Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

Best Practices for Job Seekers

Dear David,

I’ve been looking for a job for over two months now, and I think one of my main problems is answering the question, “Why did you leave your last position?” I resigned, but felt forced to because of a toxic environment following my reporting of sexual harassment by my boss. For the first time in my thirty-four-year career, I was suddenly being written up repeatedly. Still, despite letters of support by other supervisors, the bad behavior by my boss continued. Human resources was no help, so I left. It is difficult to answer these questions in a positive way to potential employers and I certainly don’t want to get into any of the sordid details. Help!

Sincerely,
At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

I’m sorry you’ve had your career derailed in this way, but you are not alone. We get questions from many readers who find themselves in similar situations. I hope your experience and your willingness to share it will help others.

My suggestions will stem from two basic principles:

1. Don’t speak ill of your past employer.
2. Focus on the contributions you will make to your prospective employer.

Homework. Assume that, if your interview goes well, your future employer will want references. And they will expect at least one reference from your latest employer. You mention letters of support from other supervisors. My recommendation is to ask one of these supporters to write a reference letter you can keep on file. Give this person an outline of your strengths and the job experiences that demonstrate those strengths. This letter can substitute for a recommendation from your supervisor.

Make Lemonade Out of Leaving. Even though you didn’t want to leave your last job, it’s likely there are personal and professional advantages for having left. For example, you’ve gained exceptional experience in one industry/organization, and now you have the opportunity to bring your skills to a different industry/organization with new opportunities and challenges. Use this change of scene to reignite your passion for your career, and share this passion in your interview. Explain how your experience in a different industry/organization will bring a new perspective to a new organization.

Don’t Badmouth Your Past Employer. By the time you get to an interview, the people you’re meeting with have already read your resume, and have decided you’re qualified—at least on paper. What they are looking for in the interview is a good fit and any disqualifiers. Your goal should be to show them that you are a strong team player—someone they will enjoy working with. Describing a toxic work environment at your past employer creates a big question mark. It makes them wonder whether you played a role in creating the toxic environment, and whether you would bring that toxicity into their organization. Don’t go there.

Catalog Your Competencies. Consider the skills you bring. It might be helpful to categorize them, so you don’t miss any. Then, once you’ve determined your skills, identify an experience or project that can serve as a proof point for each skill. Remember, employers are buying performance, not potential, so you need to be able to demonstrate how you’ve applied each skill. Below are a few skill buckets to consider:

Task Specific—skills that apply to the daily tasks you do: programming, customer service, financial, legal, etc.

Context Specific—knowledge you have about the industry, business trends, current risks, and opportunities, etc.

Transferable Skills—your talent for writing, analysis, project management, performance improvement, presentation skills, etc.

Personal Skills—your experience with leadership, teamwork, conflict management, motivation, initiative, accountability, etc.

Develop Your Brand. Imagine you are a product that you are marketing to others. What is your brand? Your brand includes who you are, what you do, and how you do it. It should be your unique promise of value—what you are known for. Consider your personal values, your personal strengths, and what makes you an outstanding contributor. PricewaterhouseCoopers has created a detailed workbook that can help you create your personal brand. I recommend it—even to readers who aren’t looking for a job.

Urgency and Patience. You’ve been job-hunting for two months now. I’m sure that seems like forever, but it’s really not. And you’ve already gotten some job interviews. That’s a great sign, because it means you have what employers are looking for. Keep your job search going at an urgent pace. Keep networking, get those applications in, and keep honing your interviewing skills. At the same time, practice patience with yourself, your family, and your prospective employers. The hiring process is slow and deliberate. Find ways to build self and family time into this forced vacation.

Best Wishes,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Can You Respect an Unrespectable Boss?

Dear Joseph,

You have previously written that, “Bosses will listen to anyone if they feel safe with them.” You’ve also said that one of the conditions for safety is that the boss feels respected. Here’s my problem: I DON’T respect my boss. Should I try to fake it?

