Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

Stereotypes, Distrust, and Bias

Dear David,

I am a middle manager and have a boss who doesn’t trust one of my employees and—by extension—he doesn’t trust me. My employee has sensed the distrust. Even though this employee meets expectations, does a good job, and is liked by everyone else, my boss seems to dislike her demeanor. I am working with the employee on changing her demeanor, but it is brutal on morale. Any tips for improving morale without undermining my boss?

Manager in Distress

Dear Manager in Distress,

Thanks for a truly intriguing question. It contains the kind of messy complications that make people and workplaces so interesting.

List and Prioritize Your Concerns. With complicated issues like this one, I begin by listing the different concerns. The list helps me identify the concerns that are most central.
Here is my initial list.

• Your boss doesn’t trust this employee.
• Your boss is beginning to wonder if he can trust you.
• Your boss’s opinions might (or might not) be based on stereotypes or implicit bias.
• The employee performs well on the job.
• The employee senses the distrust.
• You wonder if you SHOULD get the employee to change (or would this be buying into your boss’s biases?).
• You wonder if you CAN get the employee to change (how can you coach about subtle issues related to demeanor?).
• You wonder whether, if the employee does change, your boss will notice and reward the changes.

It looks as if the highest-priority question to answer is whether your manager’s mistrust of this employee is merited. The way you answer this question will determine how you act on most of the other issues. If you decide that your manager’s concerns are merited, then your challenge is to coach your employee to change. If you decide his concerns are not merited, then your challenge is to influence him. Of course, the answer isn’t always clear-cut. But I would begin by examining your manager’s concerns.

Explore Others’ Paths. Your manager is telling himself a story. His story is that your employee’s behavior fits a pattern that indicates she can’t be trusted. You need to create a safe way for your manager to examine his story. Safety is very important here. Don’t lecture your manager on the need to avoid bias, and don’t argue for your own perspective. Instead, ask questions that help your manager explore his own point of view.

Focus on the Facts. Ask questions about what your manager has observed and what he had expected. Look for the gap. Get examples of what your manager means by “the employee’s demeanor.” We all attend to people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and other nonverbal cues to try to read what they are thinking and feeling. Ask your manager about what he has seen, and what it means to him.

Example: Suppose you ask your manager for examples of what he has seen, and he replies, “In meetings and in presentations her demeanor is weak, hesitant, and unsure. She pauses, questions her own conclusions, and allows others to push her around—instead of making firm recommendations and backing them up with facts.”

Check to see if you and your manager have seen the same behaviors, and whether the behaviors are representative of the employee.

Examine the Story. Encourage your manager to explore the logic of his story—to re-examine the conclusions drawn from the facts. For example, is your manager concluding that your employee doesn’t prepare adequately, that she is too easily intimidated, or that she is too indecisive? Ideally, you will help your manager ask two questions: a.) Do I really have enough facts to draw this negative conclusion? b) Is there another more positive conclusion that fits the facts?

Visibility and Exposure. When you’re talking with your manager, the goal isn’t to convert him to your point of view. It’s to get him to reconsider his initial views, and to be open to new information. However, this new information can’t come from you; it must come from the employee. What you can do is provide the employee with visibility and exposure—opportunities to prove herself in ways that overcome your manager’s concerns.

Own the Problem. If you agree with your manager that the employee needs to change, then make sure you own it. Don’t blame the need to change on your manager. Use natural consequences to explain the links between the employee’s actions and outcomes she cares about. She needs to understand the business reasons for changing, or she may attribute it to whim or bias.

Focus on the Facts. The more specific you are, the more helpful you will be. The ideal would be to show your employee a video of herself in action, and to go through it frame by frame. If you don’t have video, then use quotes and demonstrations, not just explanations to show her what she does right and wrong. Imagine you are coaching an actor to improve her performance of a part. The focus isn’t on her words or the content of what she is saying as much as it’s on her nonverbals.

Follow Up. Ask your employee for permission to cue her in real time. Most of the actions that create “demeanor” are automatic or even unconscious. She won’t know she’s demonstrating them, unless you can signal her.

I hope this is helpful,

Crucial Conversations QA

Missing Social Cues

The following article was first published on December 29, 2004.

Dear Kerry,

I’m faced with the challenge of training people who are rather low self-monitors. That is, they don’t read social cues particularly well and as a result often annoy or offend others. They tend to push too hard or talk about topics that others are no longer interested in or simply hang back and don’t offer their ideas when they should. Many are skilled professionals in their field but since they don’t come off well in social interactions, they are being discounted. Our company can’t afford the luxury of not hearing from or discounting the opinions and ideas of some of our best thinkers.

