Master My Stories

Have you ever noticed? Anybody going slower

than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster

than you is a maniac.


How to Get Your Head Right
before Opening Your Mouth

Anyone who has ever dealt with crucial confrontations realizes that a person’s behavior during the first few seconds of the interaction sets the tone for everything that follows. You have no more than a sentence or two to establish the climate. If you set the wrong tone or mood, it’s hard to turn things around.

This can be troublesome because when someone lets us down or behaves badly, the last thing we’re thinking about is the climate we’re about to establish. More often than not we’re completely immersed in the details of what just happened. And if that doesn’t consume all of our time and attention, our emotions eat up anything that’s left. Consider the following example.


Imagine that you’re part of an overworked, stressed-out management team that’s sitting around a table large enough to double as an airport runway, discussing what it’ll take to finish a development project. The phone rings. The quality manager picks it up, carries on a heated discussion, and then slams the phone back onto its cradle.

“It’s final assembly. The software we just completed is giving them fits,” she says with a look typically associated with the act of biting the head off a chicken.

“Oh great! The software is glitchy!” shouts the vice president of development.

Within seconds the entire leadership team is complaining about the unorthodox, selfish, weird software testers. Then they arise as one and start marching toward the testing department. Since you’ve worked with this team for only a month, you aren’t sure what’s going on.

As the team members hustle down the hallway, the operations manager explains that the software is supposed to be tested and retested before it’s sent on to final assembly. Otherwise, it often causes problems, and expensive ones at that.

“The stupid gear heads only have to run a simple testing package. That way they can catch problems early on and we never send software on to final assembly, where it can cause costly delays.”

“Why didn’t they run the tests?” you ask.

“That’s what we’re about to find out,” answers the senior VP as the vein on his forehead swells to the size of a mop handle. He and the other leaders charge down the hall like a band of white-collar vigilantes, and you think to yourself, “This is about to turn ugly.”

Behold, a Train Wreck

Obviously, this group has a checkered history with the people it’s about to accost. The managers are feeling morally superior and are about to create a nasty scene. Of course, in many companies, confrontations may not get that heated. The tone may be softer, the language less brutal, and the threats more veiled (less punitive folks rely on cold stares, sarcasm, and pointed humor), but the results are probably the same. Employees fail to deliver on a promise, and the bosses jump to a conclusion and jump hard.

What makes these crucial confrontations interesting is that the underlying cause doesn’t really matter. If leaders start out with strong emotions, believing that they are on the moral high road, the interaction is likely to turn out badly for everyone regardless of the underlying cause.

The scene continues as the managers rush in like so many deputies preparing for a lynching. They catch the programmers checking out a “cool new Web site with a free game download” and then do what one might expect: They snarl at the guilty testers, call them unflattering names, threaten them with discipline, curse them, and pretty much throw a group hissy fit.

This ugly battle rages until the information technology manager, who just walked into the building, hears about what’s happening to “his people” and rallies to the testers. A full-fledged shouting match ensues. It’s not long before the IT manager is accusing the rest of the management team of treating the programmers with disrespect, making false accusations, and using offensive language.

The managers are now so angry that they could spit. They’ve caught the weasels red-handed—they really had messed up—and their colleague, the IT manager, has the nerve to be pointing at the management team. Has the world gone completely mad? It takes days for this incident to settle down, and everyone ends up with egg on his or her face. Everyone.

The Hazardous Half Minute

We used to call the first 30 seconds of a crucial confrontation the hazardous half minute because the overall climate and eventual results are often set in place in seconds. We were wrong. The climate isn’t set in the first 30 seconds; it just becomes visible in that time frame. We establish the climate the moment we assume that the other person is guilty and begin feeling angry and morally superior. It takes only a moment to send a crucial confrontation down the wrong track, and it all takes place inside our heads. Here’s what this looks like:


Another person does something, and, as a result, we’re propelled to action. Here’s the path we take: We see what that person did and then tell ourselves a story about why he or she did it, which leads to a feeling, which leads to our own actions. If the story is unflattering and the feeling is anger, adrenaline kicks in. Under the influence of adrenaline, blood leaves our brains to help support our genetically engineered response of “fight or flight,” and we end up thinking with the brain of a reptile. We say and do dim-witted things.

