Crucial Conversations QA

Surviving a Messy Roommate

Dear Joseph,

How do I get my roommates to clean up after themselves? They don’t seem to care about the mess they make and how dirty our house gets. I tried to talk to them about it but any attempt to reform their behavior only lasts a day or two. I end up being the one to have to take responsibility for everyone else’s mess. It drives me nuts. Please help!

Angry Roommate

Dear Angry Roommate,

There are three possible reasons for your roommates’ behavior.

  1. They don’t care about your cleanliness standards as much as you do.
  2. They resent your attempts to cajole them into changing.
  3. All of the above.

Problems in relationships begin anytime you try to “get them to do” something. If your goal is changing someone else’s behavior, your motives are essentially manipulative. You begin to scheme and strategize on covert tactics to achieve your self-centered goal. After a recent lecture, a man approached me excitedly to explain that he now had some great ideas for how to “get my wife to lose weight.” Can you hear the problem?

Please don’t hear this as criticism. Hear it as autobiography. My greatest parenting and leadership failures have come when I have given myself the task of changing another person’s behavior. This goal resulted in feelings of judgment, alienation, and resentment. When I would “succeed” in “changing someone’s behavior,” I rewarded myself with self-deceptive hubris—which inevitably led to future episodes of judgment, alienation, and resentment.

With that said, you are fully within your rights to want a clean apartment. There are two ethical and effective ways to get there:

  1. Explore preferences. Hold a conversation with your roommates to see if there is any mutual dissatisfaction with the status quo. If there is sufficient dissatisfaction to agree on a new system of responsibility and consequences, then you’re home free. If not, then move to #2.
  2. Negotiate. They may not care about having a clean living room, but they may care about having a preferable parking spot, or an evening with the house to themselves, etc. If there is a basis for negotiation, be sure you come to clear expectations and consequences for failure that you and they can live with.

If you’ve tried both exploring and negotiating with little success or progress, then you really only have two options moving forward.

  1. Do it yourself—for yourself. If your roommates don’t care enough to take any additional action, you have the option of cleaning the house the way you want (so long as they don’t mind the smell of Febreze). To take this step, you’ll need to surrender the resentment you feel from their failure to live up to your standards. Let go of the burden of manipulation and pick up the broom or dishrag yourself—for yourself. Don’t hope for appreciation from them—just appreciate the state of things yourself.
  2. Move. The only person whose behavior you can control is you. And nothing makes you feel more like a victim than hanging your happiness on making others change. It absolves you of emotional responsibility as your moods become the product of others’ choices. You trade contentment for resentment. Not a great trade. At the end of the day, if you don’t like how your roommates behave, you’ve got a choice to make. In the aggregate, are the pluses bigger than the minuses? If so, choose to stay—and take responsibility for your choice. If not, move. Take responsibility for your needs not their behavior.

I hope some of these suggestions help you find peace and cleanliness!


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Influencer QA

How to Make Crucial Conversations Part of Your Culture

Dear David,

I work for a global manufacturing company. We are in the process of redefining our workplace culture and recognize that one of the key business behaviors we need to develop, at every level, is the ability to effectively have crucial conversations. What recommendations do you have for creating a workplace ‘movement’ that influences the frequency and effectiveness of crucial conversations?

Looking Forward

Dear Looking,

Your question is one we’ve studied, tracked, and evaluated over many years. The good news is that you can succeed at making the behaviors to “speak up” and “hold others accountable” into organizational norms. The other good news is that, when you do, it has a profoundly positive impact on all aspects of performance.

I’ll describe the approach we use to build these norms.

Begin with a compelling business case.
Work with senior leaders to identify a tangible goal that is undeniable and irresistible, a goal that everyone will unite around. We ask them to select a priority that is important enough to demand at least 20 percent of their time. Then we ask them to make sure the link between “speaking up” and achieving the goal is clear. Below are a few examples:

    • Hospital: Achieve hand hygiene compliance of 95 percent or better. You must speak up whenever you see someone fail to wash his/her hands.
    • Factory: Manage capacity and resource constraints in a way that prevents any delays in deliveries to customers. You must speak up whenever you see a situation that could put a customer delivery at risk.
    • Mine: Eliminate accidents that cause serious injuries and deaths. You must speak up whenever you see unsafe behavior or an unsafe situation.