Here’s the problem: when I work with this particular group, many are blind to the fact that they have a blind side. They view social skills training in general as a waste of time and the fact that they are in particular need of it often escapes them. How can I deal with this sensitive situation?

At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

First of all, it’s important to make sure those you’re training understand that using crucial skills in the workplace isn’t about looking pleasant or making people happy. Effective employees don’t charm people into their good graces. If anything, they’re tough on infractions, violations, and failed promises. They confidently step up to problems and hold the other person accountable.

Honest, complete, and effective communication is about getting the results you want and need. Interpersonal skills matter because you work in a social environment made up of small groups and teams. People who “don’t work and play well with others” cause companies fits. Individuals who aren’t able to express themselves well aren’t heard, so their best ideas are often missed. Companies can’t afford that.

That said, the challenge here lies in first helping people realize that they aren’t reading the cues well, and second, helping them apply high-level reasoning to an activity that most people do intuitively (picking up on social cues). It turns out that the first challenge isn’t all that great. Most people who stumble in social settings are well aware of the fact that they aren’t doing well. They’ve been given more than enough feedback over the years to realize that they don’t always shine in complex social interactions. They know this in general, but still struggle in the moment. Many also realize that the typical training they’ve been given or books they have been asked to read haven’t given them much help. This is often because the material deals with what to do and say but offers little to no help when it comes to when and how. This is where they struggle. They don’t know when because they aren’t reading the cues and they often don’t know how because they aren’t reading the responses well enough to then make subtle adjustments to their behavioral attempts.

What’s a person to do? We all need help in reading social cues, some just more than others. If you’re offering social skills (influence, accountability, communication) training for those who have been tagged at risk, spend as much time talking about the entry condition or cue to the skill in question as you do on the skill itself. This can feel odd because it seems so obvious, but it isn’t to everyone. In fact, we all have problems at times. For instance, when we’re caught up in an argument, all of us have missed the process of what’s going on around us and plowed on ahead no matter how others respond. We’ve all seen people resist our ideas only to push harder and cause more resistance. In short, we all missed the cues.

Without going into detail here, suffice it to say that you’ll need to slow down the skill you’re teaching. Focus on what others are doing or saying BEFORE the skill is called for and actually spend time looking for both the verbal and nonverbal cues that would drive a person in one direction or another. Then look at how people might respond to what you’ve just learned—with particular emphasis on what it looks like when the skill is working and when it isn’t. “Oops, that didn’t work. Let me try something else.” Once again, this calls for slowing down, looking for both verbal and nonverbal hints, talking about them, and then identifying where to go given the response. It’s a little hard to describe this in the abstract, but this ability to read social cues lies at the heart of your problem and you won’t be providing people the full solution to their problem if you merely focus on the traditional elements of influence or communication training.

Good luck with a challenging and often touchy task.

Crucial Conversations QA

Talking About Starting a Family

Dear Ron,

How can I apply my new found crucial conversations skills to an uncomfortable issue in my marriage?

After fifteen years together, four of them as a legally married couple, I’d like to start a family but I can’t get my husband to talk about it. I’m almost thirty-three years old and I would like to have this conversation sooner rather than later for obvious reasons!

To complicate matters, my husband knows I attended a Crucial Conversations trainer certification workshop last year, and may resist having my skills forced on him.

Mommy Dreams

Dear Mommy,

It sounds like you are facing an undiscussable—an issue that, like an exposed nerve, sets off a strong negative reaction when touched. Every time the subject is mentioned, the conversation turns contentious and ends in an icy silence or an angry fight. Over time, this becomes a topic we can’t discuss without bad feelings and we conclude, “It’s better to let a sleeping dog lie.”

Without really intending to, we’ve created an undiscussable. We find it’s better to keep the peace and endure the occasional irritation than have yet another blow-up. We lose hope that it will ever get resolved. We live with uncomfortable silence and sometimes pain.

To effectively dialogue, you must make it safe for the other person to talk with you. Resolving undiscussables requires an extra portion of safety because, almost by definition, undiscussables are created by a lack of safety which pushes participants into silence and violence. It takes a lot of safety to initially engage in an undiscussable and even more safety to see it through to completion.

