A man surprised is half beaten.
As we (the authors) have taught this material, we’ve grown accustomed to people saying, “Yeah, but my situation’s more difficult than that!” Or “Yeah, but the people I deal with aren’t so quick to come around. Besides, most of the problems I face come as a surprise. I’m caught off guard.” In short, people can think of a dozen reasons why the skills we’ve been talking about don’t apply to the situations they care about.
“Yeah, but what if someone does something that’s really subtle? It drives you crazy but it’s hard to identify. How do you handle that?”
“Yeah, but what if my life partner refuses to ever talk about anything important? You can’t force a person into dialogue.”
“Yeah, but what if I don’t trust the other person? How am I supposed to deal with that?”
“Yeah, but both my boss and spouse are too sensitive to take any feedback. Shouldn’t I just let things slide?”
In truth, the dialogue skills we’ve shared apply to just about any problem you can imagine. However, since some are more difficult than others, we’ve chosen seventeen tough cases. We’ll take a moment to share a thought or two on each.
IT’S NOT LIKE ANYONE’S BLATANTLY harassing me or anything, but I don’t like the way I’m being treated. How can I bring it up without making enemies?”
Someone is making comments or gestures that you find offensive. The person does it seldom enough and he or she’s subtle enough that you’re not sure if HR or your boss can even help. What can you do?
In these situations it’s easy to think that the offender has all the power. It seems as if the rules of polite society make it so that others can behave inappropriately and you end up looking like you’re overreacting if you bring it up.
Generally speaking, a vast majority of these problems go away if they’re privately, respectfully, and firmly discussed. Your biggest challenge will be the respect part. If you put up with this behavior for too long, you’ll be inclined to tell a more and more potent Villain Story about the offender. This will jack up your emotions to the point that you’ll go in with guns blazing—even if only through your body language.
Tell the rest of the story. If you’ve tolerated the behavior for a long time before holding the conversation, own up to it. This may help you treat the individual like a reasonable, rational, and decent person—even if some of his or her behavior doesn’t fit this description.
When you feel a measure of respect for the other person, you’re ready to begin. After establishing a Mutual Purpose for the exchange, STATE your path. For example:
“I’d like to talk about something that’s getting in the way of my working with you. It’s a tough issue to bring up, but I think it’ll help us be better teammates if I do. Is that okay?” [Establish Mutual Purpose]
“When I walk into your office, sometimes your eyes move up and down my body. And when I sit next to you at a computer, sometimes you put your arm around the back of my chair. I don’t know that you’re aware you’re doing these things, so I thought I’d bring them up because they send a message that makes me uncomfortable. How do you see it?” [STATE My Path]
If you can be respectful and private but firm in this conversation, most problem behavior will stop. And remember, if the behavior is over the line, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact HR to ensure your rights and dignity are protected.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN your spouse is too sensitive? You try to give him or her some constructive feedback, but he or she reacts so strongly that you end up going to silence.”
Often couples come to an unspoken agreement during the first year or so of their marriage that affects how they communicate for the rest of their marriage. Say one person is touchy and can’t take feedback, or the other doesn’t give it very well. In any case, they in effect agree to say nothing to each other. They live in silence. Problems have to be huge before they’re discussed.
This is generally a problem of not knowing how to STATE your path. When something bothers you, catch it early. Contrasting can also help. “I’m not trying to blow this out of proportion. I just want to deal with it before it gets out of hand.” Describe the specific behaviors you’ve observed. “When Jimmy leaves his room a mess, you use sarcasm to get his attention. You call him a ‘pig’ and then laugh as if you didn’t mean it.” Tentatively explain the consequences. “I don’t think it’s having the effect you want. He doesn’t pick up on the hint, and I’m afraid that he’s starting to resent you” (Your story). Encourage testing: “Do you see it differently?”
Finally, Learn to Look for signs that safety is at risk, and Make It Safe. When you STATE things well and others become defensive, refuse to conclude that the issue is impossible to discuss. Think harder about your approach. Step out of the content, do what it takes to make sure your partner feels safe, and then try again to candidly STATE your view.
When spouses stop giving each other helpful feedback, they lose out on the help of a lifelong confidant and coach. They miss out on hundreds of opportunities to help each other communicate more effectively.
