Stay Focused and Flexible

I am a man of fixed and unbending principles,

the first of which is to be flexible at all times


What to Do When Others Get
Sidetracked, Scream, or Sulk

Up to this point we’ve created a map showing how to master a crucial confrontation. It describes key principles and skills, not fixed roads laid down on an unmovable terrain. This means that the principles and skills have to be woven into a workable script on the spot, as the conversation unfolds.

This on-the-spot creativity call for an enormous amount of flexibility. After we describe the gap, we have to diagnose what’s happening. Are people failing to come through because of a motivation problem, or is it ability? Otherwise, we’re likely to charge in blindly and apply the wrong prefabricated fix: “I can’t believe that you came to our biggest meeting of the year a full thirty minutes late…. Oh, your mom’s funeral, huh?”

That was awkward.

It gets worse. Not only do we have to work unrehearsed and on the fly, we have to be flexible enough to deal with new problems as they seem to appear out of nowhere. We’re talking about problem X and problem Y emerges right there on the spot.

For instance, you’re talking to a coworker about doing his fair share of the workload, and he becomes angry. You’re chatting with your daughter about failing to practice the piano, and she lies to you. You’re talking to an employee about missing a deadline, and he becomes insubordinate. You’re talking to your unemployed husband about actively looking for work, and he tries to divert you from the problem by playing the martyr. Your head accountant clams up when you ask her why the end-of-month reports aren’t ready. Then she gets angry. All these situations present you with new, emergent problems.


As new problems emerge, we have to be focused enough not to get sidetracked. We can’t let every breeze blow us in a different direction. By the same token, we have to be flexible enough to step away from the current issue and deal with the new problems on the spot if necessary.

When a brand-new problem with a life of its own comes up in the middle of a crucial confrontation, we have to decide. Do we step away from the current problem (putting a bookmark in place so that we can get back to it later) and address the new problem? Or do we stay the course? This takes us back to the issue we addressed in Chapter 1: What is the right crucial confrontation? Now we’re introducing the idea that the right confrontation can change before your eyes.

The answer to this new if question is simple. If the new, emergent problem is more serious, time-sensitive, or emotional than the original one or if it’s important to the other person, you have to deal with it right there, on the spot. You can’t allow the new and more important issue to be at the mercy of the original problem.

For example, you can’t have your daughter lying to you. Lying is worse than missing practice. You can’t allow an employee to become insubordinate. If you don’t say something right away, you undermine your credibility. You can’t allow a person to fume and boil and pretend nothing is happening. It’ll only get worse.

The good news is that if you choose to move to the new and emergent topic, all the skills we’ve looked at so far are applicable. Of course, if you decide to deal with the new problem, you need to do so in a focused way. Don’t be tricked into getting sidetracked and don’t drift aimlessly from topic to topic. Carefully transition when you change your focus. In short, as new and emergent problems surface, do the following:

image Be flexible

image Note new problems

image Select the right problem: the original problem, the new one, or both

image Resolve the new problem and return to the original issue

image Be focused

image Deal with problems one at a time

image Consciously choose to deal with new issues, don’t allow them to be forced upon you


To see how this works, let’s look at four different categories of new problems: There is a loss of safety, there is a loss of trust, a completely different issue becomes a problem, and explosive emotions take over. Each category requires the same basic skills, but each is different enough that it deserves careful and separate attention.

People Feel Unsafe

This is the most common emergent problem, and we talked about it earlier. You’re discussing a failed promise, and the other person becomes frightened and starts to pull away from the discussion or push too hard. Either response brings honest dialogue to a screeching halt. Fear and the resulting silence or violence, are the emergent problem.

If you don’t step out of the existing conversation and establish safety, you’re never going to resolve the issue at hand. So that’s what you do. You step out, create safety, and step back in. In this case you don’t need to acknowledge a change in topic because you aren’t changing topics. You’re simply dealing with the real problem, which is not the topic itself but the fact that the other person feels unsafe discussing it.

To restore safety, you point to your shared purpose. You assure the other person that you care about what he or she cares about. You use contrasting to clarify the misunderstanding. You apologize when necessary. You make it safe. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to resolve the original issue.

For example, you’re talking to a coworker about not helping out on a boring job. She was supposed to lend a hand, but she took a phone call and then disappeared until you finished the noxious task. You describe the problem, tentatively sharing your path. You wonder if she purposely left and didn’t return until she knew that the dreadful job had been done. She immediately becomes offended, averts her eyes, and says in a hurt tone, “Are you saying I’m not a good friend? That I take advantage of you? Is that what you think of me?”