You want to have children together but can’t get your husband to talk about it. This undiscussable is not a peripheral family issue, it is a core issue. This lies at the heart of who you are as a family, your joint aspirations, and the quality of life you will enjoy. To let this undiscussable fester without resolution will be to undermine your marriage and family.

Build Safety. Safety is created by two essential conditions: Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect. Start deconstructing this undiscussable by demonstrating respect. Rather than blind-siding your husband by bringing up the subject during his favorite ball game, ask to set a time to talk with him that’s mutually convenient. “Honey, I would like to talk with you about an important subject and I want to pick a time that we won’t be disturbed for about an hour, a time we can focus on each other and not be distracted. Would tonight after dinner work for you?” This courtesy helps to build Mutual Respect.

Set Expectations. When you actually begin the conversation, set some expectations and guidelines that will help maintain the respect you show each other and continue to build safety. “Thank you for clearing time for our talk,” you say without sarcasm. “My goal is not to make a decision tonight. I just want to fully understand how you feel and help you understand how I feel, as well. Can I make one request? Let’s agree that neither of us will leave until we’re both done, until we both feel heard. Is that okay?”

If he’s impatient and interrupts with something like, “What’s this about? What is it you want to talk about?” Try, “I’m not trying to be dramatic, it’s just that before we talk, I want to agree on some guidelines for our discussion. Is that okay?”

Establish Mutual Purpose. Help to establish Mutual Purpose by telling him what you really want. “I love you so much and I want us to always be together. I don’t want anything to strain our relationship. I want to understand how you feel and I want you to understand how I feel.” Having reinforced respect and Mutual Purpose, share with him what you are thinking and how you are feeling about inviting children into your family.

Don’t Judge. A few no-no’s: Don’t attribute motive to him; don’t judge him based on a standard in your head, and don’t make threats or ultimatums. A bad example: “You are so irresponsible and lazy. That’s why you don’t want children. You don’t care one bit about me or what I want. Well, Peter Pan, it’s time to choose . . . ” Rather, keep thinking back to what you really want: to respectfully and lovingly share your thoughts and feelings and deeply understand his. You don’t want to shame, manipulate, pressure, or trick him. You want this dialogue to be honest, open, and loving.

If the dialogue takes a hurtful turn—if he becomes silent and/or gets upset or if you feel the same—go into a listening mode: inquire, paraphrase, reflect, prime. Don’t push your point. Demonstrate your understanding of his meaning.

Take a Break. If the dialogue breaks down, if feelings become too raw, or if he doesn’t want to continue, show respect. To continue at this point could be to cross the line into controlling or disrespectful behaviors. Call for a strategic withdrawal.

First, suggest a break. “This is proving to be a tough issue for us. Why don’t we take a break for now?” Second, thank him. “Thank you for being willing to talk this over with me. I appreciate your sharing and listening.” Third, establish the next step and time frame. “Why don’t we take some time and put some thought into this and see if we can get clear about what having children would mean to us and our life together. Then how about this weekend we do a picnic and see how we’re feeling?”

Sometimes taking a break can help us collect our thoughts, process what we’ve experienced, and help us restore our emotional batteries. The danger becomes that in disengaging we are “putting off” our dialogue or cementing the subject as an undiscussable. The key comes in respectfully agreeing to take a break from the topic and agreeing when you will continue the conversation.

The title of our book, Crucial Conversations is plural. This conversation with your husband about having children might not be the resolution of the issue, but rather the beginning of several conversations—each one expanding the Pool of Shared Meaning, each one building respect, Mutual Purpose, and Safety. Over time, feelings and ideas can change, options can surface, and a crisis of disagreement can form the foundation for a stronger love and a family that has learned how to work through the toughest of issues.

All the very best,

Crucial Conversations QA

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Dear Joseph,

I work very closely with someone who I really like and respect. I have one concern about how he tends to rely on me to deal with all criticisms directed at our shared projects. I have tried bringing up the issue and holding the crucial conversation about it, but it didn’t go well. My partner became upset and told me we needed to change the subject because he was getting all worked up. At this point I dropped it.

Our mutual success relies on an open, free-flowing, honest relationship. I’m afraid I’ve done some damage in the trust department. So here’s my question: If the first attempt at a crucial conversation fails and trust is damaged, but the issue is still important, should I try again later? How do I undo the damage I’ve done?

Out of Sync

Dear Out of Sync,

You are already a mile down the road to solving this problem. The fact that you genuinely like and respect this person means your heart is in the right place. Here are a couple of suggestions for repairing any damage that might have been done in your previous attempt, and for making it safe to try again.

