Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

Speaking Up To A Coughing Coworker

We’re excited to announce that Emily Hoffman, a Senior Master Trainer as well as VitalSmarts’ VP of Development & Delivery, will become a regular contributor to the Crucial Skills Newsletter.

Dear Crucial Skills,

A friend of mine works in a small office. She has a new coworker who sits on the other side of her cube. They face each other and the cubes are very low. This new office mate is very nice and she would like to have a good relationship with her, however the young woman continuously coughs without covering her mouth. My friend sometimes feels the cough on her face and it has become extremely difficult to work next to her. Is there a good way to approach this situation?

Sincerely,
Friend of the Coughed upon Coworker

Dear Friend,

Congratulations to your friend! She has already done two incredibly important things right. First, your friend recognizes the need to have a positive working relationship with her office mate. Second, she is addressing this quickly, while the coworker is still “new.” Allow me to explain why these two things are worthy of congratulations.

First, she has positive intent. So often it is our intent that gets in the way of holding effective crucial conversations. We quickly jump to conclusions about others (e.g. “What bad manners she has!” and “How rude and inconsiderate of her!”) We consciously or subconsciously bring this to our dialogue, often through our non-verbal actions. Then, after judging the person in our hearts, we are astonished when they become defensive. Of course they become defensive! They can sense our judgment. I’d become defensive too if I thought someone was out to judge and criticize me. So, your friend has taken this crucial first step; she has withheld judgment and has a positive intent.

Next, she is facing this issue while her office mate is still new. Why is this so important? Not only does it keep the problem from festering, which will almost inevitably erode any good intent she might have, it also creates more defensiveness in the other person. If you are the one coughing, it is easy to think, “Why didn’t she say something about this before? I am so embarrassed, I could die of shame!” Or, along different yet equally predictable lines, “Gee! What’s the big deal? It’s never bothered you before. Or has it? Have you been holding a grudge all this time?” Either way, your friend is significantly better off addressing this early, before emotions escalate.

Okay, so enough with the back-patting congratulations. What should your friend actually say? First, start with a positive statement of intent that builds directly on what we have just discussed. “I wanted to chat with you about something. It’s been so nice working with you these past few days/weeks and I am looking forward to continuing that. I just want to catch something early.”

Then, be specific without being accusatory. “I noticed you coughed several times without covering your mouth. Sometimes I have even felt the cough.”

Be careful here. The tendency will be to use absolute language like, “you always cough . . . ” or, “every time you cough . . . ” You don’t need to go to extremes to open up this dialogue, and doing that will likely provoke even more defensiveness.

Create additional safety by demonstrating you haven’t judged your coworker. “My guess is you aren’t even aware of this, which is why I thought I would bring it up.”

And then, just five sentences into the dialogue, stop. Wait. Listen. If needed, prompt with a question like, “Can we talk about this?” Remember, this is dialogue. The surest way to demonstrate good intent and your commitment to hearing the other person’s perspective is to close your mouth. Do that quickly and consistently and you will be amazed at what you will learn.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “That sounds great, but what do you do when the person coughing responds? Cries? Yells? Shuts down? Starts coughing on me right then?” The thing that typically causes the most anxiety when preparing for a crucial conversation is not thinking about what we will say, it is thinking about what the other person will say.

So, here is what you do: Imagine the absolute worst response you might get. Got it in your head? If you’re like me, you probably picked one of two extremes. Either the person coughing gets upset and responds defensively—“That is the rudest thing anyone has ever said to me! I can’t believe you would say that!” Or, perhaps worse, they get embarrassed but seem to be okay—“I am so sorry. Thanks for pointing that out. I will do better”—and then shuts down i.e. feels uncomfortable around you or is overly sensitive.

Once you have the worst possible response in your head, make a plan for dealing with it. If they become defensive and angry, clarify your good intent. “I didn’t mean to be rude or disrespectful. I sincerely enjoy working nearby you. I am sorry if that hasn’t been apparent. I want to be able to have an open, productive, collaborative relationship with you and talk about any concerns either of us might have.”

