Crucial Conversations QA

Recovering from False Perceptions

Dear Emily,

I have found that participants in long-term relationships tend to keep score in their emotional bank accounts. Over time we may build up a mental image of the other person—often a fictitious persona which is heavily weighted toward the things that bug us most about him or her. The perception of the other person can become worse and worse over time as we interpret our present actions in terms of the fictitious persona. Two questions: a. Suppose you realize that your spouse is not the fictitious persona. Is it possible to repair the damage? If so, how do you structure that crucial conversation? b. Suppose this sort of thing happens at work. Is it possible to repair the damage? If so, how do you structure the crucial conversation?

Wanting to Repair the Damage

Dear Wanting,

To converse or not to converse? That is the question. Or is it? Asking, “How should I structure the conversation?” presupposes that you should have a conversation. I am not sure you should.

Not have a conversation?! I know. It seems like blasphemy. I have spent the last ten years teaching thousands of people how to hold a crucial conversation. During that time, I have watched people move through a fairly predictable process. It looks something like this:

“For years and years, I have suffered in silence. I have failed to speak up because I do not have the skills to do so. Whenever I have spoken up, it has backfired, causing me untold heartache. I have realized that staying silent rarely brings me negative consequences, or at least I don’t see those consequences directly.

“Then, I attend a Crucial Conversations class and I am reborn! I understand the choice I am making when I stay silent and I commit to leaving silence behind. With my newfound skills, I sally forth into the great wide world, holding conversations that have been pent up for years. It is invigorating. I talk, and talk, and talk.

“Then comes the day when I hold a crucial conversation using all my best skills and it doesn’t work. I don’t feel freed and empowered afterward; I feel small. What has happened? Have I lost my voice?”

Of course, the answer is no. You haven’t lost your voice or your skills. You may have just lost your bearings a bit. You see, not all conversations need to be held, not all topics need to be addressed.

When deciding whether or not to hold a conversation, I would suggest you get really clear on why you are holding it before you even consider how to hold it.

So let’s take a look at your conversation and figure out why you are considering holding the conversation. You have come to the stark realization that you have misjudged someone, creating a fictitious persona that amplifies their negative attributes and ignores (we can suppose) their positive ones. Now you want to talk to that person about it. Why?

Reasons to Hold the Conversation

High on the list of reasons to hold a conversation is because you need to apologize. Because of your perception, you have treated the other person poorly. That definitely deserves an apology. Your apology should focus on the ways in which you have behaved poorly, acknowledge the pain that may have caused, include a sincere commitment to change, and a humble request for grace. Notice what is not on the list? A long discussion of why you acted as you did. Apologies suffer when the emphasis is on an explanation of the past rather than commitment to the future.

A second reason to hold the conversation is that you want some behaviors to change. Yes, you have spun up this fictitious persona in your head but the original story was probably based on some reality. It may be that you still want that reality to change. If this is the case, focus on the specific behaviors you would like to see change.

Reasons Not to Hold the Conversation

Here is the big one—you want to feel better. You are full of mixed emotions about your new insight, proud that you had the self-awareness to come to it, and perhaps somewhat ashamed of your prior thoughts about this person. This is all fair. You should be proud of your insight. It takes a fair degree of humility to admit to yourself that you have been wrong. And it is natural to want to share this. It will make you feel better to acknowledge the error of your past thinking and commit to do better. What is the harm in that?

The harm is that it is self-focused. You want the other person to know that you have judged him or her poorly all this time but now with your new insight you realize he or she are really not the terrible person you thought he or she was. This is not something you have to get off your chest. In fact you probably need to carry the weight of this with you for a while. Carrying that weight will help you change your thinking patterns toward this person and remind you not to judge so quickly.

The question you have to ask is: will it make the other person feel better? Will it help this person to know how you have judged him or her in the past and of your commitment to change your thinking in the future? You absolutely need to apologize for poor behavior. You may not need to apologize for poor thoughts. You have done this person wrong by judging him or her. Now you need to do right by him or her and consider the impact of sharing your new insight, your remorse, and your commitment to change.