Having a specific goal for “speaking up” will smoke out two kinds of people: People who don’t want to have to speak up and people who don’t want others to speak up to them. The fact that the goal is compelling, undeniable, and irresistible means leaders can have an on-the-bus or off-the-bus conversation with these resisters.

Socialize the business case. Sometimes the business case is obvious. But usually it’s important to have leaders discuss the case with groups of opinion leaders. Here are some of the questions we have the leaders ask to get the conversations going.

  1. Our Brand: What are we known for? Why do customers come to us, instead of to our competition? What is it about our goods or services that allow us to charge premium pricing? What kinds of failures would put our brand/reputation at risk?
  2. Our Environment: What threats and opportunities does the organization face? What changes in the environment (to customers, technology, competitors, regulations, workforce, etc.) do we need to master?
  3. Our Ability to Execute: What are our organization’s strengths and weaknesses? Strengths: Successful change, positive project execution, organic growth, etc. Weaknesses: Stalled initiatives; areas of stagnant growth; investments that are underperforming; projects that miss budgets, timelines, or specs; imperfect collaboration between units, regions, or functions; customer service issues; etc.

These conversations help leaders explain their business strategy and specific priorities. Below are two examples:

  • Healthcare System: The senior team described their brand as, “A destination health provider that serves a multistate region.” This strategy guided their capital spending: they purchased an insurance company, bought more than a dozen community hospitals, and built a cancer center, heart center, spine center, and children’s hospital. It certainly took more than 20 percent of their time. The CEO described “speaking up” and “universal accountability” as the essential glue that binds everything together.
  • Manufacturing Manager: This leader described her brand as, “We use mass customization to appeal to multiple niche markets.” Her plant needed to deliver personalized products with the cost and scale of mass manufacturing. She developed an incredibly flexible and responsive system where the lynchpins were “speaking up” and “universal accountability.”

Notice how these business cases present Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability as “means to an end” rather than as “ends in and of themselves.” They position these skills as essential, not nice to have.

Ask leaders to lead. It’s tempting for leaders to delegate initiatives to skilled support functions, such as Human Resources or Learning & Development. But norms are set from the top, so leaders need to be more actively involved. Below are three actions we ask leaders to take.

  • Involve both formal and informal leaders. Senior leaders must influence through others. In particular, they need the understanding, commitment, and buy in from two groups: formal leaders and informal leaders. Formal leaders include anyone with supervisory responsibilities; informal leaders include opinion leaders, employees who may not have any formal authority, but have the trust and respect of their peers. Senior leaders need to spend a disproportionate amount of their time with these two groups.
  • Develop an accountability/measurement system that keeps people’s feet to the fire. Senior leaders must hold themselves accountable for results.
  • Build motivation and ability within your chains of command. We ask leaders to lead the influence efforts. That’s why we have them facilitate the discussions that explain the business case. We also ask them to lead (or help lead) any training that’s involved. These investments of time and prestige will convince others of the priority they set on speaking up.

Combine all Six Sources of Influence™.
I don’t have the space here to review the methods taught in our book, Influencer. But I will remind you that initiatives that combine four or more (preferably all six) Sources of Influence are ten times more likely to succeed. As a quick reminder, the Six Sources of Influence are:

  1. Personal Motivation: Will—Is speaking up seen as a moral imperative?
  2. Personal Ability: Skill—Do people have the skills to speak up in the toughest situations?
  3. Social Motivation: Encouragement—Do people’s managers and peers ask and encourage them to speak up?
  4. Social Ability: Support—Do people’s managers and peers support them when they try to speak up?
  5. Structural Motivation: Incentives—Does speaking up affect performance reviews, promotions, pay, etc.?
  6. Structural Ability: Tools—Do people have the opportunities, cues, and other tools they need to speak up?

Make sure all Six Sources of Influence are aligned in your favor, that they all support speaking up. Hope this helps.

Best of luck,

SURVEY: High Potential, Low Performance. What Gives?