Under these circumstances we come to some of the most ignorant conclusions imaginable. For instance, a fellow comes home from a long road trip and is feeling amorous, but his wife isn’t. Soon he’s pacing around and muttering to himself. Finally, here’s the plan his blood-starved brain comes up with: “I’ve got it. I’ll try to woo her with a sarcastic comment or two.” Oddly enough, insensitive sarcasm doesn’t seem to do anything to soften his wife’s mood.

Consider the software development leaders. First came the observation: The software isn’t working. Next came the story: The testers didn’t run the final tests because they don’t like doing them; in fact, they live in their own little world and don’t care what happens to others. Then came the feeling of anger, followed by a fierce and futile attack. This entire path to action—the jump from observation, to story, to feeling, to action—takes but a moment and sets the tone for everything that follows.


Is it possible that everyday people with an IQ higher than that of a houseplant could be so hasty, judgmental, and unfair? Aren’t most of us more careful, scientific, and thoughtful? In a word, no. We may not be as blatantly abusive as the managers in the software case, but when we face high-stakes problems, we’re just as likely to come up with an unflattering story and act on it as if it were true.

Jumping to Conclusions and Making Assumptions

How can this be? During the 1950s and 1960s scholars conducted a lengthy series of research projects known as attribution studies. Their goal was to learn how normal people determine the cause of a problem. To uncover the thought pattern, they provided subjects with descriptions of people engaging in socially unacceptable behavior (a woman steals cash from a coworker, a father yells at his children, a neighbor cuts in front of you in the checkout line) and then asked the subjects, “Why did that person do such a thing?”

It turns out that people aren’t all that good at attributing causality accurately. We quickly jump to unflattering conclusions. The chief error we make is a simple one: We assume that people do what they do because of personality factors (mostly motivational) alone. Why did that woman steal from a coworker? She’s dishonest. Why did that man yell at his children? He’s mean. Why did the programmers fail to conduct a test? They’re arrogant, lazy, and selfish.

How can we be so simplistic and inaccurate? Most of the time human beings employ what is known as a dispositional rather than a situational view of others. We argue that people act the way they do because of uncontrollable personality factors (their disposition) as opposed to doing what they do because of forces in their environment (the situation).

We make this attribution error because when we look at others, we see their actions far more readily than we see the forces behind them. In contrast, when considering our own actions, we’re acutely aware of the forces behind our choices. Consequently, we believe that others do bad things because of personality flaws whereas we do bad things because the devil made us do them.

In truth, people often enact behaviors they take no joy in because of social pressure, lack of other options, or any of a variety of forces that have nothing to do with personal pleasure. For example, the woman stole because she needed money to buy medicine for her children. Your neighbor cut in line at the market because he was tending to his two toddlers and didn’t notice that he wasn’t taking his turn. Your half cousin was hauled off to jail for holding up a convenience store partly because of greed; then again, maybe the slow and painful failure of his business contributed too.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

Assuming that others do contrary things because it’s in their makeup or they actually enjoy doing them and then ignoring any other potential motivational forces is a mistake. Psychologists classify this mistake as an attribution error. And because it happens so consistently across people, times, and places, it gets a name all its own. It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Naturally, when we spot an infraction, we don’t always conclude that the other person is bad and wrong and wants to make us suffer. For instance, a dear and trustworthy friend is supposed to pick you up at the dentist’s office and drive you home. She’s 30 minutes late. What’s going on? you wonder. Your first thoughts turn to a traffic jam or an accident. You’re worried.

However, if the person has caused you problems in the past, you may jump to a different conclusion. Say she’s often been unreliable. Maybe she constantly criticizes you. Worse still, you’re standing in the pouring rain while your head is pounding with a migraine.

Under adverse conditions people more readily make the fundamental attribution error. During crucial confrontations the fundamental attribution error is as predictable as gravity: “She’s late because she’s self-centered. She doesn’t care about me. Just wait until she gets here!” The more tainted the history is and the more severe the consequences are, the more likely we are to assume the worst, become angry, and shoot from the hip.