Signed,
Working for an Oaf

Dear Working for an Oaf,

You are asking a profound question and I will treat it with all the reverence it deserves. You are absolutely right that THE barrier to you creating safety with your boss is your own disrespect for him or her. What you may not realize is that your disrespect might be much more about you than it is about your boss.

Respect is a heck of a lot more fluid than we think. You made the statement, “I don’t respect my boss.” That makes it sounds as though your disrespect is a fixed fact—that it is the natural result of his or her attributes (he or she is dishonest) or behaviors (he or she picks his or her nose during meetings)—and is, therefore, out of your control. This is wrong.

Here is the principle: It is impossible to disrespect a whole person. The only way you can maintain disgust for another is to hold only his or her flaws in your mind—assiduously avoiding acknowledgement of his or her redeeming qualities. It is easy to despise the caricature of a person we concoct. But please notice it is you that concocts it. You do so by excising another’s back story, their good days, and their virtues, while fixating on their vices, bad choices, and weaknesses.

I saw profound evidence of this six months ago. I witnessed a remarkable shift in two people’s view of each other. One I will call Cathy—a prosecutor in a county attorney’s office. One day, a new case appeared on Cathy’s desk that made her smile. It was for a thirty-five-year-old repeat felon named Jason. During her years as a prosecutor, Cathy had had the “pleasure” of locking him up a number of times. She particularly enjoyed doing it because the first time she met Jason—seventeen years earlier—he had assaulted her. She was a policewoman at the time. When she encountered Jason, he was high on meth and became violent toward her. She told me, “I was horrified that day when I put my hand on my service revolver to withdraw it from the holster. The thought occurred to me, ‘I may have to kill him.’” She never forgot Jason. After becoming a prosecutor, she took every chance she got to lock him up for as long as she could. And she did a good job. Between ages eighteen and thirty-five, he spent thirteen years in prisons and jails. Cathy had decided Jason was a “dirt bag”—a hopeless career criminal.

For his part, Jason developed a clear impression of Cathy. If you’ll allow me to sanitize this a bit—he referred to her as “that witch.” When he would look across the courtroom and see her, he felt pure loathing. In his mind, she was a power-hungry jerk who took advantage of those with poor representation.

All of this changed in July 2014, when Jason and Cathy had an unexpected conversation. Different from previous occasions—when their conversation was constrained by legal posturing—it was just the two of them telling their stories. This time, Cathy listened. This time, Jason listened. Jason described life with a prostitute mother. Being molested by her customers. Joining a gang for refuge. Using drugs to anesthetize his aching mind. Learning violence as a survival skill. He confessed to his self-loathing and the deep shame he felt for the person he had become. Cathy was moved. For her part she described the trauma of his attack seventeen years earlier. She detailed the testimonies of his victims from over the years—and the feeling of obligation she had to defend their rights.

When Jason left that jail interview room, Cathy looked different. As Cathy drove from the jail, she had a sobering new view of Jason—a more complete view. While neither will join a bridge club together anytime soon, both had a new found respect for one another that came from demolishing the simplistic view that had sustained their mutual resentment.

Can you respect someone you don’t respect? Oh yes! But that cannot happen until you own the fact that your disrespect is just that—yours. You are sustaining it by maintaining a distorted story of the other person.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that you should put up with your boss’s dishonesty, incompetence, rudeness—or whatever the presenting problems are in your case. My only point is that you are in no position to take healthy action until you own your side of the problem. Once you can see your boss as a human being, worthy of civility and respect, you will be able to choose rather than react. Then you can decide how to take responsibility for your own needs. You have two options:

Set boundaries. You can have a crucial conversation with your boss in order to find a way to navigate his or her obvious flaws. Decide how to set boundaries that will allow you to work positively—and perhaps even influence your boss to become better.

Fire your boss. You may decide that setting boundaries to make things workable would require more energy than you are willing to invest. That could be a perfectly healthy decision. But if you have “mastered your story,” you will not blame your boss for your decision to leave. You will not waste energy after you leave trashing your boss to others. You will leave taking responsibility for your choice and seeing the boss as someone kind of like you—a human being with both beauty and flaws. You will know you have graduated from telling a Villain Story to telling a healthy one when, like Jason and Cathy, your moral certainty is replaced with curiosity, and your disgust gives way to compassion.