Best of Luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Stereotypes, Distrust, and Bias

Dear David,

I am a middle manager and have a boss who doesn’t trust one of my employees and—by extension—he doesn’t trust me. My employee has sensed the distrust. Even though this employee meets expectations, does a good job, and is liked by everyone else, my boss seems to dislike her demeanor. I am working with the employee on changing her demeanor, but it is brutal on morale. Any tips for improving morale without undermining my boss?

Manager in Distress

Dear Manager in Distress,

Thanks for a truly intriguing question. It contains the kind of messy complications that make people and workplaces so interesting.

List and Prioritize Your Concerns. With complicated issues like this one, I begin by listing the different concerns. The list helps me identify the concerns that are most central.
Here is my initial list.

• Your boss doesn’t trust this employee.
• Your boss is beginning to wonder if he can trust you.
• Your boss’s opinions might (or might not) be based on stereotypes or implicit bias.
• The employee performs well on the job.
• The employee senses the distrust.
• You wonder if you SHOULD get the employee to change (or would this be buying into your boss’s biases?).
• You wonder if you CAN get the employee to change (how can you coach about subtle issues related to demeanor?).
• You wonder whether, if the employee does change, your boss will notice and reward the changes.

It looks as if the highest-priority question to answer is whether your manager’s mistrust of this employee is merited. The way you answer this question will determine how you act on most of the other issues. If you decide that your manager’s concerns are merited, then your challenge is to coach your employee to change. If you decide his concerns are not merited, then your challenge is to influence him. Of course, the answer isn’t always clear-cut. But I would begin by examining your manager’s concerns.

Explore Others’ Paths. Your manager is telling himself a story. His story is that your employee’s behavior fits a pattern that indicates she can’t be trusted. You need to create a safe way for your manager to examine his story. Safety is very important here. Don’t lecture your manager on the need to avoid bias, and don’t argue for your own perspective. Instead, ask questions that help your manager explore his own point of view.

Focus on the Facts. Ask questions about what your manager has observed and what he had expected. Look for the gap. Get examples of what your manager means by “the employee’s demeanor.” We all attend to people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and other nonverbal cues to try to read what they are thinking and feeling. Ask your manager about what he has seen, and what it means to him.

Example: Suppose you ask your manager for examples of what he has seen, and he replies, “In meetings and in presentations her demeanor is weak, hesitant, and unsure. She pauses, questions her own conclusions, and allows others to push her around—instead of making firm recommendations and backing them up with facts.”

Check to see if you and your manager have seen the same behaviors, and whether the behaviors are representative of the employee.

Examine the Story. Encourage your manager to explore the logic of his story—to re-examine the conclusions drawn from the facts. For example, is your manager concluding that your employee doesn’t prepare adequately, that she is too easily intimidated, or that she is too indecisive? Ideally, you will help your manager ask two questions: a.) Do I really have enough facts to draw this negative conclusion? b) Is there another more positive conclusion that fits the facts?

Visibility and Exposure. When you’re talking with your manager, the goal isn’t to convert him to your point of view. It’s to get him to reconsider his initial views, and to be open to new information. However, this new information can’t come from you; it must come from the employee. What you can do is provide the employee with visibility and exposure—opportunities to prove herself in ways that overcome your manager’s concerns.

Own the Problem. If you agree with your manager that the employee needs to change, then make sure you own it. Don’t blame the need to change on your manager. Use natural consequences to explain the links between the employee’s actions and outcomes she cares about. She needs to understand the business reasons for changing, or she may attribute it to whim or bias.

Focus on the Facts. The more specific you are, the more helpful you will be. The ideal would be to show your employee a video of herself in action, and to go through it frame by frame. If you don’t have video, then use quotes and demonstrations, not just explanations to show her what she does right and wrong. Imagine you are coaching an actor to improve her performance of a part. The focus isn’t on her words or the content of what she is saying as much as it’s on her nonverbals.

Follow Up. Ask your employee for permission to cue her in real time. Most of the actions that create “demeanor” are automatic or even unconscious. She won’t know she’s demonstrating them, unless you can signal her.

I hope this is helpful,

Kerrying On

The Road Less Traveled

Nowadays, teenage boys have it made. Most have access to man caves and media rooms that serve as perfect hangouts. When I was thirteen, you had to leave home to find anything remotely similar. In my case, a hundred yards down the alley behind our house, nestled against the local college’s northern boundary, lay a hamburger joint called Gus’s. It sold cheap, greasy food that nobody actually liked. To strengthen the place’s appeal, the owner (yes, his name was Gus), added a step-down lounge where college boys played pinochle, drank sodas, and smoked as if taking a drag on a cigarette was an Olympic event.

