Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Approach a Suspected Thief

The following article was first published on January 23, 2008.

Dear Crucial Skills,

Someone stole money from me and I have a hunch it was a roommate. How would you approach this confrontation? Our relationship is neither strong nor bad, just fairly new.

I’m not sure how to ask her without making her feel unsafe. And I definitely can’t imagine her saying “yes” even if she really did take the money. What should I say?

Signed,
Baffled

Dear Baffled,

I sympathize with your situation. Something bad has happened. You can’t generate any plausible explanation other than theft. And yet, it’s hard to see this new roommate as a thief.

One of the hardest times to motivate yourself to speak up is when you aren’t whipped-up in righteous indignation. You doubt yourself and you don’t want to cause pain to a potentially innocent person. On the other hand, this is also the best time to speak up because you are in exactly the right frame of mind for real dialogue. You’re humble enough to be wrong and caring enough to worry about the impact of your approach.

Of course, what you do depends upon the strength of the story you’re currently telling yourself. So I’ll offer some advice for three scenarios. You choose which fits:

1. No evidence. The only reason you’re even thinking your roommate may have taken your money is by process of elimination. In other words, you don’t think she stole it but you can’t think of any other explanation.

In this circumstance you should bring up the missing money. Share the facts—not your story (that you wonder if your roommate stole it). If your roommate had nothing to do with it, this will help involve her in the search or alert her to problems that could continue to plague both of you. Simply say something like, “Last night, I had two $100 bills in my purse. I left it in the kitchen and this morning they were gone. Have you had anything come up missing recently?” If your roommate was involved, this conversation will either put her on notice that you’re aware of something fishy or lay the groundwork for a future, more direct, conversation. But, I don’t recommend this very vague approach if you have more reason to suspect your roommate.

2. A little more evidence but a lot of fear. You have a number of reasons to suspect her (e.g., she had two $100 bills when you went out to eat last night) but have reasons to believe a conversation would do more harm than good (she has a hot temper and carries a Taser).

In this situation, you’ve concluded that the potential upside of a conversation is not worth the downside risk of conflict. The big mistake people make in this situation is indecision. They waste time feeling resentful about reality rather than simply accepting their own assessment and making a hard choice to either a) adapt to the insecure environment by securing your valuables; or b) move. Get over it—if you’ve decided you aren’t going to speak up, accept responsibility for that choice and decide how you’ll deal with the future.

3. A little more evidence but nothing to lose. You have a number of reasons to suspect her and nothing to lose by trying the conversation. The worst that can happen is that she denies it, resents you, and you move out. The only difference from the second option is that you’ve opened up the possibility for her to acknowledge her actions and for you to come to some resolve. Here are some ideas for holding the conversation.

  • Don’t open your mouth until you’ve committed to Plan B. Decide what you’ll do if either she denies it and you’re still suspicious or she denies it and the relationship sours. If you’re prepared for this eventuality, you’ll feel a bit less stress in the conversation.
  • Begin with a sincere and emphatic apology. “I have a concern and I feel terrible about even bringing it up. But I know if I don’t, it will nag and bug me and get in the way of our relationship. May I talk with you about it?”
  • Take her carefully down your path to action. Carefully and non-judgmentally share your data. Take all the time you need and don’t skip any element of what feeds your concern. Then, very tentatively, share your conclusion. “The other night I had two $100 bills in my purse when I left it on the counter. I know I did because I opened my billfold to remove $5 for cab fare when I got home. The next morning it was gone. I racked my brains to think of what could have happened to it. Then when you and I went out to eat that night you had two $100 bills.”
  • Acknowledge your suspicion but be tentative. At this point she knows what you’re leading to. You must very quickly restore safety in two ways: 1) by letting her know you hate this conclusion—even though you worry about it; and 2) by letting her know if she made a mistake you can still respect her. “I know this sounds horrible for me to even ask. But can you see why I’d be wondering? Since I can’t come up with any other explanation about how it could be missing, I decided I needed to talk to you rather than leave it festering between us. And I want you to know if you did make a mistake, I’ve done so in my life too.”
  • Open the dialogue. Now it’s her turn. “Did you—for any reason—take the money from my purse?” Be prepared for her to be hurt and defensive. If she is, do not back down. Continue to ask her to help you reconcile the concerns while assuring her all you want to do is work it out.