MY TEAMMATES ARE hypocrites. We get together and talk about all the ways we could improve, but then people don’t do what they agreed to.”
The worst teams walk away from problems like these. In good teams, the boss eventually deals with problem behavior. In the best teams, every team member is part of the system of accountability. If team members see others violate a team agreement, they speak up immediately and directly. It’s dangerous to wait for or expect the boss to do what good teammates should do themselves.
If your teammate isn’t doing what you think he or she should, it’s up to you to speak up.
We realized this after watching a group of executives that agreed they’d hold off on all discretionary spending to help free up cash for a short-term crunch. This strategy sounded good in the warm glow of an off-site meeting, but the very next day a team member rushed back and prepaid a vendor for six months of consulting work—work that appeared to be “discretionary.”
A team member who saw the executive prepare for and then make the prepayment didn’t realize this was the crucial conversation that would determine whether the team would pull together or fall apart on this issue. Instead, he decided it was up to the boss to hold this person accountable. He said nothing. By the time the boss found out about the transaction and addressed the issue, the policy had already been violated and the money spent. Motivation to support the new plan dissipated, and the team ran short of cash.
When teams try to rally around aggressive change or bold new initiatives, they need to be prepared to address the problem when a team member doesn’t live up to the agreement. Success does not depend on perfect compliance with new expectations, but on teammates who hold crucial conversations with one another when others appear to be reverting to old patterns.
PEOPLE WHO WORK FOR ME FILTER WHAT they say by guessing what they think I’m willing to hear. They take little initiative in solving important problems because
When leaders face deference—or what feels like kissing up—they typically make one of two mistakes. Either they misdiagnose the cause (fear), or they try to banish deference with a brash command.
Misdiagnose. Often, leaders are causing the fear but denying it. “Who me? I don’t do a thing to make people feel uncomfortable.” They haven’t Learned to Look. They’re unaware of their Style Under Stress. Despite this disclaimer, the way they carry themselves, their habit of speaking in absolutes, their subtle use of authority—something out there—is creating fear and eventual deference.
Then there’s the other misdiagnosis: leaders who face “head-bobbing kiss-ups” often think they’re doing something wrong when, in fact, they’re living with ghosts of previous leaders. They do their best to be open and supportive and to involve people, but despite their genuine efforts, people still keep their distance. Often, people treat their leaders like celebrities or dictators, regardless of the fact that they’ve done nothing to deserve it.
Before you do anything, you need to find out if you’re the cause, if you’re living with ghosts of bosses past, or both.
Command it away. Many leaders seek the simple path. They tell people to stop deferring.
“It seems to me that you’re agreeing with me because I’m the boss and not because what I’m saying makes sense.”
“I’d prefer that you stop deferring to me and simply listen to the idea.”
“Okay. whatever you say, Boss!”
With ingrained deference you face a catch-22. If you don’t say something, it’ll probably continue. If you do say something, you may be inadvertently encouraging it to continue.
Work on me first. Discover your part in the problem. Don’t ask your direct reports. If they’re already deferring to you, they’ll whitewash the problem. Consult with a peer who watches you in action. Ask for honest feedback. Are you doing things that cause people to defer to you? If so, what? Explore your peer’s path by having him or her point out your specific behaviors. Jointly develop a plan of attack, work on it, and seek continued feedback.
If the problem stems from ghosts (the actions of previous leaders), go public. Describe the problem in a group or team meeting and then ask for advice. Don’t try to command it away. You can’t. Reward risk takers. Encourage testing. When people do express an opinion contrary to yours, thank them for their honesty. Play devil’s advocate. If you can’t get others to disagree, then disagree with yourself. Let people know that all ideas are open to question. If you need to, leave the room. Give people some breathing space.
I DON’T KNOW WHAT to do. I’m not sure I can trust this person. He missed an important deadline. Now I wonder if I should trust him again.”
People often assume that trust is something you have or don’t have. Either you trust someone or you don’t. That puts too much pressure on trust. “What do you mean I can’t stay out past midnight? Don’t you trust me?” your teenage son inquires.