We’ve all had team members or direct reports who have the talent, but still fail to perform. We’re looking to measure the “lost potential” managers and colleagues suspect exists within their teams.

Share your perspective in our short, three-minute survey. Thank you for taking the time to participate in our research.

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Kerrying On

The Fast Track to Joy

This article was originally published September 18, 2012.

When I was seven years old, I learned how to ride a bike. I learned on my brother’s old, stripped-down, J.C. Higgins. It was a pathetic little thing possessing no fenders, no handle bar grips, no hand brakes, no . . . just about everything. Then, of course, I wanted to ride the bike every chance I could get, but since it was my older brother’s pride and joy, well, you can guess how that worked out.

Yearning for a vehicle of my own, I tried to save money to purchase my own bike, but at age seven, I only earned 50 cents a week allowance and I usually spent 40 cents of it on a trip to the movies. Every week, I was torn between watching Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and the other heroes of my youth—and saving for a bike.

Mom saw my dilemma, and after watching me eyeball my brother’s bike for the thousandth time, came up with a plan.

My grandmother had recently married a rather wealthy lawyer who was so desirous to show his love for her that he gave her a 200-pound ironing machine (the kind usually used at hotels). Grandma appreciated the gift, but had other ideas. She figured she could use her newfound wealth to send her laundry not through a giant ironing machine but to a professional establishment. So, Grandma hired a moving company to haul the thing to our house.

“With your bad back and all,” Grandma explained to my mother, “I’m betting this newfangled contraption will be just the ticket.”

In truth, the machine was absolutely terrific—if you happened to work for Barnum & Bailey and needed to touch up a tent. Unfortunately, the huge appliance was hard to operate, “ate” shirts and blouses, and only made Mom’s back feel worse. Eventually, the monster was moved to our basement where it sat next to my brother’s bike—the one I so sorely coveted.

“I bet,” Mom explained one night over dinner, “we could take that silly ironing machine that is just gathering dust in the basement and auction it off.”

“We could certainly use the money,” Dad replied.

“Yes, and I know just what to do with it. Billy has grown too big for his bike so I figure we can sell the ironing machine at auction and then turn around and buy Billy a bigger, better bike.”

This wasn’t going well for me.

“And then Kerry can have Billy’s old bike.”

Things were looking up.

Now, you might be thinking: Why did my mom’s plan end with me owning the hand-me-down bike while my brother Billy, who already had a bicycle, would get the new (to him) bike? Those of you who are a younger sibling know the answer. As a kid brother, it was my job to recycle cast-offs. My clothing store, for example, was my older brother’s chest of drawers. And when it came to sporting goods, well, I was thrilled with the idea of getting my brother’s bike. It was a bike. I didn’t have a bike. Was there any other way to get one?

Two weeks later, when the local auctioneer placed the ironing machine up for bid, Dad turned to me and explained that, judging from the crowd of hayseeds that had gathered, it was doubtful that anyone would want the curious offering we had placed on the block.

“We’ll need to get about fifteen dollars if we expect to turn around and buy one of the bikes that are going up for auction,” Dad explained. “I don’t think anyone around here even knows what that machine is.” Now I was worried. Would I ever get a bike of my own?

Dad was right. At first, the curious apparatus just sat there while people poked at it with their index fingers. Perhaps a carburetor had fallen off a passing spaceship. Eventually, the auctioneer read the instructions from the metal plaque soldered to the body. “Why, it’s a fancy ironing machine,” he announced with an air of achievement. Soon the bidding was off and running until a woman with a large feathered hat bid fifteen dollars.


When we returned home later that day, my brother Billy jumped for joy at the sight of the second-hand Schwinn bike Dad had purchased while I rushed to the basement to claim my windfall. I was ecstatic. At last, a bike of my own!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t ride my bike just then because it was now raining and the dirt road in front of our house had turned into a river of mud. Since the bike didn’t have fenders, if I ventured out onto 25th street, it would paint an ugly brown stripe up my back, neck, and head.

