Getting Things Done QA

How to Say “No” and Reclaim Your Career

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear Emily,

How do you say “no” to requests and projects that come across your desk? I want to be helpful and do everything that’s asked of me, but if I said “yes” to every request I received, I wouldn’t actually get to my top priorities and that would reflect poorly on my performance. How do I balance urgent requests with long-standing responsibilities?

Signed,
People Pleaser

Dear Pleaser,

I started my life as a people-pleaser. I had a strong sense of perfectionism and I wanted to be liked. Put the two together, and I would do just about anything to keep from letting someone down. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, ever.

These motivations served me well in my career for many years. I developed a reputation as someone who could be counted on, someone who produced results. But then, several years into my career, I had an important realization. My career wasn’t mine any more. My career belonged to all the other people who made requests of me. I was doing what they wanted or needed me to do, what they asked of me, rather than doing what I wanted or needed to do.

So, I learned to say “no” and I learned to disappoint people. Because, if you never disappoint someone, it means you aren’t living your life, you are living the life other people want you to live. Getting Things Done® provides a framework for balancing all of the inputs in your life—those generated by others (requests they make of you) and those generated by you (things you want to do). Here are three ideas that have been helpful for me.

Survey all your options.
David Allen says it this way, “You can only feel good about what you are not doing if you know what you are not doing.” Capturing all your inputs, both those that come from others (i.e. requests people make of you) and those that come from yourself (i.e. ideas and thoughts you have) is the key to making sure you know what you are not doing. Until you have a clear picture of everything you could be doing, it is impossible to make a good choice about what you should be doing.

Think of it this way: if you are sitting at your desk and an urgent email request comes in from a coworker, your natural inclination will be to see it and evaluate its importance in a vacuum. Is it important? Yes, so I will do it right now. But, if you have captured (and subsequently organized) all of your inputs, you can look at that email coming in and say, “Why, yes, this is important but when I compare it to the other things on my list, it is not as important.”

Getting a clear, documented (i.e. written down) picture of all of your inputs is the first step in creating the space you need to choose what to do rather than simply react to what is in front of you. Just make sure you write everything down—including the projects and tasks most important to you. Your “to-do” list has to include all the things YOU want to do; not simply what OTHERS want you to do.

Make “no” a decision rather than a delay.
For most of us, there is simply no way to do everything everyone wants of us. We have to set boundaries and say “no” to some things. To minimize the impact on others of saying “no,” it is best to say “no” quickly and clearly.

  • Quickly: When a request comes in, it should take only a couple of minutes to read and evaluate. If you truly have a clear picture of all your choices, you can easily place this new request in the context of those choices and decide whether you can take it on or not. That decision can be made quickly. Don’t procrastinate saying “no.” Doing so increases the pressure on you to say “yes” and leaves the other person with less time to get the help he or she needs from other sources.
  • Clearly: Here I will borrow from Yoda: “Do or do not; there is no try.” With the best of intentions, I sometimes find myself saying to someone, “I have a lot on my plate right now but I will try to get this done for you.” This response helps no one. It puts pressure on me because I have made a commitment I know deep down I can’t keep. On other side, the person making the request hears this response as a “Yes, Emily will do this.” Think of saying “no” like ripping the Band-Aid off: there is far less pain if you do it quickly and clearly.

Understand the true impact of saying “yes.”
Most of the time, we consider only the impact of saying “no.” Keisha asks me for help. If I say “no” that will put her in a bind. This makes me feel bad and tempts me to say “yes.”

But what is the impact of saying “yes”? This might include:

  • Less time and energy for more important projects I want to focus on.
  • A missed opportunity for someone else on the team to develop and grow. When I say “yes” to something, it means someone else doesn’t get the chance to say “yes” to it. There might be others on the team or in the organization who could handle this work or who would like the opportunity to step up and take on this type of project.
  • Failure to keep commitments to others. I say “yes” to Keisha and the impact is I have to tell my daughter I won’t make it to her soccer game after all.

Saying “yes” to people is important. Helping, mentoring, and teaming are all hugely valuable uses of our time. The key is to make sure we make conscious choices about how to use (or not use) our time so we are controlling our choices not ceding those choices to others.

Best of luck in using your new skills,
Emily

Getting Things Done QA

Is Your To-Do List Keeping You Up at Night?

