Choose What and If

I made a Freudian slip last night. I called my

husband by the name of my first boyfriend.

It was embarrassing.

I did the same sort of thing. I meant to say to

my husband, “Please pass the potatoes,”

but I said, “Die, loser; you’ve ruined my life!”

How to Know What Crucial
Confrontation to Hold and

If You Should Hold It

Problems rarely come in tiny boxes—certainly not the issues we care about. Those come in giant bundles. For instance, your in-laws just walked in unannounced while you were eating dinner. You’ve talked to them about giving you a heads-up, particularly if they plan on dropping in at dinnertime, and they still prance in on a whim. What problem do you address?

You don’t have enough food to go around. That could be easy to discuss. They’ve repeatedly promised they would notify you but are constantly breaking that agreement and losing your trust. That is likely to be hard to bring up. Finally, after turning down your invitation to join you at the table, they pout and whimper in the corner. That could be really difficult to confront.

Let’s try a work example. Your boss promises you a raise and then recants. This is the second time he’s promised you something only to go back on the promise, except this time he dropped the bomb in a meeting, and so you couldn’t complain on the spot. When you stopped him in the hallway to bring up the issue, he told you that he was in a hurry and said you should “stop being insensitive to my time demands.” You asked if you could talk later, and he said, “Hey, I didn’t get the money I deserved either.”

In each of these cases you’re left with two questions that you have to answer before you open your mouth: What? and If? First, what violation or violations should you actually address? How do you dismantle a bundle of problems into its component parts and choose the one you want to confront? You have a lot to choose from, and you can’t confront them all, at least not in one sitting. Second, you have to decide if you’re going to say anything. Do you speak up and run the risk of causing a whole new set of problems, or do you remain silent and run the risk of never solving the problem?

Let’s take these two questions one at a time. We’ll deal with the if question once we’ve resolved the what question.


The question of what you should discuss may be the most important concept we cover in this book. When problems come in complicated bundles, and they often do, it’s not always easy to know which problem or problems to address.

For example, a teenage daughter swears to her father she’ll be home from her first big date by midnight but doesn’t come home until 1 a.m. Here’s the pressing question: What problem should he confront? “That’s easy,” you say. “She was late.” True, that’s one way to describe the problem. Here are several other ways: She broke a promise. She violated her father’s trust. She drove her father insane with fear that she had been killed in a car wreck. She purposely and willfully disobeyed a family rule. She openly defied her father in an effort to break free of parental control. She was getting even with her father for grounding her the weekend before. She knew it would drive her father bonkers if she stayed out late with a guy who sports a dozen face perforations, and so she did that.

Although it’s true that the daughter walked in the door 60 minutes after curfew, this may not be the exact and only problem her father wants to discuss. Here’s the added danger: If he selects the wrong problem from this lengthy list of possible problems and handles it well, he may be left with the impression that he’s done the right thing. However, if you want to join the ranks of the world’s best problem solvers, you have to identify and deal with the right problem or it will never go away. This still leaves us with the question: What is the right problem?

Signs That You’re Dealing with the Wrong Problem
Your Solution Doesn’t Get You What You Really Want

To get a feel for how to choose the right problem, let’s look at an actual case we recently uncovered during a training session for school principals. It’s from a grade school principal’s experience. During recess a teacher notices the following interaction. Two second-grade girls are playing on the monkey bars. As Maria pushes Sarah to hurry her along, Sarah shouts, “Don’t you ever touch me again, you dirty little Mexican!” Maria counters with, “At least I’m not a big fatty!” This is the precipitating event.

The principal calls the children’s parents, describes what took place, and explains that the school will be disciplining them. Maria’s parents are fine with the idea and thank the principal, and that’s the end of the discussion. Sarah’s mother takes a different approach. She asks, “Exactly what form of discipline will each child receive?” The principal explains that the discipline will suit the nature of the offense.

The next day Sarah’s mother shows up unannounced, catches the principal in the hallway, and proclaims in loud and harsh tones that she doesn’t want the school to discipline her daughter. She’ll take care of the discipline on her own. The principal explains that the school is bound by public policy to take action. In fact, tomorrow Sarah will be separated from her friends during lunch and required to take her meal in the media room under the supervision of a teacher’s aide. That’s the prescribed discipline. Sarah’s mother then announces that tomorrow she’ll be picking up her daughter for a private mommy-daughter lunch at a nearby restaurant.

There are several problems in this scenario. When the principals in the training session hear about the incident, many become emotional. “That’s an easy one to figure out,” some suggest. “You turn it over to the district discipline committee. Besides, since there are racial issues involved here, you could get the mother in trouble for interfering.” Of course, the goal here isn’t to cause the mother grief, so what should the principal do?

As the principals settle down to discuss the problem in earnest, they bring to the surface an assortment of issues: “First, there’s the problem of meddling. She has no right to ask about the other child’s discipline. It’s a private matter.” “No, the bigger issue is that she is demanding to take away the school’s right to discipline. That’s simply unacceptable.” “Plus the kid’s going to be rewarded with a special lunch instead of being punished. Who wants that?” “How about the fact that the mother is rude and manipulative? That can’t be good.”