I found the hangout strangely alluring. To be truthful, what really enticed me to Gus’s place was the nickel pinball machine located in the far corner of the card room. If you knew what you were doing, you could play up to six balls at once while they wildly bounced around racking up free games (as many as twenty before the machine stopped doling out freebies). If you were good at it, you could play the game for hours on a single nickel.

But I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t have any money to invest in training, so I was constantly scrounging for coins. Soon tiring of rifling through coat pockets and digging between sofa cushions, I’m ashamed to say that I stooped to sneaking into my father’s rare coin collection to feed my nickel habit. I’d hand Gus a 1917 Standing Liberty quarter and ask for change. Gus would examine the rare coin, sneak it into his pocket, open the till, and then cheerfully count out five nickels—as if he were doing me a favor. Then he’d wait for me to lose five games and repeat the cycle.

After dozens of hours of expensive practice, I eventually advanced to the point where I could easily keep several balls in play at the same time. In fact, I became so proficient that by the end of the school year, my eighth-grade buddies addressed their remarks in my yearbook to “The Pinball King.”

One evening in July, I walked into Gus’s with a nickel in my pocket, hoping to play pinball for a couple of hours. To my chagrin, there stood my eighteen-year-old brother, Bill, along with Mike and Rick, his weasel friends. The three took great pleasure in torturing me. Bill ridiculed me about everything from my curiously large feet to my tenacious cowlick. Putting me down wasn’t merely Bill’s hobby, it was his raison d’être. Mike couldn’t give me enough wedgies, and Rick’s torture du jour was either an Indian-burn or a Dutch-rub. In response to their unwanted attention, I prayed for a curse to fall upon the lot of them.

On this particular day in Gus’s card room, my prayers were answered. There they were—my three tormentors—playing the pinball machine. More accurately, playing my pinball machine and playing it poorly. I watched the trio from a distant corner for nearly half an hour, and not once did they win a free game. And then it hit me; it was the perfect setup for me to finally exact revenge on them. I could humiliate them all in one fell swoop.

“Hey look who’s here,” Mike shouted as I approached. “It’s Bill’s dweeby brother. Hey zit-face, don’t you know that nerds aren’t allowed in here?” Then he tried to give me a wedgie.

“Would you like me to win you some free games?” I asked my brother.

Bill scowled and said, “You think you can win free games on this pinball machine? You? The world’s biggest twerp?” (My brother dabbled in oxymora.) “You’d need to stand on an apple box just to reach the flippers.”

“Well, I just thought you might want some free games.”

This generous offer earned me, as I knew it would, both a Dutch-rub and an Indian-burn from Rick. Then the hapless threesome returned to pumping nickels into the machine until my brother finally turned to me and said, “So you’re saying you can win us some free games?”

“Yeah,” I responded. Nothing more; nothing less. No embellishments. No bragging or heightened volume. Just the one word. “Yeah.”

Bill stepped away from the machine, motioned me forward, and said, “Okay, hot-shot. You’ve got one ball left.” Winning free games was never easy; doing so after four of the five allotted balls had been lost would be nearly impossible.

“Does baby need a booster chair?” Bill taunted as I approached the machine.

I pulled back the plunger and shot the last ball onto the sloped playing surface. As designed, the steel sphere made a beeline to the gobble hole but I expertly feathered the flippers just so and—smack! I avoided a disaster. Slowly my muscle-memory took over. Within minutes I had built the extra-ball count to five, rolled over the activate button, and whammy! Out came the five bonus balls. It took every nerve in my body to keep the spheres alive as my score skyrocketed until a beautiful sound filled the room. It was the machine announcing the first free game. Pop! I continued this frantic dance for another five minutes until the twentieth report signaled that I had won the last free game possible.

Everything I had done at Gus’s until that day had been in preparation for this glorious moment. The question was: How should I celebrate? When you do something as astounding as thrashing your older brother and his toadies (in public, no less), you face a fork in the road. You can ridicule the three by pointing out that they’re five years older and you still whipped them in a pinball game. Or you can take the road less traveled by rejecting the feral pleasures of revenge and acting like a mature adult.