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear Justin,

The worst feeling is waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, worried I’ve let someone down or dropped the ball. Unfortunately, this happens far too often to me. I’m pretty good at managing my time, but the demands of work and family are so intense that the fear of dropping the ball keeps me up at night. How can I better manage that stress and ensure I’m really getting it all done?

Sincerely,
Sleepless and Stressed

Dear Sleepless,

I couldn’t agree more. There are few things more frustrating than recalling unfinished tasks when you’re in no position to resolve them—like when you’re lying in bed after a long day. What’s more, these recollections are often soon forgotten again so we fail to act on them when we’re in the position to do so. For example, the other day it occurred to me to pick up something at the store—while I was in the shower.

Let me provide a little background on why this happens as well as simple steps you can take to clear your mind and alleviate stress over all your to-dos.

In the 1920s, a Soviet psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik noticed an interesting phenomenon as she ate breakfast at a local café in Berlin. She found that waiters could remember vast amounts of information for unpaid orders, but very little about orders that were paid and closed. She and her colleagues studied this further and discovered what came to be called the Zeigarnik Effect. To summarize their discovery, our brains easily release completed tasks, but when we leave tasks unfinished our brains will not let them go. We are literally wired to get things done, and we can’t rest easy until we do.

Now, this can be stressful if you have even five to ten unfinished commitments in your life, but the typical person is beholden to dozens if not hundreds of tasks on any given week, many of which don’t get completed. As you can imagine, such mountains of uncompleted to-dos cause the mind to constantly whisper, “Don’t forget to . . . ,” or, “Hey, you still need to . . . ,” or, “You haven’t taken care of . . . ” This buzz in our heads saps our focus and prevents us from being present with the people and moments we care about most. Unfinished commitments, in other words, own a piece of us. And this involuntary self-nagging over all we HAVEN’T done results in anxiety. David Allen says, “Much of the stress people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.”

Case in point, I bet that as you’ve been reading this, you’ve thought about some task or commitment you need to take care of. And yet, you’ve taken no steps to actually move it forward. This demonstrates how we waste time and mental energy when we’re preoccupied with life’s “open loops.”

Sweep Your Mind

One simple way to begin decluttering your mind is to perform a mind sweep. Clearing the mind is crucial to cultivating a creative and unworried mental space. As David Allen says, “The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” I recommend committing this truism to memory.

Here’s how to start. Grab some paper and a pen and set a timer for 5 minutes. During that 5 minutes, write down everything that’s pulling at your attention, any “should” or “ought to” items in your work or personal life. These might be errands you need to run, calls you need to make, emails you’ve been meaning to send, projects you want to start or finish. Don’t worry about quality, go for quantity; write down as many items as you can. Most people scratch down a list of 20-30 items, but this really only touches the surface. There is so much more we hold in our heads.

At any rate, review what you’ve written down. How do you feel about those ought-tos and to-dos now that they’re on paper? You probably feel a little better. You may have a sense of greater control or feel a little less stressed. Why? Did anything about those items change? Did you complete the tasks? No. You merely shifted how you engage with all that stuff. You are no longer juggling mental debris.

Capture Things in Buckets

Mind sweeps can empower you and enrich your life, especially when done daily. A clear mind is able to do what it does best—originate and consider ideas. As you develop the habit of sweeping your mind, continually write down new items that land on your agenda and fresh ideas that occur to you. And write them where they’re easily accessible. David Allen carries a notepad in his wallet. I like to send myself a quick email. You might keep a pad of paper by your bed or on your desk at work. You might use a note-taking app on your phone or tablet. These tools serve as buckets for capturing ideas. Using them keeps your mind open and free, so you can continually receive ideas and better live up to your ongoing commitments. But be sure to limit the number of tools you use. The fewer tools you use, the fewer buckets to empty each day. When people tell me they are “dropping balls” or things are “falling through the cracks,” it’s usually because they capture inputs and ideas into too many disparate locations, or buckets. Or, worse, they don’t capture them at all.

Now, knowing how best to execute your commitments and manage the items in your bucket requires another discussion (see future posts on clarifying and organizing your inputs). Until then, this is a good place to start.

In short, your time and mental space is too precious to be preoccupied with what you’re not doing. If you better handle what holds your attention today, you’ll free up more of that rarest of gifts: your undivided attention. Which you can devote to people you cherish and activities that matter.