Finally, one of the assistant principals brings up an issue that everyone seems to think is important: “I’m worried that the parent and the school won’t be partnering in solving the problem. I’d want to work with the mother to come up with a plan jointly. Otherwise, she might begin to characterize the school officials as the enemy, and the child will soon agree.”

Once this important issue is highlighted as the main problem, a discussion can be held to resolve it and the principal can get what it is he or she really wants: a working partnership with the parent that will help benefit the child. Solutions to any of the other problems would not have accomplished this, and the frustration would have remained.

So take note: if the solution you’re applying doesn’t get you the results you really want, it’s likely you’re dealing with the wrong problem entirely.

You’re Constantly Discussing the Same Issue

Before we deal with the aggressive mother, let’s look at another problem. This time you’re working with the owner of a real estate firm in a rural community.

“The woman who works the front desk is constantly coming in to work late,” the owner explains.

“Have you talked to her?” you ask.


“And then what happens?” you continue.

“She’s on time for a few days, maybe even a week, and then she starts coming in late again.”

“Then what do you say to her?”

“I tell her that she’s late and that I don’t like it.”

This situation presents a terrific example of what separates the best problem solvers from everyone else. The owner has the courage to confront the desk clerk. That separates him from the worst. However, the fact that he returns to the same problem each time puts him far below the best. This is an indication that there is some other problem that needs to be discussed: The front desk clerk isn’t living up to her commitments, she’s disrespecting company policy, etc.

Groundhog Day

When people repeatedly make the same mistake, those who are the best at identifying and then confronting problems redefine each problem with each new infraction. They don’t live the wretched life of Phil Conners, the weatherman in the movie Groundhog Day. Those who observe repeated failures and discuss each new instance as if it were the first one live the same problem (the same day) over and over, and nothing ever changes. Skilled problems solvers never live Groundhog Day. The first time a person is late, she’s late; the second time, she’s failed to live up to her promise; the third time she’s starting down the road to discipline, etc.

In summary, if you find yourself having the same problem-solving discussion over and over again, it’s likely there’s another, more important problem you need to address.

You’re Getting Increasingly Upset

As you continue your conversation with the realtor, you say, “Obviously, the fact that your clerk comes in late is the behavior that catches your attention, and that’s what you talk to her about. But what is the real problem here?”

“I’m not exactly sure. I do know that it’s starting to bug me a lot—more than it probably should.”

“Are you becoming more upset because the problem’s escalating?”

“Not really,” the broker responds hesitantly.

Finally, you ask: “When you’re angry enough to complain to your wife, coworkers, or best friend about the problem, how do you describe it?”

A light goes on in the broker’s eyes as he excitedly states, “It’s killing me that she’s taking advantage of our relationship. She’s my neighbor, she’s helped me out a lot, and now she doesn’t do what I ask because she knows that I won’t discipline her since we’re good friends. At least that’s how it feels to me.”

That’s the problem the broker needs to confront. He’s becoming increasingly upset with each infraction because he’s never dealt with the issue that is bothering him. Being late is the frozen tip floating above the chilly waters. Taking advantage of a friendship is the iceberg itself.

Confronting the Right Issue

As you can see from these examples, learning how to get at the gist of an infraction requires time and practice. Feeling pressured by time constraints and hyped up by emotions, most people miss the real deal. It takes grade-school assistant principals twenty minutes or more to discuss the assortment of challenges presented in the case of the aggressive mother. In fact, most never come to the realization that it’s the lack of cooperation that they probably ought to discuss. Many can’t get past their emotional reaction. They want to stick it to the feisty mother, and frankly, that’s exactly what many would do.

Along a similar vein, most parents who pace the floor nervously as a teenage daughter breaks curfew can’t see beyond the hands of the clock when in truth what really has them concerned is the fact that the girl didn’t have the courtesy to call them, let them know she’d be late, and bring a merciful end to their tortured worrying. Many don’t even realize that this is what is troubling them.

The ability to reduce an infraction to its bare essence takes patience, a sense of proportion, and precision. First, you have to take the time to unbundle the problem. People are often in too much of a hurry to do this. Their emotions propel them to move quickly, and speed rarely leads to careful thought. Second, while sorting through the issues you have to decide what is bothering you the most. If you don’t, you’ll end up going after either the wrong target or too many targets. Third, you have to be concise. You have to distill the issue to a single sentence. Lengthy problem descriptions only obscure the real issue. If you can’t reduce a violation to a clear sentence before you talk, the issue almost never becomes more understandable and focused as a conversation unfolds.

Helpful Tools to Get to the Right Confrontation

Let’s say that despite your best efforts you keep returning to the same problem. Your emotions are getting worse, not better, and in retrospect you believe that you’re choosing to talk about what’s easy, convenient, or obvious but not what’s important. In short, you have every reason to believe that you’re repeatedly dealing with the wrong problem. How do you turn this bad habit around? To hit the right target, use the following tools.