Trust doesn’t have to be universally offered. In truth, it’s usually offered in degrees and is very topic specific. It also comes in two flavors—motive and ability. For example, you can trust me to administer CPR if needed; I’m motivated. But you can’t trust me to do a good job; I know nothing about it.
Deal with trust around the issue, not around the person.
When it comes to regaining trust in others, don’t set the bar too high. Just try to trust them in the moment, not across all issues. You don’t have to trust them in everything. To make it safe for yourself in the moment, bring up your concerns. Tentatively STATE what you see happening. “I get the sense that you’re only sharing the good side of your plan. I need to hear the possible risks before I’m comfortable. Is that okay?” If they play games, call them on it.
Also, don’t use your mistrust as a club to punish people. If they’ve earned your mistrust in one area, don’t let it bleed over into your overall perception of their character. If you tell yourself a Villain Story that exaggerates others’ untrustworthiness, you’ll act in ways that help them justify themselves in being even less worthy of your trust. You’ll start up a self-defeating cycle and get more of what you don’t want.
MY SPOUSE IS THE person you talked about earlier. You know, I try to hold a meaningful discussion, I try to work through an important problem, and he or she
It’s common to blame others for not wanting to stay in dialogue as if it were some kind of genetic disorder. That’s not the problem. If others don’t want to talk about tough issues, it’s because they believe that it won’t do any good. Either they aren’t good at dialogue, or you aren’t, or you both aren’t—or so they think.
Work on me first. Your spouse may have an aversion to all crucial conversations, even when talking to a skilled person. Nevertheless, you’re still the only person you can work on. Start with simple challenges. Don’t go for the really tough issues. Do your best to Make It Safe. Constantly watch to see when your spouse starts to become uncomfortable. Use tentative language. Separate intent from outcome. “I’m pretty sure you’re not intending to . . .” If your spouse consistently seems unwilling to talk about his or her personal issues, learn how to Explore Others’ Paths. Practice these skills every chance you get. In short, start simply and then bring all your dialogue tools into play.
Now, having said all of this, exercise patience. Don’t nag. Don’t lose hope and then go to violence. Every time you become aggressive or insulting, you give your spouse additional evidence that crucial conversations do nothing but cause harm.
If you’re constantly on your best dialogue behavior, you’ll build more safety in the relationship and your spouse will be more likely to begin picking up on the cues and start coming around.
When you see signs of improvement, you can accelerate the growth by inviting your spouse to talk with you about how you talk. Your challenge here is to build safety by establishing a compelling Mutual Purpose. You need to help your partner see a reason for having this conversation—a reason that is so compelling that he or she will be willing to take part.
Share what you think the consequences of having or not having this conversation could be (both positive and negative). Explain what it means to both you and the relationship. Then invite your spouse to help identify the topics you have a hard time discussing. Take turns describing how you both tend to approach these topics. Then discuss the possible benefits of helping each other make improvements.
Sometimes if you can’t talk about the tough topics, you can more easily talk about how you talk—or don’t talk—about them. That helps get things started.
THE PERSON I’M THINKING OF doesn’t do blatantly unacceptable things—nothing to write home about—just subtle stuff that’s starting to drive me crazy.”
If people simply bother you at some abstract level, maybe what they’re doing isn’t worthy of a conversation. Perhaps the problem is not their behavior but your tolerance. For example, an executive laments, “My employees really disappoint me. Just look at the length of their hair.” It turns out that the employees in question have no contact with anyone besides one another. Their hair length has nothing to do with job performance. The boss really has no reason to say anything.
However, when actions are both subtle and unacceptable, then you have to retrace your Path to Action and put your finger on exactly what others are doing or you have nothing to discuss. Abstract descriptions peppered with your vague conclusions or stories have no place in crucial conversations. For example, whenever your family gets together, your brother constantly takes potshots at everyone else using sarcastic humor. The individual comments aren’t directly insulting enough to discuss. What you want to talk about is the fact that these constant comments make every get-together feel negative. Remember, clarifying the facts is the homework required for crucial conversations.
Retrace your Path to Action to its source. Identify specific behaviors that are out of bounds and take note. When you’ve done your homework, consider the behaviors you noted and make sure the story you’re telling yourself about these behaviors is important enough for dialogue. If it is, then Make It Safe and STATE Your Path.