This is tough, but the costs of not speaking up will be much higher than the risks of taking action now. Be humble and honest and you’ll have done all you can. Finally, if you decide to leave, do so quickly and graciously. When you refuse to let others paint you as a villain, you enable them to examine themselves rather than justify their transgressions using your vengeful response.

Best wishes,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Owning Up To a Crucial Conversation

The following article was first published on March 12, 2008.

Dear Al,

A relatively new male hire in my wife’s company invited the other men out to a “male bonding lunch.” He asked a female coworker at equal level for advice on where to go and to call in their reservation.

While the men were gone the women discussed this occurrence and felt it was rude and sexist. Some of the men were embarrassed as well when they realized none of the women were invited. Now, there is a sexual discrimination feeling that did not exist before.

What crucial conversations need to happen and who needs to be involved? How can these conversations be handled sensitively?

Signed,
What To Do?

Dear What To Do,

Knowing when to speak up and how? And who needs to be involved? Ah, those are the tough, life-changing questions. Let me address a couple of points.

First, who owns a crucial conversation? And, how do you know when you should own it? Over the years, I have found two principles that help answer these questions:

1. That little voice in your head either screams or won’t go away. When the “new male hire” asked the question, the “female coworker” probably had a little voice that said, “Male bonding lunch? Is this a good thing?” or “Me call in the reservation? This is not a good thing!” She could have brought up one or both issues right then. She could have also caught herself getting ticked and asked the humanizing question (“Why would a reasonable, rational, decent human ask this?”), concluded he was new, and then simply asked if they could talk about both issues.

Or, the male hire could have noted his female coworker’s subtle non-verbal signals (rolled eyes and white knuckles wrenching a budget document) and noted that she seemed upset and asked why. Either person could have owned the conversation in real time, which is the ideal situation.

2. We start acting it out, instead of talking it out. This is another indicator that we are failing to own up to a crucial conversation. When this happens, we talk about people instead of to people.

The two biggest ways we act it out instead of talk it out are 1) gossip and 2) non-verbal signals like avoidance, frowning, sarcasm, etc. Bystanders can defuse the situation by helping others realize that their gossip or non-verbals are a sign that they are avoiding a crucial conversation.

In this case, instead of keeping her conclusions to herself and talking to her male cowoker, she talked to others about the issue. She opened that proverbial can of worms and now everyone is dealing with numerous trust and respect issues. Any colleague could have stopped her by saying, “Whoa. He’s new. Let’s help him understand when he comes back,” but that also didn’t happen.

Second, how do you start such a conversation? Since both of the coworkers failed to catch the mistake before lunch, it needs to be addressed as soon as it is safe. To create safety, she must first master her story by reminding herself that she doesn’t really know why he did what he did. This will help her control her emotions and conclusions.

The first crucial conversation needs to be a private conversation between the female coworker and her male coworker. She must lead with observations and questions, rather than emotions and conclusions. This one step alone can make a huge difference.

The second crucial conversation should be with the entire company. To help defuse the tension that has been introduced into the culture, gather the entire company together and set clear expectations around what behaviors are and are not acceptable. Make sure you reach complete agreement between everyone before concluding the meeting. This conversation is the first step to avoiding future instances, creating guidelines to hold others accountable to, and ensuring that everyone operates under common expectations. Make sure to communicate these expectations to new employees upon hire.

I have only scratched the surface. But what I have covered is powerful. Anyone can own a crucial conversation—whether it’s real time (the best) or next time (which is still good).

