Describe the Gap

Speak when you are angry

and you will make the best speech

you will ever regret.


How to Start a
Crucial Confrontation


You’ve picked out a problem, decided to say something, and considered the possible influences behind it; now you are about to take action. Before you do that, let’s be clear. Almost nobody should be harboring the illusion that he or she has been groomed to solve touchy and complicated interpersonal problems. Almost nobody has.

Here’s a typical supervisory training regime. A hardworking and competent employee is tapped on the shoulder on Friday afternoon (“Congratulations, you won the supervisory lottery!”) and promoted to a job that starts Monday morning. Any questions? And it’s not as if most employees have actually watched the way a leader deals with touchy issues or failed promises. That kind of thing happens behind closed doors.

Of course, business schools, the breeding ground for managers and vice presidents, rarely teach anything about leadership. Most business school courses are about management and entrepreneurship, not leadership. Occasionally classes cover the way leaders should think but almost never what they should do. The curriculum certainly doesn’t cover crucial confrontations. Professors and students come face to face with crucial confrontations every few minutes, but almost nobody teaches how to handle them.

We don’t even want to think about the preparation the average parent receives. Heaven forbid that most of us should imitate the social skills of our own adult role models: “Thanks, Mom. I was afraid I was going to miss out on how to paralyze people with guilt, but you’ve taken time every single day to pass on an important lesson or two.”

Here’s the $64,000 question: How are leaders and parents supposed to have picked up the ability to hold a simple goal-setting session, let alone tap-dance through a thorny crucial confrontation? Through osmosis?

If your influence training has been as sketchy as everyone else’s, welcome to the club and be sure to pay close attention. We’re about to share the best practices of people who know how to walk up to someone and hold a genuine face-to-face crucial confrontation.


Before we dare to open our mouths, let’s make sure we’re thinking about the same topic. Exactly what are we confronting?

We’re stepping up to a:
broken promise
a gap; a difference between what you expected and what actually happened

Broken Promises, Missed Deadlines, and Bad Behaviors

Of course, these gaps include missed commitments, disappointed expectations, and bad behavior. As far as this book is concerned, when we say gap, we mean gap, something that might be hard or even risky to discuss. Anybody can sidle up to a cheerful and eager employee and discuss a minor infraction. You don’t need a book to take that kind of trivial action.

Instead, as we suggested in the first chapter, we’ll be exploring challenges such as the following: What’s the best way to confront your boss for micromanaging you? How do you talk to a friend about backbiting? How do you tell a doctor she’s not doing her job? What does it take to discipline a violent employee? We call these crucial confrontations because the stakes are high. Handle them poorly and you could lose a job, a friend, or a limb.

Know What Not to Do

We’ll start our exploration of ways to initiate a crucial confrontation by sharing what we’ve learned from observing people who had the guts to step up to a problem but then quickly failed. After all, knowing what not to do is half the battle.

Don’t Play Games

The first technique is the result of good intentions and bad logic. It’s called sandwiching. You honestly believe that you have two equally poor options (and no other choices). You can stay quiet and keep the peace, or you can be honest and hurt someone’s feelings. You use sandwiching in an earnest effort to be both nice and honest. To soften the violent blow, you first say something complimentary, next you bring up the problem, and then you close with something complimentary again. Here is an example.

“Hey, Bob, good-looking briefcase. By the way, do you know anything about the ten grand missing from our retirement fund? Love the haircut.”

A close cousin to this circuitous technique takes the form of a surprise attack. A leader starts a conversation in a chatty tone, makes pleasant small talk, and then suddenly moves in for the kill.

The most unpleasant of these backhanded approaches is unadulterated entrapment—where one person lures the other into denying a problem, only to punish him or her for lying. It sounds something like this:

“How were things at school today?”
“Fine. Same old stuff.”
“Fine! The principal called and said you started a food
fight in the cafeteria. Is that supposed to be fine?”

Most people despise these indirect techniques. They’re dishonest, manipulative, and insulting. They’re also quite common.