I find I am most understanding of others’ weaknesses when I am most aware of my own. I am most triggered by weaknesses in others that, at some fundamental level, reflect shame I feel toward myself. Disrespect is not inevitable. It is a fragile fiction we sustain with a story we tell.

Sincerely,
Joseph

P.S. For simplicity, I did not qualify my response to include figures of pure evil. I believe they exist. I do not respect them. But I think they are very few in number.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Deal with Delicate Family Issues

Dear Joseph,

My sister is the executor of my parents’ estate. When my dad died last May, the estate went to my mom who is living with my sister. Recently, my sister helped my mom re-write her will. The new will leaves all of the acreage of my parents’ property and sole decision-making authority for distribution of all other assets to my sister. When I talked to my sister about our parents’ estate she said she believes no one in the family deserves another dime. I think it is wrong to have such a partial fiduciary for the estate and would like to discuss this with my mother. How should I do that?

Signed,
A Way for the Will

Dear Way for the Will,

Please hang with me for the next few paragraphs. It might be hard here at the start.

One look at your question leaves me worrying that your sister is setting herself up for big problems—either perceived or real. Either she may play an inappropriate role in the division of the estate, or she may unwittingly act in ways that make it likely you and others will feel that way.

But after a second pass, there are small suggestions that this is a more complicated story with multiple strong and valid concerns. For example, in the facts:

• Since your father died, your sister has had primary responsibility for the care of your mother.
• Your question raises only issues about estate division and not about shared responsibility.

See why I asked you to hang with me? Please don’t take offense. Of course I know nothing—I am only inferring. I believe my primary value to you is not in perfectly understanding the situation but in offering alternative ways of approaching it. These are easier for me to offer due to my detachment and naiveté. So, here goes.

• Focus on what you really want. These situations bring up all of the old victim, villain, and helpless stories of your youth. Perceived inequities, rivalries, and disappointments of yesteryear can be triggered in an instant with the smallest cue. Be very attentive to your own motives—pay attention when you get caught up in winning, being right, avoiding conflict, or punishing. Think deeply about what you really want—for yourself, for others and for the relationships in years ahead. Commit these desires to writing so you can keep them front and center in your mind. I don’t know what is fair or right—but I can assure you that the biggest influence on your future happiness will not be the outcome of estate. Rather it will be your emotions about the estate. And the best way to manage your emotions is to monitor your motives.

• Talk about responsibilities first, assets second. Be sure to think about all of the family issues. Discuss them systemically because they are all connected. For example, don’t raise issues about who gets the farm without validating its connection to who has worked the farm. If your energy is all about asset distribution, this should give you pause to reexamine your motives. If your motives are right, the estate will be an element of your conversation not the soul of it.

• Empathize deeply. Before opening up conversations with mom, sister, or other siblings I recommend you take yourself through a powerful empathy exercise. On various sheets of paper, write the names of each family member who has a stake in these issues. Then, one at a time, become that person. Underneath each person’s name write out their concerns, feelings, needs, opinions—as best you can guess them. Make sure you do this from his or her perspective. You will know you have succeeded in empathizing when you feel a reverence and respect for his or her view while writing it. It will feel reasonable. If the writing exercise provokes resentment or resistance in your mind, keep at it. You’ll get there! The purpose of this process is not to cause you to surrender your own interests or needs. Those are important. It is to simply create space to consider the needs and interests of others.

• Practice rigorous transparency. Now you’re ready to talk. But by no means should you talk exclusively with your mother. The estate is your mother’s so she is the ultimate decision-maker. But because she may be open to influence from others, be sure to avoid creating rivalries by holding closed conversations. Encourage your mother to be inclusive, if that seems appropriate to her. Let all family members know your broader motives. If someone becomes contentious—validate their concerns. Listen deeply. Empathize. Unilaterally commit to getting a fair hearing for everyone. With all this said, I know there are times when feelings are so deep-seated or motives become so clouded that the future could still be painful. But I am confident that if you keep your own priorities right, and approach these conversations with compassion and understanding, you will reach as good an outcome as is possible.