You respond by sharing your common purpose: “I was just hoping to come up with a way to ensure that we’re both working on the job we hate the most. Neither of us likes to do it.” Then you Contrast: “I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t a good friend. I think you are. I just wanted to talk about the one job.” Then you apologize: “I’m sorry if it sounded like I was falsely accusing you. I’m just curious about why you left in the middle of a job when you knew I really wanted you to lend a hand.”

People Violate Your Trust

This is probably the most dangerous new problem, the number one killer of accountability, and the chief reason most people can’t have a crucial confrontation without breaking out in hives. You ask a person who reports to you why he failed to attend the computer training class he had agreed to sit in on, and he explains that he would have been there but “something came up.”

Not knowing if this is code for a motivation problem or an ability problem, you ask him exactly what prevented him from keeping his promise. You’re thinking that if it wasn’t a meteorite crashing into his cubicle, you’re not going to be all that sympathetic. You know he hates computer training. However he desperately needs it, and so you inconvenienced everyone else on the work team to schedule it around his needs. Now he’s telling you that something came up:

“Omar in payroll needed someone to run over to headquarters for him, and I was the only one who drove to work today. Everyone else came in on the subway.”

“And running an errand for Omar was more important than the training?” you ask.

“Of course! It was the payroll.”

“Well, yes, the payroll is important.”

The problem with what just happened is that you allowed this to become a conversation about payroll instead of training. It isn’t that, at least not yet. It should be a conversation about trust. The other person made a promise and unilaterally decided to break it. This is a huge violation of trust and an insult to the relationship. To mask this breach of accountability, the other person focuses on the content (payroll versus training) rather than the relationship.

Is this a big deal? Almost nothing in a company, including the payroll, is more important than finding a way to fix the lack of accountability this scene depicts. The person failed to live up to a commitment, and nothing happened. Actually, he was allowed to ignore the real issue: the broken promise.

Something Came Up

Companies that continually allow things to come up without dealing with the breach of promise don’t survive very long. And while they are limping along, they’re horrible places to work. Nothing destroys trust more than casually giving assignments and then hoping against hope that people will deliver. You may like the fact that your boss doesn’t always follow up with you, giving you substantial freedom, but you hate it when others are equally loose and unpredictable. Heaven help the company that lets things come up.

In a similar vein, when family members allow one another to break promises and ignore the consequences, pain and suffering are just around the corner. When it comes to child rearing, arbitrary accountability is a big contributor to delinquency and insecurity. Giving family members the luxury of arbitrarily choosing which promises they’ll keep—turning life into a cafeteria of commitments in which people can keep one of this one but not one of those—drives people insane.

The Intersection of Flexibility and Focus

Let’s be realistic. Things do come up. In today’s tumultuous world changes occur all the time, and if you can’t make mid-course corrections as new information pours in, your company will die. You have to be strong and flexible. You have to be able to bend but not break.

How can you be at once focused and flexible? It’s actually easy. At the heart of every workable accountability system there is one simple sentence: “If something comes up, let me know as soon as you can.”

This sentence represents the marriage of flexibility and focus. In these 12 words two seemingly contradictory elements form a perfect harmony: the yin and yang of accountability. Although the words are sparse, to speak them is to say:

“I want you to live up to your promise. Please don’t unilaterally break it. I want you to focus on getting the job done. At the same time, I realize that the world can change. Things come up. Many of these barriers will negate your existing promise. If something does come up, let me know as soon as possible so there are no surprises and so we can decide together how to handle the situation.”

Consider the following situations:

Sometimes the thing that comes up will affect motivation. For example, your son is on the way to take a makeup algebra test after school and his uncle stops him along the route and asks him to go to the movies. He’s been lonely since his divorce, and your son thinks he should go along. So he wants to change his priority. But not without talking. Together you should decide if his uncle really needs the familial support or if he needs to keep his grades up, or maybe you can find a way to do both.

