an illustration, not as a sound position to take.

I admire your desire to think about long-term influence rather than short-term compliance. My worst moments as a parent have been when I was more interested in behavior than growth. I believe that if you reflect on some of what I shared, and keep an eye on what you really want, you’ll find a way to help him grow in the way only a loving and discerning parent can.



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Q&A: Helping a Laid-off Spouse

David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

My husband was terminated from his job last June because he was told it was “not a good fit.” He worked from home and I could tell that during conference calls he was usually either blamed for not getting a job done on time or was defensive about the work he did. It’s now March and still no job prospects. He is very defensive when I suggest job opportunities, networking, or re-training. I am to the point where I am shutting down because of his attitude, but finances are becoming critical. How do I talk to him about real solutions for job hunting and networking without him getting so defensive?


Critical Situation

A Dear Critical,

Thanks for asking a tough question. The sad truth is that time doesn’t always heal all wounds. Sometimes a personal calamity such as termination, death, divorce, financial loss, etc. creates a vortex that grows with time—engulfing the person, and sucking their loved ones into a growing spiral of failure.

It sounds as if your husband is caught in this kind of vicious cycle, and it’s reaching into your relationship. Take heart. There are ways to break free, but it will take effort on your part—and some of this effort might seem counterintuitive at first.

Painful stories. Think of your husband’s termination as a powerful blow that left bruises. These bruises are painful realizations or stories your husband is now telling himself. The stories we see most often are helpless, victim, and villain stories.

Helpless Story: Your husband might be thinking: “I’m a failure,” “It’s hopeless,” or “I’ll never succeed.” These stories will undermine his mood, self-esteem, and motivation. These thoughts often become automatic, entering his head every time the topic is touched, and create humiliation and pain. They might explain why your husband is avoiding everything related to the topic.

Victim Story: Your husband might be thinking: “The system is rigged,” “It’s all political,” or “People don’t respect me.” These stories would make him feel put upon and oppressed. They might also explain why he resists your attempts to help.

Villain Story: Your husband might be thinking: “My boss wasn’t fair to me,” “The company shouldn’t have fired me,” etc. These stories would lead to ruminating on and revisiting the blow. People who tell villain stories often reactivate the personal calamity instead of grow beyond it.

Master these stories. In an ideal world, your husband will come to realize that these self-defeating stories aren’t the whole story. Sure, he might not be as skilled, as politically savvy, or as appreciated as he assumed he was, but he’s not a failure either. He will put this blow into perspective. However, if he hasn’t come to this realization on his own, then there are actions you can take to help.

• Use Direct Experience. Your husband needs proof that the self-defeating stories he’s internalized aren’t the complete truth. You can help by focusing on his successes, rather than his failures. However, words alone aren’t likely to be enough. Look for ways to use direct experience. For example, how can he help others during this time between jobs? The best way to recover from a blow to your self-esteem is to earn it back. He can do this by making a challenging and meaningful contribution to others.

Focus on the purpose, not the strategy. One of the challenges we face as family members is that we’re seen as nagging, rather than helping. The solution is to back away from the specific requests we’ve made, and focus on the broader common purpose that unites us.

• You say your husband gets defensive when you suggest jobs, networking, or re-training. Try backing away from these specific strategies. Instead, ask for your husband’s help with the broader mutual purpose: managing your family’s critical financial decisions.

Remember, respect is at risk. Your husband’s self-respect has taken a beating. He’s likely to be extra sensitive to any sign of further disrespect. In fact, he may take your well-intentioned suggestions as a sign that you don’t trust or respect him.

• Take extra care to avoid being directive or controlling during the conversation. Emphasize exploration, visioning, and personal choice and control. Remember that requests may feel like demands.

You might open this conversation with: “I’d like us to set aside a time to explore our goals together. My main goal is for us to build a happy life together. Everything else is open to change. Maybe it’s time to jump off the rat race. Or maybe it’s time to double-down. Can we set aside an hour or two to talk about what you’d like to see happen?”

Explore barriers, instead of advocating for actions. There is a common mistake most of us make when we’re in your situation. We advocate for actions we believe in instead of exploring the barriers that make these actions difficult. When we take it as our role to advocate, we force the other person to argue the other side. We argue for, they argue against, and guess who wins?

• It works better if we begin by acknowledging that the action will be difficult. This shows respect for why they are stuck. Then explore the barriers one at a time, in bite-sized chunks. Brainstorm solutions, while continuing to emphasize personal choice and control.