Best wishes,
Al

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Be Both Assertive and Diplomatic

Dear David,

I am a young executive who has managed to climb the corporate ladder at a rapid pace. My current boss of seven years has been part of my success as he closely mentored me and exposed me to the right individuals—allowing them to see my work and leadership. With my recent promotion, he is expecting me to be more assertive with colleagues and even customers.

My dilemma is that I tend to have a diplomatic rather than assertive approach, and believe this leadership style has contributed to my success. My boss is more aggressive, outspoken, and even intimidating. In previous conversations, he has made it very clear that I need to speak up and assert myself. How do I balance assertiveness with diplomacy?

Kindly,
Mr. Nice Guy

Dear Mr. Nice Guy,

I like your question, because I’ve had to answer it myself. I want to be successful, but not if it means being a bully. I want to be nice, but not if it means being taken advantage of. Fortunately, these are Fool’s Choices—false dichotomies that only appear to be trade-offs. In reality, you can be successful without being a bully, and you can be nice without opening yourself up to exploitation. It’s a question of skills.

The What: Your manager thinks you are compromising the organization’s interests in order to maintain positive relationships. This is a common trap you can avoid. The key is to know what you want out of an agreement. Below are a few tips:

1. Focus on interests, rather than positions. Hold firm to your core interests, while being flexible about how these Interests are achieved. Remember, it’s about achieving your interests, not about winning an argument.

2. Involve your manager in determining core interests. The two of you need to agree on what you want to achieve.

3. When determining interests, encourage your manager to take a broad and long-term perspective. Don’t get caught up in silo warfare. Instead, ask what’s best for the enterprise.

4. Know your BATNA—your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Have a clear Plan-B that you will follow if you can’t achieve your interests. The more confidence you have in your BATNA, the more comfortable you will be walking away from an unacceptable agreement.

5. Challenge others to look beyond their position. Help them identify their interests and broader purpose. In addition, inquire about their fears or their worst-case scenarios. Focus on creative ways to achieve their interests as well as yours, while insuring against their fears.

The How: Find ways to be both tenacious and sensitive. Be clear and specific without becoming disrespectful or abusive. Below are a few tips:

1. Be assertive and outspoken when describing your interests. Not mean, but passionate, specific, and resolute. Make sure people know you are committed to your interests. This doesn’t make you a bully, unless you shut down their ability to respond.

2. Encourage others to be equally assertive and outspoken in describing their interests. Don’t allow your strong opinions to prevent them from sharing their perspectives. Their silence might produce short-term compliance, but create long-term problems. We suggest the following guideline: “The only limit to how strongly you can express your opinion is your willingness to be equally vigorous in encouraging others to challenge it.”

3. Be clear about your BATNA. Show that you are ready to walk away from unacceptable agreements. This puts pressure on others, without making it personal.

4. Be Factual. Don’t exaggerate, spin the facts, or speak beyond the facts. Explain the source and relevance of the facts you employ. The facts establish common ground and are the foundation of your credibility.

5. Recognize when others are moving to silence or violence. When others are withdrawing or becoming overly aggressive, stop what you are doing, and step out of the content. Take the time to determine why they are feeling under attack. Have they lost sight of your common purpose? Do they feel disrespected?

6. Restore safety, but don’t compromise your interests. The mistake would be to restore peace by giving in. The better solution is to restore safety by reaffirming your common goals and your respect for them. Once they realize you are a friend, not a foe, they will be ready to return to dialogue. Then, when you return to the content, you do so without having compromised your interests.

I hope these ideas help you be both sensitive and tenacious. I’d love to hear how others manage this dance between passionate, outspoken commitment and reasoned, diplomatic dialogue.

Best of Luck,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Five Secrets for Mastering Conflict

Dear Joseph,

I find that I struggle with successful interpersonal relationships at work. I continually run into conflict with my teammates as well as my boss, and they don’t end well. I’m starting to feel like a total communications failure. Can you help me understand better ways to rebuild trust and connection with my team?