Sometimes the thing that comes up will affect ability. For instance, the air-conditioning unit breaks down and the production manager thinks she should let everyone go home early even though she promised to finish a project. This may be the right solution, but she should first check with the major stakeholders (in this case, her boss) to see if this is the best solution for the situation. Maybe, based on the reasons for the deadline and the costs of missing it, it makes better business sense to pay the service experts overtime plus a surcharge to get the equipment fixed right away. With a policy of “If something comes up, let me know as soon as you can,” we should expect pretty immediate communication. Thanks to modern technology, when we say. “Let’s talk as soon as you can,” that can be pretty fast. Between e-mail, voice mail, and cell phones, we are always no farther away from each other than the speed of light and the click of a button. To put this in perspective, you can track someone down in China about a hundred million times faster than Marco Polo.

The Foundation of Crucial Confrontations

Let’s return to our friend who told us that he didn’t attend the computer class because something came up. What should we say to him? Naturally, the way we approach the failed promise will depend on our own private history of accountability. If in our company promises are merely rough guidelines, include the possibility of a surprise, or are made with a wink, we’ve reaped what we’ve sown. There’s really not much we can say. In fact, in a huge number of companies (and families are no different) the following is true:

Results = no results + a good story

In institutions where accountability is shaky, people treat you as if you’ve succeeded as long as you have a good story. In this inventive culture, failure accompanied by a plausible excuse equals success. And we all know what the good story is:

“Something came up.” It’s the catchall story. It keeps you from ever being held be accountable, that is, if friends, family, bosses, and coworkers actually let you get away with it.

But you know better. You understand that a crucial confrontation by definition deals with failed promises, and if you don’t have to keep promises, everything falls apart. You also know that things change, and so if there is a need to change, talk as soon as you can.

Therefore, when you first started working with your team, you spoke in great detail about the all-important sentence: “If something comes up, let me know as soon as you can.”

You explained how these few words, when honored, bring predictability into a turbulent world. You spoke eloquently about how this simple phrase emphasizes the importance of both the need for flexibility and the need for predictability. You talked about how it forms the very foundation of trust. And finally, when you first talked with your direct report about attending the computer class, you ended by reaffirming your stance. You said: “By the way, if something comes up, let me know as soon as you can.” And you meant it.

So what do you say to the fellow who thinks that as long as Omar in payroll asked him to do something important, he has been liberated from his original promise? What is the right crucial confrontation to have? The problem isn’t that he didn’t attend the class (that is a problem but not the problem); the problem is that he saw what he thought called for a change in the plan and changed it. Not only did he make the choice on his own, he didn’t have the courtesy to call you. He left you completely out of the decision. That’s a trust problem.

Guess what: If you talk about the training issue and not about the trust problem, you’ll walk away dissatisfied and trusting the person even less, and you won’t even realize that you’ve had the wrong conversation. Of course, if you do talk about mistrust, the consequences of violating one’s word must be severe. You no longer know if the other person will honor his word. Predictability is shaky. You may have to monitor him more closely. You may have to follow up more frequently. You don’t want to do this, and he’s not going to like it. This is the new problem, and these are some of the attendant consequences.

Create a Bedrock of Trust

To establish a climate in which crucial confrontations are built on a bedrock of trust, stay focused. Set clear and firm expectations. Stay flexible. End by stating: “If something comes up, let me know as soon as you can.” Finally, when you’re talking with someone who tries to excuse a missed assignment by saying that “something came up,” deal with this emergent problem—this violation of trust—as a new challenge. Never let it slide.

New Problems Sneak onto the Scene

Let’s look at another category of emergent problems. You’re talking about a failed expectation, and the other person, besides saying that something came up, does something that is actually worse than the original infraction.

For instance, you’re the only female member of your team at work. You’re talking to a coworker who somehow always seems to find a way to get out of the tasks nobody likes to do. You’ve agreed to share all jobs equally, there are four of you, and he works on the disagreeable assignments only about 10 percent of the time. This math isn’t working for you.

You decide to talk about your conclusion that he’s purposely skipping out of the unpopular jobs, knowing that you’ll start with the facts and then tentatively tell him what you and others are beginning to conclude. This actually goes fairly well. Then he says, “You know, I’m glad you brought up the issue. Women shouldn’t let guys like me walk all over them. In fact, I like women who are strong.”

You continue along the problem-solving path, trying to see if he’ll agree to take his fair share of the noxious tasks, and he adds: “Forceful women are a bit of a turn-on.”

He’s now leaning close to you and sort of leering. You don’t like leaning and leering, and you really don’t like the words turn on unless they refer to an electrical switch. So you tell him that, including the semifunny electrical switch line. You figure you’ll use humor to break the tension.