Choosing Silence or Violence

Not everyone who tells an ugly story angrily leaps into a crucial confrontation ready to exact a pound of flesh, at least not immediately. For many people it takes a while to become upset, smug, or self-righteous. In fact, when we began studying confrontations 25 years ago, we learned that the vast majority of the subjects we observed were inclined to walk away from broken promises, failed expectations, or bad behavior.

When we asked the subjects why they backed off, they explained that it was usually better not to deal with issues the first time they occurred. After all, many of those problems were anomalies. They weren’t likely to be repeated, so why make a big deal and come off as a micromanager? Although there may be some truth to this, we also learned that most of the research subjects avoided taking action for fear of getting into a heated argument, which they assumed could lead to even more problems. Who could blame them for going to silence?

However, it’s not as if choosing silence were a product of scientific inquiry. We back away from people because we conclude that they’re selfish or rotten. Then we act on that conclusion as if it were the truth: “Who’s going to approach these folks? They’re selfish and rotten!” Therefore, we opt to stay silent.

No matter what the reason is, walking away from violated expectations and broken promises can be risky. When you see a violation but move to silence rather than deal with it, three bad things happen:

Image First, you give tacit approval to the action. If you see an infraction and say nothing, the other person can easily conclude that you’ve given permission. You may feel that you’ve given permission, and then, realizing that you’ve given the action the green light, you find that it’s harder to say something later.

Image Second, others may think that you’re playing favorites: “Hey you never let me get away with that kind of stuff!”

Image Third, each time the other person repeats the offense, in part because of your failure to confront it, you see the new offense as evidence that your story about his or her motives was correct. You continue to tell yourself ugly stories, you fester and fuss, and it’s only a matter of time until you blow.


Eventually, as problems gnaw at you, there comes a time when you can stand it no longer. You leap from silence to violence. A person interrupts you in midsentence for the hundredth time, and you finally blow a gasket. Your assistant misses an important deadline for the hundredth time, and you come unglued. Of course, you may not become physically violent, but you do employ debating tactics, give people your famous stare, raise your voice, make threats, offer up ultimatums, insult the other person, use ugly labels, and otherwise rain violence on the confrontation.

Surprised by your sudden and unexpected eruption, the other person thinks that you’ve lost all touch with reality. Where did that come from? he or she wonders. But alas, the other person knows the answer. You did it, he or she concludes, because you’re stupid and evil. You’ve now helped the other person commit the fundamental attribution error about you, which feeds that person’s silence or violence, and the cycle continues.

Rare is the sudden and unexpected emotional explosion that wasn’t preceded by a lengthy period of tortured silence.

Violence Is Costly

When you move from silence to violence, you no longer keep crucial confrontations professional, under control, and on track to achieve a satisfactory ending. In fact, when you move to violence, the consequences can be nothing short of horrendous.

You Become Hypocritical, Abusive, and Clinically Stupid

Most of us have taken a variety of vows through the years. Our parents punish us for something we believe is trivial, and we vow never to do the same thing to our children. We watch our boss lose her temper and swear that we’ll never act so ghastly. We see a friend walk away from a moral stance and promise we’ll never be that weak.

Unfortunately, those vows rarely keep us out of trouble. When we observe others, tell ourselves ugly stories, and then fall under the influence of adrenaline, we become the very people we swore we’d never be. Of course, nobody transmutes into a hypocritical cretin on purpose. Instead, stupidity creeps up on us. We tell ourselves an ugly story, become mentally incapacitated while under the effects of adrenaline, convince ourselves that we have the moral high ground, and move to either silence or violence while smugly proclaiming: “He deserved whatever I gave him.”

Sometimes when we’re really dumbed down by the effects of adrenaline, we make a truly absurd argument: “Sure I was tough on them, but you need to be tough with these people. They respond to abuse, not reason.”

Actually, we don’t have to be all that mentally incapacitated to make this argument. It’s foisted on us almost every day, and with a straight face, no less. The fact that others need to be treated poorly to get them off their lazy back parts is sacred writ.