Finally, after a week of unrelenting drizzle, the sun dried the road enough to be useable. I hopped on Billy’s old bike (I still thought of it that way) and rode around frenetically while shouting and yipping for joy. It was a dream come true. For about five minutes. Then I came to the realization that I didn’t really have any place to go (I was seven. Where would I go?) Nor did I have any smooth surfaces to take me there—just a bunch of rutted hills that led to more rutted hills. Plus, the bike only had one gear. It was really hard to pump. In fact, it was so hard that one day, as I tried to get up speed to shoot across the slimy, hand-hued wood bridge that crossed the creek near our house, I skittered off the bridge and into a muddy stream—turning myself into a ball of mud and slime and ruining my brand-new white corduroy pants. So, I parked the stupid bike where the ironing machine once sat until I eventually outgrew the thing and my mother gave it to Goodwill.

This wasn’t the last time I yearned for something I was convinced would bring me happiness, only to discover I was dead wrong. (If you’ve ever saved up for a Slinky, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) You’d think that after a string of disappointing purchases we’d all have learned that owning things doesn’t exactly guarantee happiness.

Unfortunately, the vivid advertisements that pump out of our TV sets at the rate of about 100,000 a year continue to preach otherwise. Copywriters tell us that buying things will bring us all sorts of spectacular benefits. For instance, when I was a teenager, the hair product Brylcreem was said to make you so attractive that women would chase after you, wrestle you to the ground, and run their fingers through your hair—something that I thought sounded mighty promising at the time—but that never actually panned out for me.

But then again, it’s not as if having more money (and the things that go with it) never helps. For instance, a recent study revealed that happiness does actually go up with income—to a point. And then it levels off. Not having enough to pay the rent or get your teeth fixed wears on you, so happiness rises with an infusion of cash. But when you reach a certain level of owning stuff, your happiness quotient stays the same. More stuff doesn’t boost your score. That is, researchers found, unless you do a couple of different things with the extra money. You can use it to create memorable family experiences or to help others. When you do one or both of these, more money can indeed yield more happiness.

At some level, we all understand this concept. But then again, at a deeper, more visceral level, we think: Yeah, I know more money won’t make me happier, but with more money I’d be in Paris being the same degree of happy, and maybe even driving a sports car. It only stands to reason that driving a sports car in Paris creates a higher order of happiness than driving a Honda in Omaha. Meaning, of course, that try as we might, we can’t find a way to believe that owning more toys doesn’t guarantee more happiness.

Last week, I witnessed for myself the serving-others aspect of the recent research finding. My twelve-year-old granddaughter, Rachel, was dusting shelves for her mother while her friend stood by in tennis gear waiting to go play doubles at a nearby court. Rachel’s three-year-old sister, Lizzy, was toddling behind her, and after Rachel dusted each shelf, Lizzy would plead: “Help me!” Rachel would then lift Lizzy who, in turn, would drag her miniature duster over the same surface. To me, it was precious. Nevertheless, you’d figure that since Lizzy wasn’t actually helping move the job along, Rachel would ditch her baby sister in favor of finishing sooner and playing tennis. But she didn’t hurry. You could tell by the broad smile on her face that she took genuine pleasure from indulging her little sister.

“Rachel enjoys helping others more than doing just about anything,” her mother explained. “She learned that at an early age.”

What a blessing to have learned at such a young age that serving others (be it with your extra resources or your time) can be a great source of happiness. This idea, of course, can’t be sold through infomercials nor sponsored by celebrities, so it won’t spread across the country like the latest design in running shoes. In fact, unless the world experiences some sort of cataclysmic upheaval, one of the most important principles ever known to humankind will continue to be overshadowed by a deluge of messages that suggest we can’t really be happy unless we own things.

But then again there’s no knowing for sure. An ironing machine might be just what you need. A new bike could really help you out. The hair product might even make your hair shine. But then again, maybe all of these things will let you down. Most assuredly, none of them can be counted on to bring you anything as important as happiness.

You want happiness? Use your time and resources to genuinely and freely serve others: visit a shut in, read to a sick friend, compliment a coworker on a job well done, write a thoughtful note, or take homemade cookies to your grandparents (one of Rachel’s favorites).

In short, find a way to bring others happiness. It’s the fast track to joy.