De-escalate your finances. My suggestions so far have focused on process—how to have the conversation. I’d like to end with a piece of substantive advice. I’ve been in your husband’s position and I recommend cutting back on expenses before you get too far into a financial hole. Find a way to reduce your predictable expenses. For example, rent a smaller apartment, sell your home, stop your cable TV subscription, etc.

Know that you are not alone. Many families are facing your situation. The news describes people dealing with this as “discouraged workers.” I hope I’ve given you some ideas for addressing this discouragement, while pulling your family closer together.

Best wishes,


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Kerrying On: IndepenDunce

March 18th, 2014
Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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In January 1965, after living their entire lives in soggy Western Washington, my mom and dad packed up their belongings and moved to sunny Arizona. After enjoying the dry climate for several months, Mom wrote a letter to her father inviting him to close up the “mom and pop” store that he operated thirteen-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week and come live with them in Tempe.

“We have a room set aside for you,” Mom explained. “And there’s a beautiful park nearby filled with men playing checkers and chess. I’m sure you’d love it here. Please come live with us.”

“It sounds wonderful,” Grandpa replied in a return letter. “It’s tempting to move to a place where it doesn’t rain most of the time, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. You know how hard it is for a man of my age to find work.”

Grandpa was eighty-five years old when he penned that response and he meant every word of it. He couldn’t conceive of not having a job and he certainly couldn’t imagine relying on others. He’d always been self-reliant. Orphaned at a young age, Grandpa was taken in by a relative who didn’t like him very much and, to remove any doubt on the matter, beat him regularly.

One day when Grandpa was ten, his schoolteacher began brutally spanking a small child in his class—there was a lot of that going on. This continued until Grandpa could take it no longer—he pummeled the teacher until the fellow fled the classroom. Needless to say, Grandpa was expelled for his efforts. While his caretakers brooded over what to do next, he packed his belongings into an old flour sack and set out from Dyersville, Iowa to live with his nine-year-old second cousin, May, and her parents—the relatives who had been kind to him when he had met them at a family gathering a few years earlier.

For several days, Grandpa trudged westward. For sustenance he drank from creeks, ate fruit from trees, and stole eggs from chicken coops.

“When we laid eyes on Billy [my grandpa],” May explained to me when I first met her many years later, “my mom and I were sitting on the porch drinking lemonade. At first, I thought it was a stray dog coming down the dirt road that passed in front of our house. I could barely make out a speck in the distance, but then I could see it was a person: it was a boy! The poor thing looked like he was going to collapse from the heat. As he drew close enough to see his face, we realized it was Billy. Mother and I ran to greet him, took him in our arms, and smothered him with kisses.”

After days of lonely effort—ten-year-old Billy had walked across the state of Iowa. Reaching cousin May’s house in Sioux City, he realized he was finally home. For the next eight years, Billy was loved and cared for by his cousins. When he graduated from high school, he left to make a life for himself.

For almost two decades, my grandfather worked at everything from trapping in Minnesota to playing cards on a Mississippi river boat—until he finally met my grandmother. He fell in love, settled down, and raised my mother and her sister.

Grandpa taught my mom to be as independent as he had learned to be throughout his twenty years of bachelorhood. He had learned to cook and sew, and do all things domestic—not as a point of pride, but from sheer necessity. So, along with housekeeping skills, he taught Mom how to swing a hammer and repair the plumbing.

By the time I was twelve, both my mom and granddad had passed the tradition to me. I’d come home from school to find Mom tearing out part of a wall with a crowbar in an effort to get a remodeling project on its feet. I’d then either help her with the project or make dinner before Dad came home to help complete the job.

This independence has served me well. I love the freedom that comes from being able to do things on my own. However, sometimes my desire for self-sufficiency morphs from autonomy to pride and pig-headedness—and that’s when it gets me into trouble. Strengths, taken to the extreme, become weaknesses.

For instance, for our 40th anniversary, my wife and I traveled to Paris where we signed up for a nighttime Segway tour of the city. From the very start, I could see that my wife’s night vision wasn’t up to the challenge of speeding along the Champs-Élysées on what was little more than an electric stick. Every few minutes, she’d zoom perilously close to a pillar or wall and I’d shout out a warning. But I didn’t dare ask to stop and return to home base because it would have ended the tour for everyone. So we continued on despite my nagging fear that something bad was about to happen.

And then it happened. Louise careened off a pillar, flew through the air, crashed to the cobblestone, and cracked her pelvis. For the next three days, I fretted and fumed over how to get her home safely. She could travel without it causing harm, but it hurt so much . . . well, I just didn’t know what to do.