It wasn’t an easy choice for me, but here’s the path I took. I didn’t pump my fist, point at my chest, or dance a victory jig—despite an overwhelming desire to do so. Instead, I gave my three tormentors a subtle nod, turned on my heel, and calmly walked away from the machine as if the miracle I had just performed was routine. No big deal. Just business as usual.

“Who was that kid?” a lingering customer asked Bill as I walked away.

“My jerk brother,” Bill responded with a look of disdain.

“Well, you’re right about one thing,” the customer continued. “Someone was acting like a jerk. But it wasn’t your little brother.”

I hadn’t expected such immediate results. Despite my desire to maintain a mature demeanor, I grinned on the way out the door. I had taken the road less traveled, and it had indeed made all the difference.

Influencer QA

Influencing an Unfaithful Spouse

Dear Joseph,

I recently married a person who told me he is a recovering sex addict. I believe he is really trying to change his ways and is a good man. However, over the past couple of months, he has started to lie again, sent inappropriate text messages to women, and may have had an inappropriate encounter at a recent business conference. He has definitely crossed the line.

When I tried to talk to him about this, he started to exhibit the typical behaviors of lashing out at me, saying I do not trust him, that I was throwing his weaknesses in his face, etc.

I want our marriage to work based on my religious beliefs. How do I stop these behaviors? How do I get him to be honest again and show him that I care about him and his well-being? Should we see a therapist? Please help.

Married to a Sex Addict

Dear Married,

I’m sorry that this “honeymoon” period of your marriage is so hard. I admire your desire to be faithful to your beliefs. Many people give up when the first disappointments of marriage hit. It is clear your feelings about the commitment you made run very deep. I respect that. And I ask your permission to challenge your thinking—and perhaps even one of your beliefs.

1. Make a decision. Now.
You believe that marriage is sacred. So do I. My question is: What do you believe God would want you to do if staying in a marriage was bad for both you and the other person? Does God place the sanctity of marriage above all other considerations? You are at a place you will never be again. You are early enough in the relationship that you don’t yet suffer from what is called “hedonic adaptation.” Human beings are capable of adapting to remarkably painful and unhealthy situations. Over time they begin to feel “normal.” They no longer seem repulsive or intolerable. In fact, even abusive situations can begin to feel comfortably familiar. The first time someone goes to jail, for example, it’s terrifying. The second time the terror disappears—it is simply unpleasant. By the fifth time, it’s just life. So pause now before you’ve become accustomed to living with someone who is manipulative, dishonest, and unfaithful and then ask, “Is this the future I want for myself?” Decide now what your bottom line is—before his behavior seems familiar.

2. Don’t mistake influence for control. Your question scares me. You asked, “How do I stop these behaviors?” Please read this next sentence ten times out loud: I can never stop his behaviors. There is nothing you can do to change him. Nothing. There are, however, things you can do to get in the way of him changing. For example, you could stay in a relationship with him in spite of his habits. You can try to control him—through guilt, shame, punishment, etc.—which will offer him a convenient scapegoat for his own choices. You could become the “bad guy” he needs to rationalize his acting out in future years. Don’t mistake influence for control. The only healthy way forward is for you—right now—to accept two immutable facts:

a. He may never change.
b. You can never change him.

Then decide what you want to do with those two facts.

3. Controlling yourself is the only way to influence him.
There is one thing you can do to help him change—take care of yourself. People imprisoned in addiction become slaves to impulses. They lose self-respect because they become incapable of maintaining boundaries. Don’t catch his disease. Start now to set boundaries for yourself that will keep you healthy and safe. Boundaries are rules you make for yourself—not the other person. For example, you might set the following boundary: “If you commit adultery, I will leave you.” Or, “If you use porn, I will move out for at least thirty days and reconsider my willingness to stay married to you.”

Now, let me explain the difference between setting boundaries and punishing. When you set a boundary you are deciding how YOU will behave in order to take care of YOU. Your goal is not to manipulate or punish the other person. You are simply saying, “I deserve to be respected. I deserve a relationship of trust.” And when that boundary is violated, you are enacting a rule to take yourself out of a situation where you are being harmed. Punishment, on the other hand, is about trying to control others. Yelling, screaming, and silent treatments are punishments not boundaries. Remember, you cannot control his behavior. All you can do is control your own.