If they takes the second option and shut down, do the exact same thing as above—clarify your good intent. This time it may sound more like, “It seems like maybe I have made you uncomfortable or embarrassed. If I have, I am sorry. That was not my intent at all. I really value you working here and am looking forward to a great working relationship.”

Having someone point out bad behavior (such as fanning a coworker’s face with your lungs) is bound to create vulnerability. Be aware of that, and be willing to admit to your own vulnerability. After all, speaking up to someone about bad behavior creates a vulnerability all its own.

Good Luck,
Emily

Crucial Conversations QA

Atoning for Past Mistakes

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve recently taken the Crucial Conversations Training in an effort to improve my communication skills with my coworkers. However, I’ve been cautioned that I already burned a few bridges and that some of my coworkers are hesitant to work with me on projects. To be honest, I don’t really blame them. I’ve been described as a strong Type A personality and I sometimes get frustrated when other people on the team don’t share my drive for producing results.

I genuinely do feel badly if I’ve hurt or offended people over the years, but I don’t want to go around doing a big sackcloth and ashes routine to atone for the sins of the past. I feel like I can be pleasant, friendly, and helpful ninety-nine percent of the time, but they are always going to remember the one percent of the time when I wasn’t at my best. What is a professional way to say that I’d like to wipe the slate clean of past transgressions and start fresh?

Sincerely,
Mr. Type A

Dear Mr. Type A,

We are mistaken when we assume relationships are simply the sum total of all of our interactions; they are so much more. The most important component of any relationship is not the behavior that has been enacted between two people; rather, it is the conclusions that have been drawn about each other. The stories we tell ourselves are the basis of our relationships with each other.

You are wise to notice how mistakes you have made with your coworkers in the past have made them hesitant to work with you on projects. It’s good that you want to make a “fresh start.” The key to your success will be to first work on your stories about your coworker relationships, and then work on their stories about you.

It seems to me that you are one step shy of taking responsibility for your part of the problem when you describe yourself as getting “frustrated when other people on the team don’t share your drive for producing results.” I think it’s more likely that the problem is not that you care about results and they do not. It’s the way you express your frustration that causes them to not want to work with you. I believe the story you are telling yourself puts you in the best possible light (having a strong drive for producing results), instead of describing that when you are frustrated, you act in ways that hurt or offend others.

The fact that this is your story is further evidenced by your statement, “I genuinely do feel badly if I’ve hurt or offended people.” Do you have any evidence that people have been hurt or offended by you? For instance, that they don’t want to work with you. By adding the “if,” it seems that you are allowing the possibility it might be true, but not taking responsibility for acting in ways that did in fact hurt and offend others.

My advice is to revise your story in a way that factually identifies what you are doing that is creating the outcomes you want to change. How are you acting out your frustration instead of talking out your frustration? Answer that question and you will be on the path to becoming more effective with your coworkers.

Next, work on your coworkers’ stories. You have been cautioned about having already “burned a few bridges,” yet you feel that ninety-nine percent of the time, you are “pleasant, friendly, and helpful.” That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

I had a man approach me after a workshop on how leaders can rebuild trust. He told me that he had been using these skills with his two children for two years but their trust in him had not improved. I asked him what had happened two years ago. He explained that he came home drunk and had yelled and hit his children.

The next day, when he realized what he had done, he was ashamed. He felt awful. He quit drinking that very day. Since that awful night, he told me he had not raised his voice in anger with his children, nor had he lifted his hand against them. Yet, in spite of his consistent efforts, he still feels a distance between them and reluctance for them to “let him into their hearts.”