For instance, we praise coaches for their incredible records, and if they happen to be abusive, we actually attribute their success to their authoritarian and punitive style. Consider the Hollywood version of the 1980 U.S. national ice hockey team’s miraculous Gold Medal victory. According to the movie, the coach abuses, insults, and manipulate the players because they need to be motivated and that is the way to do it. Apparently, the prospect of winning the Olympics isn’t all that inspiring. He gets the players to hate him so that he can become the common enemy. That way they’ll pull together as a team. Apparently the Soviet Union didn’t constitute a real threat.

When the team wins the final match, audience members don’t merely cheer the victory, they voice their approval of the coach’s abusive methods. “What a guy!” people exclaim as they leave the theater. “What a leader!” Maybe we honor the abusive style of so many coaches and other public figures because their public actions lend credibility to our own private outbursts. Their tantrums, taunts, and tricks support our own claim that it was okay to emotionally attack our teenage son because “it was good for him.”

Let’s put this foolishness to bed. People don’t deserve to be abused, physically or emotionally. It’s not good for them. Yes, people should be held accountable. No one is questioning the need to act as responsible adults and expect others to do the same. But it is never good to abuse, insult, or threaten others. Friedrich Nietzsche once argued that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. This little homily is often quoted. It’s also often wrong. When it comes to emotions, abuse isn’t a blessing, it’s a curse.

When people gain success through abuse, they succeed in spite of their method, not because of it. For over five decades scholars have shown that abusive leadership styles don’t succeed over the long haul, and over the short haul they’re simply immoral. The greatest leaders, coaches, and parents we studied never became abusive. And during those weak moments when they may have briefly stepped over the line, they never argued that others needed or deserved it.


If you observe an infraction, tell yourself an ugly story, cut your brain power in half with a dose of adrenaline, and then do something abusive and stupid, don’t say others deserved it or it was good for them. These words may sound logical when you can’t see straight, or they may give you a warm glow when you’re starting to question your pathetic actions, but the simple truth is there no place for abuse of any kind at home, at work, or even on the playing field.

You Turn the Spotlight on Yourself

Imagine that you’re on a flight across the Pacific. Seated nearby is a child who enjoys running up and down the aisle while screaming in a voice that could curdle milk. This continues for just long enough to turn the cabin passengers into a single seething entity with but one wish: to silence the child and return her to her seat. Suddenly, an older fellow next to you grabs the little girl by her frail arm and screams into her baby blues.

Guess what happens next. The passengers who once wanted to see the kid silenced now want to see the mean old man punished. In one swift motion the attention switches from the child to the abusive old guy. People are now sympathizing with the poor little girl. It takes only an instant to transfer goodwill.

The software development leaders learned this lesson the hard way. They might have approached the programmers with the angels on their side, but the instant they became abusive, they gave up the moral high ground. With each outburst, curse, and threat, they armed the original offenders with a good defense.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the original parties are off the hook, but it does mean that the leaders are now on the hook. Acting unprofessionally never earns you points. It takes the spotlight off the original offense and puts it on you at a time when you’re on your worst behavior.

The Stories We Tell Help Us Justify Our Worst Behavior

Stories cause us to see the other person not as a human being but as a thing, and if not a thing, at least a villain. Stories exaggerate other people’s legitimate weaknesses while turning a blind eye to our role. Stories help us see others as cretins and help justify our bad behaviors toward them, subtle or otherwise.

Here’s the deal: You can’t solve a problem with a villain. You can do that only with a human being. Before starting a crucial confrontation, use everything in this chapter to help you come to see the other person as a person, perhaps a person doing really rotten things but a person nonetheless. This difference is everything. Effective problem solvers set a healthy climate by avoiding ugly stories.

How do you challenge your story, epecially when it feels so right? What does it take to avoid making the fundamental attribution error, becoming angry, and then establishing a hostile climate?