Don’t Play Charades

Rather than come right out and talk about a problem, many people rely on nonverbal hints and subtle innuendo. They figure that’s faster and safer than actually talking about a problem. Some deal almost exclusively in hints. For instance, to make their point, they frown, smirk, or look concerned. When somebody’s late, they glance at their watches. This vague approach is fraught with risk. People may get the message, but what if they misinterpret the nonverbal hints? Besides, how are you supposed to document your actions?

“February 10, 2 p.m. Raised my right eyebrow three centimeters. Employee nodded knowingly and started back to work.”

Don’t Pass the Buck

Some leaders erroneously believe that they can play the role of good cop if only they can find a way to transform their boss into the bad cop. Parents play the same game by bad-mouthing or blaming their mates. By being the “pleasant one,” they argue, they’re more likely to stay on civil terms with their direct reports or children. Here’s the kind of stunt they pull: “I know you don’t want to work late, but the big guy says that if you don’t, we’ll write you up. If I had my way, we’d all go home early for the holiday weekend.”

This strategy is disloyal, dishonest, and ineffective. Anyone who wasn’t raised by wolves can see through it. Nothing undermines your authority more than blaming someone else for requesting what you would be asking for if you had any guts. If you repeat this mistake, it won’t be long before you’re seen as irrelevant—merely a messenger, and a cowardly one at that.

Don’t Play Read My Mind

If you scour the bookstores, eventually you may stumble across a few problem-solving texts that make the following suggestion: Since people benefit from learning on their own, don’t come right out and tell them about the actual infraction that has you concerned. Instead, allow room for “self-discovery.” Make the guilty person guess what’s on your mind. Here’s what this can look like:

“Well, Carmen, why do you think I called you in so bright and early this morning?”
“I don’t know, is it because I crashed the company car?”

“Hmmm, was it because I sabotaged the phone system?”
“Wrong again.”
“Is it because …”

This tactic is as irritating as it is ineffective. Despite good intentions, asking others to read your mind typically comes off as extremely patronizing or manipulative.

Learn from the Best

For every person we watched play games and fail, we were privileged to observe a skilled parent, supervisor, or manager in action. These people were something to behold. When we first chose to tag along after top performers, we were surprised to see how similar their styles were, independent of the industry. We expected to find muted, even sensitive behavior in high-tech firms, universities, and banks, but we anticipated something quite different in mines, foundries, and factories. We were wrong. Remember Melissa, the frontline supervisor in the plywood mill? She found a way to be both honest and respectful and quickly became the most effective leader in the plant.

To be honest, when we first watched Melissa, we thought that her style was—how does one say it?—gender-specific. So we asked if we could watch one of the mill’s rather large and scary male supervisors, but one who relied on interpersonal skills rather than threats, abuse, and intimidation.

True to what we had learned about Melissa, Buford (the first hard-hat honcho we trailed) looked far more like Mr. Rogers than Mr. T. Despite the fact that the facility appeared to have been prefabricated in hell, Buford’s style and demeanor could have fit easily into a white-collar boardroom. He acted far more like a schoolteacher than like the abusive leaders who surrounded him.

When we asked the plant manager why he thought Melissa and Buford were the best of the best, he said something we’ll never forget: “It’s easy to find a leader who creates warm and lasting relationships but who struggles to get things done. It’s not much harder to find a no-nonsense, hard-hitting leader who you might send in to put out a fire but who creates hard feelings. Consequently, when you find someone who can manage both people and production, you’ve got a real gem.”

How did these two skilled professionals solve problems while building relationships? How did they start a crucial confrontation? We’re not sure how they came to have the same understanding, but it didn’t take us long to realize that the skilled leaders and parents we were studying had somehow managed to stumble onto the same exquisitely simple yet important principles.


To ensure that you set the right tone during the first few seconds of a crucial confrontation, don’t shoot from the hip. Don’t charge into a situation, kick rears, take names, and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, carefully describe the gap. Here’s how:

Image Start with safety.

Image Share your path.

Image End with a question.

Start with Safety

When another person has let you down, start the confrontation by simply describing the gap between what was expected and what was observed: “You said you were going to have your room cleaned before dinner. It’s nine o’clock and it’s still not done.”

Don’t play games, merely describe the gap. Describing what was expected versus what was observed is clear and simple, and it helps you get off on the right foot.