He comes back with “Exactly what are your turn ons?”

Given his insensitive persistence, you decide to step away from the fairness issue and confront the new problem. He is acting inappropriately, and you don’t like it. In fact, it feels like harassment. This is the problem you want to discuss. The behaviors, of course, include using sexual innuendo, leaning, and leering.

To deal with this tricky emergent problem, start by announcing the change in topic. It’s okay to change topics, but always clarify what you’re doing. Place a bookmark where you just were so that it will be easy to return to it later. If you don’t, you lose your place and sometimes forget that you changed topics:

“I’d like to talk about what just happened.”

This stops the conversation dead in its tracks. Next, do everything you’ve learned so far. Pick the problem you want to discuss. Take charge of your harsh feelings by telling a story other than “He’s a filthy pig who needs to die a painful death.” What’s likely to be going on is that he thinks he’s flirting and it’s cute. He actually believes that. Bring your emotions under control by telling a more accurate story. Then describe the gap. Move from the content conversation to the relationship one (his disrespectful behavior):

“You just made references to your ‘turn-ons,’ you moved so close to me that I felt uncomfortable, and your eyes were moving up and down my body. What’s going on here?”

Shocked that anyone would actually call him on something he’s been getting away with for years, he apologizes and says it won’t happen again.

You then close the discussion by seeking a clear commitment: “So I can count on you to treat me like a professional in the future?”

He quickly nods in approval.

That was easy. No need for consequences. No need to analyze underlying ability blocks: “Sorry, I was raised by wild animals and am a bit of a social moron.” He agrees to back off, and your life just got better.

Now you face one more issue. Do you return to the original problem? You still haven’t resolved the job equity issue. This is something you have to decide in the moment. Sometimes, having dealt with a much larger problem, you decide to return to the original problem another time. Continuing now could seem like piling it on. Besides, in this case he may want to make a hasty exit to regain his dignity and composure. Naturally, if there is enough safety to continue, go ahead and finish what you started. Retrieve the bookmark and continue where you left off.

These steps can be applied to any new problem that emerges in the middle of a crucial confrontation. Pull out of the original problem, announce the change in topic, confront the new problem, bring it to a satisfactory resolution, and then decide whether you need to return to the original issue.

For instance, you’re talking to your seven-year-old daughter about not practicing the piano as she promised she would. She explains that she did practice. You were sitting at the piano folding clothes during the appointed time, and so you tell her that and end with: “Since you weren’t here, how did you practice?” Your daughter bursts into tears because she’s been caught in a lie. You now have a new and bigger problem.

“I didn’t practice because I hate practicing at four o’clock every day,” she says. “That’s the best playtime, and I miss being with my friends.”

Now you know why she didn’t practice, but that’s no longer the problem you want to discuss. She lied. This is now a relationship conversation. Of course, she wants to talk about the inconvenient practice time (the content issue). That solves her problem. It also takes the focus off the bigger issue: She lied. Make sure to have the right conversation:

“I’d like to talk about what just happened.”

“What’s that?”

“When I asked you about your piano practice, you said that you did practice, but you didn’t.”

“That’s because everyone plays kick ball in the cul-de-sac, and I love to play kick ball.”

“What I’d like to talk about is not your practice time; we’ll get back to that later. [Place a bookmark.] I want to talk about the facts that you lied to me.” [Announce the new topic.]

Then you talk about lying. She says she’ll never ever do it again, but you fear that she doesn’t fully understand the consequence of her lying, and so you choose to explain what happens when you can no longer take her at her word. You treat this as a teaching moment, explain the natural consequences that result from lying, and work through the problem, and she apologizes. Then she wants to get back to the trouble with her piano practice time, which you resolve by moving it to a later hour.

Pull out, announce the change in topic, confront the new problem, work it through to a satisfactory resolution, and then decide whether you want to return to the original infraction. Of course, this can work only if you spot the new problem and then choose to deal with it. This can be difficult when you’re already trying to handle another problem, but that’s how the world of human interaction unfolds. New problems emerge all the time.

Sometimes you can experience three different emergent problems in a couple of minutes, and you have to decide which ones to confront. For instance, you’re talking with your husband, who is out of work and isn’t spending much time seeking employment. You make enough to support the two of you, and he’s starting to look way too comfortable staying at home and surfing the Net. You’re from the school of thought that says that if you lose your old job, your new job is finding a job, and so you STEP up to that crucial confrontation.