When you stop trying to control others, you gain influence. With addicts, the best thing you can offer is a healthy example of a well-bounded life. Show him what it looks like when you keep your commitments to yourself—and perhaps you will invite him to a higher level of living. One that blesses both him and you.

I again express my sympathy that you are in such a heart-rending situation at such a tender part of your relationship. I hope you will not turn pain into protracted misery by choosing to be part of it.


Crucial Conversations QA

Missing Social Cues

The following article was first published on December 29, 2004.

Dear Kerry,

I’m faced with the challenge of training people who are rather low self-monitors. That is, they don’t read social cues particularly well and as a result often annoy or offend others. They tend to push too hard or talk about topics that others are no longer interested in or simply hang back and don’t offer their ideas when they should. Many are skilled professionals in their field but since they don’t come off well in social interactions, they are being discounted. Our company can’t afford the luxury of not hearing from or discounting the opinions and ideas of some of our best thinkers.

Here’s the problem: when I work with this particular group, many are blind to the fact that they have a blind side. They view social skills training in general as a waste of time and the fact that they are in particular need of it often escapes them. How can I deal with this sensitive situation?

At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

First of all, it’s important to make sure those you’re training understand that using crucial skills in the workplace isn’t about looking pleasant or making people happy. Effective employees don’t charm people into their good graces. If anything, they’re tough on infractions, violations, and failed promises. They confidently step up to problems and hold the other person accountable.

Honest, complete, and effective communication is about getting the results you want and need. Interpersonal skills matter because you work in a social environment made up of small groups and teams. People who “don’t work and play well with others” cause companies fits. Individuals who aren’t able to express themselves well aren’t heard, so their best ideas are often missed. Companies can’t afford that.

That said, the challenge here lies in first helping people realize that they aren’t reading the cues well, and second, helping them apply high-level reasoning to an activity that most people do intuitively (picking up on social cues). It turns out that the first challenge isn’t all that great. Most people who stumble in social settings are well aware of the fact that they aren’t doing well. They’ve been given more than enough feedback over the years to realize that they don’t always shine in complex social interactions. They know this in general, but still struggle in the moment. Many also realize that the typical training they’ve been given or books they have been asked to read haven’t given them much help. This is often because the material deals with what to do and say but offers little to no help when it comes to when and how. This is where they struggle. They don’t know when because they aren’t reading the cues and they often don’t know how because they aren’t reading the responses well enough to then make subtle adjustments to their behavioral attempts.

What’s a person to do? We all need help in reading social cues, some just more than others. If you’re offering social skills (influence, accountability, communication) training for those who have been tagged at risk, spend as much time talking about the entry condition or cue to the skill in question as you do on the skill itself. This can feel odd because it seems so obvious, but it isn’t to everyone. In fact, we all have problems at times. For instance, when we’re caught up in an argument, all of us have missed the process of what’s going on around us and plowed on ahead no matter how others respond. We’ve all seen people resist our ideas only to push harder and cause more resistance. In short, we all missed the cues.

Without going into detail here, suffice it to say that you’ll need to slow down the skill you’re teaching. Focus on what others are doing or saying BEFORE the skill is called for and actually spend time looking for both the verbal and nonverbal cues that would drive a person in one direction or another. Then look at how people might respond to what you’ve just learned—with particular emphasis on what it looks like when the skill is working and when it isn’t. “Oops, that didn’t work. Let me try something else.” Once again, this calls for slowing down, looking for both verbal and nonverbal hints, talking about them, and then identifying where to go given the response. It’s a little hard to describe this in the abstract, but this ability to read social cues lies at the heart of your problem and you won’t be providing people the full solution to their problem if you merely focus on the traditional elements of influence or communication training.

Good luck with a challenging and often touchy task.

Crucial Conversations QA

Talking About Starting a Family

Dear Ron,

How can I apply my new found crucial conversations skills to an uncomfortable issue in my marriage?

After fifteen years together, four of them as a legally married couple, I’d like to start a family but I can’t get my husband to talk about it. I’m almost thirty-three years old and I would like to have this conversation sooner rather than later for obvious reasons!