Think CPR

This acronym can help define a problem as well as eliminate Groundhog Day. The first time a problem comes up, talk about the Content, what just happened: “You drank too much at the luncheon, became inebriated, started talking too loud, made fun of our clients, and embarrassed the company.” The content of a problem typically deals with a single event—the here and now.

The next time the problem occurs, talk Pattern, what has been happening over time: “This is the second time this has occurred. You agreed it wouldn’t happen again, and I’m concerned that I can’t count on you to keep a promise.” Pattern issues acknowledge that problems have histories and that histories make a difference. Frequent and continued violations affect the other person’s predictability and eventually harm respect and trust.

Warning: It’s easy to miss the pattern and get sucked into debating content. For instance, your boss repeatedly leaves your agenda items to the end of the meeting—meaning that they typically get abbreviated or dropped altogether. You’ve spoken with her about it before. This time when you bring it up, she explains how full the agenda was and how you need to be more flexible about urgent issues. If you give in to that explanation, you’ve missed the point. Your concern is not today’s meeting (the content issue), it’s the long-standing pattern. Sometimes the pattern sneaks up on you and a new issue arises. You point out the problem, and the other person begins to either rant or pout, something that’s starting to happen a lot in your conversations with him or her. It’s becoming a pattern. Influential people notice this pattern of behavior and find ways to address it before moving back to the original topic.

As the problem continues, talk about Relationship, what’s happening to us. Relationship concerns are far bigger than either the content or the pattern. The issue is not that other people have disappointed you repeatedly; it’s that the string of disappointments has caused you to lose trust in them: You doubt their competency, you don’t respect or trust their promises, and this is affecting the way you treat one another: “This is starting to put a strain on how we work together. I feel like I have to nag you to keep you in line, and I don’t like doing that. I guess my fear is that I can’t trust you to keep the agreements you make.”

If your real concern is around the relationship and you discuss only the pattern of behavior, you’re likely to find yourself feeling dissatisfied with the outcome. Even worse, you’re likely to experience Groundhog Day: You’ll have the same conversation again later. To understand the various kinds of content, pattern, and relationship issues that routinely pop up during crucial confrontations, consider the following three dimensions: consequences, intents, and wants. Each provides a distinct method for first unbundling and then prioritizing complex problems.


Problems are almost never contained in the behavior of the offender. They’re much more likely to be contained in what happens afterward. The problem lies in the consequences. For example, a staff specialist who works for you is supposed to complete a financial analysis by noon. She miscalculates how long it will take and delivers the job to you three hours late.

The errant behavior, being late, is not the problem. What follows is. The fact that you might lose a client is what really bothers you. Or maybe it’s the fact that this is the third time this person has let you down and you’re beginning to wonder if you can count on her. Or perhaps it’s the fact that you now may have to watch this person more closely, costing you precious time and making her feel micromanaged. Each of these things comes after the behavior, is a consequence of the original act, and helps unbundle the problem.

When you want to clarify the issue you need to confront, stop and ask yourself, What are the consequences of this problem to me? To our relationship? To the task? To other stakeholders? Analyzing the consequences helps you determine what is most important to discuss.


Let’s move the analysis in another direction. A fellow you work with is causing you a problem. He cheerfully agreed to format a report you created, and then, instead of giving it to you, he handed it directly to your boss. What was he thinking? Actually, you have a theory. You believe that his intentions were selfish (he was trying to take credit); at least, this is the conclusion you’ve drawn.

Let’s be clear about this. You’ve drawn this conclusion not as a thoughtless knee-jerk reaction, as is often the case, but as the result of mounting evidence. You’ve examined the problem, you’ve weighed the particulars, and you are starting to believe the person’s intentions are indeed bad. When this happens, the behavior isn’t the problem, at least not the big one. What came before the person acted is the problem, at least in your mind. It’s the issue you ought to discuss. You have to talk about intentions.

The good news is that we address intentions all the time. Consider the father who was upset with his daughter for coming in late because she was punishing him for having grounded her. It wasn’t the fact that she had been late that made him upset— at least not totally—it was her perceived intention that was giving him fits: “She’s doing it on purpose just to make me sweat.” The realtor believed that the front-desk clerk was intentionally playing on their friendship to get away with coming in late. Once again, it was her perceived intent that bothered him.

Whether the father and the realtor are correct in their assessments will remain unknown until they confront the offending parties with their suspicions. And of course, deciding how they’ll confront such a delicate issue isn’t easy. These are invisible motives we’re talking about. We’re drawing conclusions about another person’s unseen intent. (We’ll discuss methods for stories we tell ourselves in later chapters.) Nevertheless, the conclusions the two have drawn about others’ underlying intent has them bothered, and these are the issues they’ll need to confront eventually.

Ask What You Do and Don’t Want

As you begin to unravel a bundle of problems—examining the precipitating intentions and the consequences—the list of component parts can grow so large that you may not know where to begin. What’s the “real” issue, or at least the most important one?