SOME MEMBERS OF MY WORK TEAM do what they’re asked, but no more. If they run into a problem, they take one simple stab at fixing it. But if their efforts don’t pay off, they quit.”
Most people are far more likely to talk about the presence of a bad behavior than the absence of a good one. When someone really messes up, leaders and parents alike are compelled to take action. However, when people simply fail to be excellent, it’s hard to know what to say.
Establish new and higher expectations. Don’t deal with a specific instance; deal with the overall pattern. If you want someone to show more initiative, tell him or her. Give specific examples of when the person ran into a barrier and then backed off after a single try. Raise the bar and then make it crystal clear what you’ve done. Jointly brainstorm what the person could have done to be both more persistent and more creative in coming up with a solution.
For instance, “I asked you to finish up a task that absolutely had to be completed before I returned from a trip. You ran into a problem, tried to get in touch with me, and then simply left a message with my four-year-old. What could you have done to track me down on the road?” or “What would it have taken to create a backup strategy?”
Pay attention to ways you are compensating for someone’s lack of initiative. Have you made yourself responsible for following up? If so, talk with that person about assuming this responsibility. Have you asked more than one person to take the same assignment so you can be sure it will get done? If so, talk to the person originally assigned about reporting progress to you early so you only need to put someone else on the job when there’s a clear need for more resources.
Stop acting out your expectations that others won’t take initiative. Instead, talk your expectations out and come to agreements that place the responsibility on the team members while giving you information early enough that you aren’t left high and dry.
IT ISN’T A SINGLE PROBLEM. It’s that I keep having to talk with people about the same problem. I feel like I have to choose between being a nag and
Some crucial conversations go poorly because you’re having the wrong conversations. You talk to someone who is late for a meeting for the second time. Then the third. Your blood begins to boil. Then you bite your lip and give another gentle reminder. Finally, after your resentment builds up (because you’re telling yourself an ugly story), you become violent. You make a sarcastic or cutting comment and then end up looking stupid because the reaction seems way out of line given the minor offense.
If you continue to return to the original problem (coming in late) without talking about the new problem (failing to live up to commitments), you’re stuck in “Groundhog Day.” We talk about this problem using the Groundhog Day movie metaphor. If you return to the same initial problem, you’re like Bill Murray in the movie—you’re forced to relive the same situation over and over rather than deal with the bigger problem. Nothing ever gets resolved.
Learn to Look for patterns. Don’t focus exclusively on a single event. Watch for behavior over time. Then STATE Your Path by talking about the pattern. For example, if a person is late for meetings and agrees to do better, the next conversation should not be about tardiness. It should be about his or her failure to keep a commitment. This is a bigger issue. It’s now about trust and respect.
People often become far more emotional than the issue they’re discussing warrants because they’re talking about the wrong issue. If you’re really bothered because of a pattern, but you’re talking about this latest instance, your emotions will seem out of proportion. In contrast, an interesting thing happens when you hold the right conversation. Your emotions calm down. When you talk about what’s really eating you—the pattern—you’ll be able to be more composed and effective.
Don’t get pulled into any one instance or your concern will seem trivial. Talk about the overall pattern.
I’VE BEEN TOLD THAT I should never go to bed angry. Is that always a good idea?”
Once you’ve become angry, it’s not always easy to calm down. You’ve told yourself an ugly story, your body has responded by preparing for a fight, and now you’re trying your best not to duke it out—only your body hasn’t caught up with your brain. So what do you do? Do you try to stay in dialogue even though your intuition tells you to back off and buy some time? After all, Mom said, “Never go to bed angry.”
Okay, so your mom wasn’t exactly right. She was right by suggesting that you shouldn’t let serious problems go unresolved. She was wrong about always sticking with a discussion, no matter your emotional state. It’s perfectly okay to suggest that you need some time alone and that you’d like to pick up the discussion later on—say, tomorrow. Then, after you’ve dissipated the adrenaline and have had time to think about the issues, hold the conversation. Coming to mutual agreement to take a time-out is not the same thing as going to silence. In fact, it’s a very healthy example of dialogue.