Since the problem of coming up with ugly stories and suffering the consequences takes place within the confines of your own mind, that’s where the solution lies as well. Effective problem solvers observe an infraction and then tell themselves a more complete and accurate story. Instead of asking, “What’s the matter with that person?” they ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do that?”

By asking this “humanizing question,” individuals who routinely master crucial confrontations adopt a situational as well as a dispositional view of people. Instead of arguing that others are misbehaving only because of personal characteristics, influence masters look to the environment and ask, “What other sources of influence are acting on this person? What’s causing this person to do that? Since this person is rational but appears to be acting either irrationally or irresponsibly, what am I missing?”

You can answer these questions only by developing a more complete view of humans and the circumstances that surround them than the traditional “What’s wrong with them?” And if you do amplify your situational view, not only will you gain a deeper understanding of why people do what they do, you’ll eventually develop a diverse set of tools for orchestrating change.

Consider Six Sources of Influence

To help expand our view of human behavior, we’ve organized the potential root causes of all behavior (including failed promises), into a model that contains six cells. At the top of our model are two components of behavior selection. In order to take the required action, the person must be willing and able. Each of these components is affected by three sources of influence: self, others, and things.


Cell 1: Self, Motivate (Pleasure or Pain)

We already know the first cell. It’s the one that, considered alone, makes up the fundamental attribution error. People base their actions on their individual motivation or disposition. Does the action motivate? Does the person enjoy the action independent of how others think or feel? Does it bring pleasure or pain? That’s the model we already have in our heads, and it’s partially true. People do have motives. Human beings do take pleasure in certain activities, and it could even be true that they enjoy making us suffer. However, this model is also the source of influence that gets us in trouble when it’s the only factor we consider.

Cell 2: Self, Enable (Strength or Weakness)

We can double this simple model by adding individual ability. We now have two diagnostic questions: “Are others motivated to do what they promised?” and “Are they enabled?” (Does the action play to a person’s strength or weakness? Does he or she have the skills to do what’s required?) By expanding the model from one to two cells, we acknowledge the fact that people not only must want to do what’s required, they also need the mental and physical capacity to do it. For instance, maybe your company’s customer-service agents aren’t returning calls to hostile clients because they don’t know how to defuse the hostility. Perhaps nurses aren’t using protective gloves consistently because they can’t put them on quickly enough.

With two options to choose from, we also have another story to tell ourselves. Rather than judging others who violate an expectation as unmotivated and therefore selfish and insensitive, we add the possibility that maybe they actually tried to live up to their promises but ran into a barrier.

Becoming Curious

Admitting that a problem might stem from several different causes, changes our whole approach. We aren’t certain, we aren’t smug, we aren’t angry, and we slow down. We’re curious instead of boiling mad. We feel the need to gather more data rather than charge in guns-a-blazin’. We move from judge, jury, and executioner to curious participant.


None of us works or lives in a vacuum. We make a promise, and more often than not we sincerely want to deliver on it. We may even have the talent to do so. But what happens when others enter the scene? Will coworkers, friends, and family members motivate us? Will they enable us? Social forces play such an important role in every aspect of our lives that any reasonable model of influence must include them.

Cell 3: Others, Motivate (Praise or Pressure)

From the way adults talk, you’d think peer pressure disappears a few weeks after the senior prom. We constantly warn our children against the insidious forces wielded by their friends. Yet rarely do we consider the fact that those forces aren’t switched off in some mystical ritual when we finish high school. Adult peer pressure may be less obvious than its teenage counterpart, but it’s no less forceful.

For instance, what do you think will happen if the supervisor of the software testers walks up to one of them and says, “Hey, Chris, we’re running behind schedule. Could you hurry things along?”

“What do you mean?” Chris asks.

“You know, maybe finesse the final tests. The software seems to be running smoothly.”

And with that simple request the tests are dropped.

Is the other person being influenced by peers, the boss, customers, family, or for that matter, by any other human being? Remember the work of Solomon Asche and Stanley Milgram? They created conditions in which social pressure drove people to change their opinions, lie, and even inflict pain on others. Should it surprise us that most of the ridiculous things both children and adults do are a result of simply wanting to be accepted? Healthcare professionals violate standards, scientists turn a blind eye to safety, accountants watch their peers break the law, and nobody says anything. Why? Because the presence of others who say nothing causes them to doubt their own beliefs and their desire to be accepted taints their overall judgment. Peer pressure is the mother of all stupidity.