Sincerely,
Deflated Team Member

Dear Deflated,

Thank you for asking such an insightful question. I’ve invited my good friend Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, to help me respond to this question. Between the two of us, we’ve spent fifty years studying what makes people successful at work. A persistent finding in both of our research is that your ability to handle moments of conflict has a massive impact on your success. How you handle conflict determines the amount of trust, respect, and connection you have with your colleagues.

Conflict typically boils down to crucial conversations—moments when the stakes are high, emotions run strong, and opinions differ. And you cannot master crucial conversations without a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ).

With a mastery of conflict being so critical to your success, it’s no wonder that, among the million-plus people that Travis and his team at TalentSmart have tested, more than 90 percent of top performers have high EQs. So how can you use emotional intelligence to master crucial conversations? There are five common mistakes you must avoid, and five alternative strategies you can follow that will take you down the right path.

Mistake #1: Being Brutally Honest

You’ve suffered in silence long enough. Your colleague continues to park so close to your car that you have to enter through the passenger door. You’ve asked her before to stop. After a dozen more violations of your request, you decide you’ve suffered long enough. Clearly, she needs to know what you think of her intentional disrespect. So you let her have it. You get right in her face and tell her what an inconsiderate jerk she is.

How to beat this? Honesty without brutality. From a young age, we’re taught to believe that we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend—that the only options are brutality or harmony. With emotional intelligence, you can speak the truth without burning a bridge. Have you ever noticed how some conversations—even ones about very risky subjects—go very well? And others, even ones about trivial things, can degenerate into combat? The antidote to conflict is not diluting your message. It’s creating safety. Many people think the content of the conversation is what makes people defensive, so they assume it’s best to just go for it and be brutally honest. It isn’t. People don’t get defensive because of the content—they get defensive because of the intent they perceive behind it. It isn’t the truth that hurts, it’s the malice used to deliver the truth.

Mistake #2: Robotically Sharing Your Feelings

Some well-intentioned “communication” professionals suggest that when it’s time to speak up, the diplomatic way to do so is to start by sharing your feelings. For example, you tell your parking-impaired colleague, “I feel rage and disgust.” Somehow that’s supposed to help. It doesn’t. People don’t work this way. Robotically sharing your feelings only alienates, annoys, and confuses them.

How to beat this? Start with the facts. Our brains often serve us poorly during crucial conversations. In order to maximize cognitive efficiency, our minds store feelings and conclusions, but not the facts that created them. That’s why, when you give your colleague negative feedback and he asks for an example, you often hem and haw. You truly can’t remember. So you repeat your feelings or conclusions, but offer few helpful facts. Gathering the facts beforehand is the homework required to master crucial conversations. Before opening your mouth, think through the basic information that helped you think or feel the way you do—and prepare to share it first.

Mistake #3: Defending Your Position

When someone takes an opposing view on a topic you care deeply about, the natural human response is “defense.” Our brains are hard-wired to assess for threats, but when we let feelings of being threatened hijack our behavior, things never end well. In a crucial conversation, getting defensive is a surefire path to failure.

How to beat this? Get curious. A great way to inoculate yourself against defensiveness is to develop a healthy doubt about your own certainty. Then, enter the conversation with intense curiosity about the other person’s world. Give yourself a detective’s task of discovering why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would think the way he or she does. As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, “The best way to persuade others is with your ears, by listening.” When others feel deeply understood, they become far more open to hearing you.

Mistake #4: Blaming Others for Your Situation

Your boss tells you she’ll go to bat for you for a promotion. You hear later that she advocated for your colleague instead. You feel betrayed and angry. Certainly, your boss is the one responsible for your pain—right? Truth is, she’s not the only one.

How to beat this? Challenge your perspective. When we feel threatened, we amplify our negative emotions by blaming other people for our problems. You cannot master conflict until you recognize the role you’ve played in creating your circumstances. Your boss may have passed you over, but she did so for a reason. Half your pain is the result of her betrayal; the other half is due to your disappointment over not performing well enough to win the promotion.

