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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

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Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

12 thoughts on “Owning Up To a Crucial Conversation”

  1. This response seems to imply that only the female worker who made the reservation for the new guy needs to have a one-on-one conversation with him and only with him. If she didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell him to make his own reservations (provided that doing so for a company sponsored event wasn’t her job) then she probably won’t feel comfortable discussing it after the fact. Some background information that was not included and could also affect the communications. Was this a company sponsored/paid event or a private event on unpaid lunch-time. If this was a private event and the female worker was making reservations on company time this could create an issue that she might not want brought to light. If it’s a company sponsored event, it’s highly likely that excluding company personnel based solely on their gender is already against company policy. So it is important that before conservation is initiated a check of the rules is in order so that they can be discussed, including that the person who made the call might not have been aware of the rules either.
    I disagree that the second crucial conversation should be with the entire company. This can result in a perception of shotgun management, a where a few people violate a rule and the manager fires into the crowd as if all are guilty. I believe the second conversation needs to occur between the workers and their manager, the new guy for sure and the female reservation maker possibly. It sounds like the attendees may not have known that the women were being excluded, so a one-on-one with them and the manager is probably not needed.
    The third conservation may not be a conversation at all, but a memo or an email making people aware of the company policy, if it was not followed, or if a new policy is put into place to address such situations. A meeting to discuss the policy could also be the third conversation but it would not be necessary to ensure complete agreement was reached between everyone before concluding the meeting. Policy is policy whether you like it or not. The violation of the policy should NOT be discussed at the meeting (no public floggings please).

  2. Male bonding – really? And were there drums involved? Running around the forest clad only in a loin cloth? Initiation rites? Where did this new hire come from – the 18th century?

    Sometimes the only answer to the “why would a reasonable person do, think that?” is simple. The person is a jerk. Unfortunately, not everyone responds to rational, logical, kind and considerate thoughtful conversation.

    And just what, do you think, are the chances that he would own the conversation? I world guess that anyone who is so insensitive (I was going to say clueless but thought that might offend jerks everywhere) as to ask a female co-worker to make a reservation for him and the boys is hardly likely to notice non-verbal signs of displeasure.

    In this case, I think the conversation should rightly come from his male colleagues. Surely part of the crucial male bonding rite is to let newcomers know what is and is not appropriate behaviour.

    1. Sounds like a shoot first ask questions later type of response. Is he a jerk by choice or merely by happenstance. And, if you gave him another choice, would he choose it? If he really thought women were just there to fill his administrative needs, why ask her for advice on where to go? Why not ask a man for manly advice? Perhaps he had made friends with her, but felt a bit ignored by some of the men.

      The “why would a reasonable person do or think that” is to help you have that rational, logical, kind and considerate conversation you want to have because you’re that kind of person. You don’t want to look like a jerk in front of all your colleagues as you cut him down to size, then later find out that you’ve over-reacted.

      Most jerks and bullies I know are really quite fragile people with poor social skills. Often they know this and are over protective of the weakness (imagine putting that on your resume). If you offer friendship instead of a verbal arms race, perhaps you can make the world a better place one person at a time. Perhaps next time he’ll come to you to ask what people will think of his actions. If not, at least you can say you gave him a second chance while you ask management to help him find a new company he’s more suited to.

  3. Well, what if it were two women, and they were going to lunch for some female bonding?

    Would it rise to the level of a Crucial Conversation?

    I just wonder?

    Sometimes when you reverse the roles, a different outcome will appear. We should always look at issues from a different paradigm. At least that’s what I learned from Stephen Covey.

    1. I would hope the outcome in this case would not be the same based on gender. To exclude workers from a company sponsored/condoned event opens the company up to discrimination suits. That is why most companies have policies against that. The company cannot however determine who a person invites to a private lunch as long as they don’t use company resources to arrange it and they don’t conduct company business such as who should get the upcoming promotion.

  4. David, for me the difference is this. Men and women both go to lunch in order to develop good working relationships (bonding). The difference in this case it appears that the new hire announced that he wanted an all-male group to go in order to bond, AND he asked a women to make the reservations for him – a somewhat sexist approach (unless that was her job) if his assumption that women were there to meet his administrative needs.

  5. I don’t see why the responsibility falls to the woman at all. What about the men who went along with the lunch? It seems they would be in a better position to communicate the office culture and values to the newcomer. Plus, they would have a better idea about the purpose of the lunch and how it may not have fit the values because they there.

  6. It doesn’t mention the new hire’s age. Perhaps he just didn’t think about the impact his request would have because he lacks experience. Or perhaps he is just a bit clueless (oh, if I only had a nickel for all the times I opened my mouth before I thought about what I was going to say (or ask…). It may have not have been an intentional move to exclude the women, just poor judgement on his part. He may just need someone to pull him aside and open his eyes to what his request looked like in the bigger picture. Or, perhaps it was intentional… Then, in the interest of equality and team-building, he needs to understand the negative impact of his request.

  7. I find it interesting that this would be found so offensive.

    1. Don’t women have lunch together often, exclusive of men?

    2. If a man is generally friendly, but respectful towards women, don’t many women, especially if they are in a relationship or not attracted, offended a man would ask them to do something socially, seeing it as inappropriate and uncomfortable?

    This man in the question posed in this feature may have used the wrong words but he was hardly being sexist. My word. He was trying to build friendships. It didn’t infer that he disrespected women.

    1. If a person wants to invite specific individuals to lunch where NO discussions well be held that would put other individuals at a disadvantage monetarily or in career progression then that may be “sexist” but allowed in this country and certainly not something one would expect a company policy to prohibit. Most companies don’t care what you do on your lunch break, if it’s off company property and you don’t come back in a condition unsafe to do work. The problem with only inviting male workers is that it may be perceived (which creates a mistrustful work environment) and may be true (which can create even worse situations) that the result of the “bonding” will give the male workers an advantage in future choice assignments, raises or promotions. This used to be called “the good old boy network,” where you got ahead by who you know rather than your ability to excel at the job. New guy may well have not understood this, therefore conservations on some level should occur to try and repair the damage to the work environment. After a female coworker may be in a position one day to impact new guy’s career and take revenge for the perceived affornt caused by male only invite.

    2. Michael,

      I would tend to agree with you, However, while his intentions may have been benign, there would still be some benefit from making him aware of how his request was perceived by others. Some in this particular work environment are sensitive to the issue and it should not be ignored if everyone wishes to maintain strong working relationships.

  8. There appears to be a double standard and several assumptions being made here that essentially could be creating a negative outlook where one may not exist. Doesn’t appear sexist from the minimum amount of information given, by definition.

    sex·ism (sek’siz’?m)
    n.
    1. The belief that one gender is superior to the other, especially that men are superior to women.

    If he invited the other men to get together outside of work, not sure that is of any concern of the company, unless it violates law or an active policy against such action that was previously agreed upon by all parties. Further, he asked, didn’t demand (we assume), that his peer call in the reservation. That could have been for any number of reasons which we’re not aware of. She could have respectfully said no and explained why. I also agree with Rebecca that a second crucial conversation with everyone would only stir the pot and would not be beneficial and could in fact raise tensions.

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