Cell 4: Others, Enable (Help or Hindrance)

In addition to motivating you to do things, other people can enable or disable you. They’re either a help or a hindrance. For you to complete your job, your coworkers have to provide you with help, information, tools, materials, and sometimes even permission. Unless you’re working in a vacuum, if your coworkers don’t do their part, you’re dead in the water.

For example, what about the software engineers? What if their testing package failed? What if the person responsible for keeping the server online went off to a technical seminar and didn’t keep them up and running as long as needed? Who knows? Maybe that’s why the software is giving final assembly fits. That is the whole point of this discussion. Who knows? We’re going to have to gather data.

You’re a Big Part of the Social Formula

Let’s add one more piece to the social formula: you. You’re a person too. You may be acting in ways that are contributing to the problem that is bothering you. You’ve got the eyeballs problem: You’re on the wrong side of them if you want to notice the role you’re playing. For example, a staff support person misses a deadline because she didn’t like the way you made your initial request. She thought that when you rushed up to her, project in hand, the way you pushed for a commitment was too forceful, demanding, and insensitive to her needs. She didn’t say anything, but she did find a way to put your request at the bottom of her priority list: “Sorry, I just never got around to it.”

We encounter the same problem at home. You’re at your wits’ end because your husband is punishing and cold to your children (his stepchildren). You wonder why. Is he just selfish and impatient? Could it also be that you rarely show sympathy for his frustrations with them? Perhaps you are making him feel isolated and resentful about the challenges he faces, and that helps him feel more justified in behaving rudely to “your” children.

But that’s not all. As a big part of others’ “social influence” you can also affect their ability to meet your expectations. How about that time your son didn’t complete his science project on time? You forgot to buy the ingredients for the volcano he was building on the way home from work. When that happened, of course, you realized that you were part of the problem. When you don’t enable people, you’re likely to notice your role and others are certainly likely to say something to you if you let them down.

When your style or demeanor or methods cause resistance, others may purposefully clam up and not deliver, and you won’t even know that you’re the cause of the problem. You’ll just hear a lot of excuses and get no honest feedback, particularly if you’re in a position of authority. In this case, you need to turn your eyeballs inward and look for the whole story by asking yourself, “What, if anything, am I pretending not to notice about my role in the problem?”

You know people out there who do things that cause others to push back, resent them, reject their input, or drag their feet. Here’s a news flash: Sometimes you may be that person.


As you watch people going about their daily activities, you see that a great deal of what they do is affected by the things around them. This isn’t always obvious to the untrained eye. In fact, many of us are fairly insensitive to our own surroundings, let alone the surroundings of others.

For example, you’re trying to lose weight and don’t realize that the cash or credit cards you’re carrying enable you to set aside the lunch you packed and buy a high-calorie restaurant meal. You’re hungry (individual, motivate), your friends ask you to lunch (others, motivate), and the credit card you’re carrying (things, enable) puts you over the top. You also don’t see the distance to the fridge as a factor or the fact that you fill it with unhealthy foods as a force. Of course, all are having an impact.

Human beings don’t intuitively turn to the environment, organizational forces, institutional factors, and other things when they look at what’s causing behavior. We often miss the impact that equipment, materials, work layout, or temperature is having on behavior. We’ve also been known to miss the way goals, roles, rules, information, technology, and other things motivate and enable.

Cell 5: Things, Motivate (Carrot or Stick)

How do things motivate us? That’s simple enough. Money motivates people; that we know. Guess what happens when money is aimed at the wrong targets? For instance, managers are rewarded for keeping costs down, and hourly employees are rewarded for working overtime. They’re constantly arguing. Quality specialists earn bonuses for checking material, and production employees for shipping it. They too seem to have trouble getting along. Maybe a team-building exercise will reduce the tension. Perhaps conflict-resolution training will help. Yeah, right.