For the most part, this is how you’ll begin a crucial confrontation. However, if you have reason to believe that the other person will feel threatened or intimidated or insulted by the mere mention of the broken promise, you’ll need to take steps to ensure that he or she feels safe—no matter the topic.

As we suggested earlier, we watched skilled individuals talk about incompetence, mistrust, and even embezzling, and the conversations, though not pleasant, ended successfully. Then we watched less skilled individuals raise something as trivial as arriving five minutes late to a meeting and the confrontation degenerated into a shouting match.

As we tried to understand these apparent contradictions, we finally realized what was happening.

The Big Surprise

At the foundation of every successful confrontation lies safety. When others feel frightened or nervous or otherwise unsafe, you can’t talk about anything. But if you can create safety, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything—even about failed promises.

Of course, the more controversial and touchy the issue is, the more challenging the confrontation will be. Nevertheless, if you maintain a safe climate, others will hear and consider what you’re saying. They may not like it, but they’ll be able to absorb it. Make it safe for people, and they won’t need to go to silence or violence.

Let’s take a look at what it takes to create and maintain a safe climate, regardless of the person or topic. Let’s examine how to open our mouths and talk about a violated expectation when we’re suspicious that the other person might become defensive or upset.

Watch for Signs That Safety Is at Risk

Let’s quickly review the basics of safety and then move to the task of making it safe, even when you’re dealing with a mammoth broken promise.

People feel unsafe when they believe one of two things:

1. You don’t respect them as a human being (you lack Mutual Respect).

2. You don’t care about their goals (you lack Mutual Purpose).

When others know that you value them as a person and care about their interests, they will give you an amazing amount of leeway. They’ll let you say almost anything. That’s why your four-year-old granddaughter can tell you you’re “fat” without offending you. You know that she loves and respects you and that her motives are pure. This, after all, is an innocent child. However, if what you say or how you say it causes others to conclude that you don’t respect them or that you have selfish and perverse motives, nothing you say will work. Here’s why.

As you talk to others about a problem, a warning flag goes up in their minds. After all, this is a problem discussion. They immediately want to know one thing: Are they in trouble? Their boss, parent, loved one, or friend is bringing up a problem, not inviting them to lunch. Are bad things going to happen? People assess their risk on the basis of two factors. Are bad things currently happening to them? Are bad things about to happen to them?

Mutual Respect

As you first describe the gap, if your tone of voice, facial expression, or words show disrespect, bad things are currently happening to the other person. You’re not respecting that person. You’re speaking in an uncivil tone. Your manner is discourteous. Your delivery is contemptuous. In short, you’ve held court in your head and found that person guilty, or so it feels to him or her.

Of course, this lack of respect is typically communicated subtly, not overtly. Sometimes all it takes is a raised eyebrow. (On other occasions the word moron finds its way into the confrontation.) In any case, the other person believes that you think he or she is incompetent, lazy, or worse. You have signaled that this confrontation is going to end badly. After all, it’s certainly starting that way. It’s only natural that when others feel disrespected, they are afraid and resort to either silence or violence.

Mutual Purpose

Let’s look at safety problems that extend beyond the moment. If it becomes clear to others that your purpose is at odds with theirs, they’re likely to conclude that something bad is about to happen to them. You’re going to solve a problem, and if they’re harmed in the process, so be it. Your goal is to get what you want, and you aren’t even thinking about their goal. This doesn’t bode well for them. Even if you start the confrontation respectfully, it’s only natural that if others feel that you are at cross-purposes, they’ll resort to silence or violence. They have to watch out for their interests.

At the very first sign of fear, you have to diagnose. Are others feeling disrespected? Or do they believe you’re at cross purposes? Or both? Then you have to find a way to let others know that you respect them and that you’re not going to trample all over their wishes.

This can be hard to remember in the face of a confrontation. We typically care so much about the content of a confrontation that we don’t think to watch for fear and restore safety. Nevertheless, it’s the only solution. We have to watch for signs that people are worried, stop saying what we’re saying, diagnose why people are afraid, step out of the original conversation, and then restore Mutual Respect, Mutual Purpose, or both. Here’s how to do that.

