Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

It’s Not Poor Customer Service, It’s Silence that Costs You

I used to share a poem at the beginning of some of my speeches. I won’t tell you what it was out of respect for its author. I loved the poem. I felt that my recitation of it was a big hit. I thought it was clever, funny, and relevant to my topic. Apparently, I was alone in my opinion. After sharing it in over one hundred speeches, someone finally corrected my thinking. In that short, crucial conversation, my colleague suggested I leave poetry to poets. I did, but cringed for weeks as I reflected on dozens of experiences when I had been filled with glee while thousands of others were exercising tolerance.

My feeling of embarrassment around this poem—mixed with gratitude for the colleague who finally leveled with me—could be compared to the emotions felt by a service industry employee. An employee who, maybe even absentmindedly, is giving less-than-ideal customer service and has no idea how he or she is coming across to the customer. Until his or her coworker speaks up.

Our VitalSmarts research team just finished a study about customer service that suggests far more of us ought to be feeling embarrassed for our organizations. We asked participants how often incidents occur when someone witnesses an employee underserving, or even abusing, a customer. Then we asked, “What happens?” In your organization, does the employee go on delivering their terrible poem? Or does someone speak up?

I thought of this study as I boarded a discount airline flight. I paid an extra $50 for a “premium” seat, selected palatial 11C with four inches of extra legroom, and pulled the lever, anticipating being lavished with five degrees of recline. Instead, I dropped fully backward into the lap of the man behind me. As the flight attendant passed me she said, “Oh yeah, that seat’s been busted for a long time.” No apology. No offer to find me another seat or make up for it in some other way. Rather, I suffered the torture of zero recline for the next two hours.

How many broken seats and bad poets undermine service in your organization? And how long do the problems persist because those who witness them say or do nothing?

Our study showed that each employee who witnesses bad customer service, but fails to speak up, costs the company an average of $54,511 per year. We also found that organizations can recoup those costs by creating a culture where employees feel empowered to speak up and confront incidents of poor service—even if it’s up the chain of command!

Shockingly, only seven percent of employees can be counted on to speak up when witnessing an incident of poor customer service—despite the fact that 66 percent of us say we are capable of solving the customer’s problem.

Additionally, we found that:

• A typical employee witnesses 19 poor customer-service incidents per year.
• Together, those incidents result in a 17 percent drop in revenue annually per customer.
• Poor service negatively affects the business a customer does with a company by 50 percent or more! This is the case for 75 percent of business-to-consumer (B2C) customers and 42 percent of business-to-business (B2B) customers.

We’re facing a ‘crisis of silence’ in the corporate world; people simply don’t hold others accountable for their actions. Our research over the years shows how silence affects costs, quality, engagement, productivity, safety, and now customer service. The key to creating distinguishing customer service is to create a culture where anyone can speak up to anyone about our ability to serve the customer.

Leaders must set the example. They must make it safe for people to hold these uncomfortable conversations. Otherwise employees tend to assume leaders’ egos are of higher value than the company mission.

I got my dose of feedback seconds after soliciting it. The colleague and I were at lunch. I said—almost offhandedly—“So, is there anything I can do to improve my presentations?” After an awkward pause she said, “Well, there is this one thing you do . . .”

It’s hard to calculate how much customer goodwill VitalSmarts gained because of that one conversation. Sure, I felt a bit of embarrassment. But what I received in return was well worth those few minutes of discomfort.

Join my friend and coauthor David Maxfield to learn some powerful tactics and skills that will help you create a culture that truly puts the customer first and ends the crisis of silence.


Crucial Conversations QA

Delivering Tough Performance Feedback

Dear Joseph,

I have an employee who has previous job experience as a manager but who took an entry level role to get into a full-time position with our company. This employee has been making progress learning our company’s policies and procedures and initially showed a great interest in learning as much as possible.

More recently, this employee has become distracted. She turns in work that has been completed half-heartedly. She makes small mistakes that are obviously due to a lack of effort. Now she has applied for a management role in the company. I don’t feel comfortable recommending her based on her current poor work. How do I reenergize this employee? I don’t want this person to feel this is a reprimand—because she hasn’t done anything wrong. I want to inspire her to kick it up a notch and prove she is ready.