Getting Things Done QA

How to Manage Emergencies and Still Stay on Track

Dear David,

What is the best way to manage true emergencies? My weekly review doesn’t account for those times people come bursting into my office with a fire that only I can seem to put out. When I spend time on these seemingly legitimate emergencies, it can derail my week and put me behind on the tasks I had planned to accomplish. What is the best way to manage this part of life that likely won’t ever change—despite my best efforts to plan?

Pin Ball

Dear Pin Ball,

I certainly empathize with the frustrations that can emerge when your best-laid plans get thrown off the rails, especially when you have invested time, energy, and thought into those plans. However, banking on a world void of surprises is obviously a futile exercise. This is especially true today when the rate of change is accelerating in virtually every professional environment. Thirty years ago, conventional wisdom suggested that at least 40% of your workday would be consumed by unexpected tasks, request, and obligations. Likely, this ratio can only have increased.

So, what’s the cure?

Let me start with what may seem like some hard news. There are no interruptions—only mismanaged inputs. Whatever you are allowing into your universe is either something you are accountable for, or it’s not. If it ought to be dealt with by another role or individual, you need to reroute it appropriately. If something has escalated up or over to you that you really aren’t responsible for, then you have an organizational issue that may need to be solved with a crucial conversation.

If, on the other hand, the input actually is something your job commitments require you to deal with (your “legitimate emergencies”), so be it. It could be that it’s simply a reality you need to accept. If the situation seems unacceptable, your options would be to change your role or work to reconfigure it. The latter case should happen if dealing with the “emergencies” is preventing you from fulfilling the primary responsibilities of your role.

If you really don’t think those changes to your role are workable solutions, take a lesson from none other than the fire department. Why not? Their job is to put out fires. What you might not know is the vast majority of fire alarms are false ones. Talk about a reason to feel frustrated! However, I doubt you’ll see fire fighters throw up their hands and complain the next time an alarm sounds because there’s a high probability it’s a false one. Instead, the fire department is structured to deal with surprise. When they’re not fighting a fire, fire fighters are cleaning up, organizing, and getting themselves ready for whatever real or perceived emergency might come next.

So, just like the fire department, we also need to be prepared for surprises. How do we do that?

Well, when I’m not doing anything else, I’m cleaning up my backlog—emails, notes, new inputs. I’m getting all my in-baskets to empty and current with all my commitments. Why? The smaller my backlog of un-captured, un-clarified, unorganized stuff, the more comfortable I am receiving anything new. Also, because I regularly ensure I have a complete inventory of my projects and actions (through emptying my “ins” and doing Weekly Reviews), I am able to assess the relative importance of the new thing in my world much more intelligently.

If you are not doing those best practices to keep things clear, the volume of lurking “unknowns” in your psyche will continue to grow. When this happens, any new input feels more like a distraction than an opportunity. You will have this gnawing sense that there’s something more you could, or should, be handling. And while you’re not exactly sure what, you’re certain it’s more important than the emergency. This uncertainty creates the sense of breaking agreements with yourself—one of the greatest sources of stress.

We all have important priorities and responsibilities we need to attend to. And, we should keep our focus on the most meaningful of those. This means we need to stay focused on our desired outcomes while navigating the bumps (and surprises!) in the road.

David Allen

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Crucial Conversations QA

How to Advocate for Your Needs With Your Spouse

Dear Joseph,

I love my wife dearly and enjoy spending our dinners and late nights together after our long work days and putting the kids to sleep. However, I have learned after careful experimenting, over a few weeks now, that my wife has endless spunk, energy, and interest in telling me what is on her mind—mostly work-related issues—and literally falls ill once I begin to share mine. For multiple nights, I have listened to her speak with zest for over an hour and then when I attempt to share a thought, she says she is too tired, it is too late, remembers a sale, a forgotten chore or task, gets pains, needs a drink, a sweater, etc. So, I let my thoughts slide. But, in due time, she finds her way back to sharing what’s on her mind. Once again, I’ll listen and try again to share a thought of my own and like clockwork, on comes the pain, tiredness, thirst, and anything to end it—until she starts back on her own thoughts. How would you handle it?