Maintain Mutual Respect

You’re about to suggest that the other person has violated an expectation, and this could easily imply that he or she was not motivated, was not able, or both, and nobody likes to be told that. And if the infraction is huge, say, infidelity or lying, isn’t the other person going to assume that you don’t respect him or her— almost by definition? What can you do to ensure that the other person doesn’t feel disrespected even though you’re about to talk about a problem?

Remember to Tell the Rest of the Story

Obviously, everything we’ve talked about so far helps. First, we avoid making others feel disrespected by not disrespecting them. If we see a problem, tell ourselves an ugly story, and then charge in with an accusation, the other person is going to feel disrespected. Even if we find others guilty in our heads and do our best to hide it, the verdict will show on our faces.

Show others respect by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Tell the rest of the story. Think of other people as rational, reasonable, and decent. This attitude eventually affects our demeanor, choice of words, and delivery and helps make the confrontation safe for others. They can tell that even though we’ve spotted a potential problem, we’re speaking out of a position of respect.

Use Contrasting to Restore Mutual Respect

Sometimes thinking good thoughts is not enough. We’re pleasant as we begin to talk about a failed promise, but the other person hears the mention of a problem and immediately assumes that we do not respect him or her. Problems are bad things, the other person is connected to the problem, and therefore we must think he or she is bad. Despite our best efforts, others feel unsafe and go to silence or violence, and we haven’t even made it all the way through our first sentence.

Let’s add a skill to help us with our very first sentence. We’ll use it as a preemptive tool for stopping disrespect in its tracks. It’s called Contrasting. It’s the killer of the fundamental attribution error. Here’s how it works.

Before you start the confrontation, anticipate how others might assume the worst. How might they feel disrespected? For instance, if you bring up a quality problem, the other person may believe that you think he or she is unskilled in general. If you address poor effort on a specific project, the other person may conclude that you believe he or she isn’t motivated or can’t be trusted, or perhaps you don’t like him or her or are about to take disciplinary action, and so on. You’ve noticed a problem, and the other person prepares for the worst before you can finish your thought. To deal with these predictable misinterpretations, use Contrasting. First, imagine what others might erroneously conclude. Second, immediately explain that this is what you don’t mean. Third, as a contrasting point, explain what you do mean. The important part is the don’t portion. It addresses misunderstandings that could put safety at risk. Once safety is protected or reestablished, the do part of the statement clarifies your real meaning or intent. Here’s what Contrasting sounds like when it is used up front to avoid feelings of disrespect:

“I don’t want you to think I’m unhappy with how we work together. Overall I’m very satisfied. I just want to talk about how we make decisions together.”

“I’m not saying that it was wrong of you to disagree with me in the meeting. We need to hear everyone’s view if we want to make the best choice. It’s just that I think the team heard your tone and words as attacking.”

“I know you tried your best to improve your grades. I’m satisfied with your effort. Please don’t hear me as being less than proud of your progress. I’d just like to share a few study ideas that might help you maintain your grades more easily.”

Contrasting plays a huge role in initially describing broken promises. The bigger the problem is, the more likely it is that the other person is going to feel disrespected. Consequently, many discussions of failed promises and bad behavior start with a preventive Contrasting statement. In fact, this is the skill people are looking for when they pick up a book that deals with missed expectations because it answers the question: “How do I get started?”

If you suspect that the other person is going to feel offended or defensive, prepare the ground by explaining what you don’t and do mean.

Of course, you can also use Contrasting in the middle of a conversation when you suddenly become aware that the other person is feeling disrespected. You didn’t anticipate the reaction, but sure enough, he or she’s found a way to feel disrespected:

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to imply that you were doing it on purpose. I believe you were unaware of the impact you were having. That’s why I wanted to bring it up in the first place.”

Establish Mutual Purpose

When a conversation turns ugly, with greater intensity and speed than you ever imagined it could, it’s usually because others misunderstand not your content but your intent. You’re speaking respectfully. That part you got right. You merely want to solve a problem in a way that keeps the relationship on solid footing, but the people you’re talking to think differently. They believe that the only reason you’re bringing up the infraction is that you’re out to humiliate them, make them do something they don’t want to do, overthrow their authority, or otherwise cause them pain and sorrow. They believe that bad things are about to happen to them.