When they explore underlying causes, experienced leaders quickly turn to the formal reward system and look at the impact money, promotions, job assignments, benefits, bonuses, and all the other organizational rewards are having on behavior. It is sheer folly to reward A while hoping for B. Savvy leaders and effective parents get this.

Here’s how this concept applies to a community example. One of the greatest challenges in influencing “at-risk” youth in inner-city areas is that the models of successful careers that they see often involve the sale of illegal drugs. It isn’t just the influence of others that lures them into illicit trade; it’s financial. Until they see clear alternative pathways to financial well-being, thousands of young men and women will be lost to this social cancer.

Frustrated couples are no less strongly affected by this powerful source of influence. The foundations of thousands of marriages continue to erode as one or both spouses give their hearts to careers that promise increased status or rich rewards to those who pay the price.

Cell 6: Things, Enable (Bridge or Barrier)

When it comes to ability, things can often provide either a bridge or a barrier. For example, imagine you’re trying to get the people in marketing to meet more regularly with the people in production. They currently avoid each other like the plague because they don’t get along. You’ve aligned their goals and rewards, but marketers still call production folks “thugs” and production specialists call marketers “slicks.” You believe that if you can get them in the same room once in a while, many of their problems will go away. But how? What will it take to get them to meet more often and eventually collaborate?

First you write an inspiring memo. Nothing happens. Then you add “interdepartmental collaboration” to the company’s performance-review form. Nada. Next comes a speech, then veiled threats, and finally you create an award program that honors the “Collaborator of the Month.” You tell the various divisions heads to nominate an employee for the award, and they argue endlessly about who should win.

Now you decide to do some out-of-the-box thinking, only this time it’s out-of-the-cashbox thinking. The heck with rewards; it’s time to turn to other things. Could you do something to the physical aspects of the organization that would allow people to interact more easily and more often?

Yes, you could. In fact, if you want to get the two groups to meet more often, think proximity. When it comes to the frequency of human interaction, proximity (the distance between people) is the single best predictor. Individuals who are located close to one another bump into each other and talk.

When it comes to work, people who share a break room or resource pool tend to bump into each other as well. Move the marketing offices closer to the work floor, throw in a common area, and the two warring groups may warm to each other. Proximity or the lack thereof has an invisible but powerful effect on behavior.

The following are a few other things that can affect ability.


Gadgets can have a more profound impact on social structure than people imagine. For example:

Image Cooks and waitresses used to fight tooth and nail over what had been ordered and whose orders got filled first until a researcher invented the metal wheel that controls and organizes orders. With the advent of the wheel, waitresses stopped shouting commands at cooks and cooks stopped getting angry and fouling up the orders.

Image A mother was constantly punishing her son for not coming home “before dark.” The boy didn’t know when the end of before dark was, would wait until it was actually dark, and got in trouble—until his neighbor gave him a watch and his mother gave him a specific time to be home.

Image A father turned the hot water off at the source so that his wife and daughters wouldn’t take so long in the shower. They resented his actions. One day Mom put an egg timer in the shower, and the problem went away.

Image One family determined that its microwave had put distance between the parents and their children. Was this a lame excuse? Not when one realizes that their first microwave eliminated the one time the whole family came together: the evening meal. With their fancy new zapper, the children were able to make what they wanted when they wanted. Without realizing it, the family members lost a key force and began to pull in separate directions.

The point is not that gadgets are bad but that they can have a more significant impact than people might imagine.


A financial services company couldn’t get people to help cut costs until it published both cost data and financial records. With the same goal in mind, factories now prominently display the cost of each part. In a large inter-city hospital the health-care professionals regularly chose to use rubber gloves ($30 a pair) instead of less comfortable latex gloves ($3 a pair), even for short procedures. After endless memos encouraging people to save money, administrators posted the cost of the gloves in prominent locations, and glove expenses dropped overnight.

One wise parent tired of the endless requests of his teen for everything from designer tennis shoes to a designer sports car. One evening it struck him that an ounce of information might be worth a pound of crucial confrontations. He openly shared everything about the family finances. Eventually his daughter— and we’re not making this up—asked if she should get a night job to help out.