Best wishes,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

When It’s Your Word Against Your Boss’s

Dear Crucial Skills,

About a month ago, my director was investigated for violating policy. I provided information against her in this process. During the investigation, my director told my coworkers that the allegations were all lies. This caused my coworkers to view me as a troublemaker and a liar. I suspect she said the same to the heads of our company. As a result, she has been able to keep her job and I feel like my credibility is damaged. How do I move forward from here?

Signed,
Credibility Crisis

Dear Credibility Crisis,

Some decisions are hard. This one isn’t. You’ve got to go.

The only way I would temper that advice is if you think there is a possibility you are wrong. If the following are facts and not fear-based stories you are telling yourself:

1. Your director violated the policy.

2. The violation is a serious ethical breach—not some trivial technicality (e.g., she used company funds to refurnish her beach house vs. she used an outdated company logo in a PowerPoint presentation).

3. Your senior leaders believe you lied in your testimony against your director.

4. Your colleagues likewise believe you lied.

. . . then you are in as compromised a social situation as you could be.

You’ve got two problems here. First, you are working in an organization that seems either unable or unwilling to hold high standards. Do you really want to work in that kind of place? And second, you have none of the social support you will need to get things done and to be rewarded for doing so.

You owe it to yourself to put yourself into circumstances where you will be honored for your integrity, where you will be able to do your best work, and where you will be recognized for doing so.

I wish I had a magic answer that would allow you to remedy the situation. But I would be less than a genuine friend if I suggested I have ever seen a situation like yours end well. Your choices are a quick exit or a slow meltdown. A graceful redemption isn’t in the cards.

However, if objective and informed people among your colleagues disagree with #1-4 above—then improvement is possible. For example, if:

1. Your director’s actions are more of a gray area.

2. The policy isn’t morally significant.

3. Your senior leaders disagree with your view, but don’t believe you lied.

4. Few of your colleagues are especially aware or see this as an honest disagreement between you and your director.

. . . then there is room for hope. But only if you are willing to hold a truly humble, open, and honest crucial conversation with your director. You will need to come to this conversation curious. You will need to suspend your judgments and be open to new information that might revise your view of her actions. But you will also need to come prepared to be honest if the new “meaning” you acquire does not change your view. The only path forward is through this conversation in which the two of you open up the possibility of gaining new insight into each other’s actions, motives, and perspectives.

I wish you the best in this profoundly important decision.

Warmly,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Seeking a Promotion

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m a cofounder of a company that recently brought in a new CEO who I don’t know well. I want to talk to the CEO about taking an executive role in the company and obtaining his mentorship. The problem is I feel very strongly about this position and my contribution, and tend to get emotional about it. I know I’ve made a very significant contribution to the company’s growth, but I’m also fundamentally insecure about my skills. I also don’t have the resume that investors are looking for. The new CEO is a very level-headed person who doesn’t get emotional about anything, and I don’t want to lose credibility with him as I negotiate my role in this growing company. Can you give me some pointers for preparing for this conversation?

Sincerely,
Looking for a Promotion

Dear Looking,

Of course you get emotional about your role in the company you cofounded! This company is your brainchild; you’ve invested your blood, sweat, and tears. Any conversation about your role going forward is high stakes indeed. And strong emotions are often the biggest barrier to effectively influencing others. As you take stock of the company’s needs, and of the skills you need in order to fulfill an executive role, you are wise to seek the new CEO’s mentorship. So how do you have the crucial conversation with the CEO about taking on an executive role?