Of course, once others allow vicious stories about your intent to romp freely inside their brains, they become angry, defensive, and emotionally charged. Blood rushes to their arms and legs so that they can be better equipped for the “fight or flight” reaction their bodies have been genetically designed for. Within seconds they’re on their worst brain-starved behavior. Once this chemical transformation happens, there’s a good chance you’ll never get back on track. Anything you say carries with it the stench of evil intentions. And of course, since they are now dumbed down by adrenaline, their logical processes take a vacation and nothing you say really matters.

You can’t let this happen. If you think others are likely to harbor bad thoughts about your intentions before you’ve even said a word, take another kind of preventive measure: Establish Mutual Purpose.

Build common ground before you even mention a problem. Let others know that your intentions are pure—that your goal is to solve problems and make things better for both of you. Start with what’s important to you and them—not just you. Establish Mutual Purpose

Here’s an example:

“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to spend a couple of minutes talking about how we made that last decision. My goal is to come up with a method we’re both comfortable with.”

“I’d like to give you some feedback that I think would help you be more productive with your meetings. [Add Contrasting.] I don’t think this is a huge problem, but I do think that if you were to make a couple of small changes, things would run a lot more smoothly.”

Note: If your sole purpose is to make your life better while possibly making the other person’s life worse, who can blame others for becoming defensive? If there is a short-term cost associated with the change you’re calling for (and there usually is), think about how everyone will benefit over the long haul and then establish Mutual Purpose. For example:

“I’m concerned about a problem that is affecting all of us. If we don’t find a way to increase our output, we’ll cease to be competitive. Our customer is already researching alternative sources, and we’re at risk of being shut down. [Add Contrasting.] I don’t want to come up with a plan that is physically or mentally stressing because we’ll have to live with it for years to come. I just want to develop a plan that leads to a more consistent and predictable effort.”

Ask for Permission

If the topic you’re about to address is traditionally off limits, particularly sensitive, or something a person in your position doesn’t normally discuss, ask for permission to discuss it. Be gracious. Don’t plunge into a delicate topic without first seeking permission. Asking permission is a powerful sign of respect. It also helps allay people’s suspicion that your intentions toward them are malicious.

Speak in Private

This safety tip is both obvious and easy: Always discuss problems in private. No matter where you may encounter a problem, retire to your office or another secluded setting where you can talk one on one. Never conduct public performance reviews. Never discipline your children in front of their friends. Never confront your spouse in the middle of a dinner party. Never talk about friends, loved ones, direct reports, or bosses at the water cooler, behind their backs. Speak in private, one to one and face to face. Avoid the following common violations of this principle.

Inappropriate Humor

Don’t violate privacy by masking a public performance review with thoughtless humor, as in this example: “Well, look who just arrived. Forget how to find the meeting room, did you?”

For many people this is a hard habit to break. It takes years to learn how to craft the perfect public punitive remark: veiled enough to deny, clever enough to get a laugh, and pointed enough to be nasty. Nevertheless, drop the cutting sarcasm.

A Group Attack

Don’t deal with individual problems in meetings or public gatherings by chastising the entire group. This cowardly tactic fails doubly. First, the guilty parties may miss the fact that they’re the target of your snide comments. Second, the innocent people resent the fact that they’re being thrown in with the guilty. Once again, problem solving should be done in private, one on one.

If you can create enough safety, you can talk about just about anything with just about anyone—even a defensive boss. You note a problem, step out of the content of the conversation, and restore Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose.

Combining Safety Skills

Let’s see how these safety skills can be combined to help form the first few phrases in a crucial confrontation, particularly if the topic is touchy or the person you’re dealing with is in a position of power. How, for example, could you start with safety when challenging a very defensive boss?

Watching Wally

Let’s watch Wally, a skilled communicator, as he deals with a defensive chief executive officer who is about to torpedo a project that Wally has invested a year in launching. This text is taken from an actual interaction between a manager and the CEO of his company.