Your husband responds by saying that it’s not his fault that the economy is so horrible. Then he starts playing on your emotions by explaining how awful he feels and saying that you should be more sympathetic to him because offshore workers have ruined his career.

When your husband was first laid off, he didn’t do much to find a new job, and so you jointly developed a plan in which he agreed to work at getting work. That included eight hours a day of looking, sending out résumés, filling out applications, and so forth. He’s not doing it, and that’s the problem you want to talk about. He obviously wants to talk about a whole lot of other things, not his broken promise. You step back to the original problem by returning to the notion that he’s supposed to be working at getting a job: That’s the gap you describe. Now he calls you a nag and asks you to get off his back.

At this point you have several issues you may want to address. To help select the right problem let’s return to our CPR model. First, there’s the content: Is he going to look for work? That’s the original problem, and it’s a big deal to you. You’re not going to be easily sidetracked. Second, there’s the pattern: This is the third time you’ve had to bring up the issue. Third, there are several relationship issues: He’s playing with your emotions by asking for sympathy instead of talking about the violated promise. He’s trying to sidetrack you, and that feels manipulative. He’s labeling you as a nag and taking the focus off the original problem, and this feels insulting.

To help you choose from the CPR model which combination of these issues to deal with, you can apply the questions we asked in Chapter 1. When the turf is changing with each paragraph, it’s probably easiest to ask yourself, What is it that I really want? This will help you decide which issues to address.

Explosive Emotions Take Over

Now let’s take emergent problems to the final level. The other person goes to silence or violence and becomes quite emotional. This person isn’t merely pushing his or her argument too hard, he or she’s becoming angry and abusive. Now what? You can’t use the standard methods for creating safety until the other person has calmed down. Let’s look at an example.

Going “Posthole”

You work as a manager for a small family-owned company that imports gardening implements from the Far East. You notice that Carl, a rather large, gruff fellow who works as your accountant, hasn’t finished a month-end report that you asked to have by the end of yesterday. You walk into Carl’s office and start a conversation.

To make sure you don’t set a bad tone, you describe the gap: “Carl, I noticed that the monthly report wasn’t in my box this morning. Did you run into a problem?” Carl explains that he didn’t know that it really mattered; besides, he really hates doing it. You don’t leap to your power. Instead, you share a couple of natural consequences. Carl then states that he’ll get right on it. No big deal.

That’s how you expect the interaction to unfold. You act professionally, and your efforts pay off. However, there are exceptions. For instance, you carefully describe the problem, but Carl hasn’t read this book. Despite the fact that you have been the picture of professionalism, he becomes angry and says:“I’m your best employee, I miss one deadline and you’re all over me. Leave me alone!”

Then he grabs a sales sample, a half-size posthole digger (one of your gardening products), and throws it at a file cabinet. Now what do you do?

What Is This Thing Called Anger?

To deal with a person who becomes emotional (this includes anger, frustration, fear, sorrow, etc.), we have to get to the source of all feelings. Let’s return to the Path to Action.


Once again, emotions don’t come from outer space. We create them ourselves. A person does something, we see it, and then we tell ourselves a story. The story then leads to a feeling.

To create a strong feeling, we tell a story that includes a strong value. For instance, a coworker lets you down on purpose. She disrespects you. Your boss double-checked your work because he doesn’t trust you. Jordan got the raise because the policy is unfair. Your neighbor drove too fast because she doesn’t care about your safety. These are sacred values. You become quite upset. Then, of course, your adrenalin kicks in, and it’s off to the world of strong feelings, weak mind.

We become righteously indignant only when others have tread on sacred ground.

If you want to deal with your own emotions, you have to deal with your own stories. You have to find a way to tell them differently, leading to a different feeling and different actions. But how do you deal with other people’s emotions? How do you affect their stories?

Take Carl. You ask him about a simple report, and he goes posthole. He’s one of your most levelheaded employees. Obviously, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Despite the fact that you started the discussion with a highly professional description of the problem, he wiggled out of it. He raised his voice, told you to leave him alone, and tossed an object at a file cabinet. Although you may not know exactly what to do, you figure that his hurling a sharp object can’t be a good sign.

You do know some things. First, Carl isn’t simply responding to your opening question. You’re picking up the conversation in the middle of a lengthy argument Carl has been making to himself. Second, Carl is not in a position to talk about the issue calmly and rationally. He’s feeling the effects of adrenaline. Third, to diffuse the anger you’ll have to get at Carl’s underlying story, and he’s the one who made it up, not you.