Start with heart. As you contemplate having this conversation, ask yourself, “What do I really want? For myself? For the new CEO? For the company?” Of course you want the company to be successful. You also want to support the CEO and help him succeed. In addition, you want to occupy an executive position and be effective in that role. Keep in mind that you are not a beggar or a thief. You are not asking for a position you do not deserve, nor are you expecting a role that benefits you and hurts the company. You want to add value and make a meaningful contribution. These are good motives—helpful motives. As you focus on these thoughts, your brain will be in gear and your emotions will dissipate.

Create mutual purpose. An important beginning to this crucial conversation is to help the CEO understand your intentions—your motives. You might want to say something like, “I want to talk with you about my role in the company. I am absolutely committed to making the company succeed. I also want to do everything within my power to help you be successful in your new role as CEO.” Such a strong declaration will do a lot to make it safe for the CEO to discuss the topic with you openly.

Next, share your meaning. As with bringing up any sensitive topic, I would encourage you to share the facts. Help the CEO understand your history with the company and the many contributions you’ve made. There’s no need to feel embarrassed or shy. You are not bragging or “tooting your own horn.” You are giving the CEO important information he needs to make decisions about how to best utilize your abilities. Then tell your story by sharing with the CEO your honest evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses. Our tendency is to ‘spin’ our histories by embellishing our strengths and understating our weaknesses.

I once worked with a colleague who was always trying to ‘sell’ me. When advocating his point of view, he emphasized the reasons to do what he wanted, and left unmentioned the downside. I grew to discount his statements and distrust his motives. You do not want to do this. Identify where you see yourself as the most capable and where you need more development. This kind of honesty, openness, and insight will help your CEO appreciate the kind of person you are and trust your candor. Next, make your proposal. Explain the position you want to fill and its responsibilities. Ask that the CEO mentor you and help you strengthen the areas you’ve identified for improvement.

Finally, ask for the CEO’s input. You’ve put a lot of meaning in the pool; now is the time to get his. Ask questions and listen. How does he see the situation? How does he view the fit between you and the executive position?

This appeal will not necessarily guarantee that you end up with the position you desire. However, this approach will increase the likelihood your emotions will not get in the way, and there will be greater mutual understanding.

Good Luck,
Ron

Crucial Conversations QA

Tackling the Right Crucial Conversation

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you respond to work colleagues who complain that management never asks our opinion? I agree it’s good to get insight from management on how and why things are the way they are. But my coworkers seem to forget there are some things administration just can’t get everyone’s viewpoint on—because a consensus would never be reached.

I feel our administration does keep us in the loop as much as they can, and these childish attitudes from my coworkers are more frustrating and demoralizing than what they’re complaining about.

Signed,

Done with Complainers

Dear Done,

Charles Kettering is often credited with the saying, “A problem well stated is half solved.” When it comes to crucial conversations, knowing what conversation to have, and whom to have it with, is more than half the battle.

The situation you find yourself in plays out hundreds of thousands of times a day in offices across the world. A coworker has a problem with someone else—whether with management, other coworkers, or a direct report—and rather than addressing that concern with the person, they come to you. There are a lot of names for this: venting, complaining, whining, etc. At VitalSmarts, we call them “drive-bys.” Rather than getting to the heart of the difficult conversations they need to have—in this case, expressing their concerns with management about hearing employee input—they drop into your office, share all their concerns, and look for sympathy. Then they leave, feeling they have said what they needed to say. In reality, they have completely dodged the crucial conversation they are responsible for having.

The question then is: what do YOU want to do about it? You have a few options and which one you choose will completely depend on what you really want—for yourself, for the other person, for your relationship, and for the organization.

Option 1: Commiserate

This is the easy option. You nod your head, and say soothing things like “I know. That is so tough.” You listen, and listen, and listen . . . until the other person finishes speaking. Then, you sagely say “It is what it is,” and you both go back to work.

The obvious downside of taking this option is, nothing changes. Ever. The pattern will repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And worse, you sacrifice your integrity as you pretend to agree with something just for the sake of keeping the peace.

