Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

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

Crucial Conversations QA

Q&A: Family Vacations—Putting R&R Back on the Agenda

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

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

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

A group of my family and friends is flying to a wonderful resort for a family wedding. Everyone usually gets along, but when we travel together, one family member can be the deal breaker! She can be demanding and outspoken. Because I am a retired psychiatric nurse, I am usually called upon to help settle situations with her. I’m happy to help, but this is my holiday too. What can I do so that I can also relax?

Sincerely,

Needing a Vacation

A Dear Needing,

Congratulations! You are obviously skilled at resolving interpersonal conflict, dicey situations, and family squabbles. That is a good skill set. Over the years, I’m sure you have been the reason that dinners, barbeques, holidays, and vacations have been salvaged and reasonably successful. So again, great work. Wouldn’t it be great if every family had a designated helper? Or two or three or four? I’m hinting at the solution.

The question is, what do you need a vacation from? On the first level, you need a vacation from work, routine, and stress—like we all do. On the next level, you need a vacation from being the designated conflict resolver. The need, I’m thinking, was self-created. When you saw a conflict, I’m imagining that with good intentions, you alone stepped up and then stepped in to resolve the conflict. Or you waited until tempers exploded, gossip overflowed, or family members were packing, and then someone begged you to help. Again, you intervened. Don’t get me wrong, during these many cycles, you helped a lot, but you also sent a message that the people arguing, domineering, bickering, or brawling, weren’t responsible or didn’t need to worry about their actions. The super nurse would always save the day, the trip, or the event. If you’re like me, saving the day can bring some personal gratification. But you and I, and others like us (you know who you are) have created a cycle that is tiring and stressful—a cycle that we now need a vacation from.

So with that introduction, I offer a little advice about how to create your own vacation. It begins by thinking about what gaps you need to consider and who you need to talk to.

Scenario 1

Who you address: Everyone in the party.

Gap: People need to resolve their own conflicts. In the past, you have always stepped in.
Strategy: You don’t do anything—before, during, or after. You send a non-verbal message that it’s not your job. The outcome is predictable and not pretty. I don’t suggest this possibility.

Scenario 2

Who you address: The demanding and outspoken family member.

Gap: We need everyone to behave well, and historically she has been domineering and outspoken.
Strategy: Talk to her privately about what would help the wedding go smoothly, and what could cause it not to. Ask her for her help. If she is agreeable, I’d ask if you could help by giving her an agreed upon, but very subtle signal, if she begins to behave in ways that might not help the other guests enjoy the wedding. This strategy is best if you and she have a friendly relationship. If not, I probably wouldn’t attempt it.

You should note that the previous scenario is preventative. It helps create clear expectations and comes with agreed-upon, real-time subtle cues. The next scenario is also preventative but takes a very different approach—a coaching approach.

Scenario 3

Who you address: Anyone who has had a falling out with the original demanding and outspoken family member.

Gap: They need to resolve their own conflicts. In the past, they have let these issues go from bad to worse, or asked you to intervene.

Strategy: Meet with them privately and tell them that you have intervened in the past and feel that you need a break. Tell them that they need to resolve the conflicts themselves. They can try to avoid conflict by being patient or avoiding behavior that eggs the other on. Or if there is a conflict, they can work it out themselves. Offer coaching help, but assure them that your time as the designated conflict-resolver is over. If they ask for coaching, share your ideas. I’m sure you have many helpful tips that work. (It might be too self-serving on my part if I suggest you recommend that they buy a copy of some good book on the subject.)

In conclusion, I again offer you my congratulations for having the ability to resolve conflicts. It seems you have saved a lot of events from completely unraveling. As a result, you have helped create some dependencies that now need to be reevaluated. I think that the last two possibilities I’ve noted will help you be less central in preserving your family unity. I’m sure you have the skills to do them; to the extent that they work, you will have earned your vacation.