Dear Shunned,

I’ve got good news. While some conversations have a low likelihood of success and a high likelihood of turmoil, I predict good things for yours. Here’s why:

  • You “love your wife dearly.” The fact that your disappointment has not turned into disconnection gives you the kind of emotional climate within which she might be able to open up with you.
  • You are catching it relatively early. Many people put off addressing issues until they are good and mad. Or they wait until the patterns—and their reactions to them—are so entrenched that mutual stories and justifications get deeply ingrained. You say you have been experimenting for “a few weeks.” Good for you!
  • You have facts and frequency. You have good, concrete examples to share with her so she can understand the topic you are raising, and that seem to be circumspect about describing the frequency of the behavior without exaggeration.

The mistake you’re making is that you continue to address content rather than pattern. In other words, you’re attempting to open up conversations about your own thoughts and feelings but not addressing your real concern: the fact that she diverts the conversation when you make these attempts. That is the crucial conversation you need to hold.

The predictor of your success is your ability to come from a place of love, courage, and curiosity. Love—in that you see the goodness in your wife. Courage—in that you are willing to advocate for your own needs as strongly as you respond to hers. Curiosity—in that you have no idea why she is doing what she is doing. Surrender any stories, speculation, and judgments you may have, and enter the conversation like a caring scientist—wanting to understand her behavior without personalizing it.

You might get it going as follows, “Sweetheart, I have noticed something in our conversations over the past few weeks that I’m really curious about. It involves how you respond when I begin to talk about some of my thoughts and feelings. When you feel comfortable doing so, I’d like to describe what I’ve seen and try to understand if there is something going on for you—or that you see in me—when this happens. When can we do that?”

Notice how I ended the invitation. I am trying to give her enough information that she doesn’t feel blind-sided. But I’m also assuming the very pattern you describe might emerge as you offer this invitation. That’s why I’m suggesting ending it with a request for an appointment, not an immediate demand. Hopefully, that gives her enough emotional flexibility to time it according to her needs.

If she fails to respond, I suggest you make two more attempts using largely the same script—so she sees that this is important enough to you that you are willing to lovingly, courageously, and curiously advocate for your need to have the conversation.

If, after the third attempt, she similarly fails to respond, you have a decision to make. You need to take responsibility for your own needs. If being able to share equally in conversation is important to you, you will need to move the conversation to the relationship level. This means that you need to let her know that this affects you to such a degree that you must find a way to address it. Be open to options she suggests. Perhaps she would prefer to do so with the help of a counselor, at a different time of day, in a different setting. But be sure to let her know that this is important enough that you want to find a way to discuss it.

I am almost as curious as you are about what is going on. I suspect when you create enough safety and demonstrate enough sincerity in desiring the conversation, you will learn something important that will help you better connect with your wonderful wife.


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Crucial Accountability QA

Don’t Agree On The Facts? How to Dialogue Anyway

Dear David,

As a certified trainer, I want to be prepared to answer students’ questions. In talking about separating facts from stories, the question came up: “What if people disagree about what each person said?” For example, I say to my son: “You said you would pick up milk on the way home.” He responds with: “I never said that.” Obviously, situations at work are more high stakes than picking up milk, but I’d love some advice on what to do when the facts are disputed.

Fact or Fiction

Dear Fact or Fiction,

Great question. In most disagreements, we expect our facts to be accepted—at least if we’ve stripped them of any conclusions, judgments, or stories. The idea is that facts are facts because they can be measured, witnessed, and replicated by anyone. Facts should be an area of agreement both parties can build on. That’s why our STATE skill is all about Starting with Facts.

However, as your example shows, people don’t always agree about the facts. I’ll suggest four different situations that result in factual disputes and outline strategies for dealing with each.

1. Trust Is at Risk. The high-stakes situation you describe with your son isn’t about milk. It’s about trust. If you don’t frame the problem correctly, you’ll end up talking about the wrong facts. Fortunately, there is a tool you can use to determine which aspect of a problem to address. We call the tool CPR.

