Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

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

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