The best tool for choosing from the host of possible problems is to ask what you really want and don’t want. And since you’re talking to another person, you ought to ask what you want for yourself, for the other person, and for the relationship. If you don’t think about all three of these essential aspects, one may take a backseat and you won’t solve your most important problem.

Consider the case of the two second-grade girls. Most people struggle with what to say to Sarah’s mother until someone asks: “What do you want to have happen with Sarah? What don’t you want to have happen?” You do want Sarah to be disciplined. You don’t want to start a battle with her mother and make choices that limit Sarah’s educational options. You don’t want to send her to a new school just to show her mother who’s in charge.

As far as you yourself are concerned, you want to be able to hold Sarah accountable. Public policy demands that you take action, and even if you could look the other way, you’d be giving tacit approval to a nasty behavior. You don’t want that. When it comes to the relationship, you want to be able to collaborate with Sarah’s mother to come up with the proper type of discipline. You don’t want the daughter to receive mixed messages. So what do you say? What is the problem you want to discuss? “I’m afraid we’re sending Sarah the wrong message when we argue over the form the discipline should take.”

To decide what to confront:

Image Think CPR—Content, Pattern, and Relationship.

Image Expand the list of possible issues by considering consequences and intent.

Image Choose from the list by asking what you do and don’t want: for yourself, others, and the relationship.

An Application

Let’s apply these concepts to a real case. Your two preteen kids were invited to go to a drive-in movie with their friends who live down the street. You gave them permission to stay up late and you popped popcorn, and your children are now so excited that they can hardly see straight. Then the parents who will be taking the kids to the movie drive up to your house in their pickup truck. Their two children are seated in the back, and your kids quickly join them. You have a strict family rule about not riding in the back of a pickup, particularly one that will be driving at freeway speed to get to the movie. Your spouse feels as strongly about the safety issue as you do.

You start to raise your safety concerns, and your neighbor calls you a “fussbudget” and a “worrywart.” Before you can respond, your spouse cuts you off and tries to smooth over the issue by saying to the father who is driving, “You’re going to be extra careful, right? Those kids in the back are pretty precious cargo!” The driver says not to worry and pulls off as your kids squeal in delight.

You’re furious. What do you say to your spouse? Your first inclination is to talk about the danger. But that ship has sailed, well, sort of rumbled, off into the sunset. Although you’ll return to the issue later, when your kids are around (they knew better than to get into the truck), you think that maybe you should talk about the fact that this is the second time your spouse has backed off on a family value under pressure. That’s a new problem—backing off a value (not just safety)—and it’s a pattern. Then again, what really has you miffed is the fact that your spouse cut you off as you were raising the safety issue with your neighbor. You think that your spouse’s intention was cockeyed. It was more important to look “cool” than to ensure the safety of your children.

As you think about it, you ask yourself what you want and don’t want. You want the kids to be safe—that’s a given—but once again, you’ll talk about that issue as a group. You want to be able to express concerns without being cut off or dismissed. You want your spouse to be able to talk about the issue without making you feel attacked. You don’t want the discussion to turn into a fight. As far as your relationship is concerned, you want to stand as a unified front when it comes to safety. And then you put your finger on the real kicker. The pattern you are concerned about is your spouse unintentionally taking away your vote in these key decisions. Yes, that’s it! It’s when your spouse announces a decision publicly without ensuring that you’re in agreement.

You decide to talk about making critical commitments (especially those that deviate from values such as safety) without one another’s buy-in. You want to find a way to always stand together when faced with outside pressures, and safety is certainly not an exception. That’s the big issue.


Let’s move on to the if question. You’ve unbundled the problem, picked the issue you care about the most, and reduced it to a clear sentence, and now you’re ready. You’re going to confront the other person. Or are you? The mere fact that you’ve identified the problem you’d like to discuss doesn’t mean you should actually discuss it. Sometimes it’s better to consider the consequences before deciding whether to bring the issue up.

For instance, your teenage son walks in the door with his hair dyed bright red and cut in a Mohawk. He loves it. You hate it. Do you lay down the law or back off? Maybe you’re out of touch with what is normal and what isn’t. Haranguing your son until he opts for a new style might do nothing more than widen the rift that seems to be growing between the two of you. Maybe you shouldn’t say anything. Maybe you should expand your zone of acceptance.

Let’s consider an example from work. Your boss is combative in meetings. She verbally attacks arguments by raising her voice and labeling ideas “stupid” or “naive” and always looks disgusted. She also disagrees with almost everything and cuts people off midsentence. At first her hostile tactics bothered you, but you came to appreciate the fact that at least it was clear about where she stood on issues. Therefore, you said nothing. Today she questioned your loyalty and insulted you in front of your peers. That was going too far. Maybe you should say something. Maybe you should shrink your zone of acceptance.