Wally recognizes the boss’s outbreak for what it is. It is not a sign that the issue is off limits. (That’s what less insightful individuals might conclude.) He realizes that the boss is getting hot under the collar because safety is at risk. The boss needs to know that Wally cares about his interests and respects his position, so that’s exactly what Wally communicates.


Now, with safety restored, Wally steps back into the issue at hand.


At this point the CEO feels safe about where the conversation is going and asks to hear Wally’s concerns. At the conclusion the CEO agrees that data gathering is critical and willingly supports the next steps.

Share Your Path

Let’s look at the second step in describing the gap. We started with safety and will be doing our best to watch for fear throughout the discussion. When called for, we may start with a preemptive Contrasting statement or describe our common ground. Once the other person feels safe, it’s time to describe the gap.

Common Mistakes

To get us started on the actual words we’ll choose, we’ll begin with one of our favorite research subjects, Bruno. He was among the first leaders the authors watched on the job. We selected Bruno not because he was great but because he consistently demonstrated (note the root of the word: demon) all that is bad and wrong. He taught us what not to do.

Don’t Keep Others in the Dark

It’s ten minutes into the workday, and the authors are roaming the floor with Bruno as he meanders through a nest of cubicles teeming with technicians.

“Watch this,” Bruno fiendishly giggles as he approaches one of his direct reports. Bruno then circles the fellow like a vulture, shakes his head in disgust, mutters under his breath, and then flutters away.

The technician is clearly alarmed.

“Keep ‘em on their toes,” Bruno declares. “That’s my motto.” True to his word, for four straight hours Bruno explains nothing in clear terms. He constantly prods people with ambiguous expressions such as “shape up,” “fix that,” “that could kill someone,” and the ever-popular “get a better attitude.”

Nobody understood this guy. His tactics were as manipulative as they were ineffective. Strangely enough, Bruno was purposely vague. He used ambiguity as a torture device. But that was Bruno. Most people don’t try to be vague; they’re merely inarticulate. Whatever the root cause, lack of clarity is a problem solver’s worst enemy. People can’t improve if they don’t know the specific details of the infraction.

Back to the Model

To be crystal-clear about the details we want to discuss, let’s return to the Path to Action model. It explains how humans move from observation to action.


Remember this diagram, which was first introduced in Chapter 2? The other person acts, you see something (the action, the result, or both), you tell yourself a story about the other person’s motive, you feel, and then you act. By adding the result of an action to the model, we’re now fully prepared to talk about infractions. In fact, leaders often see only poor results as the entry point to a problem discussion. Here’s the question: What details should you talk about? What part of the path should you share: the original action or behavior, the result, your conclusion, or your feeling? How do you share your path?

No Harsh Conclusions, Please

When we step up to a problem discussion, we’re inclined to lead with judgments or stories. After all, our view of others’ intent often has us all riled up. As far as we’re concerned, their bad intent is the problem. Unfortunately, when we lead with our judgments, we get off on the wrong foot. It sounds something like this:

Image “I can’t believe that you purposely made fun of me in that meeting!”

Image “You don’t care about our family one tiny bit. Must you work every waking hour?”

Image “You show no confidence. No wonder nobody trusts your opinion.”

When we share our harsh stories, others know what we have concluded, not what they have done. They can only guess at what we’re talking about. This strategy can be unclear, inaccurate, and costly.

Start with Facts

As a general rule, when you are sharing your path, it’s best to start with the facts: what you saw and heard. Don’t start your stories. If you do, people are likely to become defensive. Instead, describe what the person did, along with the result. By talking about the result, you let the person know why you’ve brought up the issue. You’ve framed the problem.

Image Stay external. Describe what’s happening outside your head. (“You cut the person off in midsentence”) as opposed to what’s happening inside your head (“You’re rude”).

Image Explain what, not why. Facts tell us what’s going on (“You spoke so quietly, it was hard to hear”). Conclusions tell us why we think it’s going on (“You’re afraid”).

Image Gather facts. If others complain to you about their friends and coworkers, they’re likely to tell stories and leave out the facts: “He’s arrogant.” “She’s unreliable.” “Their team is selfish.” When this happens, probe for details. Ask them to share what they actually heard and saw.