First, you need to remember that people usually don’t get defensive because of what you’re saying. What went wrong in your first conversation was not that you complained about your colleague’s failure to step up to criticism with you. What went wrong was that something in your conversation made it seem like either you disrespected your colleague, or that your intention in raising the issue was hurtful. In Crucial Conversations vocabulary, either Mutual Respect or Mutual Purpose did not exist, so your colleague became defensive. With enough safety, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything. So, the questions you should be asking yourself are:

1. What did I do that might have communicated a lack of respect or a bad intention? For example: Think about your tone of voice (were you unusually quiet or loud–communicating upset emotions?); body language (did you fail to make eye contact, frown or in other ways act differently from when you communicate respect?); word choice (did you use hot emotion words to begin with like, “you’ve been disloyal” or “you don’t back me up”?).

2. What did I fail to do that would have reassured my colleague of my respect and positive intentions? For example: When he became defensive, did you fail to “step out of the content” and reaffirm your respect and purpose? When you started the conversation did you jump right into the issue without first establishing mutual purpose and respect?

Second, you need to have another conversation. But the topic of this one is different. The crucial conversation you now need to hold is, “What went wrong with the last crucial conversation?” Here’s a way you might begin. Notice that this suggested approach models how you can begin by building mutual purpose and mutual respect:

“I’ve been worried since our last conversation. I wanted to talk about something that was concerning me and in retrospect I believe I communicated some things I didn’t intend. Somehow or other I think I came across as insulting, or attacking. I really didn’t want to do that. I am so sorry. Could we talk for a few minutes about what I did wrong in that conversation? I’d really like to know so I can try again to resolve this issue without coming across in a way I don’t want to.”

This little script communicates your respect for the other person, and clarifies your intention. Having delivered it, listen like crazy. Ask clarifying questions. Try to come to understand what you did or didn’t do that made it possible for your colleague to misunderstand your respect or intent.

Finally, consider a skill we call “Contrasting.” This skill is extremely helpful in building–and when needed, rebuilding–safety. One of the best ways to prepare for a crucial conversation is to ask yourself, “How could the other person misunderstand my respect? My intentions?” Once you’ve answered that, fend off the misunderstanding by making a statement that does two things:

1. Debunks the misunderstanding (Specifically point out what you don’t mean to communicate, e.g., “I don’t want you to think I am dissatisfied with our working relationship. I am not raising this issue because I am disappointed with your work or our relationship at all.”)

2. Confirms your true intentions or respect (“I have the utmost respect for you and love working with you. My only intent here is to point out something that you may not even realize is happening that is causing some problems for me. Would that be okay?”)

If you start off this way, you can avoid a lot of defensiveness later on.

Good luck!

Crucial Conversations QA

Weathering Strained Holiday Relationships

Dear Emily,

Every year I have the same argument with my mother and husband. Every year, my mother demands that we spend Christmas Day at her house while my husband, and father of our two children, wants to stay home. We usually go to her house. This year is no exception but we have an addition to our household. My husband’s mother has moved in with us and it will be her first Christmas with her grandchildren. Her health is failing and travel is extremely difficult for her. My mother, who lives two miles from me, knows this. After the usual badgering, I finally gathered the courage to say that we would not leave his mother alone at our house on Christmas Day. I offered to have the entire family come to our house instead, either to spend time with her on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day. My mother will not accept this and has decided to throw a temper tantrum. So, we are staying home.

My question is, how do I permanently stop this argument? It has made me hate Christmas.

The Grinch

Dear Grinch,

Ah, the holidays. A season fraught with expectation, disappointment, and heartache. I vote we cancel Christmas this year! Who’s with me?

Okay, okay, I don’t actually want to cancel Christmas. I love Christmas. But reading your question did touch a place in my heart that harbors a bit of dread for the stressful holiday season and brings to mind the plaintive cry, “Why can’t we all just get along?” We all know how stressful the holiday season can be. However, your situation is not really about Christmas at all, is it? It is not even about a conversation. Your challenge is the health and well-being of a critical relationship.

The answer to the question you ask is straightforward. How do you permanently stop this argument? Stop talking to your mother. Ouch, right? But that would stop the argument. Don’t worry though, this column doesn’t end here. Instead, I am going to take a guess that your question is something more than how do I permanently stop this argument. I think your question may in fact be “How do I stop this argument in such a way that honors both my mother and me and also strengthens our relationship?” Are you starting to see how this isn’t about Christmas at all?