Enjoy,

Al

Crucial Conversations QA

Q&A: Dealing with Unethical Behavior

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny

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


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Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

Recently, I have been put in a very difficult situation. My CEO wants me to do something I consider very unethical; he has also instructed me not tell anyone about it. I am very concerned. First of all, I don’t want to do it. Secondly, I don’t want to withhold things from my boss. Also, I feel like I am becoming the “fall guy.” If the CEO gets caught, I will be the one blamed and fired. How can I explain to my CEO that I don’t want to be part of this unethical thing without losing my job?

Signed,
The Fall Guy

A Dear Fall Guy,

There is no easy answer here. I will not mince words with you. You face risks either way. If you comply, you will compromise your morals, undermine trust with your boss, and expose yourself to sanctions. If you decline, the CEO may feel it is a risk to keep you around. Or he may externalize his guilt through aggressive action against you. If he has crossed the line of innuendo and made overtly unethical demands of you, you must accept these risks and respond accordingly. The world has changed and you must respond to the reality you’re in.

First, plan for a worst-case scenario. You feel most powerless when you are least prepared for the worst. Increase your own sense of safety and control by limiting your downside risk. Document everything to ensure you can defend your rights for wrongful termination or progressive aggression should either occur. Talk to a lawyer. Involve HR or others with fiduciary responsibility to protect your rights. You are most vulnerable when you are most alone, so get support.

Then, act to create a better scenario. Having taken appropriate steps to reduce your risk, you will feel more empowered to take some risk. If you feel that the CEO is redeemable, consider confronting the issue directly with him. The best way to help someone feel safe when asking them to acknowledge moral lapses is to genuinely appeal to their best self. If your relationship is strong enough, start the conversation by inventorying those things that you admire in the CEO. Then candidly disclose that this recent request is out of character. For example, you might say, “One of the things that has appealed to me about my job is the chance to work for a man I admire. When Anna was ill and you personally paid her out-of-pocket medical costs, I thought, ‘This is a company that cares about people more than profits.’ That is why your request that I inappropriately allocate revenues in our financials has been surprising to me. That is not how I see you.”

Finally, help him find a way back. Having confronted the issue, don’t leave him alone. Explore the motivations that drove him to act unethically. Help him find a creative and honest way to accomplish the same goals. Often our first moral lapses are bad ways of accomplishing good things. It is only when a lapse becomes a habit that corruption becomes intrinsically appealing. You might say, for example, “We can shift accounting staff to work on aggressively reducing receivables. Would extra liquidity accomplish the same thing?”

I honor you for taking a stand. Take it wisely and this agonizing circumstance may bear unanticipated fruit.

Warmly,

Joseph

Trainer QA

Trainer Q&A: Is it ever appropriate to move to silence?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Candace BertottiCandace Bertotti is a Master Trainer.
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This article was originally published March 3, 2009.

Q Is it ever appropriate to move to silence?

 

A The first question to ask yourself is, “Is this conversation crucial?” If the stakes aren’t high (someone was rude, but you’ll never see them again), emotions aren’t strong (sure you disagree, but you’re not upset or that passionate about it), or there are no opposing opinions (it may be a touchy issue, but you’re all in agreement), then silence may be an appropriate course of action. That said, know that your silence communicates something, and by not speaking up, you inherently give other people the power to determine your meaning rather than stating it clearly yourself.

If the conversation is crucial, then what?

If you find that your motive for speaking up is not healthy, your negative emotions are controlling you, you lack respect for someone, and/or you don’t feel safe, it may be appropriate to move to silence—but only temporarily while you take a quick step back. Be careful not to use this “pause” as an excuse to sweep the problem under the rug or venture down a road of paralyzing analysis and unending preparation. Taking an hour or two to collect your thoughts, connecting to a healthy motive, finding a way to respect the other person’s dignity, and/or finding a private space to talk can make a big difference. Your opinion that someone else is an idiot is better left unsaid. Starting a dialogue about working better together with that same person in a private, safe space is essential.

Crucial Conversations QA

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

Dear Crucial Skills,

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

Sincerely,

Manager-in-a-Pickle

Dear Manager,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish you well in stepping up to this conversation,

Al

Crucial Conversations QA

Q&A: Helping a Laid-off Spouse

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Maxfield

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

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Q Dear Crucial Skills,

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

Regards,

Critical Situation

A Dear Critical,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes,

David