Dealing with Anger
First, Ensure Your Safety

Fortunately, Carl gave you the corporate, not the Neanderthal, version of a fight. He held thousands of years of genetic engineering in check by not attacking you. Then again, he did throw something at an innocent file cabinet. You figure that he was putting on a show and not out of control. You don’t believe that you’re in danger.

That is exactly what you should be determining. When other people become angry, there is always the chance that they will become violent. They’ve stepped over one line. Will they step over the next one? Fortunately, most bosses never face anything close to danger at work, at least not from employees. People go to silence more than they go to violence. They complain to their loved ones. They play the martyr and despise you. They carp and seethe, but they don’t explode.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions. That’s why you must determine how dangerous the situation is. No listening skill or anger-reduction technique will overcome a person who is chasing you around the desk with a letter opener.

Don’t be a hero. If you think you’re in danger, leave. Remove yourself from the situation. Take flight; don’t fight. Then call the appropriate authorities. In most companies that’s security or human resources. Let your boss know what happened. Don’t even think about dealing with the danger yourself.

Second, Dissipate the Emotion

If you’re not in danger, go straight to the emotion; don’t deal with the argument per se. If someone came to you strung out on drugs, you wouldn’t dream of talking to that person about a work-related problem without first dealing with the chemical influence. It’s ludicrous to assume that you can have a rational argument with a person who is under the influence of mood-altering stimuli.

Anger creates a similarly inflated and abnormal reaction. Anger-based chemicals are legal, of course, but they prepare the body to spring into action, and that doesn’t mean talking politely. Therefore, don’t deal with the content of the argument until you’ve dealt with the emotion. The other person isn’t very likely to listen to you—or, for that matter, explain his or her own argument clearly and calmly—until the chemical surge has subsided. Any argument you make won’t be heard. Any suggestions you offer are likely to come across as an assault. Stifle your desire to jump into the content of the argument. Instead, dissipate the emotion.

But how? What does it take to douse internal fires that have been fueled by unhealthy stories?

Common but Not Good Practices

Dealing with anger nose to nose, so to speak, is tremendously hard, so hard that it’s almost impossible to find someone who does a good job of it. Here are three things not to do.

Don’t Get Hooked

Left to our natural tendencies, most of us respond to anger in kind. We get hooked. We become the very monsters we’re facing. But then again, why should we expect anything else? Someone who believes that a core value has been violated becomes angry. He or she hurls that anger in our faces, violating one or more of our core values. We become angry in response.

Don’t One-Up

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would treat anger with smug indifference, but it happens:

An employee barks, “That’s the third time in a row accounting has screwed up my check!”

The boss strikes back with “Big deal. When I held your job, I had to walk six blocks to pick up my pay. There was a time when I didn’t get a red cent for almost two months, and that was over Christmas no less! You’ve got it easy.”

When other people become angry, they want first to talk about and then to resolve their problem, not yours. They certainly don’t want to be told that their problem can’t compete with your lengthy and impressive history of disappointments and disasters.

Don’t Patronize

Acting holier than thou really doesn’t work, as this example shows:

One of your direct reports charges into your office and complains, “What was Larry trying to do in that meeting?

humiliated me in front of everyone!”

You come back with “Now, now. Quit throwing a childish tantrum. If you expect to talk to me, you’ll need to act like an adult.” Or you might say, “I can see you’re out of control. Here’s a dollar. Go get a cup of coffee and return when you’re under control.”

Telling people to calm down or grow up throws gas on the flames of violated values. They’re already fuming about being mistreated, and then you heap on more abuse. You patronize them. Your tone tells them that you think you’re superior. And as if this isn’t bad enough, you act as if you’re their confidant, giving them helpful advice.

Third, Explore the Other Person’s Path to Action

To see what we should do in the face of strong emotions, let’s return to our Path to Action.

Try to See More Than the Action

When someone becomes noticeably emotional, we see only the action that comes out at the end of their path. In fact, all we can ever see is anyone’s action or behavior. Everything else—feelings, stories, and observations—gets trapped inside.

Get to the Source

Because we can never see what’s going on inside other people’s heads, it’s important to help bring their thoughts and feelings into the open. This requires some skill on our part. We’ve seen the action; now it’s our job to retrace their Path to Action to whatever it was that ticked them off. We must move from the emotional outburst back to the feeling, the story, and the original observation. Therein lies the source of the emotion as well as the solution to the problem.