After two days of fruitless worrying, and out of utter desperation, I finally approached our hotel manager and said something I almost never say.
“I need your help,” I nervously whispered. Then I explained our predicament.
“Yes,” the manager responded, “I can see your problem. I’m not sure how to solve it, but don’t worry Mr. Patterson, we will figure it out.”
And he did.

In my case, the independence I learned from my grandfather occasionally transmutes into “indepen-dunce” and keeps me from asking others for their assistance, even when I need it. Had I stopped our tour group and explained—”My wife and I need to return, but I also don’t want to disrupt the tour. Do you have any ideas on how to achieve that?”—I’m sure the guide and other tourists would have come up with five different solutions.

I know I’m not alone in my misunderstanding of self-reliance. At work, employees routinely avoid asking for help because they fear it might make them look weak. Perhaps you’ve seen a newly promoted boss refuse to say “I don’t know” because she’s a supervisor and believes that means she’s supposed to know everything.

For over sixty years, I’ve honed my abilities to stand on my own—as if that’s life’s one true measure of success. Since I learned independence at my grandfather’s knee, it’s not something I’m going to simply let go of—nor could I. Fortunately, that’s not required. I simply need to couple independence with an equal desire to both seek and give assistance. Stopping and asking others for help is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It’s a sign that we need each other. And that’s a good thing.

So, here’s to taking the dunce out of independence.

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Crucial Applications: Digital Divisiveness

March 18th, 2014

VitalSmarts’ new research study shows that 89% of participants surveyed report damaged relationships as a result of the insensitive or inappropriate use of technology. And yet, most suffer silently.

According to the study of 2,025 people, 9 out of 10 report that at least once a week, their friends or family members stop paying attention to them in favor of something happening on their digital devices. And 1 in 4 say Electronic Displays of Insensitivity (EDIs) have caused a serious rift with a friend or family member.

So what do we do when confronted with such blatant EDIs? According to the research, most of us do nothing. Specifically, 1 in 3 people admit to coping with EDIs by simply ignoring them.

However, what happens when repeat offenders are your spouse, child, best friend, or coworker? Even with close relationships, people still struggle to speak up. In fact, nearly 2 out of 3 have no idea how to effectively reduce the impact of others’ inappropriate use of technology.

Those who say nothing give their silent approval of insensitive and bad behavior. So next time you’re face-to-face with an EDI offender, use your crucial conversations skills to restore civility without damaging common courtesy.

Here are five tips for getting started.

1. Take the high road. Some EDIs are urgent or necessary so assume the best intentions. Empathetically say: “That sounds important. I can come back later if you need to respond to that call or text.”

2. Spell it out. Specificity leads to results. Rather than making vague requests, set specific boundaries. Say: “We need your full attention in this meeting, so please turn off your cell phone.”

3. Illuminate the impact. Describe the consequences of an EDI rather than blast your judgments about another’s moral compass. Say: “Your screen light is disturbing my experience of the performance. Would you please turn it off? Thank you.”

4. Take heart. Don’t measure your influence by whether or not people immediately comply. Your intervention registers as disapproval and helps in the slow establishing of new norms.

5. Let it go. If you’ve employed every tactic and the offender fails to comply, let it go. Unless the situation will continue for an extended period of time or your safety is at risk, you’re better off just moving on.

View the results of our study in the infographic below or click here to download a copy.


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How to Work With a Chatty Cathy

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

Several of my coworkers sit and face each other in the cubicles next door to me. They’re good friends and it seems, especially lately during our slow season, that they spend the majority of the day chatting about anything and everything. Most mornings, the first hours are nothing but chatter. It’s terribly distracting. I’ve tried to plug in my earphones and listen to music to help me focus but it doesn’t drown out the noise. Any tips on asking the “chattaholics” to turn it down and minimize the disruptive discussion without seeming rude or snobby?



A Dear Annoyed,

This sounds like a classic case of being stuck. I define “stuck” as not getting results you want, getting results that you don’t want, failing relationships, recurring problems, or being frequently bugged. Our Crucial Conversations book and training contain a set of skills that helps you get unstuck. These skills help you solve situations characterized by high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions. Before I offer some advice, I want to take a moment to suggest how these situations generally develop, and hope this note will motivate everyone to speak up early.

Here is the main point. Chattiness, like tardiness, or sloppiness, doesn’t happen suddenly—it sort of sneaks in or evolves. No one or no team starts the day by saying, “Look we have typically been getting eight hours of effective work done every day, but now I suggest that we chat for three hours and work for five. Won’t that be fun?” And I doubt any group started chatting three hours the first day. Social time most likely increased by a few minutes every day. Lower standards creep in little by little, here and there, which can make the problem hard to notice.