Best of luck,
Justin

Getting Things Done QA

How to Manage it All

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will be highlighting the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear David,

What is the best way to manage both work responsibilities and personal responsibilities? So much is required of me at the office that I feel like I put all my energy and attention into getting work done only to arrive home at the end of the day with little gas left in the tank to give to my family. In reality, they are my bigger priority, but receive less of my time and attention because I just can’t seem to manage it all. Any advice?

Sincerely,
Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed,

Thanks for a very timely question! We just finished a major research study on this very topic. And the news is good! We discovered a relatively small number of changes you can make that will increase your productivity and reduce your stress—at both work and home.

We began by having 1,594 people rate their employees and peers from highest to lowest performer on a scale from 1 to 10, where the 10’s are the best. Then we asked two questions:

How much more valuable is a 10 than an average employee or teammate? The answer was, “Two to three times more valuable.” The 10’s account for more than half the work done in a team or department.
How do the 10’s do it? The answer was, “They work both harder and smarter, but mostly smarter.” In fact, an overwhelming number of their managers and peers said that the 10’s work habits actually reduce their stress.
We also collected thousands of descriptions of what 10’s do to be successful, and looked for the most common phrases. Here is what we found.

Communication Practices

• Top Performers: “They ask for help”, “Not afraid to ask questions”, “Know who to go to”, “Know when to ask for”
• Average Performers: “Lack of communication”, “Slow to respond”, “They don’t listen”, “They complain about”
Productivity Practices

• Top Performers: “They are organized”, “Good time management”, “Attention to detail”, “Very well organized”, “Keep track of what needs to be done” “Stay on top of their work”
• Average Performers: “Lack of attention”, “Lack of focus”, “Don’t follow through”, “Too busy”, “They are late”, “They are disorganized”, “Don’t meet deadlines”, “Not on task”

The communication practices will be familiar to those of you who’ve read Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, or Change Anything. However, the productivity practices comprise a wholly different set of skills.

For the last two years, we’ve been studying ways to improve personal productivity practices. Our guide has been David Allen, the author of the bestseller, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. So, we did a second study that put these practices to the test.

We began by using David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD®) principles to build an assessment that measures personal productivity practices. Next, we had 2,072 managers and employees complete the assessment, and tested how well it predicted their productivity and stress.

I need to get a bit technical to describe what we found: We used three methods to measure the impact GTD practices had.

1. A step-wise multiple regression analysis showed that the GTD practices improves Performance (R = .79) and reduces Stress (R = .78). These high “R values” mean that using these practices determine more than 60 percent of the difference between high and low performance and high and low stress.

2. T-Tests showed that people with high GTD scores had 68 percent higher performance and experienced less than half the stress of people with low GTD scores.

3. Item analyses showed the remarkable impacts GTD practices have. Here are a few of the items that grabbed our attention:

  • People with high GTD scores are 55 times less likely to say, “I start projects that never get finished, even when others are relying on me.”
  • They are 13 times less likely to say, “I’m not truly present at home, because I’m thinking about work and wondering if there are other things I should be worrying about.”
  • They are 18 times less likely to say, “I often feel overwhelmed. I start to think of tasks looming over me and that are about to crash.”
  • It was exciting to see the impact of David Allen’s five GTD practices. Their impact on both Performance and Stress are off the charts.

Three ideas for helping you at work and at home

I can’t teach you the entire GTD approach. For that, I recommend reading the book or taking our new Getting Things Done Training program. But I can give you a few big ideas that are proven winners.

1. Capture everything that comes in and out of your head. My favorite David Allen quote is, “Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.” Use a small number of capture tools, instead of relying on your memory. I use three simple tools: a pad of Post-It Notes, my email inbox, and a pad of lined paper. Whenever I have an idea, get an assignment, or remember a to-do, I capture it using one of these three tools. Having a reliable way of catching everything coming at me gives me peace of mind that nothing is slipping through the cracks.

2. Clarify everything in your in box, from top to bottom. Go through all of your capture tools at least once every day or two, and determine a next action for each item. Personally, I do this at the end of every workday. I go through the items in order, deciding what needs to be done with each one. This means I never use my email or notes as storage bins. I get my inboxes to zero before I quit for the day. Trust me, it feels like a little victory every time I do this.