Mistake #5: Worrying About the Risks of Speaking Up

It’s easy for crucial conversations to fill you with dread. Under the influence of such stress, your negative self-talk takes over and you obsess over all the bad things that might happen if you speak up. You conjure images of conflict, retribution, isolation, and pain until you retreat into silence.

How to beat this? Determine the risks of not speaking up. The fastest way to motivate yourself to step up to difficult conversations is to simply articulate the costs of not speaking up. VitalSmarts research shows that those who consistently speak up aren’t necessarily more courageous; they’re simply more accurate. First, they scrupulously review what is likely to happen if they fail to speak up. Second, they ponder what might happen if they speak up and things go well. And finally (the order is important), they consider what may happen if the conversation goes poorly. Once they have an accurate understanding of the possibilities, saying something is their typical choice.

Bringing It All Together

The only way to win an argument is to never have one in the first place. Successful people know this—they don’t avoid conflict. They know that they can do something productive with it before things get out of hand. Apply these strategies the next time you’re facing a challenging situation and you’ll be amazed by the results.

Good Luck,
Joseph and Travis

Crucial Conversations QA

Rebuilding Family Relationships

Dear Joseph,

I was raised in an abusive home—both physically and emotionally—and after many years of estrangement, my abuser would like to have a relationship with me. Now that I am expanding my own family, she is very interested in doing what it takes to be part of my and my children’s lives. I don’t know if she has truly changed, but if she has, I would love for my children to have a grandparent in their life. I am well versed in Crucial Conversations, but I honestly have no idea where to start. How do you rebuild Safety and Mutual Respect that has degenerated to the point of non-existence?

Signed,
To Forgive or Protect?

Dear Forgive or Protect,

I am so sorry about the pain of your early life. No one should have to endure that kind of torment. Which is why I am confident you will step up to the advice I have to offer for the sake of your children.

When you were younger, you were completely vulnerable. You needed someone to protect you—and no one was there. Our primary duty to our children is to ensure their physical and emotional safety. Next comes love and nurturing. But basic safety is foundational. Grandparents are great—but safety comes first. You know what it’s like to look to people in your life and be unable to trust them for this most basic of needs. You now have the chance to get that right for your children. Every decision you make needs to put their safety first. If gaining a grandparent introduces even a small chance of preventable harm, the grandparent goes. With that in mind, here are some thoughts about how you might approach this situation.

1. If you can’t talk about it, it’s not over. My first question is, have you been able to thoroughly discuss the abuse you experienced with this person? If not, then you can have no confidence that the behavior you saw in the past will not repeat itself. Do not offer your trust until there is acknowledgment. This conversation may open your eyes to emotional trauma this individual struggled with as well. You may feel deep empathy for them as a result. But don’t equate empathy with tolerance. A healthy and open conversation is a good start. In fact, it is a prerequisite for building trust—but it is not the end.

2. Use yourself, not your children, as the guinea pig. Even if you are able to honestly discuss the past, you must still test the present. Don’t allow this person to connect with your children until you have sufficient time to rebuild your own trust with them. This could take a year or more. This investment in time might give you a chance to heal from your trauma as well. If she pressures you for access to the grandchildren sooner, but is unwilling to invest in rebuilding trust with you first, I would be concerned she is still in denial about the scale of her challenge and the reality of your abuse.

3. Set boundaries to test for reform. If the time comes that you feel very confident that she can honor you and your boundaries in your relationship with her, I would slowly introduce her to the grandchildren—and do so under controlled circumstances at first.

In summary, I would begin the process of building a new relationship by:

a) Letting her know you are open to it—in fact, are grateful for her interest in kindling it.
b) Giving her a picture of the kind of time and investment you will need from her in order to create it.

This will likely be a tricky conversation. She may well feel hurt or defensive by your requests. And I’ll emphasize again, you should judge the likelihood of a healthy relationship in the future by her capacity to engage well with you in this first conversation!

I wish you the best as you care for yourself and your precious children.

Warmly,
Joseph

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.