Struggling Coach

Dear Struggling Coach,

This is easy! Your last paragraph gives me great hope that your heart is right where it needs to be. You aren’t angry. Your motive is not to punish. It sounds like you want to be honest in your recommendation. You are a person of integrity. And you also want this person to succeed.

Ninety percent of the time ninety percent of our difficulties in crucial conversations are not skill problems but motivation problems. We feel angry, scared, or hurt by others’ behavior and our motive degenerates to wanting to blame, be right, punish, keep the peace, etc. I don’t hear any of that in your question.

So here’s a tip—you already know what to say! When I ask people, “What fears do you have about this crucial conversation?” the words flow freely. They say things like, “I don’t want to hurt them,” or, “I don’t want to lose our relationship,” or, “I don’t want them to think I am angry with them.”

Then I ask, “Okay, so what do you hope happens as a result of the conversation?” Again, they wax poetic and their well-formed thoughts take verbal wing! “I want them to show up on time for meetings,” or, “I want them to succeed.”

We are often like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz; we’re already wearing the very ruby slippers we need in order to get home. You’ve just got to look down to see them. Your ruby slippers are in your last paragraph. Imagine starting your crucial conversation with this person by saying something brilliant like, “I’ve got some feedback I want to share with you. May I? I don’t want you to feel reprimanded—because you haven’t done anything wrong. I want to inspire you to kick it up a notch and prove you are ready.” What a great opener! It’s vulnerable. It’s honest. It’s caring. It has everything you need to start your crucial conversation.

Oftentimes, all you need to do in order to help people feel safe is share what you do and don’t want to have happen in the conversation. If your heart is in the right place, you’re off to a great start.

I wish you and her the best!


Crucial Conversations QA

Bosses Behaving Badly

Dear Joseph,

I have an issue with my boss. She often talks to me about my colleagues. I have asked her not to do this and she has apologized but continues to complain to me about their performances. Recently, I discovered that my boss said something negative about me to my direct report. I did not address this with my boss and now I carry resentment and have totally lost trust in her. I don’t want to leave my job because I enjoy my work as well as the people I work with. I have worked very hard to get to this point in my career. My performance review is coming up and I’m wondering if I should bring this up. If I do, how should I approach this? I appreciate your feedback.

Can You Hear Me?

Dear Can You Hear Me,

I’d like to ask your permission to talk with you the way I would talk with myself. Please don’t mistake an abundance of candor for a lack of care. You have been wronged by your boss. She is behaving badly. She has undermined your trust. All of that is true. And none of it will help you move forward. In an effort to be helpful, let me speak plainly.

Of course your boss is talking behind your back! If she gossips to you, then she will gossip about you. You shouldn’t be surprised.

You are carrying resentment because you have made yourself a victim. You have done so in two ways. First, by declaring a boundary (that you don’t want to hear gossip) then expecting her to be responsible for it. She is not—you are. If you declared your expectation that she not gossip to you anymore and you let her do it again, the problem from that point forward is not her, it is you.

Second, you’ve made yourself a victim by allowing her to wrong you by gossiping about you—then doing nothing to take care of yourself. You made the statement, “I did not address this with my boss but I carry resentment and have totally lost trust in her.” A more accurate representation would be, “I’ve totally lost trust in myself.”

It is ultimately your responsibility to take care of yourself. When someone is abusive to you, if you do not stand up for yourself then the problem is not just them, it’s you.

Here’s the principle: Resentment is a product of violated expectations. Your expectations are your own—and it is your responsibility both to make them clear to others and to take care of yourself when they aren’t met. I am not absolving her of responsibility for violating your very reasonable and ethical expectation. That is her problem. She has squandered her trust with you and it is up to her to restore it—if she wants a good relationship with you. But protecting you from her bad behavior is your responsibility.