Even when it comes to our own thinking, it’s often difficult to remember the original facts. Most of us have an experience (“You spoke nonstop about yourself and didn’t ask me a single question”), tell a story (“You’re egotistical”), generate a feeling (“I don’t like being around you”), and then forget the original experience. In some cases we may not even be aware of the other person’s subtle action that led to the feeling. Thus, we end up walking around with feelings and stories but are incapable of holding crucial confrontations successfully because we lack the facts required to help others understand what we’re thinking.

Gathering the Facts is the Homework Required for Holding a Crucial Confrontation.

Here’s the bottom line. Every time you share a vague and possibly inflammatory story instead of a fact, you’re betting that the other person won’t become defensive and can translate what you’re thinking into what he or she did. That’s a bad bet. Share the facts. Describe the observable details of what’s happening. Cut out the guesswork.

Tentatively Share Your Story

As we suggested earlier, sometimes a person’s behavior can be moderately annoying and maybe that individual has even broken a promise, but what really has you distressed is the fact that you believe that his or her intent is less than noble. You’re trying not to make the fundamental attribution error, but facts are starting to pile up and it’s hard to keep assuming the best. Keeping an open mind is one thing; being naive is another.

Remember the realtor who was upset at an employee not just because she was routinely late but because the realtor figured she was taking advantage of their friendship? We suggested that this was the right problem to discuss or at least the correct starting point. But how do you merely discuss the facts when it’s your story you want to talk about?

You don’t. You share your story as well. Of course, you don’t start there, but you don’t walk away from your story either. Start with the facts because they’re the least emotional and controversial element of the conversation and then tentatively share your story or conclusion. Make sure your language is free of absolutes. Trade “You said” for “I thought we agreed.” Swap “It’s clear” for “I was wondering if.” Here’s what this might sound like:

“Martha, I was wondering if we could talk about something that has me bothered. I’m not sure I’m correct in my thinking, so I thought I’d better check with you.”
“Sure, what’s the deal?”
“I’ve talked to you four different times about coming into work between twenty and thirty minutes late, and I’m beginning. …”
“Like I told you, it’s not always easy to make it on time.”
“I’m beginning to wonder if the fact that we’re friends and neighbors isn’t getting in the way.”
“How’s that?”
“Well, since we’re friends, it feels to me like you’re coming in late, knowing full well that it could be hard for me to hold you accountable. Do I have this right, or am I missing something here?”

Your conclusion could be dead wrong, but it is your conclusion that’s starting to eat at you, and now you’ve made it safe to talk about it. By taking the attitude that you could be wrong and using tentative language, you’re being fair.

Continually Watch for Safety Problems

Warning: Once you start to tell your story, no matter how tentative you are, there’s a chance the other person will become defensive. If, for example, you believe your teenage son has stolen money from you, regardless of how tentative you are, you’re likely to experience something like this:


How do you handle this kind of defensiveness? First, recognize it for what it is: a threat to safety. The problem is not that the other person can’t handle the content you’re offering; it’s that he or she doesn’t feel safe with you discussing it. When you realize that the problem is one of safety, you’ll do the right thing: Step out of the content and rebuild safety. Decide whether the problem is that the other person feels disrespected, or believes your intentions are bad (or both). Then use the Contrasting skill we described earlier to relieve that person’s mind.


If you start to share your story and the other person becomes defensive—take away his or her fear. Step out of the content and restore safety.

End with a Question

You started the crucial confrontation by doing your best to make it safe. You shared your path in a way that continued to make it safe. Now it’s time to bring your opening paragraph to a close, still maintaining safety. End with a simple diagnostic question: What happened? Make this an honest inquiry, not a veiled threat or an accusation such as “What’s wrong with you!”

As you finish off your description of the failed expectation your goal should be to hear the other person’s point of view. If you’ve started with safety and presented detailed facts, the person responsible for the infraction should understand what the problem is and feel comfortable talking about the underlying cause and the eventual solution.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this sincere question. This is a pivotal moment in the crucial confrontation, one that will sustain the safety you’ve created. If you sincerely want to hear the other person’s point of view, you let him or her know that this is dialogue, not a monologue. You help the other person understand that your goal is not to be right or to punish but to solve a problem and that all the information must be out in the open for that to occur. So end your opening statement with a sincere invitation for the other person to share even completely contrary opinions with you.