Completing the Story

When you encounter people who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, it’s easy to wonder: What the heck were they thinking? Left to our natural proclivities, we tell a simple yet ugly story that casts others as selfish or thoughtless. We mature a little bit every time we expand the story to include a person’s ability. Maybe others don’t know how to do what they’ve promised to do. We also cut off our anger at its source. Not knowing for certain what’s happening, we have to replace anger with curiosity. This puts us in a far better position to discuss an infraction as a scientist, not a vigilante.

Throw in the influence of others and the story starts to reflect the complexity of what’s really going on. The fact that social forces are likely to be huge part of any infraction doesn’t escape a savvy problem solver. Only a fool purposely pits people against their desire to belong, feel respected, and be included with their friends and colleagues. Understanding the influence of others is a prerequisite to effective problem solving.

Finally, if we really want to step into the ranks of those who master crucial confrontations, we need to consider the physical factors, or things, surrounding a failed promise. This isn’t intuitive. In fact, rare is the parent or leader who looks at either the reward structure or other environmental factors when trying to bring to the surface the root cause of a behavior. Learn how to do this and you’ll be in a class of your own.

Use the Six Sources of Influence

Combined, these six distinct and powerful sources make up “The Six-Cell Model,” a diagnostic and influence tool that was illustrated earlier in this chapter.

How About Our Software-Testing Friends?

What actually caused the software problem during final assembly? Several of the forces contained in our model played a role:

Image A supervisor had been sent to the scene, where she learned that the programmers were unfamiliar with the latest version of the testing software (individual ability).

Image The supervisor had offered to obtain a tutorial, but the material was across town at headquarters (organizational ability). The team leader said he’d get it, but didn’t (social ability).

Image The team leader never got the material because he was stopped in the hallway, where he was told to prepare for a “walk-by” from a big boss from headquarters (social motive).

Did the code writers skip the testing because they didn’t like doing it? That could have been the case, but it wasn’t. Consequently, if the managers had punished the operators for not being motivated, it wouldn’t have remedied any of the underlying causes and most certainly would have caused resentment.

One Final Comment

The best leaders and parents aren’t lax with accountability, nor do they let themselves stew in a stupor of self-loathing. If the other person does turn out to be at fault, those who are masters of crucial confrontations step up to and handle the failed promise. In fact, we’ll explore how to do exactly that in later chapters.

For now we’re merely trying to work on our first thought, our first look, and the tone that follows. We’re learning to fight the natural tendency to assume the worst of others and engender genuine curiosity to ensure that our first words and deeds create a healthy climate for ourselves and others. When we tell the rest of the story, we do just that.


Master My Stories

Now we’ve selected a problem and thought about the circumstances in a way that puts us in the best state of mind. In short, we’ve learned how to master our stories by seeking out all the possible influences that contributed to the problem.


Image Master my stories. The second step in the model also takes place before you actually speak. As you approach a crucial confrontation, take care you don’t establish a horrible climate by charging in half-informed and half-cocked. To avoid this costly mistake, work on your own thoughts, feelings, and stories.

Image Tell the rest of the story. Ask why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would do what you’ve just seen as well as if you yourself are playing a role in the problem.

Image Look at all six sources of influence. Examine the force of self, others, and things—all either motivate or enable others to keep their commitment.

Image Expand motive to include the force of others. Do others praise and support the desired behavior or do they provide pressure against it? Is the reward system aligned? If people do what’s required, will they receive a carrot or a stick?

Image Finally, add ability. Can others do what’s required? Does the task play to their strength or weakness? Are people around them a help or a hindrance? Do the things around them provide a bridge or a barrier?

Additional Resources

Do you recognize the stories you’re telling that may be keeping you from the results you want? Visit www.crucialconfrontations.com/book for commonly told stories and see if they sound familiar.

What’s Next?

Now that we’re fully prepared, it’s time to open our mouths and talk about the failed promise. How do we first talk about the gap we’ve observed? What should be the first words out of our mouth? Let’s take a look.

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