  • C stands for Content. By “content” we mean the immediate incident or presenting problem. You’d have a content issue if your main concern is the missing milk. If this was a one-time occurrence, you might accept your son’s version of the facts. Maybe you only thought he said he’d pick up the milk.
  • P stands for Pattern. This is the conversation if your concern is for the “pattern” of disputed facts. You’d have a pattern issue if your son has repeatedly denied agreements you thought you had. You can imagine mishearing once, but not multiple times. The facts would include two or three instances of these discrepancies. Beyond these facts, you’d add your opinion that these instances fit together as a pattern.
  • R stands for Relationship. This is the conversation if your real concern is the “relationship.” You’d have a relationship issue if the incident or pattern has caused you to question whether you can trust your son. Your misgivings are a fact that your son needs to hear and address.

The mistake most people make is to focus on content—the facts related to a single incident—when their real concern is with the pattern or relationship. A related mistake is to allow the other person to drag a pattern or relationship conversation back to the details of each individual incident. When a conversation begins to get sidetracked by details, I use a script such as, “I don’t want to get into the details of any single incident. Instead, I want to focus on the overall pattern and how it affects our relationship.”

2. Trust Is Low. When trust is low and you don’t trust each other’s facts, you need verification—an agreement about how facts will be substantiated.

These kinds of verification procedures are very costly. They move you from “handshake deals” to “legal contracts” and from “self policing” to “external enforcement.”

Here is an example of verification in an environment of low trust: I was facilitating a negotiation exercise with an MBA class at Stanford and two of the teams were struggling with trust. Then one of the students threw his car keys on the table and declared, “If the instructor says I’ve lied, then your team gets my car.” His ploy worked. The two teams reached an agreement, he lived up to his side of the deal—and he got to keep his car.

3. It’s Debate, Not Dialogue. Dialogue is about adding facts to a Pool of Shared Meaning. Debate is about using facts to win an argument. When people begin to value winning over finding the truth, they use facts as pawns in their game. You begin to see them cherry picking, distorting, and denying the facts.

When you see debate, try to get back to dialogue. Dialogue requires two elements: A Mutual Purpose that both parties see as more important than any particular disagreement, and Mutual Respect that is felt by all sides. If you have a Mutual Purpose, use it to reframe the debate as dialogue. If you don’t have a Mutual Purpose, seek to find or invent one. And, in any case, demonstrate Respect.

If you can’t move to dialogue, then you’re stuck in a low trust environment where verification is required. Delegate fact-finding to a neutral party, use joint fact-finding, and incur all the costs that verification entails.

4. It’s Complicated. Sometimes it’s not the facts but what the facts add up to that is under dispute. Complex situations almost always entail a more sophisticated theory. The disagreement might be over the theory, not the facts.

In Crucial Conversations, we suggest separating facts—the basic verifiable evidence—from your story. Your story is your theory about what the facts mean. With complex issues—for example, “Will this policy improve learning?” or, “Has this change in taxes produced economic growth?”—the stories/theories are often presented as facts.

Sometimes, the theory deserves to be treated as a fact, because, like the theory of gravity, it is so thoroughly validated (of course, even in this example, we don’t know all there is to know about gravity).

Other times, the theory is still unsettled or disputed. Or, it’s settled and treated as fact by experts but has not gained public acceptance.

In these situations, it’s still very helpful to separate facts from stories. For example, it’s a fact that streets in Miami Beach flood far more today than they did ten years ago. Citizens there don’t need to agree on climate change or global warming to know they have a problem on their hands.

I hope these examples help you answer the questions you get.

Best of luck,

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Crucial Conversations QA

How to Help Others Get Along

Dear Steve,

My husband and twenty-eight-year-old stepson get into arguments that are emotionally hurtful to both of them. They don’t listen to each other, and just yell, blame, and berate each other. In the past, I have stayed out of it and let them “duke it out.” But I don’t like how it makes me feel or the spirit of contention it brings to our home. I don’t think I would let them physically duke it out and I think the emotional damage is as harmful as a physical fight. What can I do as a bystander to help them address their difference of opinion in a healthier way? Should I address it during the heat of the moment or try to teach them skills when the emotions aren’t so raw? Or maybe a combination? Please help.

Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck,

A popular tenet of the Kaizen method teaches that it is better to have the wrong solution to the right problem, than the right solution to the wrong problem.