I asked him, “What happened the morning after? What did you say to your children?” He told me that there had been no discussion of the incident, but that he had resolved then and there to quit drinking and to truly change. Because he did not discuss the incident with his children, he had not created a context for his future behavior. When he did not say he was sorry, when he did not promise he would never yell at them again and never, ever hit them, he did not create clear expectations about what they should expect from him. As a result, even though he was kind and no longer yelled, this was not evidence to his children that he had changed. In their mind, they were still waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” Instead of seeing the incident as an exception to his usual loving behavior, they saw this behavior as revealing his true nature.

Let’s get back to your question. For you to build effective relationships with your coworkers, you’re right, you do not have to “go around doing a big sackcloth and ashes routine.” However, don’t repeat this father’s mistake. You must create a context with clear expectations going forward. Explain to your coworkers that you have completed training and realized there are some significant ways you can improve. Identify what they are. You might say, “In the past when I have gotten frustrated, I have lashed out and accused you of not caring. In the future, I will Describe the Gap. I will factually identify what has happened and compare it to what I expected. I will then ask for your view on what has occurred and I will listen to understand.”

By creating clear expectations for your coworkers about what they can expect from you, you give them a context from which they can evaluate your behavior. Instead of dismissing the ninety-nine percent of the time when you are helpful, and waiting for your next explosion, they will start to see your good behavior as evidence that you are doing what you said you would do. Every good encounter will be further evidence that you are really making an effort to change.

When you do make a mistake, immediately acknowledge it, apologize, and start over. Instead of seeing your mistake as proof you have not changed, your co-workers are more likely to hear your apology as a sincere effort to improve and will be more willing to cut you some slack.

By making real improvements, acknowledging mistakes, quickly apologizing and getting back on track, you can rebuild some of those “burned bridges” and become even more effective in producing the results you care so deeply about.

All the best,
Ron

Crucial Conversations QA

Dealing with Backhanded Compliments

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a colleague who deals me backhanded compliments about my job performance as the proofreader for the firm. For example, she repeatedly congratulates me on catching errors and then says, “It’s nice to hear those things when you never hear it from anyone else. It must be awful to think your job is not valued.” First of all, my work is valued; that is not the issue or even something I worry about. I just want the backhanded compliments to stop.

I don’t like this woman on a personal level because she is a gossip and has a reputation for stirring up trouble at the office. However, because I work closely with her and her department, I want to at least have a respectful working relationship. How do I address the backhanded compliments she’s been serving me lately?

Signed,
Slighted

Dear Slighted,

Thank you for your question. I read some resentment in your comments (perhaps my interpretation). You say you don’t like your coworker. But the fact that you took the trouble to write about this makes me suspect that you feel provoked or offended by her insinuation that your work is not respected. That’s what I’ll assume for the purpose of my response to you. If I’m way off base, then I hope my comments are at least useful to others!

May I suggest that the reason her comments hurt is not because they’re hurtful, it’s because you fear them. They trigger some shame or hurt you hold from past experience. The hurt they create is predictable because you hold them in a mentally habitual way. Two things are necessary to create this pain. First, some triggering circumstance must occur. For example, someone indicates that they believe your work is of inferior value to that of others. Second, and this is the important part: you must interpret this triggering event as evidence of some shame you fear. For example, when someone disparages my work, I may conclude that I am worthless. The second step feels inevitable and true. We don’t even notice our role in the interpretation process because we have a lifetime of practice in drawing this conclusion whenever these kinds of triggers occur. But if you change the way you interpret, the hurt will disappear—completely.

I know this both from the laboratory of my own life and from a lifetime of observation of others’ emotional responses to social triggers. I was baffled for years as I observed people in apparently toxic interpersonal environments who seemed largely immune to them.

For example, I once watched a man who was (wrongfully) accused of being dishonest in the middle of a business meeting. This wasn’t a passing accusation either. It was delivered with a sneer and a string of epithets. I felt my body tense in empathy for the man who was being unfairly insulted. Had it been me, I would have felt a powerful urge to lash out at the accuser. This man, on the other hand, was relaxed. His face showed concern, but not pain. And his response registered interest, but not animosity. “Wow. I had no idea you saw me that way. What have I done that caused you to see me like that?” he said.