Use AMPP to Power Up Your Listening Skills

Next, we have to find a way to understand why others get emotional as well as let them know that we understand. We have four power listening tools to help us. We’ll use the acronym “AMPP” to help us recall them and as a reminder that they boost the power of our pathfinding skills. For those of you who are familiar with our previous book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, this material should have a familiar ring.

AMPP reminds us that we can simply Ask to get the conversation rolling, Mirror to encourage, Paraphrase for understanding, and Prime to make it safe for the other person to open up.

Ask to Get Things Rolling

Sometimes others convey strong emotions but say little or nothing about what’s going on. You can tell that they’re frustrated or upset or even angry, but they’re not opening up. For instance, your teenage son walks into the house, slams the door, and throws his books on the kitchen table. He looks pretty upset to you, but he doesn’t say a word. You start with a simple probe:

“What’s going on?”

He comes back with the classic: “Nothin’!”

You ask him to join in a conversation: “No, really. I’d love to hear what happened.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Maybe he really doesn’t want to talk. Maybe he does but has to be encouraged a little. He wants to know that you care enough to stick with it. The trouble is that both conditions start with the same signal: “I don’t want to talk about it.”

You ask him in one more time by saying: “Honest, I’m all ears. I promise I’ll just listen. Sometimes that can help.”

“Well, this morning before science class …”

Mirror to Encourage

When you’re talking to emotionally charged people, you may want to do more than simply ask them to talk. You may want to bring in a bigger gun: mirroring.

Here’s how it works. Say Tom, one of your direct reports, sat glumly in a meeting, said nothing, and looked discouraged. Normally Tom is upbeat and contributes a lot to the conversation. As the meeting ends, you find yourself alone with Tom, and so you start with a simple probe: “Are you feeling okay?”

In truth, he’s not. He’s upset and a little embarrassed. Over the last year Tom has put on 30 pounds, and people have taken to calling him “big guy.” You started the meeting by praising the “big guy” for his recent accomplishments. Your praise, wrapped in the negative label, hurt Tom’s feelings. However, when you ask him, he’s reluctant to say anything. After all, you are the boss and it’s sort of embarrassing. So he comes back with: “Well, uh, I’m, uh … I’m feeling just fine.”

Only he says it in a tone of voice and with a body posture that communicate exactly the opposite. To encourage Tom to open up, you hold a mirror up to him; that is, describe the inconsistency between what he just said and how he just said it:

“You know, the way you said that makes me wonder if you are okay. You seem kind of, I don’t know, low-energy, maybe a bit glum. Are you sure you’re okay?”

What you’re trying to do, of course, is make it safe for Tom to talk. By holding up a mirror, you’re letting him know that you’re concerned and that his brush-off wasn’t taken at face value. Once again, you’re trying to open up a conversation, not compel Tom to spill his guts.

Paraphrase for Understanding

Sometimes you catch a break. Say an employee is upset, walks in, and dumps out her entire Path to Action in one fell swoop:

“Boy, am I miffed. You can be so controlling. It drives me crazy. Yesterday I got another one of your follow-up notes. Do you have to monitor me by the hour? I feel like I’m being baby-sat!”

She has shared her feeling (miffed), her story (you control me too much because you don’t trust me: the violated value), and the fact that her feeling is based on either the note you sent her or your history of sending notes to check on how things are going.

With this much information on the table, it’s best to check to see if you understand what she said. Paraphrase; that is, put in your own words what you think she stated. But don’t parrot. Restating exactly what the other person said can be annoying and often sounds phony. Simply take your best guess at what the person just expressed:

“You’re upset because you think I overmanage you? I’m too controlling and send you too many notes—is that it?”

Paraphrasing serves two functions. First, it shows that you are listening and that you care. This alone often calms the other person down enough to allow a rational conversation. Second, it helps you see what you do and don’t understand.

“No, I don’t care about the notes,” she says. “It bugs me that you give me more notes than anyone else. Do you really think I’m the least competent person here?”

Ah, so it’s an issue of equity or respect (different core values).

“You think I give you more notes than others, that I don’t respect you?”

“Well, yeah. Yesterday you talked to Ken and then let him go without so much as a single follow-up. But with me….”

Prime to Make It Safe

Sometimes it takes quite a bit to encourage other people to talk openly. They figure that speaking their minds is a bad idea. If they express their feelings openly, they’re likely to get into trouble.