One of my very early clients began every interaction with this oft-quoted phrase. Over time, I began to mature in my problem-solving approach. In the beginning, I believed that as long as I had the right solution, everything would work itself out. Later, I realized that in order to get to the right solution, I had to make sure I started with the right problem. I’ve since discovered that having the right timing for the right solution is also important. Sounds like you’re trying to figure out that third element.

I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to watch the conditions of respect and civility erode right in front of you. Like you, most choose to stay out of it—and it’s not usually a case of bystander apathy. Usually, these are well-intentioned individuals who suffer from bystander agony. They’d like to step in and stop the mayhem, but just aren’t sure how to do so. It turns out, it’s only slightly more painful to be involved directly in a conflict than to watch it happen.

So, when and how to intervene? To explore that, let’s take a look at a story I received permission to share with you. It comes from one of my co-workers, Dax, who found himself in a very similar situation to your husband and stepson. Read on to see how Dax broke out of the cycle that caused his family pain.

“Almost 15 years ago, when I was young, my father and I fought constantly. Both of us were bullheaded, aggressive, and had no time for anyone else’s opinions.

This went on my entire childhood and progressively got worse. We reached the point where we actively avoided each other, or risked an all-out war.

One day, my dad came home with a book someone gave him at work. It was called Crucial Conversations. He asked me if I would read it with him.

We spent the next few weeks sitting down and reading the book together, chapter by chapter. After finishing each chapter, we discussed what we read.

Our daily battles suddenly turned into crucial conversations. When we started getting heated, we asked each other, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational person do or say what you just said?’ We laid out the facts rather than told ourselves a story about what we thought the other had said.

After just a few months, we went from actively avoiding each other, to having a real relationship not strained by misconceptions and hurtful words.

At present, our relationship is stronger than ever and we rely on each other equally for guidance with our day-to-day crucial moments.”

So, what should we learn from Dax’s story? Upon first read, it’s easy to see how two people benefitted from a solution that appeared to resolve their problems. But there’s also a subtler lesson. There was a third party, a not so apathetic or agony-ridden bystander who intervened—a co-worker gave Dax’s dad a book. That book turned out to be the right solution for the right problem delivered at the right time.

So often, our efforts fall short because we deliver our solution at the wrong time. We miss, or misinterpret, when the teachable moment is. This coworker didn’t try to offer the solution in the middle of a heated argument. He or she shared a solution in a moment removed from conflict. My personal bias is to let conflict play out unless it’s leading to serious and/or long-term relationship damage, in which case it’s okay to step-in. But just because you’ve paused the interaction doesn’t mean that’s the most teachable moment for those directly involved in the conflict. Remember, emotions are chemical while thoughts are electrical. You’re likely much further ahead in your crucial conversations thought process than either of the chemically-overpowered individuals you’d like to coach. Be patient. It takes time for the effects of the chemicals to subside so the brain can think clearly again. Look for a time when the person or persons can be reflective and open to suggestion.

Once you’ve found the right time, here are some ideas on how to get the best response.

I’ve found it to be overwhelming when I’ve been handed a book that contains the solution to my problem. I’d like to get some relief, but don’t want to wade through an entire book to figure out what I should do. So, don’t yield to the temptation to dump whole chapters or highlighted passages without any direction. I’ve found it helpful to point people to a specific idea or skill. You can use a book to do so, but take a little time to help them navigate the content. This way they experience the value of the content along with any tips or insights you have about application opportunities.

In these situations, it’s also helpful to work out a Mutual Purpose. Many of you who’ve found yourself in this situation are probably thinking, “but that’s the problem—we have no mutual purpose!” The beauty of mutual purpose is you don’t have to agree in order to experience it. The whole approach to finding mutual purpose is by creating an interim purpose. “Let’s see if we can jointly come up with a solution to our conversation process challenges because we don’t seem to have mutual purpose in regard to the topic that’s causing conflict.” It helps people experience what having a mutual purpose feels like—the shift from what “I” really want to what “we” really want.

I’m going to close with another over-quoted, yet applicable adage: it takes a village. Or in this case, it takes one well-intentioned bystander to offer the right solution in the teachable moment. I hope you can find this with the relationships you value most. Good luck, and stay focused on what you really want.


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