As these examples demonstrate, there are no simple rules that dictate which problems are imaginary, which are real, and which you should deal with. Usually when someone breaks a promise, you talk about it—circumstances demand that you talk, and you do—but not always. So what are the rules?

When It’s Clearly a Broken Promise

In organizations there are reports, goals, performance indicators, quality scorecards, budget variances, and a boatload of other metrics that clearly show a difference between what was expected and what was delivered. These failed promises represent clear opportunities to have crucial confrontations. And since they’re routine, they’re probably fairly easy to discuss.

At home there are also clear indicators: “You promised me we’d go out to dinner.” “You told me you would be home for my birthday.” These too are routine issues that are easily discussed.

When It’s Unclear and Iffy

But what if the problems are ambiguous or discussing them could get you in trouble? You’re not sure if the problem is a problem, and bringing up the issue might lead to a raging battle, a harmed relationship, a lost job, or something equally frightening. How do you know if you should confront problems that are not so clear and not so promising?

To answer this all-important “if” question, let’s divide the challenge into two camps: First, how do you know if you’re not speaking up when you should? Second, how do you know if you are speaking up when you shouldn’t?

Not Speaking When You Should

Let’s start with a simple premise. More often than not, we don’t speak up when we should. Sure, sometimes we confront a problem at the wrong time or in the wrong way, but that’s not the predominant issue in most families and companies. Going to silence is the prominent issue in these situations.

To help diagnose whether you’re clamming up when you should be speaking up, ask the following four questions:

Am I acting out my concerns?

Image Is my conscience nagging me?

Image Am I choosing the certainty of silence over the risk of speaking up?

Image Am I telling myself that I’m helpless?

Am I Acting Out My Concerns?

Let’s say you’ve observed a problem at work. Several members of the technical support team aren’t keeping an eight-to-five work schedule. Instead, they’re working flextime. They often arrive late and then work past closing. This bugs you because they agreed to stick to the posted schedule. After thinking about it, you decide that maybe being a stickler isn’t such a good idea. They’re putting in the hours, and there’s no need to rock the boat. You’re still bugged because they broke their word and it feels like they’re acting like prima donnas, but you’re not going to say a word.

Holding your tongue probably isn’t going to work in this case. If the broken promise is really bothering you, you’re unlikely to be a good enough actor to hide your feelings. You may try to choke them down, but they’ll bubble up to the surface in unhealthy ways. If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.

An actor named John LaMotta taught us this concept. We had hired him to play the role of a manager in a training video we were producing. During rehearsals he kept turning the rather harmless opening line into an attack. Later we learned that he had assumed that the person he was working with was a “dipstick” because he hadn’t done his job. Consequently, no matter how we directed John (telling him to soften his delivery, drop the anger, etc.), he treated the fellow with disdain. He didn’t stray from the written script, but his negative assumptions found their way into his nonverbal behavior: first his tone, then a smirk, then a raised fist, and so forth. When the director finally told John that the fellow was a hard worker whom everyone liked, John delivered his lines spot-on. He couldn’t change his actions until he changed his mind.

Paul Ekman,1 a scholar who has studied facial expressions and emotions for 30 years, came to the same conclusion. When people try to hide their feelings or “put on” an emotion, Ekman found they use different groups of muscles than they use to express authentic feelings. For example, authentic smiles of joy involve the muscles surrounding the eyes; false or social smiles bypass the eyes completely. And other people can tell. You can’t hide your real emotions.

There’s more. When you observe a problem, feel bad about it, and then decide to say nothing, your feelings don’t come out only in your facial expressions and other nonverbal behaviors; they also escape in the form of biting sarcasm, cutting humor, or surprising non sequiturs. For instance, while seated across from his mother at the dinner table, a 29-year-old chronically unemployed son politely tells her that she has “a hunk of lasagna” on her chin. Mom responds with, “Oh, yeah? When I was your age, I had two jobs.” Guess what has been annoying her?

When you’ve gone silent, but your body language keeps sending out hostile signals or you’re dropping hints or relying on sarcasm, you probably ought to speak up.

What Are We Thinking?

Why do we ever set aside pressing problems—hoping they’ll somehow get better? It’s like finding a tub of rancid cottage cheese in the fridge, setting it on the kitchen counter for a couple of days, and then thinking: “Gee, I wonder if it’ll taste any better now.”

Is My Conscience Nagging Me?

Sometimes you don’t speak your mind because you feel isolated. You see a problem but fear that you’re the only one who cares. No one else shows signs of anxiety. Now what am I supposed to do? you wonder. Why aren’t my health-care colleagues concerned that we’re not washing our hands long enough? How come my fellow accountants are looking the other way when our biggest client violates standard practices? How come my neighbors, spouse, and kids don’t think riding in the back of a pickup is dangerous. Even though you’re worried—your conscience is nagging you a little—you say nothing.

The fact that people often remain silent despite their best judgment has been studied extensively. For instance, Solomon Asche2 created conditions in which people wouldn’t just remain silent when they believed they were at odds with their peers; they actually lied rather than disagree with them. Stanley Milgram3 replaced peers with authority figures and was able to manipulate the subjects to do more than lie. He got people to shock others to the point where they worried that they might have killed the other persons rather than disagree with the individual in the white lab jacket.