To complicate matters, my husband knows I attended a Crucial Conversations trainer certification workshop last year, and may resist having my skills forced on him.

Mommy Dreams

Dear Mommy,

It sounds like you are facing an undiscussable—an issue that, like an exposed nerve, sets off a strong negative reaction when touched. Every time the subject is mentioned, the conversation turns contentious and ends in an icy silence or an angry fight. Over time, this becomes a topic we can’t discuss without bad feelings and we conclude, “It’s better to let a sleeping dog lie.”

Without really intending to, we’ve created an undiscussable. We find it’s better to keep the peace and endure the occasional irritation than have yet another blow-up. We lose hope that it will ever get resolved. We live with uncomfortable silence and sometimes pain.

To effectively dialogue, you must make it safe for the other person to talk with you. Resolving undiscussables requires an extra portion of safety because, almost by definition, undiscussables are created by a lack of safety which pushes participants into silence and violence. It takes a lot of safety to initially engage in an undiscussable and even more safety to see it through to completion.

You want to have children together but can’t get your husband to talk about it. This undiscussable is not a peripheral family issue, it is a core issue. This lies at the heart of who you are as a family, your joint aspirations, and the quality of life you will enjoy. To let this undiscussable fester without resolution will be to undermine your marriage and family.

Build Safety. Safety is created by two essential conditions: Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect. Start deconstructing this undiscussable by demonstrating respect. Rather than blind-siding your husband by bringing up the subject during his favorite ball game, ask to set a time to talk with him that’s mutually convenient. “Honey, I would like to talk with you about an important subject and I want to pick a time that we won’t be disturbed for about an hour, a time we can focus on each other and not be distracted. Would tonight after dinner work for you?” This courtesy helps to build Mutual Respect.

Set Expectations. When you actually begin the conversation, set some expectations and guidelines that will help maintain the respect you show each other and continue to build safety. “Thank you for clearing time for our talk,” you say without sarcasm. “My goal is not to make a decision tonight. I just want to fully understand how you feel and help you understand how I feel, as well. Can I make one request? Let’s agree that neither of us will leave until we’re both done, until we both feel heard. Is that okay?”

If he’s impatient and interrupts with something like, “What’s this about? What is it you want to talk about?” Try, “I’m not trying to be dramatic, it’s just that before we talk, I want to agree on some guidelines for our discussion. Is that okay?”

Establish Mutual Purpose. Help to establish Mutual Purpose by telling him what you really want. “I love you so much and I want us to always be together. I don’t want anything to strain our relationship. I want to understand how you feel and I want you to understand how I feel.” Having reinforced respect and Mutual Purpose, share with him what you are thinking and how you are feeling about inviting children into your family.

Don’t Judge. A few no-no’s: Don’t attribute motive to him; don’t judge him based on a standard in your head, and don’t make threats or ultimatums. A bad example: “You are so irresponsible and lazy. That’s why you don’t want children. You don’t care one bit about me or what I want. Well, Peter Pan, it’s time to choose . . . ” Rather, keep thinking back to what you really want: to respectfully and lovingly share your thoughts and feelings and deeply understand his. You don’t want to shame, manipulate, pressure, or trick him. You want this dialogue to be honest, open, and loving.

If the dialogue takes a hurtful turn—if he becomes silent and/or gets upset or if you feel the same—go into a listening mode: inquire, paraphrase, reflect, prime. Don’t push your point. Demonstrate your understanding of his meaning.

Take a Break. If the dialogue breaks down, if feelings become too raw, or if he doesn’t want to continue, show respect. To continue at this point could be to cross the line into controlling or disrespectful behaviors. Call for a strategic withdrawal.

First, suggest a break. “This is proving to be a tough issue for us. Why don’t we take a break for now?” Second, thank him. “Thank you for being willing to talk this over with me. I appreciate your sharing and listening.” Third, establish the next step and time frame. “Why don’t we take some time and put some thought into this and see if we can get clear about what having children would mean to us and our life together. Then how about this weekend we do a picnic and see how we’re feeling?”

Sometimes taking a break can help us collect our thoughts, process what we’ve experienced, and help us restore our emotional batteries. The danger becomes that in disengaging we are “putting off” our dialogue or cementing the subject as an undiscussable. The key comes in respectfully agreeing to take a break from the topic and agreeing when you will continue the conversation.