With that background, my first bit of advice is to catch problems early. When you catch them early, it’s easier to speak up. Early on, you might have been able to say something like, “Hey team, I have a lot of work to do, and it’s hard to get it done when we talk this much. I can be chatty myself; however, I’m wondering if we could chat during breaks and lunch and focus on work when it’s work time. That would really help us all out. What do you say?” Early on, you are not dealing with a long pattern; there is no new, lower norm. It’s just easier for anyone to speak up early. Even if you have let the problem grow over time by remaining silent until now, the sooner you choose to say something, the easier the crucial conversation will be.

Remember that when any of us see that we are stuck, we have three options.

We can stay silent. Often we don’t want to speak up because we feel it’s not our job, we don’t want to make waves, or don’t want to lose a friend. But I would caution you—silence is the petri dish upon which lower standards grow.

We blow up. We’ve had it “up to here.” So we explode with something like, “Give me a break! Shut up, you gossip mongers, will you??? I can’t get my work done.” Again, be careful. Leading with emotions and labels is the dynamite that weakens relationships.

We speak up with candor and courtesy. When we do this, we show that we value both the standard and the relationship and that we are speaking up to maintain both.

If you try the third option, you should be prepared with what you’ll say or do next. Often, people are silent, not because they don’t think they can bring up a topic, but because they are fearful they won’t be able to deal with the response. The key to preparing is to assess the situation and relationship and think about what might happen if you speak up and then get ready with some responses.

As an example: You begin the conversation as stated above and someone responds with one of the following statements.

• “Who died and left you in charge?” This is an opportunity to share your intention with what you are and are not trying to do—otherwise known as contrasting. You might say, “I’m not trying to be bossy here. I value you as friends and we all have a lot of work to do. I’m just trying to solve a problem I’m facing and asking my coworkers for help.”

• “Since when did you become Captain Perfect? You’re just as bad as I am.” Again, share your intention. “I realize that I’m part of the problem. That’s why I used the word we. I don’t want to come across as a perfectionist; I’m just trying to find a solution to a situation that is affecting all of us.”

• The other person simply nods and rolls his or her eyes. You can tell that right at this moment he or she is thinking statements like the ones above or worse. You might say, “I realize this is a tough subject. It was very hard for me to bring this up because I’m part of the problem. I still want to talk and visit with you. I also want to get a lot of work done. It looks like I’ve bothered a few of you by bringing this topic up. I’m asking if we can find a solution that will help us get the work done and still be friendly.”

Of course there are no “ideal” scripts to use in situations like this one. It’s hard for me to offer options when I know so little about the details or circumstances. But I assure you that you will find your own, more effective scripts if you prepare and have the purpose of finding a solution while also maintaining or strengthening the relationship.

Remember to speak up early in a candid and courteous way and to prepare for responses that will help clarify your intentions.

I wish you the best,


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From the Road: Stick the Landing

March 6th, 2014
Steve WillisSteve Willis is a Master Trainer and Vice President of Professional Services at VitalSmarts.

From the Road

I don’t know about you, but I love the Olympics. So these last two weeks have been great as my family and I watched so many different events that we don’t get to see on a regular basis. This year I’ve been especially fascinated by how many of the events involve difficult to execute tricks. So many of the athletes are jump-twisting, or twist-spinning, or spin-flipping. And a few were so bold as to attempt a jumping-spinning-twisting-flipping kind of thing that I could only do on accident. I get dizzy for them just thinking about it. And yet one of the most important elements of these tricks was the landing. You’ve got to stick the landing. However upside down or backward the athlete got, it mattered what happened during the landing.

Watching all these fabulous athletes got me thinking about training. Many trainers move through the space, weaving in and out of chairs, participants, desks, power cords, and other similar obstacles as they present their material. But when it comes to giving instructions they need to stick the landing—they need to be standing still, firmly planted on the ground.

We’ve found over the years that participants give their lowest ratings when asked if they understood what to do during exercises and activities. When a trainer stands still, participants focus on what he or she is saying, and not his or her movements. By “sticking the landing” you accentuate your point making it more likely that participants will listen and understand.

And just like in the Olympics, standing still while giving instructions sounds easy, but it’s harder than you think. I still find myself getting a little off balance, trying desperately to stand still, and feeling the pull to move around. Next time you train, take a 3×5 card with you and keep track of how you do. And by all means, feel free to twist, spin, and do everything else that makes you the type of trainer you are. Just remember when it comes to instructions, you gotta stick the landing.

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