He felt no shame. He felt no pain. Instead, he felt compassion and curiosity. Why? Because he understood that this person’s action were not about him.

So, I’ve got great news for you. In fact, I can promise you that if you think deeply about what I’m about to share, nintey-nine percent of the problem you’re experiencing will disappear in a matter of days—or weeks at the most. Never again will you feel slighted, offended, or hurt by this person. Wouldn’t that be great? All you need to do is consistently practice the following skill in coming days and these results are guaranteed. Remember: It is never, never, never, never, never about you. Never. Ever.

Now, let me be clear. There are times when others’ words or actions give us true feedback. They may indicate we are incompetent, made a mistake, broke a promise, etc. And their feedback may be true. It may be helpful information about you. But their emotions and judgments are not about you; they are about them. Nothing they ever do or say has any implications for your worth, self-respect, or self-esteem—unless you decide it does. And it is this decision that causes your persecutor’s foible to feel provocative to you.

So, here’s what I’d suggest:

1. Own your emotions. Notice what kinds of triggers connect with painful self-doubts or shame you’ve learned to invoke. Then develop a script you’ll use to refute this inaccurate conclusion and reconnect with the truth about yourself.

2. Get curious. Once you’ve owned and managed the emotions that could get in the way of a healthy conversation, you’ll notice your resentment will be replaced with curiosity. So act on it. Approach this person, describe the pattern you see, then genuinely try to understand where she’s coming from when she makes these statements. As you do, you will almost inevitably gain new insight about why she frames her “compliments” the way she does. For instance, when your shame is not distorting your perception, you may learn that she has felt her work was disrespected in the past. Maybe her comments were a clumsy attempt to reassure you about something that is only an issue for her.

3. Teach. With a better understanding of her true intent, you can let her know how you hear comments like this. Teach her better ways of expressing solidarity or affirmation to you.

I wish you the best in creating a healthier relationship with her. But most of all, I hope recognizing this trigger gives you an opportunity to develop greater emotional mastery—which can bring a greater peace and happiness to your life.

Best wishes,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Communicating with the Unresponsive

This column will be Al Switzler’s last. He is transitioning to a more advisory role and will be supporting some of our non-profit efforts. We will be introducing new thought leaders in coming issues of Crucial Skills.

Dear Crucial Skills,

What do I do about a supervisor who doesn’t respond to or acknowledge e-mails and other correspondence from me? I even use the “read receipt” which indicates that it was read, but still no response.

Sincerely,
Awaiting a Response

Dear Awaiting,

When I read questions like this, I sense frustration, self-doubt, and difficulty in restraining your anger. But before I respond to your question, let me start with a caveat. Every situation varies. Since I know so little of the specifics, history, and stressors, I’m shooting in the dark a bit. But, hopefully you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt if I have guessed incorrectly.

With this in mind, I’d like to insert your question into a bucket that contains other similar questions and challenges:
• “What do I do when my supervisor makes a commitment to involve me in decisions and then doesn’t? I feel uncomfortable chasing her down all the time.”
• “How do I respond if someone I work with goes to radio silence—someone from whom I need information, help, or approval?”

And so I will offer three tactics for responding to these kinds of challenges.

1. Start with Heart. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. You have some history with the other person. You know how long this has been going on. You could explain how many times you’ve tried to talk with your supervisor about his or her unwillingness to respond. I’d say that, in one way, regardless of the background, you should start by asking the “humanizing question” with a twist. The humanizing question is this: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” This is an invitation for your brain and emotions to engage in an empathy exercise. What could be going on with your supervisor? What stress is s/he experiencing? In what ways could you be part of the problem? And here is the twist: In what ways could you be part of the solution?