Peer pressure coupled with formal authority can compel people to act against their best judgment. Here’s how it affects crucial confrontations: If social pressure can cause people to lie, it can certainly drive people to silence. Pay attention to a nagging conscience—it may be indicating a confrontation that you need to step up to.

When you’ve gone to silence and your conscience is nagging you—you probably ought to speak up.

Am I Choosing the Certainty of Silence
over the Risk of Speaking Up?

When it comes to deciding whether we’re going to speak up, we kid ourselves into making the same error over and over. We choose the certainty of what is currently happening to us (no matter how awful it may be) over the uncertainty of what might happen if we said something. This of course drives us to silence, quietly embracing the devil we know, when there’s a good chance that we really should have spoken up. Here’s how this insidious dynamic works.

When we’re trying to figure out if we should speak up, we often envision a horrific failure and immediately decide to go to silence. Then we look for reasons to justify the choice to say nothing. Our reasoning takes place in the following way. We first ask ourselves: “Can I succeed in this confrontation?” We don’t ask, “Should I try?” Instead, we ask “Can I succeed?” When the answer to the internal query is a resounding no, we decide that we shouldn’t try.

Effective problem solvers take the opposite approach. Only after they’ve decided that the conversation should be held do they ask the question, “How can I do this? Better still, how can I do this well?” If we reverse the order, starting with can and not should, we almost always sell out. We decide to clam up and then justify our inaction.

Our two favorite methods for tricking ourselves into remaining silent are (1) downplaying the cost of not speaking and (2) exaggerating the cost of expressing our views.

Downplaying the Cost of Not Speaking

Here’s how we minimize in our own minds the cost of continuing to tolerate the status quo. First, we look exclusively at what’s happening to us now rather than at the total effect. A professor is boring, unfair, and outdated, but why rock the boat? We’ll survive, right? Never mind the fact that thousands of students will be affected over the next two decades of that professor’s career.

Second, we underestimate the severity of the existing circumstances because we become inured to the consequences we’re suffering. With time and constant exposure we come to believe that our wretched conditions are acceptable. We continue to work for authoritarian bosses, stay married to people who physically and mentally abuse us, and work alongside people who ignore and insult us because we tell ourselves that it’s not really that bad. It’s just how things are.

Third, as was suggested earlier, we can’t see our own bad behavior when we fail to maintain silence. For example, we think we’re silently suffering under the thumb of a micromanager. In actuality, we act offended when the boss asks for details. We say we know how to do the job, cutting her off when she tries to offer a suggestion. We defiantly choose to do something our way. We miss the fact that our own behavior has been degraded. In this case we don’t merely downplay the cost of silence, we miss it entirely.

Exaggerating the Cost of Expressing Our Views

Let’s look at how we routinely overestimate the costs we might experience if we did confront a broken promise. Human beings are downright gifted when it comes to conjuring up bad things that just might happen to them. In fact, when contemplating what we may be setting into action by opening our mouths, we often imagine (and then get obsessed about) appalling outcomes no matter how unlikely they may be. When we trump up a horrible chain of events, we use lots of “and” thinking, only the wrong kind of “and” thinking. Here’s how it works:

The boss has asked us all to chip in twenty bucks to buy a present for a vice president we don’t even know. That’s a certainty, and it’s bad. None of us want to do it. But if I speak up, I won’t win the argument, and I’ll still have to come up with the money, and my boss will despise me, and I’ll lose my job and my wife will leave me.

We lose all sense of reality when we fixate on the horrific possibilities that might befall us. The severity of the possible outcomes distorts our view of the probabilities. If an unlikely outcome is bad enough, we often describe it as a certainty rather than a possibility.

Perhaps the largest error we make in exaggerating the cost of confronting an issue stems from the erroneous belief that the existing world always punishes people who are naive enough to speak their minds. We’ve watched people speak up and get punished for their honesty and find it hard to imagine any other possibility. In fact, when the authors suggest in public forums that this book teaches people how to confront almost anyone no matter how touchy and powerful that person may be—and with good results—people think we’re fooling ourselves: “Maybe the pumpkin wagon you just fell off allows you to speak honestly and boldly to the driver, but our driver carries a whip and loves to use it.”

At first we wondered if the skills we had seen demonstrated so often wouldn’t work in certain instances, and so we started asking: “Are you saying that there is nobody in your company who could confront this particular issue or person and get away with it?” After an awkward pause, someone would name an individual who didn’t have the position power that granted him or her the right to speak but somehow found ways to talk quite frankly and not get into trouble.

When you’ve gone to silence and are trying way too hard to convince yourself that you’ve done the right thing, you might want to examine whether you are intentionally minimizing the cost of not speaking up and exaggerating the risks of doing so. Did you start with a desire not to speak up and back into a justification or arrive there after careful consideration? Learn to notice the difference and you’ll do a much better job of deciding if you should confront someone.