You say that you don’t want to leave your job. And that’s fine. But realize that by choosing to stay you are choosing to continue to have a relationship with someone who is likely to continue gossiping. Don’t blame her for that. She has already shown you what to expect. If you choose to stay, you choose to endure the gossip. So stop resenting it. Instead, ask yourself what you will do to cope with the reality you have chosen.

For example, you might:

1. Set an expectation with her that you will confront her every time she gossips. Be clear with both her and yourself that you are doing this not to try to control her behavior, but simply to stand up for yourself. Perhaps over time it will help her change, but you had best not bet on it.

2. After you confront her, let it go. If you continue to feel resentful, it is because you have begun to slip back into the role of victim, making her responsible for taking care of you. Resentment comes when you impose expectations on her rather than on you. Once you have fulfilled your obligation to yourself, you’ll feel more accepting of her imperfections. You’ll be able to live with her imperfections because you are living with integrity yourself.

3. If problems escalate, reconsider your decision. If her gossip escalates, or her behavior becomes intolerable, don’t slip back into being a victim. Maintain your responsibility to take care of yourself. Stop and ask, “What do I really want?” If the job becomes less important than your own quality of life, it’s time to go.

I have spoken plainly—but please know that I understand what it is like to feel mistreated. You have every reason to feel that way. I hope these ideas help you to escape those feelings soon!


Crucial Conversations QA

How to Handle the Fallout of Letting Someone Go

Dear Emily,

What is the best way to announce that someone has been let go? We’ve had five departures in the past eighteen months that weren’t handled well. Communications ranged from non-existent—the person just wasn’t there anymore; to confusing—a new org structure was presented and someone who should’ve been in the meeting wasn’t there. Nor was there a box for that position on the new chart. This is a group in which people care for each other and there are hurt emotions when someone leaves. Is there a better way to handle this while respecting the rules of confidentiality?

Looking for Closure

Dear Looking,

Some years ago, I let an employee go. I’ll call him Sam. Sam had been with us for many years and was a well-integrated part of the team. Even more, he had social relationships with several other people on our team. I knew that letting him go was going to raise concerns.

I met with Sam late Tuesday afternoon and we worked through the details of his termination. Early Wednesday morning I sent an e-mail out to the team announcing Sam’s departure and wishing him well in his future endeavors. I made sure people knew who to work with on the team with regards to Sam’s projects. And I invited people who had questions to come by and discuss them with me.

One of Sam’s close colleagues took me up on the offer. As we talked, she commented, “this was just so out of the blue.” I responded, “I am so glad to hear that!” I could see she was a bit taken aback by that so I quickly explained. “We have a process for working with employees when we have identified performance concerns. It is a process we follow with every employee and is focused on coaching and improvement. Unfortunately, sometimes even with coaching and other support strategies, we aren’t able to close the gap and we have to let someone go. And I am always glad to know that it seemed ‘out of the blue’ because this means that we were appropriately confidential about these performance gaps as we worked through the process. I want people on our team to know that if there are ever performance concerns with them, we will address them and work through them. And we will do so without letting other people know.”

I’m sure it’s clear from this example that I am not the perfect manager. There is plenty to dissect in the way I approached this. But I am a concerned people-manager who deeply cares about those who report to me and the culture of caring we have on our team. I’ve learned that helping your team transition through the unexpected departure of a coworker is a crucial moment for a leader. It is a moment that has a disproportionate impact on how people see and relate to you as a leader. You can talk a lot about respect and caring and the importance of the team, but if you handle this moment poorly, it won’t matter how many other, lesser moments you have handled well.

So, here is my advice: live your values. At VitalSmarts, we value respect and candor. Balancing these two values is the key to navigating the aftermath of an employee termination. You need to demonstrate respect for the person who has left while balancing that with the candor your employees need from you.

Demonstrate respect for the person you have fired by keeping confidential matters confidential. In an effort to reassure employees that they are not at risk, it may be tempting to give too many details and explain what performance gaps led to termination. Don’t do this. Instead, help people understand that you respect confidentiality, even when an employee has left.