Allow me to speculate here. Could it be that your supervisor is facing tons of stress from above and is acting as a buffer between you and the stress? Could it be that your supervisor gets 547 e-mails per day and is simply swamped? Insert all the empathetic responses you can think of here. Then create a plan to be helpful. You might go to him or her and ask if it would be possible for you to send fewer e-mails by setting a weekly (or daily) five-minute meeting to keep your projects speeding along and to keep him or her informed. Together, you will need to work out the specifics. But I think the principle is sound. Begin with empathy, find the key barriers, and then try to be part of a solution—rather than maintaining the stance that your supervisor is the problem.

2. Clarify the workflow. Often when there is a struggle in a relationship, it’s because the people involved are dependent on one another for many actions—sometimes too many. For example, what do you need from your supervisor and what does your supervisor need from you? Do you need updates or approvals? Delays cause you grief and radio silence has you sitting on your hands. Does your supervisor need trust and predictability? Is this a complicated project that has your supervisor juggling seventeen balls with little time left over to answer e-mails? The conversation you might have is about empowerment—getting more on your plate and less on your supervisor’s. Go to your supervisor with a plan for how you might streamline your work in a way that continues to give the supervisor increased trust and predictability.

Years ago, we worked with an organization that had hundreds of forms requiring anywhere from four to fourteen signatures for approval. Our analysis found that any signatures above the first four were redundant—people signed the form simply because the person before them signed it. They reduced the number of signatures dramatically and thus reduced the waiting time between approvals. You might go in with a proposal, in question form, about moving more of the approvals to you. Additionally, show how you would keep the supervisor informed and when and how you would deal with exceptions. Such a discussion would make you part of the solution.

3. Talk about the real issue. I saved this for last with good reason. Sometimes we don’t feel we can talk about the real issue without trying other tactics first, so I’ve led with them. However, I stress that this may be the first tactic. The real issue with your supervisor is not that s/he is not responsive. The real issue is that there is a pattern adversely affecting the quantity and quality of your work. Sometimes the assumptions we make about our supervisor and our relationship keeps us from the real discussion. Generally, I’d suggest that reframe your assumptions and find a way to talk about this pattern. Select a good time and a private location. It might go something like this: “I’m finding a consistent need to get information or approvals from you but then have to wait on the messages I send. I’d like to talk about what we might do to make this process more efficient so the projects can proceed smoothly. Would that be okay?” The two of you can share ideas and make a plan. If that doesn’t happen, I would also have a script prepared where you could talk about your Mutual Purpose—you aren’t trying to cause more stress but trying to find solutions that would make it easier for your supervisor while allowing you to get your work done more quickly and efficiently. I would then suggest tactics like the two detailed above. I like going into any crucial conversation not only prepared for the topic at hand, but also with several other strategies to use if the first plan doesn’t work.

Will it work? I don’t know. Will the situation improve if you do nothing? I doubt it; it seldom does. Do you have enough tactics and scripts and enough Mutual Purpose and respect to engage in the conversation and feel confident that some progress will be made? Absolutely.

I wish you the best,
Al

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Help the Demoted

Dear Crucial Skills,

A colleague of mine started in an entry-level role. For the past two years he has been an acting supervisor in an unfilled position. He applied for the permanent position but did not get the job. He must now return to his entry-level role under my supervision. How can I support him through this transition? What should I do if he continues to act like a supervisor?

Signed,
Assisting a Colleague

Dear Assisting,

My first question to you is: Are you imagining a problem that doesn’t exist?

Your question might reflect your own lack of leadership confidence rather than your colleague’s self-imposed shame at returning to an entry-level role. Allow me to give an example.

I once served in a leadership position in my church. When I was later released from that position, I was asked to serve in a subordinate role to the new leader. I was happy to do it. But I could tell the new leader was immensely uncomfortable giving me assignments. He would thank me profusely for the smallest gesture of service and seemed nervous when I was around. After a couple of months, I found a private moment and reassured him of both my confidence in him and my commitment to the higher purpose we were both serving. When I told him, “I don’t care where I serve, only that I serve,” he began to relax and load me up with assignments.