Am I Telling Myself That I’m Helpless?

At the heart of most decisions to stay quiet even though we’re currently suffering lies the fear that we won’t be able to make a difference. We believe that either other people or the circumstances themselves make the problem insoluble. That puts the problem out of our control. It’s not us, it’s them: “Have you ever tried to talk to that guy? He’s a maniac!” “Have you ever attempted to tell a senior executive that she doesn’t really know how to do her job? Like that’s going to work.”

The truth is that many confrontations fail not because others are bad and wrong but because we handle them poorly. It’s our fault. We decide to step up to a failed promise and subtly attack the other person. He or she then gets hooked, and we’re now in a heated battle. Naturally, we see the other person getting hooked but miss the part we played in escalating the problem by doing such a shoddy job of bringing it up in the first place. We’re like the young boy who refused to see his role in an argument by explaining to his mother, “It all started when he hit me back!”

Even when we do see the role we’re playing in a problem by owning up to the fact that our confrontation skills aren’t that great, we often act as if we were as talented as we’re ever going to be. We’ve peaked; we’ll never get better. We make this assumption because most of us aren’t exactly students of social influence. We’ve spent more time memorizing the capitals of Europe than we have examining the intricacies of human interaction. We rarely think of influence skills as something that a person should and can learn through actual study. But, as this book asserts, these skills can be learned and improved.

When you’ve gone to silence because you’re afraid you’re not skilled enough to have a crucial confrontation, your assessment may be correct. If this is the case, enhance your skills. There’s no use suffering forever. Be careful not to let fear taint your judgment. You may have the skills to deal with a particular issue but are letting your fear keep you from speaking up. When you’re thinking about going to silence, ask yourself if you’re copping out rather than making a reasoned choice.

Responding to the Signs

Let’s summarize the clues that you’re hastily going to silence and explore what to do with them. Telltale signs that you should be speaking and not clamming up include the following four signs:

Image Sign 1: You’re acting out your feelings. You think you’re suffering silently, but you’re not. To spot this mistake, ask yourself the following: “Am I really expanding my zone of acceptance or am I actually upset and sending out a barrage of unhealthy signals? Are others getting hooked?” If this is the case, you’re probably not suffering silently but are acting out your concerns and making matters worse. Your nonverbal behavior is already speaking for you. Consider taking charge of the conversation instead.

Image Sign 2: Your conscience is nagging you. You keep telling yourself that it’s okay to say nothing—besides, other people aren’t saying a word—but you know in your gut that you need to say something. Listen to that voice. It’s telling you to step up to the plate. Take the internal prodding as a sign that your silence isn’t warranted.

Image Sign 3: You’re downplaying the cost of not taking action (embracing the devil you know) while exaggerating the dangers of speaking up. You’re trying way too hard to persuade yourself to stay away from a confrontation because you fear it will be painful. Don’t confuse the question of whether the confrontation will be difficult with the question of whether you should deal with it.

Image Sign 4: You figure that nothing you do will help. Either others are impossible to talk to or you’ve already achieved the height of your problem-solving prowess. In truth, the problem is less often that others are impossible to approach than that we aren’t sure how to approach them. The authors have watched people deal with some of the most difficult problems and succeed because they knew what to say and how to say it. If you improve your skills—even just a little—you’ll choose silence far less often and succeed far more routinely.

Speaking Up When You Shouldn’t

Let’s turn our attention to the other side of the if coin. You confront a problem that in retrospect you probably shouldn’t have dealt with in the first place. This seems to contradict what we just discussed, but it’s true. There are times when it’s better not to bring up a problem or at least not to do so until you’ve done some preparatory work.

Often, when you’ve weighed the consequences, it is a better option to remain silent about an issue. For example, you’ve had difficulty working with a certain vendor and the process could have been much cleaner, but you were working on a one-time only project and probably won’t ever see the vendor again. In this case, it may be better to avoid rehashing an issue that will never come up again.

Here’s the biggest stumbling block: Problem solving is never done in a vacuum. Every company and family has an unwritten history that indicates which infractions are appropriate to deal with and which ones a person should let slide. All expectations, contracts, and promises aren’t equally binding. Worse, in some organizations people aren’t held accountable for delivering on any promises, or at least accountability is unpredictable.

Differentiate Yourself

Sometimes erratic approaches to accountability stem from the fact that leaders take the path of least resistance. It isn’t fun to hold people accountable; besides, nobody’s taught them much about it. Sometimes people hold back their concerns out of sympathy for the fact that everyone is assigned far more than he or she can ever do, and so it feels almost cruel to hold people accountable.

Whatever the underlying cause, if you’re going to break from tradition and elevate a standard that had been nothing more than a rough guideline to a hard-and-fast law, people should know. You have to issue a fair warning. You have to reset others’ expectations, and you have to do it in a way that doesn’t look smug.