Balance this respect with candor. People will always be able to tell when you are playing the confidentiality card as a way to get out of difficult conversations. Be forthright and proactive. Your team should hear from you that someone was let go, not from an org chart. Communicate early and often. If your team is large, consider sending an e-mail to make the first announcement rather than telling people one by one as your schedule permits. Make sure you block time on your calendar to be available after the announcement for people to ask questions. And if they aren’t coming to you with questions, go to them and check in.

Finally, I am not an HR professional. I don’t even play one on TV. There are, however, many HR professionals who read this newsletter and I hope they will join this discussion on our blog. Consulting with your HR partner is a critical part of handling all aspects of employee termination, including announcing to others. Your HR business partner can give you guidance as to what you can and cannot share with others. From there, it is up to you how to frame it in a way that is congruent with your values.

Good Luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Healing Past Wounds in the Present

Dear Joseph,

In 1995, I gave up my parental rights to a child I fathered so that she could be adopted. At the time, I reasoned the child would do better in a two-parent home. Now, my daughter is twenty-one and would like to contact me. Here are my biggest concerns:

1. Conversing with my wife of the last seventeen years. She feels resentment toward me regarding this situation. How do I reassure her and get her to talk through her feelings?
2. When I do speak with my daughter, how should I proceed? If she asks why I gave up my parental rights, how do I explain it to her?
3. How do I introduce my daughter to my family and friends, and field all the questions that will come?

Awkward Reunion

Dear Awkward,

You’re swimming in some deep waters at the moment. I imagine it must feel pretty overwhelming to have so much of the past, present, and future tossing in and around you simultaneously. I’m glad you would reach out for some companionship. None of us makes it alone.

There are no easy answers to your questions, but let me reflect for a moment with you in hopes of giving you friendly support more than simple prescriptions.

1. Talking with your wife. You say she feels resentful. You ask, “How can I get her to talk?” You can’t. All you can do is offer a safe place. It’s up to her to take advantage of it. I’m interested in the fact that you believe she is feeling resentment. I’d encourage you to reflect on anything in your past or present behavior that would contribute to that emotion. Have you been emotionally unfaithful? Does she fear that your daughter will compete for your limited emotional availability? Or is she concerned that you have unresolved feelings toward your ex—and might be drawn that direction? One of the ways you can create safety for your wife is to acknowledge things you have done that might contribute to her resentment (if that’s what she is feeling). By offering that acknowledgement, you will validate her feelings and help her know she can safely share them with you.

It is also possible her resentment stems from trauma or fears she has that are unrelated to you. Your response to that would be the same—to validate her feelings. You needn’t take the “blame” for her feelings in either case. Her feelings are hers, not yours. Even if you have contributed to them. Your actions are yours; that is what you need to own. But in all cases, let her know you care about how she feels and are willing to hear and empathize with her regardless of what she is feeling. Your goal is not to make her feelings “go away.” It is simply to witness them and stand by her in them.

2. Talking with your daughter. Don’t overthink the conversation with your daughter. Just as with your wife, your job in this conversation is simply to begin a relationship, not fix her feelings. You don’t need to defend yourself. You don’t need to control her feelings. You have no idea where she is emotionally. And where she is when she arrives is no predictor of where she’ll be in the second, third, or tenth meeting. She may show up resentful, curious, needy, open, hurt, or compassionate. You need only be vulnerable and honest. Ask her what topics she would like to explore. Let her know if there are things you’re not yet able to deal with. Take it a step at a time. If the time comes that she asks about your decision to surrender your parental rights, be honest. The only truth that could hurt her is her misperception that your decision means anything about her. Tell her what it meant about you. Tell her about you twenty-one years ago. Tell her how you feel about the decision in hindsight. She may choose to personalize your choices—and assume they have implications for her own lovability or worth—but she can do that as easily without you as with you. Give her the best chance of separating your choices from her worth by being honest.

3. Talking with others. Answering questions from others will only be awkward to the degree you are uncomfortable yourself. If you feel a need to project a false image of yourself, you will be anxious about questions. If you have accepted the truth about your past and present, you will show up that way when questions arise. Here’s the truth: You made some right and wrong decisions in the past. You have a precious twenty-one-year-old daughter. Your life is complex. Accept it. Find the beauty and truth in it. When you do, your anxiety about presenting it authentically to others will disappear. If others have judgments about your past choices, you must decide if you are willing to let your peace be a product of their approval.