You’ve invited and mirrored, but so far the other person has remained emotionally charged and mute. What next? Our final tool takes us right into the other person’s story. We prime: We add words to the conversation (much like putting water in a pump to get it flowing), hoping the other person will do the same thing. We do this by guessing what the other person may be thinking:

“Are you upset because I did something unfair? I gave the promotion to Margie, and maybe you think that you’re more qualified or that I didn’t do a good job of making a choice. Is that it?”

The second half of this skill lies in how you guess the story. You’re trying to make it safe for others to share their thoughts. That means you have to express your best guess in a way that says, “Don’t worry; I’ll be okay with this discussion. I won’t become defensive or angry.” You do this, of course, by stating the story calmly and matter-of-factly.

Fourth, Take Action

Openly talking about the other person’s path puts us in a position to deal calmly with the issues that have surfaced. If we willingly talk about people’s thoughts and feelings without mocking, squelching, or attacking them, they are much more likely to calm down enough to both express their thoughts and listen to ours. Once we’ve uncovered the story and the action that led to it, we’re in a position to deal with the problem itself, and this is what we should do. We’re not listening for the sake of listening. Once again, we’re learning about how to communicate, in this case how to listen actively not as an intellectual exercise but as a way to get to results.

Create a Safety Valve

Before we bring this chapter to a close, let’s look at one final issue. You approach your boss with a problem that he is causing, and he immediately becomes aggressive. You silently seethe because you were hoping he would help you resolve the problem, not shoot the messenger. Despite your best efforts to stifle the fuming volcano of hate and loathing that is overtaking your “employee of the month” persona (which just last month won you a free week’s dry cleaning at the awards banquet), your boss picks up on your hostile tone and warns you that you’re starting to “step across the line.”

You find his remarks duplicitous because his tone is always snippy and insulting, but in a thinly veiled sarcastic kind of way that he thinks is clever and you think places him in the top five in the pantheon of hypocrites. You’re at a crossroads. To paraphrase Woody Allen, one path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. You can only pray that you have the wisdom to choose correctly.

Actually, you have a third choice. You can step back and buy yourself time. You can and should take a strategic delay:

“You know what; I need to think about this in more detail. I’ll get back to you later.”

And with that short comment you hotfoot it back to your office. This is not a retreat. It’s a strategic delay. This is not silence; you plan on returning. Once you’re ensconced in the safety of your office, you take a deep breath, regain control of your emotions, think about a new and better strategy for talking about the problem, and return another hour or day.

If your emotions are in control but you’re having trouble coming up with the right words, take a strategic delay. Think about what you’d like to say privately, safely, and slowly and then return later.

Finally, if your emotions are in control but you’re about to lose your temper, also take a strategic delay. Your grandmother was wrong when she counseled you on the eve of your wedding never to go to bed angry. When you’re angry, going to bed may be exactly the thing you need to do to dissipate your adrenaline, regain your brainpower, and prepare to return to the confrontation.


Stay Focused and Flexible

In this chapter we examined how to stay focused and flexible. As the model demonstrates, if fear is the emergent problem, step out of the original problem, make it safe, and if appropriate, revisit the original problem—returning to the place you left off. If a new issue or problem emerges, choose What and If. If you decide to deal with the new problem, work through it by following the model. Then, to ensure that you don’t get sidetracked, revisit the original problem—returning to the place you left off.


image When new problems emerge, remain flexible enough to deal with them—without getting sidetracked. Each time you step up to a new problem, it should be by choice not by accident. Choose, don’t meander.

image When people feel unsafe, step out of the conversation, create safety, and then return.

image When people don’t deliver on a promise because “something came up,” deal with it. Others need to let you know that plans may be changing as soon as they can.

image When a worse problem emerges, step out of the original problem, leave a bookmark so you’ll know where to return, and then start over with the new problem. Once you’ve dealt with the emergent problem, return to the original issue.

image When others become upset, retrace their Path to Action to the original source. Talking about the facts helps dissipate the emotions and takes you to the place where you can resolve the problem.

What Next?

You’ve dealt with the emergent problem—you’ve returned to and solved the original problem—and now how do you make sure that you end well? Instead of abruptly halting or fading into oblivion, what can you do to ensure that the effort you’ve made to work through a problem will lead to action? That’s what we’ll explore in the next chapter

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