For example, one day Kerry one of the authors of this book, put on his new Coast Guard dress uniform in preparation for standing watch. He was going to take his turn as the officer of the day (OD) at a training center in California where he had been newly assigned. He would be in charge of the watch.

The watch consisted of a couple of dozen “coasties” who had to remain on the base all night and “stand a post.” They would sit in the barracks, motor pool, or boathouse and watch for any problems that might come up, including fires. Leaving one’s post, Kerry had learned weeks earlier in officer training, could get a person brought up on charges.

Imagine Kerry’s surprise later that evening when he caught wind that several of the men on duty were actually at the club chatting with their buddies rather than standing their posts and watching for whatever. Fortunately, before Kerry could march down and catch those fellows red-handed, leading to a great deal of pain and sorrow, a senior enlisted man took him aside and pointed out a couple of facts. First, lots of people on watch hung out at the club; nobody really cared. Second, several of Kerry’s fellow officers were known to go down to the club and chat, throw darts, and otherwise turn a blind eye to the fact that some members of the duty crew weren’t at their posts. If Mr. Patterson wanted to make a stink, there would not be a horde of adoring fans hoisting him on their shoulders to honor his vigilance.

What should Kerry do? He didn’t like the idea of making rules and then not keeping them, and he certainly had the authority to write people up. However, if other officers had been turning a blind eye to regulations for a long time and now without notice Kerry, the new kid on the block, blind-sided people with a charge of disobedience, it could seem unfair. The fact that you have legal standing doesn’t mean that you’ll gain the support of the larger community.

After seeking the counsel of his boss, Kerry decided to take the following tack. He wouldn’t run and he wouldn’t blow the whistle (there was nobody to listen, and most people didn’t care), and so he decided to strike a compromise. He let it be known that he appreciated the fact that other people had different opinions on the matter, but he didn’t want people to leave their posts. When he was the OD, he would be checking the various posts to ensure that they were being watched. He then told a dozen or more opinion leaders about his stance and asked them to spread the word so that there wouldn’t be any surprises. That was the end of the problem. Nobody left his post on Kerry’s watch.

If you’re going speak up when others remain silent, if you’re going to hold people to a standard that differs from that of the masses, get the word out. Send out a warning. Differentiate yourself from others. This is particularly wise advice for those moving into new positions of leadership, parents taking over blended families, etc.

No “Nanner-Nanner”

Over the years, as the authors have worked with thousands of leaders, they occasionally have run into people who are proud of the fact that they are the only ones who have the guts to hold people to quality guidelines, safety standards, cost-cutting goals, and the like. Others may remain quiet while quality crashes or costs spiral out of control, but not on their watch. Others may bolt at the first signs of resistance, but they hold the line.

With time we have come to understand that while being true to one’s values may be noble, if you do so in a way that dishonors your peers (making fun of the less vigilant, bragging about your own commitment, etc.), you’re upholding one value only to deny another: teamwork. Along a similar vein, parents who piously set a new standard, all the while making fun of a partner who isn’t as discriminating as they are, do so at the peril of their children’s mental health. Inconsistency breeds insecurity.

If you’re going to differentiate yourself from your spouse or coworkers by holding people to a more rigid standard, don’t be smug about it. Set expectations in a way that shows respect for people with different views. This may a real test of your appreciation for diversity. You believe that people who hold individuals to a less rigid standard than you do are different—not spineless wimps who are slowly eating away at the very soul of civilization. There’s a huge difference between saying, “I’m going to ask you to do something even if others don’t” and saying, “I don’t care what the other lily-livered losers are doing.”


Choose What and If

Here’s our model of the skills we’ll cover throughout this book. We’ll build this model piece by piece as the chapters unfold. We’ve started with the principle Work on Me First. We’ve learned that before we utter a word, we have to start by asking what crucial confrontation to hold and if we should hold it.


We start every crucial confrontation with two questions— WHAT and IF:

Image WHAT. The first time a problem comes up, talk about the original problem or the Content. If the problem continues, talk about the Pattern. As the impact spills over to how you relate to one another, talk about your Relationship. To help pick the right level, explore what came after the behavior (the consequences) as well as what came before it (the intent). As the list of potential problems expands, cut to the heart of the matter by asking what you really do want and don’t want—for yourself, the other person, and the relationship.

Image IF. To determine if you’re wrongly going to silence, ask four questions: Am I acting it out? Is my conscience nagging me? Am I choosing the certainty of silence over the risk of speaking up? Am I telling myself that I’m helpless? To determine if you’re wrongly speaking up, ask if the social system will support your effort. If you are committed to speak up while others continue to say nothing, differentiate yourself.

What’s Next?

Once you’ve decided to confront a problem, you have to make sure that you yourself are in the right frame of mind. You have to work on yourself first. This isn’t always easy; especially when the other person has let you down. You may just charge in with an accusation. This takes us to the next chapter. Before you ever open your mouth, how do you tell a more complete and full story? One that’s more conducive to a healthy discussion than the all-too-common question: “What’s wrong with those bozos?”

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