3. Take stock once a week. Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself every week to catch up, get current, and align with your priorities. I spend an hour every Sunday night reviewing my past week, and planning my next. This is when I make sure my actions line up with my priorities, purpose, and values. This hour does more for me than any yoga method, meditation, or cocktail. It leaves me feeling renewed, energized, and confident that I’m on track.

Try these three practices. They take some discipline, but produce immediate payoffs.

Best of luck,
David

Kerrying On

Too Tough “Love”

The following article was first published on June 21, 2016.

One day, during a particularly boring stretch at church, I leaned back and noticed, for the first time, the laminated beams supporting the chapel’s roof. The beams reminded me of my summer job after my freshman year of college when I worked at a plant that made (any guesses?) laminated beams.

I didn’t really earn that job; I sort of cheated my way in. It began when I stopped by the mill where my dad had worked for the ten years before he and mom moved to Arizona. I didn’t move south with them (I went off to college instead), so I was sleeping on my grandfather’s couch and putting around in his 1943 Dodge. I desperately needed a paying job so I could (1) return to college in the fall and (2) not be a hobo.

“We don’t have any openings,” Leo, the plant manager, brusquely stated.

“Thanks,” I responded. Then, as an afterthought, I added, “Dad says ‘hello.’”

“You aren’t Pat Patterson’s son, are you?” Leo asked.

“I am.”

“Hey!” Leo barked to a lanky fellow who had just walked into the office. “This kid here is Pat Patterson’s son. He’s going to work with us this summer.” And that’s how I landed the job.

When I started work the next day, Leo introduced me to Clyde, a massive, six-foot-six, grey-bearded, perpetually scowling and complaining fellow in his mid-fifties. The guy surely would have carried the nickname “Grumpy,” had the Disney cartoon been fashioned after a story known as Snow White and the Seven Tight Ends. Clyde was making use of his muscled frame by stacking boards onto a pallet. I was assigned to be his helper. To get me started, Clyde wrote down a list of board lengths on a small blackboard. From several stacks of varying-sized boards that he had placed around us with a forklift, Clyde was to find the first board on the list and place it on an empty pallet. I was to find and stack the second board, and so forth.

“Any questions? Clyde asked.

Before I could reply, Clyde fetched a board and we were off and running. At first I was worried because I couldn’t always tell the lengths apart, but I seemed to be doing okay. Every once in a while Clyde would send me to a different stack, until, board-by-board, we eventually completed the job. I smiled widely, thinking I had done well.

“You see where the stack ends?” Clyde asked me as he shook his head in disgust. “The empty space means you skipped a board and now I have to unstack the pallet until I find your #%&*# mistake.”

As unnerving as it was to be cursed at by an oversized Disney character, it only got worse. Clyde grabbed a massive board from the pallet, threw it on the floor, and cursed me some more for screwing up. He then grabbed, threw, and cursed twenty-two more boards until he worked his way back to my mistake. Finally, still using scary threats and age-inappropriate language, he restacked the pallet correctly. I wanted to die.

Seeing the distressed look on my face, Clyde stopped cursing, smiled, and laughed heartily. It had all been a show. He actually wanted me to foul up so he could yell at me and pitch a fit because, “All employees needs a good kick in the pants to provide them with proper motivation.” And thus ended my first on-the-job leadership lesson. It was powerful, memorable, and totally wrong.

I didn’t need a kick in the pants. I was sleeping on my grandpa’s couch. I was, by nature, an uptight overachiever. I was desperate to do well on the job. Desperate. And yet Clyde thought I needed to be motivated—through verbal violence no less. And he’s not alone.

“I yell at my employees because it’s the only thing that works,” say a surprising number of leaders I’ve consulted with over the years. Parents often take a similar path with their kids. “They only respond to threats. So, I mostly threaten them.” Of course, when you interview the employees or the kids, they don’t subscribe to Hunter Thompson’s theory of leadership. That is, they don’t believe that the newest and hottest motivational tools are fear and loathing. They prefer respectful reasoning.

It’s a good bet that many people employ verbal violence as a motivational technique because they see it in action so often. Coaches yell at their players in front of thousands of fans—with little or no visible repercussions. When you ask them why they routinely use verbal violence, they pull out the, “It’s what they needed,” card. Or worse still, “It was good for them.” So when you discuss leadership in company training sessions, many justify their aggressive verbal violence by pointing to successful coaches who win because, “threats and insults are often your best tools.” People actually say that.