As a sidenote on this topic, it’s not such a good idea to tell others that they need to calm down or that they need to take some time out. They may need the time, but it’s hard to suggest it without coming off as patronizing. “Take ten minutes, calm down, and then get back to me.” With others, get back to the source of their anger. Retrace their Path to Action.
MY TEENAGE SON is a master of excuses. I talk to him about a problem, and he’s always got a new reason why it’s not his fault.”
It’s easy to be lulled into a series of never-ending excuses—particularly if the other person doesn’t want to do what you’ve asked and learns that as long as he or she can give you a plausible reason, all bets are off.
“I go to work before my son leaves for school, and he’s constantly late. First he told me that he was late because his alarm broke. The next day the old car we bought him had a problem—or so he says. Then his friend forgot to pick him up. Then he had a head cold and couldn’t hear his new alarm. Then . . .”
With “imaginative” people, take a preemptive strike against all new excuses. Gain a commitment to solve the overall problem, not simply the stated cause. For instance, the first time the person is late, seek a commitment to fix the alarm—and anything else that might stand in the way. Repairing the alarm only deals with one potential cause. Ask the person to deal with the problem—being late.
“So you think that if you get a new alarm, you’ll be able to make it to school on time? That’s fine with me. Do whatever it takes to get there on time. Can I count on you being there tomorrow at eight o’clock sharp?”
Then remember, as the excuses accumulate, don’t talk about the most recent excuse; talk about the pattern.
WHAT IF THE PEOPLE you talk to not only are angry, but also become insubordinate? How do you handle that?”
When you’re discussing a tough issue with employees (or even your kids), there’s always the chance they’ll step over the line. They’ll move from a friendly dispute to a heated discussion and then into the nasty territory of being insubordinate or acting disrespectful.
The trouble is, insubordination is so rare that it takes most leaders by surprise. So they buy time to figure out what to do. And in so doing, they let the person get away with something that was way out of line. Worse still, their perceived indifference makes them an accomplice to all future abuses. Parents, on the other hand, caught by surprise, tend to respond in kind, becoming angry and insulting.
Show zero tolerance for insubordination. Speak up immediately, but respectfully. Change topics from the issue at hand to how the person is currently acting. Catch the escalating disrespect before it turns into abuse and insubordination. Let the person know that his or her passion for the issue at hand is leading down a dangerous trail. “I’d like to step away from this scheduling issue for a moment—then we’ll come right back to it. The way you’re leaning in toward me and raising your voice seems disrespectful. I want to help address your concerns, but I’m going to have a tough time doing so if this continues.”
If you can’t catch it early, discuss the insubordination and seek help from HR specialists.
SOMETIMES I LET A PROBLEM go for a long time, and then when I bring it up, I say something just awful. How do I recover from this?”
When other people do things that bother us, and then we tell ourselves a story about how they’re bad and wrong, we’re setting ourselves up for an unhealthy conversation. Of course, when we tell ourselves an ugly story and then sit on it, it only gets worse. Stories left unattended don’t get better with time—they ferment. Then, when we eventually can’t take it anymore, we say something we regret.
First, don’t repress your story. Use your STATE skills early on, before the story turns too ugly. Second, if you have let the problem build, don’t hold the crucial conversation while angry. Set aside a time when you can discuss it in a calm fashion. Then, using your STATE skills, explain what you’ve seen and heard, and tentatively tell the most simple and least offensive story. “The way you just told me that our neighbor thinks I’m a real idiot has me worried. You smiled and laughed when you said it. I’m beginning to wonder if you take pleasure in running to me with negative feedback. Is that what’s going on?”
If you do say something horrible—"You’re cruel, you know that? You love to hurt me and I’m sick of it"—apologize. You can’t unring the bell, but you can apologize. Then STATE Your Path.
WHAT IF SOMEONE has a hygiene problem? Or maybe someone’s boring and people avoid him or her. How could you ever talk about something personal and sensitive like that?”
Most people avoid sensitive issues like the plague. Who can blame them? Unfortunately, when fear and misapplied compassion rule over honesty and courage, people can go for years without being given information that could be extremely helpful.
When people do speak up, they often leap from silence to violence. Jokes, nicknames, and other veiled attempts to sneak in vague feedback are both indirect and disrespectful. Also, the longer you go without saying anything, the greater the pain when you finally deliver the message.