The title of our book, Crucial Conversations is plural. This conversation with your husband about having children might not be the resolution of the issue, but rather the beginning of several conversations—each one expanding the Pool of Shared Meaning, each one building respect, Mutual Purpose, and Safety. Over time, feelings and ideas can change, options can surface, and a crisis of disagreement can form the foundation for a stronger love and a family that has learned how to work through the toughest of issues.

All the very best,

Change Anything QA

How to Save a Stagnant Career

Dear David,

What should I do if I believe I have reached my “peak” in my company and professional growth is stagnant? I posed this question to HR and managers only to receive dull feedback, which makes me feel they have no ideas or suggestions. I suggested I earn another bachelor’s degree in a field we need, but the tuition assistance program only permits me to take classes directly related to my current position. I have my letter of resignation ready to go and am simply waiting for the job market to improve, but I hate to start over again and prefer to avoid it if possible. What should I do?

Needing Growth

Dear Needing Growth,

Thanks for your question. Many people are in your position—often without even knowing it. Their careers have stagnated and their jobs may even be at risk. This is a tough situation, but there are actions anyone can take to regain control of a stalled career.

We studied this question while writing our book Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. We went into organizations and asked people: “If you were facing a really tough problem at work, and had time to get input from someone in your work group, who would you go to for the best, most trustworthy advice? You can name up to three people.” We found there was a lot of consensus on who these people were. We got what statisticians call a “power curve.” Half the people weren’t named by any of their peers; however, about ten percent were named by nearly half of their peers and were recognized by everyone as the “go to” people. Not surprisingly, managers also named them as the most promotable.

When we look closely at these highly valued individuals—across a wide range of organizations—we learn they share the same three characteristics:

1.  Know Your Stuff. These promotable people are top performers at their current jobs, and put in regular effort to stay on top. If they are software developers then they are among the most skilled at writing code. If they are salespeople then they are among the most skilled at closing sales. They work hard to keep current and hone their craft.

2. Focus on the Right Stuff. Top performers seek out the problems that have the greatest strategic importance to their team, their manager, and their organization—and find ways to contribute in these areas. How do they get to these mission-critical assignments? First, they are intensely interested in understanding their teams’, managers’, and organizations’ priorities, and the challenges these priorities entail. Second, they equip themselves to make their best and highest contribution to addressing these challenges. They work on themselves, their skill set, and their access to critical tasks.

3. Build a Reputation for Being Helpful. Top performers are networkers. But their networks aren’t just a collection of business cards and friends. These promotable people use their expertise and time to develop a reputation for being helpful. They become widely known and respected by others because they help others solve their problems.

With this as a backdrop, consider what you can do to position yourself for career growth inside your organization, or potentially in a different organization. Begin with an honest, steely-eyed assessment of where you stand on the three characteristics of highly valued employees. Do you have a reputation for knowing your stuff, focusing on the right stuff, and being helpful?

Second, work to improve your reputation in these areas. Begin by asking some questions that are a bit different from “what are my career opportunities here?” Instead, get some informal time with the leaders and peers you respect most, and ask them about the most important priorities they see, the most critical challenges they face, and the best way you can help them achieve their goals. There is nothing wrong with asking about career opportunities, but those questions haven’t yielded the results you want. So, try asking questions that will help you build your reputation.

As you discover key priorities and challenges, you may learn you need to skill up, but it’s doubtful you need another bachelor’s degree. It’s more likely a few classes, a certification, or a volunteer assignment will get you the skills and experience you need. For example, if you are trying to get into a project management or supervisory role, can you find a well-known nonprofit organization in the community that would have a specific short-term project you could assist them with in the evenings or on the weekends? You could then add these classes, training certifications, and experiences to your resume and include the people you worked for as references.

These suggestions require that you don’t allow yourself to be limited to what your organization is willing to sponsor. Instead, you may need to invest your own resources and time outside of work in the short-term to achieve your long-term goals. I also want to emphasize the importance of maintaining strong relationships with HR and your management team. You don’t want to have the reputation of a dissatisfied employee—a complainer. That would undercut the very reputation you are trying to build.

I wish you the very best in your career development.