These momentous conversations offer you the possibility of greater growth and a more abundant life. You have my best wishes to that end!


Crucial Conversations QA

Effectively Mediating Group Conversations

Dear Emily,

I lead a support group for single/widowed/divorced individuals for people aged forty to eighty. Meetings are informal and focused on sharing, so an agenda is not usually necessary. However, lately we have had a problem with sidebar conversations. One member in particular, who has little or nothing to say when it is her turn, will make a statement to the person speaking that has nothing to do with the topic. Or she will have a sidebar with her neighbor during another person’s turn. This being an informal support group, I don’t want to establish a lot of rules that would harm our purpose of listening to each other and to offer suggestions when needed. How can I address this without offending the “offenders”?

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

As your question demonstrates, leading informal groups is often far more challenging than holding a formal leadership position. It’s often difficult to strike the delicate balance between leading and participating.

In a situation like this, I would first consider whether this should be a public or a private conversation. If the problem is pervasive and many people are having sidebar conversations, it may be best to hold the conversation as a group. If the problem is limited to one or two members, it may be better to simply address your concern with those individuals. A couple of suggestions for both situations:

Group Conversation

If you decide to hold the conversation with the entire group, consider carefully what your intent is and make sure to clarify that up front. Then, describe the behavior you are noticing and its impact without identifying specific people by name. Calling someone out specifically will damage your efforts for building safety. Finally, ask the group for their perspective. For example, you may consider starting with something like this: “When we started this group, our goal was to provide a safe and respectful place where we could listen and learn from one another. Over the past few months, I have noticed that our group has started a pattern of side conversations that may distract from the person speaking. I am wondering if others have noticed this and felt the same impact that I have. What do you think?”

With that, you have successfully handled the easy part of the conversation. Now comes the hard part: waiting for, listening to, and discussing the meaning that others share. At this point, the conversation could go in many different directions. Everyone could remain stoically silent, unwilling to speak up and address the behavior. Some could become defensive, thinking you are publicly criticizing them. Others, who agree with you, could start calling people out by name for having sidebars, destroying safety.

So, what is your role at this point? You have initiated the topic and it is up to the group to add meaning. Your responsibility will be to maintain the conditions of safety that will lead to a productive discussion. If others become defensive, make sure to point out that this is not about specific people, it is about a group pattern and ultimately about how the group wants to interact. If others don’t see it as a problem, accept that you may be alone in your feelings and be grateful that the group is still working well and serving its purpose for the members. Above all, remember that your intent is to start a dialogue and maintain the safety people need in order to add their perspective.

Individual Conversation

Should you decide that the issue is only with one or two individuals, you may choose to discuss this privately with them. Doing so naturally creates more safety for the other person. Not surprisingly, the approach is similar: focus on your good intent, share your observations about the behavior and what you see as the impact on the group, then ask for their perspective and be open to hearing their point of view.

Two cautions with this type of conversation:

1. Don’t overrepresent what you have heard from others. Your focus should be on sharing what you have noticed. For example, “I noticed last week that you were talking with Todd while it was Suzie’s turn to speak. Ann and other members of the group seemed distracted by your conversation and weren’t able to fully listen to Suzie.” What you don’t want to say is, “Lots of people have talked to me about this and are concerned about how distracting it was when you were talking to Todd last week.” Share your perspective and leave it at that.

2. Consider both what is occurring and what is not occurring. Sometimes we get over-focused on the impact of the behavior—in this case, that group members are distracted and feel disrespected—and fail to understand what is not happening because of the behavior. Here, the group is neither hearing from this person, nor gaining the benefit of her experience and perspective. When she shares comments primarily in sidebar, everyone is losing out on her insights. Make sure to point out not only what is happening but what is not happening as well, and how that impacts the group.

Whichever way you choose to hold the conversation, with the group or with the individual, let us know how it goes!

Best Regards,

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?

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,