It’s true that there are times people do need to be motivated—maybe the work is noxious or boring, or they have different priorities. Maybe they simply don’t want to work. It doesn’t matter. But raising your voice, threatening, and otherwise verbally abusing others is never the correct tool. And for those of you who work in sophisticated, white-collar careers where visible, verbal violence isn’t tolerated—abusing others through subtle looks of disgust, sarcastic hints, and thinly veiled humor is equally abhorrent. Violence, in all of its sordid forms, is never acceptable.

I realize that I’m preaching to the choir. You wouldn’t dream of verbally assaulting another human being. But then again, you see so many others being verbally aggressive—from TV leaders, to coworkers, to people like Clyde who are purposely, even studiously, abrasive—it makes you wonder. So let’s remind each other why both blatant and subtle forms of verbal violence are never the right choice.

First, you can emotionally damage people by verbally abusing them. To quote Eric Idle: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours.” Second, employing verbal violence turns you into a person you don’t want to be. Remember that soul-sucking boss you loathed? Roll your eyes in disgust one more time and you’ve become that guy. Third, when nothing you do to motivate others actually works, you can always fall back on the company’s disciplinary procedures. You start with a verbal warning. Then comes a written warning, etc. Never does the company’s discipline process state: “First yell, then curse, and then throw a big board.”

So, if you’re toying with the idea of tearing into someone who “needs it”—don’t. Even if the other person was hired through egregiously nepotistic methods, he deserves your respect. Even if he left out, let’s say, an essential board and ruined the job, yelling will only make matters worse. Yelling a lot makes matters a lot worse. It all comes down to a simple ditty: Verbal abuse—never put it to use.

Words to live by.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Change Someone’s Opinion of You

Dear Steve,

Last year, our department’s vice president was laid off and the entire group was moved under the Director of Operations, someone I didn’t know very well. Since the change, he has not made much of an effort to get to know our team and I have had only a handful of interactions with him. On a recent performance review, he commented that I, “can come across as close-minded if I offer an alternative to his suggestion.” I am not sure what he is referring to, especially considering our limited interaction. I am a licensed professional engineer, so some things I work on have to be “just so” from a legal perspective but, otherwise, I feel I welcome alternative solutions on my projects. How can I approach this director to get some feedback without it seeming like I’m arguing with his assessment or trying to defend my position? How can I demonstrate to my managers and colleagues alike that I am open to suggestions?

Sincerely,
Open to Suggestions

Dear Open,

Years ago, my colleagues and I found ourselves in a similar situation after we were shifted to a new reporting structure. It was a little different in that our previous boss remained in the organization and we’d still see him. For a while after the change, one of my colleagues would tell him, “You’ll always be the boss of my heart; even though you’re no longer the boss of my now.” At first, I considered it to be a clever quip, but I now understand that it’s more than a clever quip. It reflects the difficulty many experience following a change in leadership. You’re trying to understand new performance expectations, how to best approach your new boss, how he or she will respond to different circumstances, and what his or her preferences are.

I recommend the very next action you take is to schedule a meeting with the Director of Operations. The purpose of the meeting is not to list off a bunch of examples of how you are open and flexible, but rather to understand his perspective shaping the feedback he gave you. I’d start by stating your purpose, something like, “I want to make sure we work well together, so I’d like to take time to really understand how you see our working relationship—especially your views about how open and/or closed-minded you believe I am.”

During the meeting, you’ll want to spend as much time as possible in listening mode rather than explaining or justifying mode. Listen specifically for details and examples of how you have actually been closed-minded. Don’t settle for broad descriptions like, “You’re not open to alternative points of view.” If necessary, probe for more detail. Ask him to describe the last time he experienced that with you. Get specific, observable behaviors. You need to understand where his story came from so that you’re not in the position of trying to talk your way out of a situation you behaved your way into. At the conclusion of your meeting, thank him for his time and leave him with an invitation to get back with you with any additional information that might occur to him.

At this point, you should have enough data about the Director to take some action. All that questioning and probing you did is less about you, and more about how he sees the world, as well as how you fit into that world. Look for the times, situations, and circumstances where he most often sees you as closed-minded, and then identify what you can do in those moments to augment the “open-minded” data stream you’d like him to tap into. To do this, I recommend you work with symbolic actions.