Finally, as the other person answers the question, “What happened?” listen carefully.

Diagnose the root of the problem—which of the six sources of influence are at play? Are they unmotivated? Are they unable? The solution to each alternative is quite different. You don’t want to try to motivate people who can’t do what you’ve asked, or enable people who don’t care. We’ll look at ways to deal with each of these problems in the next two chapters. For now, remember to listen for the underlying cause.


Avoid Groundhog Day

Let’s return to an element we referred to earlier. It’s an important enough issue that it deserves special and repeated attention. As you confront other people, they’re likely to want to reduce a problem to its simplest form, one that avoids most of what’s actually going on and sidesteps the lion’s share of accountability. They want to keep treating the problem, no matter how devilishly recurring, as it if were the first instance.

For example, a salesperson who reports to you has a history of promising discounts that cut too deeply into your profits. In short, she sells out profits to earn her commission. Last week you talked to her about this practice, and she agreed to follow the pricing guidelines. Five minutes ago you overheard her deep-discounting again. You step up to the problem:

“Louise, I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t sell the product below the standard pricing formula. I just overheard you promising a price that was clearly out of bounds. Did I miss something?”

Louise explains that she really needed this commission and was hoping that you would understand. Now what?

Moment of Truth

You’re now at a critical juncture. You have two problems, not one: (1) the price violation, or the content of the problem, and (2) a whole new problem: She didn’t live up to her commitment to you. Most people miss this important difference. Unfortunately, if you talk only about the price formula, you’re forced to relive the same problem. Savvy problem solvers know better. As new violations emerge, they step up to them:

“Let’s see if I understand. You agreed not to cut prices, but you wanted the commission, so you did so anyway. Is that right?”

This follow-on statement leads to a very different discussion. Instead of talking only about pricing, you’re now talking about failing to live up to a commitment. That is a far bigger issue.

Two Examples

To see how it works, here are a couple of examples of how all of the skills come together. We’ll start with a simple one: A person who reports to you fails to show up at an important meeting and you don’t think he missed it on purpose. You have no story. You invite him into your office, safely describe the gap, and end with a question.

“Chris, I noticed that you missed the meeting you had agreed to attend. I was wondering what happened. Did you run into a problem of some kind?”

And there you have it: a simple paragraph. You haven’t held court. You don’t have a story to tell. You take the other person to a private setting, describe the facts (what was expected versus what was observed), and end with a question. And now you’re listening to diagnose the underlying cause.

Let’s examine a tougher problem. You’re talking to your boss about what’s been happening in meetings. You think he or she may become defensive, so you start by creating safety. You establish Mutual Purpose and use Contrasting.



BOSS: Okay, what’s bugging you?

Since you have told yourself a story about what your boss is doing, you share your path, starting with the facts and then tentatively sharing your conclusion.


The boss is feeling defensive, and so you step out of the content and build safety.



Describe the Gap

We’ve finished working on ourselves and are now speaking for the first time. Our overall goal is to confront with safety. Rather than leading with unhealthy conclusions or making accusations (both make it unsafe for the other person), we simply describe the gap. From there we listen carefully to see which branch of the model we’ll pursue. Is the problem due to motivation, ability or both?


Image In this chapter we explored the first words out of our mouth. Our goal has been to make it safer to deal with problems by mastering the critical first moments of a confrontation. We’ve suggested the following:

Image Start with Safety

Image Share Your Path

Image End with a Question

Image We’ve written a lot about a little. You don’t want to start off on the wrong foot.

Additional Resources

To see good and bad examples of describing the gap, visit crucialconfrontations.com/book. There you’ll find video examples of how not to start a conversation as well as how to do so effectively.

What’s Next?

The other person is about to explain why he or she let you down. This means that you have to know what to do if the other person isn’t motivated or isn’t able or maybe both. This will take more than a well-crafted sentence or two.

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