Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My coworker continuously boasts and brags about almost every aspect of her life. When anyone from our team discusses their successes or their life, she has to outdo them and frequently talks over people in order to be heard. I have tried to deal with her bragging but I think we are officially on the path to a crucial conversation. I do not want to damage the relationship or cause tension in our department but it has become so excessive that I have even contemplated finding a new job! Do you have any advice?
Brag or Bust
You are facing an interesting challenge—one I’ve seen or heard about many times. The most memorable comment came from an old high school buddy who, when we were about 40, made this comment about another person we knew: “When I toss pebbles in a puddle, he throws boulders in the ocean!” When my buddy made this comment, he sounded as frustrated and angry and perplexed as you do. Certainly, this is one of those conversations that is difficult and challenging to hold.
I once had a professor who had been entrapped by the same behavior as your coworker and who had overcome that particular challenge—with some help from his wife. My professor had a PhD, and he taught at the Air Force Academy and other universities. He was a full bird colonel and during his military career as a pilot, he traveled all over the world. At lunches, wine-and-cheese parties, and backyard barbecues, he would get entrapped. Someone who just returned from a cruise to the Baltic would mention a lovely dinner they had in Oslo, and the colonel would say, “Oh and isn’t the museum that’s next door to that restaurant lovely.” Another person would say, “I just got back from Rio and was on the greatest beach I’ve ever seen.” And the colonel would say, “It is grand, but I prefer the one about a mile south of that.” He had a comment to one-up just about everyone at the party.
The colonel didn’t see the problem until his wife said, “I don’t think you notice that you come across as bragging when you top everyone’s stories. Just because you’ve been all over the world, doesn’t mean you have to diminish what others have seen or done.” Then she added that old adage, “You have one mouth and two ears. You need to listen more and talk less.” He got the message. He changed. He found that if he asked the storyteller multiple questions, he enjoyed the conversation more. He could remember the places he’d been without topping the storyteller. And he found he could still be the one to take a turn at sharing a story. He had been topping people unintentionally, but his wife’s comment helped him see the consequences he hadn’t intended. The colonel didn’t change all at once. He commented that occasionally his wife tapped him with a stealthy elbow.
How do these examples relate to your challenge? Let me explain.
Get your motives right. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to help or launch a guilt trip? Are you intending to be a coach or a critic? Ask yourself these questions, “What do I really want for her, for me, and for our relationship?” When you can feel in your heart that you are genuinely trying to help, then you are ready to talk.
Make it safe. What allowed the colonel’s wife to share her feedback? They had a wonderful and trusting relationship. It was safe for them to talk about annoying behaviors and they had both made corrections based on the other person’s assessment of their behavior.
The step above is essential to building safety. If your heart is right and your motive clear, it will be safe to talk. But if you come in with frustration and prejudgment on your face, you will make it unsafe. In order to make it safe, you should also make sure the conversation is private and convenient. You wouldn’t want to talk when you or your coworker is feeling stressed or tired.
You can also make it safe by clarifying your motive. We call this contrasting. For example, you might begin with, “I have an observation to share. I don’t want to come across as a critic. I do want to share an issue that will help our relationship and improve camaraderie within our team. I’m trying to be a friend.” When you have the right motive, you will find the right words to clarify what you don’t intend and rather, what you do intend.
Start with a specific observation and a question—not conclusions and emotions. Let’s explore the options. You could keep silent—the consequence being that you’d find a different job. To me, the stress and suffering of switching jobs far outweighs the costs of speaking up.
You could go in with moral indignation and say, “I can’t believe you are so dense that you brag and boast and interrupt people all the time! It’s horrible, and I, the other teammates, and most of the people in town, hate it. I’ve had it!” Also not a good option.
Instead of jumping ship or blowing up, I would say something like this, “Last week at our team lunch, I noticed that when Joyce talked about her camping trip with her kids, you commented that you and your family had taken your RV to Jackson Hole and then you talked about the elk and the art you had seen for several minutes. I noticed that Joyce frowned and shut up. I’ve seen you do this more than a half dozen times. I think it’s hurting the relationships in our team, and I’m not sure you even know you’re doing it. It’s difficult for me to bring this up, but I am hopeful that we can talk about it as friends. Can we talk about it?”
Prepare for alternate responses. Your coworker has a few options. She can say, “No I haven’t really noticed. I certainly want to do better. Could you help me?” Wouldn’t that be nice? And often that is what happens. However, there is the potential she will become defensive or emotional. If that happens, describe what you see, “I can see you’re upset.” And then contrast again. Share what you were not trying to do—offend her—and what you were trying to do—help. At this point, you can decide to end the conversation, or as often happens, your coworker will calm down and you can have a dialogue about the issue and some behaviors your coworker can practice when tempted to boast.
I hope this will help you prepare to talk to your coworker. If I had this problem, I’d hope for a coworker who would make it safe enough for me to hear how I could improve my relationship with my teammates.