A symbolic action is any action you take where other people who are watching will walk away having concluded what you care about, what your priorities are, and even what you value. Now for those of you who have leadership positions, what percentage of your actions would you guess are symbolic? Did you guess 100%? If you did, you would be correct; it’s everything you do, or don’t do. When you show up, if you show up, what you say, what you don’t say, and even how you allocate your budget shapes your specific brand of leadership. All of your actions send messages. While these actions are especially relevant to leaders, they can also be applied to situations where you’re trying to change your boss’s perspective.

Ask yourself, and feel free to extend this question to trusted others as well, “What could I do that demonstrates that I am, in fact, the opposite of closed-minded?” An accompanying question would be, “What could I do or say when I can’t be flexible to help him understand why?” Sometimes it’s as simple as telegraphing your upcoming actions by alerting him to what’s going to happen before you do it.

You’ll also need to put more thought into what behaviors, if seen consistently, would change his current data stream. It may be helpful to think in terms of behaviors that involve sacrifices of time, ego, or even previous priorities.

While changing his mind will require some time and attention, if you’re deliberate about it, you can have much more influence in shaping your overall joint experience with your new boss.

Best of luck,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Get Respect From the Boss

Dear David,

My boss and I have weekly one-on-one meetings. During these meetings, he frequently takes phone calls from his family, gets up in the middle of a discussion to use his personal restroom, and allows workers to just barge in to talk to him. I’m very frustrated with these interactions but he is the owner of the company and I am a new manager. I’ve discussed it with my peers, but the general consensus is it’s always been this way and he will not change. What can I say to still remain respectful and professional, yet help him understand how devalued this makes me feel?

Sincerely,
New Guy

Dear New Guy,

Thanks for your question. As I see it, this may be a difficult situation to change. The owner has a lot of leeway, and you aren’t describing any overtly hostile behaviors. Begin by asking yourself whether you’re accurately reading your boss’s intent.

Examine your Story: You’re telling yourself a story about his behavior—that his actions are intended to disrespect you. As a result, you feel devalued. Ask yourself the following two questions:

• Do you have all the facts you need to be confident your story is true?
• Is there any other, more positive, story that could fit this same set of facts?
Here are two attempts at different stories:

Story #1: From your boss’s perspective, the company is an extension of his home, and his office is his living room. When he invites you in for your weekly chat, it’s as if you are a guest in his home. He’s not trying to make you feel bad. He’s treating you with the same respect he would any one who entered his home.

Story #2: Your boss wants his company to feel like family, where he is the patriarch. As a result, he downplays some of the professional, impersonal, sterile business practices you see in most organizations. Instead, he creates more personal, informal relationships. Meeting with him is like sharing a beer with your father-in-law, when your father-in-law is buying. He sets the agenda, you’re not exactly his equal, and he takes bathroom breaks and family calls when he feels like it. But none of his behavior is intended to offend.

You mention that your peers don’t think your boss will ever change. Do they want him to? Or do they see his behavior as inclusive and welcoming? Are you the only one who is taking offense?

Master Your Story: I will suggest some actions that may help you change your boss’s behavior. But they don’t come with a guarantee. You can’t control your boss. What you can control is your reaction to his behavior. If you can’t master your story—if you can’t find a way to accept your boss’s behavior and feel good about it—then your choice comes down to either convincing your boss to change or leaving his employment.

Get Your Heart Right: Before you take action, stop and ask yourself what you really want long term for yourself, your boss, and the organization. Your initial question focuses too narrowly on how the situation makes you feel. Ideally, the conversation you have with your boss shouldn’t be about you and your feelings. The conversation should be about how to further your boss’s and the company’s priorities as well as your own.

Detail Your Expectations: You are asking for a change in the way your weekly meetings are handled. What exactly do you want? Don’t ask for something vague, like respect. Instead, make your requests very specific, such as: fewer interruptions, shorter meetings, clear agendas, etc. Decide what it is you are asking for.

Make it Motivating: Write down the pluses and minuses of each request. And include your boss’s perspective. For example, what does your boss gain or lose if he stops taking phone calls during your meetings? How would this change help him achieve his goals? Do your best to anticipate the consequences he values, and to weigh them in your balance sheet. Again, focus on consequences to the business and the boss, instead of talking about how his behaviors makes you feel. Your feelings may be fairly low on his list of priorities.