So my first suggestion is to be sure you have a problem, before you solve it.

If, however, this person’s past actions or comments lead you to conclude he will feel slighted by the change, here are a few thoughts:

Remember—it’s not about you. It would be easy to see his displays of discomfort or hurt as insubordination rather than shame. They aren’t. They are about him. He has a view of the world that ties his self-worth to his social status. All of us feel that way to some degree, so hopefully you can sympathize with, rather than personalize, the emotions he’s experiencing. If you take them personally, you will unwittingly act in ways that reinforce the problem rather than help resolve it. For example, you may become stern in your interactions with him. You may marginalize him socially. You might distance yourself from him. All of these responses will add to his sense that his worth has declined with his position—while not increasing his feelings of trust and safety with you.

Talk now. If you’ve already seen signs that this will be a tough transition for him, inoculate your relationship from damage by speaking up front. Validate his feelings. Let him know you understand that it might be disappointing to lose some of the enjoyments and challenges he had in his supervisory position. Share your nervousness about the transition. Take responsibility for the fact that this is your nervousness. Don’t blame him. Let him know you appreciate how difficult the change will be and that you worry that supervising a former supervisor might be tough for you. Then ask candidly for his advice in managing it with you. Give concrete examples of situations where it might feel awkward and talk them through with him; for example: giving assignments, giving feedback, and holding him accountable. If you pre-live it with him—making a contract with each other for how you will handle these situation—you will both be more comfortable when the time arrives.

Talk later. Also, agree up front to a check-in. For example, you might say, “How about if we go to lunch in 30 days and discuss how it’s working for both of us?” Setting this check-in time will help you both stay conscious and accountable during the intervening time—and will make it easier to talk about course-corrections without it feeling like you’re calling for a major therapy session.

Engage him without enabling him. Finally, you’ve got a great asset here. You’ve got someone with two years of supervisory experience; take advantage of it! However, not in a condescending way. Don’t do it to try to manipulate him from adjusting to his new position. But do take advantage of his judgment and experience in appropriate ways.

You are wise to be attentive to this crucial moment for him and for you. I hope these ideas help you get to a new “normal” that is enjoyable for you both.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

When Cultures Clash

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on August 3, 2005.

Dear Crucial Skills,

Our city has been struggling with a diversity initiative, and we’ve been going through the Crucial Conversations Training to help address issues that keep our employees from working together because of cultural misunderstandings.

It’s been interesting to see people’s reactions to the terms “silence” and “violence” used in the training. It seems to be a matter of interpretation. For example, several people from different ethnic backgrounds say that being expressive and emotional is part of their cultural communication style–and yet people from other cultural backgrounds see this strong way of advocating as “violence” in crucial conversations language.

How do you address these differences in the way people define “silence” and “violence” when conversations are happening between people of different cultures?

Signed,
Culture Clash

Dear Culture Clash,

You raise a very important question—and one we’ve thought a great deal about since we’ve worked with these skills literally everywhere from Israeli software companies and Kenyan slums to Malaysian factories and Wall Street investment banks. Here is our considered response.

Your twin responsibilities in a crucial conversation are Finish Reading

Crucial Conversations QA

Keeping a Work Friendship Alive

Dear Crucial Skills,

My department is in the midst of reorganization. While I am trying to remain positive, the change I am having the most difficulty with is my friend and coworker becoming my manager. We had an open and honest conversation about how we don’t want this to affect our friendship, but I can already see the dynamics of our relationship changing. I realize she has obligations as a manager, but how can I embrace her promotion as well as handle my emotions through this change?

Sincerely,
Concerned

Dear Concerned,

Thanks for asking an important question. Working with people who are close friends can be an important source of joy and satisfaction. However, it can also Finish Reading