When you reframe the question, you start to get at the heart of what you really, really want. Yes, right now what you really, really want is for your mother to: 1) grow up and be an adult, 2) recognize that she is acting selfishly, 3) understand that you need to meet the needs of your mother-in-law and that this relationship is also important to you, and finally, 4) not make such a big deal about something that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Am I getting this right?

In Crucial Conversations, we teach people to prepare for a conversation by Starting with Heart. By getting really, really clear on what the intent is. We do this by asking ourselves, “What do I really want? For myself? For the other person? For the relationship?” The challenge with this question is most of the time our first answer is the wrong answer. We are quick to jump in with what we really want right now. It may be to win, to save face, to be right, to have our mother tell us we are right and of course we can have Christmas dinner at our house. But if you stop there, you will likely miss what it is you really want, because after all, this isn’t about Christmas.

Over the years, I have trained myself to ask the question four or five times before I settle into an answer. The internal dialogue might go something like this:

Me: “Okay, what do I really want here?”
Mini Me: “I want this argument to stop. I want to enjoy the holiday and I want my mom to recognize that it is not just about her. I am trying to balance a lot of demands.”
Me: “And why do you want that? Why is that important to you?”
Mini Me: “Because I need my mom to recognize that I have a family too and it can’t just be about her tradition and her view of what should happen.”
Me: “And why can’t it?”
Mini Me: “Because I am an adult and a mother too. I need my mom to see me as such so that we can have a meaningful relationship. I love her and I want to meet her needs. I also want her to recognize that I have grown up and that families change over time. I want to relate to her as an adult, not just as her child.”

Asking yourself, “What do I really want?” is a great start but it may not be enough. You may need to ask yourself several times to get clear on what you want and what the core issue is for you.

Related to starting with heart and asking what we really want, for ourselves, for the other person, and for the relationship, is the concept of Mutual Purpose. Again, in Crucial Conversations, we teach creating Mutual Purpose as a skill to increase the level of psychological safety within the dialogue so you can discuss any content. And, because all relationships at their heart are built by a series of conversations over time, sometimes Mutual Purpose becomes much more than a safety skill—it becomes the entire dialogue.

Creating Mutual Purpose starts by understanding what purpose we are bringing to the dialogue. In this case, we have already done that heavy lifting as we dug deep into our heart to find out what we really wanted. I really want a relationship with my mom that reflects my adulthood. I don’t want to stay stagnant in a parent-child dynamic I have outgrown.

Once we understand what purpose we are bringing, we need to understand the purpose the other person brings. What is it that my mother wants? Here again, the key will be to dig deep and not accept a surface-level answer. Human beings act in both predictable and unpredictable ways for one reason—we are trying to have our needs met. Those needs may be physical, financial, emotional, spiritual, or something else entirely. But ultimately, we are driven to act in order to meet a perceived need. So, another way of asking what your mother wants or what her purpose is, is to ask, “What need is my mother trying to meet by acting in this way? What need is met by hosting a traditional family Christmas dinner at her home?”

My guess is that you already have a pretty good idea of the answer. After all, you have known your mother all your life and have likely developed some insight about her. Think about your answer to that question of what needs your mother is trying to meet for herself by requiring everyone to show up for Christmas dinner. Got it in your head? Good. Now write it down. Done that? Good. Now tear it up and throw it away. Seriously. Don’t guess what your mother needs. Ask her. Ask her a couple of times in a couple of ways. Probe with curiosity, validation, and sensitivity. Really try to understand. So often we jump into a dialogue around purpose assuming we know (or have a pretty good guess) what the other person’s purpose is. We may be right. We may be wrong. It doesn’t matter. Either way, we will have done a disservice to him or her and to the dialogue by making the assumption.

If you want your mother to treat you as an adult, treat her like one by actively trying to understand what lies deep in her heart. What you find may surprise you. And, it will also give you the beginnings of a way forward. Once you understand her need, you can begin to see her actions within the context of that need. It doesn’t mean you will agree with those actions and it doesn’t mean that you will be eating Christmas dinner at her house or even that she will be eating it at your house. But what it does mean is that you can start to explore ideas and options to meet both of your needs.

Best Wishes and Happy Holidays,

Crucial Conversations QA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additionally, we found that:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crucial Conversations QA

Delivering Tough Performance Feedback

Dear Joseph,

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

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

Struggling Coach

Dear Struggling Coach,

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish you and her the best!