Use Contrasting. Explain that you don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings, but you do want to share something that could be helpful. Establish Mutual Purpose. Let the other person know your intentions are honorable. Also explain that you’re reluctant to bring up the issue because of its personal nature, but since the problem is interfering with the person’s effectiveness, you really must. Tentatively describe the problem. Don’t play it up or pile it on. Describe the specific behaviors and then move to solutions. Although these discussions are never easy, they certainly don’t have to be offensive or insulting.
MY CHILDREN are constantly playing word games. If I try to tell them that they shouldn’t have done something, they say I never told them exactly that. They’re starting to get on my nerves.”
Sometimes parents (and leaders) are tricked into accepting poor performance by silver-tongued individuals who are infinitely creative in coming up with new ways to explain why they didn’t know any better. Not only do these inventive people have the ability to conjure up creative excuses, but they also have the energy and will to do so incessantly. Eventually they wear you down. As a result, they get away with doing less or doing it poorly, while hard-working, energetic family members (or employees) end up carrying an unfair share of the load.
This is another case of pattern over instance. Tentatively STATE the pattern of splitting hairs and playing word games. Let them know they aren’t fooling anyone. In this case, don’t focus exclusively on actions, because creative people can always find new inappropriate actions. “You didn’t say I couldn’t call her ‘stupid.’” Talk about both behaviors and outcomes. “You’re hurting your sister’s feelings when you call her stupid. Please don’t do that, or anything else that might hurt her feelings.”
Use previous behavior as an example, and then hold them accountable to results. Don’t get pulled into discussing any one instance. Stick with the pattern.
I’VE GOT A LOT OF GOOD people working for me, but they’re too full of surprises. When they run into problems, I only find out after it’s too late. They always have a good excuse, so what should I do?”
Leaders who are constantly being surprised allow it to happen. The first time an employee says, “Sorry, but I ran into a problem,” the leaders miss the point. They listen to the problem, work on it, and then move on to a new topic. In so doing, they are saying: “It’s okay to surprise me. If you have a legitimate excuse, stop what you’re doing, turn your efforts to something else, and then wait until I show up to spring the news.”
Make it perfectly clear that once you’ve given an assignment, there are only two acceptable paths. Employees need to complete the assignment as planned, or if they run into a problem, they need to immediately inform you. No surprises. Similarly, if they decide that another job needs to be done instead, they call you. No surprises.
Clarify the “no surprises” rule. The first time someone comes back with a legitimate excuse—but he or she didn’t tell you when the problem first came up—deal with this as the new problem. “We agreed that you’d let me know immediately. I didn’t get a call. What happened?”
WHAT IF THE PERSON you’re dealing with violates all of the dialogue principles most of the time—especially during crucial conversations.”
When you look at a continuum of dialogue skills, most of us (by definition) fall in the middle. Sometimes we’re on and sometimes we’re off. Some of us are good at avoiding Sucker’s Choices; others are good at making it safe. Of course, you have the extremes as well. You have people who are veritable conversational geniuses. And now you’re saying that you work with (maybe live with) someone who is the complete opposite. He or she rarely uses any skills. What’s a person to do?
The danger, of course, is that the other person isn’t as bad as you think—you bring out the worst in him or her—or that he or she really is that bad, and you try to address all the problems at once.
Let’s assume this person is pretty bad all of the time and with most everyone. Where do you start? Let’s apply a metaphor here. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Choose your targets very carefully. Consider two dimensions: (1) What bothers you the most? “He or she is constantly assuming the worst and telling horrible stories.” (2) What might be the easiest to work on? “He or she rarely shows any appreciation.”
Look for those areas that are most grievous to you and might not be all that hard to talk about. Pick one element and work on it. Establish Mutual Purpose. Frame the conversation in a way that the other person will care about.
“I love it when we’re feeling friendly toward each other. I’d like to have that feeling more frequently between us. There are a couple of things I’d like to talk about that I’m pretty convinced would help us with that. Can we talk?”
STATE the issue, and then work on that one issue. Don’t nag; don’t take on everything at once. Deal with one element, one day at a time.
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