Option 2: Defend

This option can be almost as easy, and certainly more fun, than option number one. In this scenario, you get to become the standard bearer of an administration done wrong. When you next see your coworker headed toward your office with a couple of tall, skinny, caramel macchiatos and a need to vent, you can gather together all of your righteous indignation and explain to your coworker that they have it all wrong. Management is great. They are doing their best. We as workers need to grow up and accept our role in the grand economic schema.

The obvious downside of this option is that you may end up alienating your coworkers and probably won’t be getting any more caramel macchiatos. Worse, you have taken on a responsibility that isn’t yours—defending management. Your responsibility is to own your voice and share your views. You don’t need to play defense just because a coworker chooses to play offense.

Option 3: Coach

In this option, you recognize that the real conversation that needs to be had—the right conversation—is between your coworkers and leadership. You are not a player in this conversation. But you can be an invaluable coach.

As a coach, your job should be to share a different point of view (in this case, yours) and suggest that your coworkers would benefit from having a direct conversation with management about his or her concerns. Now, we all know what the response will be: “Management never listens to us so what is the point of talking to them about how they never listen to us?”

This is where a great coach makes the difference. Most of us would say: “You’re probably right.” But a crucial conversation coach would help them see that this “management never listens” line is a story he or she is telling themselves. Help your colleague consider what it is he or she really wants and how best to share it, while listening to the other side as well.

Too often we think only about using crucial conversations skills in our own crucial conversations. We fail to recognize the power we have to teach, coach, and support others in using these skills.

So, don’t get caught up in thinking this is your conversation. It is not. But, it is a conversation you can help someone have. Understanding what the right conversation is, and whom it is with, will often get you more than halfway to a successful resolution.

Good Luck,

Emily

Crucial Conversations QA

Changing the System

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m president of my church choir’s advisory council. The choir has long had a “slush fund” that is used for various choir-related expenses, but it is not administered by the advisory council. I would like to change this, but am unsure of how to approach the “owners” of the fund. These are members of the choir who make decisions on whether money can be spent without any general choir input.

Recently, they denied the advisory council’s request for a small amount of money saying it was an “inappropriate” use of funds. I don’t want to turn this into the Inquisition, but the advisory council members think we should all have more input. Any suggestions as to how to approach our colleagues and gain their cooperation?

Signed,
Looking for Guidance

Dear Looking,

This situation may seem very unique, but it isn’t. I think many of us have felt the need to change an established system that is supported by entrenched interests. How do we make these changes? And how do we involve people who believe they will lose power, money, prestige, etc. as a result of these changes?

Get the facts. I would begin by learning the history behind the current arrangement. The creation of the “slush fund,” which seems peculiar now, probably made a lot of sense at the time it was established. For example, maybe it was part of a contract the church negotiated when hiring key choir members. Determine the original rationale for the arrangement and evaluate whether those reasons still make sense.

Enlarge the decision-making group. The change you are suggesting should not devolve into a power play between your advisory group and the current owners of the fund. Instead, the interests of the entire church should be foremost. This means involving a broader group of respected decision makers who aren’t identified with your group or the current owners of the fund. This more objective group will have greater credibility with the whole church.

Involve the current owners in the decision. Don’t let them feel excluded or disrespected. Make sure they have a seat at the decision-making table. They will be the best advocates for the current arrangement, and the decision makers need their perspective.

Maintain respect. When changes are made, the people who created or supported the prior arrangement are often made to look bad. In this case, using words like “slush fund” paints them as corrupt. I doubt they are corrupt. The facts are that they created and managed a system that has worked—at least to some extent—for years. They shouldn’t be vilified for this. If the church can create a new system that works better, that’s great. It doesn’t mean that the old system was somehow evil, unfair, or incompetent.

Give time for the transition. Don’t pull the plug in a sudden way. Instead, create a gradual, orderly transition. For example, if the current owners already have a two-year plan for the funds, go ahead and approve it. Let them take their plan to completion, and then get their involvement in creating the next plan. If the transition is abrupt, it may be seen as a money grab, instead of as a long-term structural improvement.

I hope these ideas help.

David