Make it Easy: Do your part to make your meetings more professional. Make calendar appointments that have beginning and end times. Get him agendas in advance, and bring a copy with you. Stick to the agenda as much as possible. At the same time, take care to avoid offending your boss. He may interpret your actions as signaling that you want only a professional relationship, not a friendship.

During the Meeting: At the beginning of the meeting, let your boss know what you’re stepping away from in order to meet with him. This puts some urgency on keeping the meeting on track and ending it on time. Then, when he interrupts your meeting, consider saying, “Let me know when you’re ready to continue, or if you want to reschedule.” Then leave.

I hope there are nuggets within my answer that will help you move forward. Please let me know how you work it out.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to End a Relationship Stand-Off

Dear Joseph,

I work with clients who are in conflict with each other. Their “stories” about the other person make resolution impossible. They’ve been in conflict with each other for so long that they are convinced that their judgments are facts. For example, they are both convinced the other person is a jerk, a bully, ignorant, or selfish. It’s so bad, they refuse to talk about what’s not working and to listen to the other’s needs. How do I challenge their view of the other person so that they can have the conversation they actually need?

Signed,
Conflicting Facts

Dear Conflicting Facts,

You’ve asked the ultimate question.

The heart of most conflict is not irreconcilable differences, but irreconcilable stories. And to make matters worse, once we begin acting on those stories, we begin to need them to justify the vengeful, fearful, or immoral behavior we’ve chosen. Furthermore, the fact that others behave in the same petty way we do generates more data to reinforce our stories.

There are only three paths I’ve ever seen break people free from such mutually assured self-destruction. Any of these can work. All three combined substantially increase the likelihood of change. But when people are deeply devoted to their stories these roads are unlikely to be taken.

1. Misery fatigue. Sometimes, after an especially discouraging episode, people can reach a point that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Even though they feel entirely justified in their current behavior, they are willing to suspend disbelief for a moment and consider stepping off the treadmill.

2. Shocking data from a beloved source. Most of us have excessive confidence in our own judgment. Which is why it is hard to break free of our judgments. But occasionally our respect for another can exceed our affection for our own ego. I have seen conflict dissolve when an individual who is deeply trusted—even beloved—by both parties is able to do two things: 1) lovingly but forcefully confront their self-deception; 2) bear witness to a conflicting view of their judgments.

3. A surprise encounter with poignant and irrefutable conflicting data. Finally, I’ve seen judgments give way to new data when the one holding them is forced to explain behavior that conflicts violently with their previous view. A quick example from one of the most enduring conflicts in modern history: Shortly after peace accords were signed between Israel and Jordan, a large group of Jewish, school-aged girls traveled to a neighboring Jordanian village to deliver cookies, flowers, and other tokens of peace. Due to some misunderstanding, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on the girls, killing seven of them. Suddenly, decades of deep distrust threatened to return the two countries to a state of war. War was averted, however, by a single striking act taken by the late King Hussein. The King arranged to visit the home of every one of the dead children. He spoke with each grieving parent and personally apologized for the tragedy. As he entered their home, he would kneel on the ground at the feet of each parent and beg their forgiveness. He did not rise until they bid him do so. That one striking act generated irrefutable evidence that conflicted with decades of conflict-fueled stories. And it made it possible for these two enemy countries to quickly heal from the tragedy and find a way forward through their now shared pain.

The good news in this last path is that it demonstrates how the unilateral action of one party can change the calculus of the conflict.

Here are three suggestions for you to consider as you assess whether you can play a role in reconciliation:

1. Can the parties see the price they are paying for the conflict?
2. Do they feel safe enough with you to be profoundly challenged by you?
3. Is one of the parties willing to sacrifice in order to demonstrate his or her sincere desire for peace?

If your answers to these three questions suggests you have some assets to work with, I find it easier to frame my requests with aggrieved parties as experiments not concessions. Ask them if they are willing to make a gesture as an honest test of their current judgments. And if so, encourage them to watch for new data as a result of the experiment. If this works, you can start a virtuous cycle that can slowly unwind the terrible knot of resentment they have cooperatively constructed.

There are far too many storytellers and far too few peacemakers in the world. I am glad you are one of the latter.

Warmly,
Joseph