Crucial Conversations QA

Speaking with a Parent

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am in a real dilemma. My father has just turned 59 and he is showing signs of dementia. I do not know how to approach him. I am worried I will make things worse for him by bringing his attention to his health, even though I know he must be aware of his memory loss because it is so obvious. Because I have found it difficult to control my feelings and deal with the emotional pain when thinking about my father, I am worried about becoming emotional and upset when we do eventually discuss it. I want him to know more than anything that I love him dearly and will always be there for him.


Desperate Daughter

Dear Desperate Daughter,

Your father is lucky to have a daughter like you. He’s lucky that you love him enough to feel pain about his declining health, but also to intervene when it’s in his best interest. I hope my children will do the same.

I have a couple of thoughts for you about this situation. The first is a reality check about crucial conversations. The second is some important advice about how to succeed in this absolutely crucial conversation.

The reality check is this: being skilled at crucial conversations does not mean that a) they are easy, or b) they always lead to the outcomes you want. This conversation may well be difficult. It involves both you and your father coming to accept a reality that you may not like. He may want to deny or minimize the issue, and you may be so worried about rupturing your relationship that you’ll be tempted to let him.

The good news is that being skilled at crucial conversations helps you minimize the pain. It helps ensure that the tone and spirit of the conversation is as healthy as it can be, and that your chance of influencing the other person is as great as possible. In my own view, your current crucial conversation is all the more important because as much as anything it is a test of your love for your father. It is a measure of whether your motive in your relationship with him is more about serving his best interests or maintaining his positive feelings for you. I have an abiding belief that if it’s the former, you can find a way to have the latter, too. But if it’s the latter, you surrender the former in the bargain.

Now for the advice.

There are two things I’d advise you to keep in mind in this conversation. Both of these are predictors of your influence and success in the conversation.

1. You are more likely to succeed if you give up the need to succeed. Unless your father is in immediate physical danger, your goal in this conversation is not to convince him that you are right, but to open the topic for discussion. In fact, I’d suggest your goal not be to come to agreement about his current status as much as to come to agreement that something is happening and that you should agree to criteria for taking steps in the future. In other words, after opening the discussion, you might say, “Dad, given that your health is being affected, and that others are more likely to be aware of how bad it is than you are, can we talk about what signs we’ll watch for that indicate you need to change your living situation?” If this discussion is held before things are too acute, you may be able to keep an open dialogue going about where you are in the process. Unless things are dangerous now, focus less on how things are than on when things will need to change. Don’t worry about convincing him of your current view–just involve him in discussing scenarios.

2. Lead with facts, not stories. Your father may not agree with your story (“your memory is declining”). Your success in being persuasive depends upon your ability to share specific observations you’ve made–particularly those he may recognize. Share a series of these to help him see that it is a pattern, or he’s likely to write off the one or two you can recollect.

3. Generously express your love and discomfort while candidly expressing your concerns. As you know from reading “Crucial Conversations,” the predictor of success here is how safe your father feels with you. He’ll need to feel particularly safe when you’re talking about him adapting to a whole different lifestyle and reality. When he seems upset or worried or even defensive, step out of the content and hug and kiss him–or whatever is the way you two express affection for each other. Then collect yourself and return to the content when he’s ready. If needed, you may even want to break this up over time with agreed upon breaks in the conversation.

My thoughts and prayers are with you. It’s at times like this that we have a chance to return the love our parents gave us when we were less able. It’s the most honorable thing we can do. And your crucial conversation will be one of your first expressions of love and honor in this new phase of your relationship.

Best wishes,


Crucial Accountability QA

Helping Others See Their Role

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been working with a supervisor on her people approach. People who report to her often describe her as “condescending and controlling.” Several other directors and I have spoken with her many times with the goal of helping her with her people skills and making her successful. I have gotten to the point of being very blunt in what the expected behavior is. We’ve offered an outside work coach. She still does not understand.

She usually blames the other person and does not see her role in this pattern of behavior. Even when I have pointed out the pattern. She states she has changed her approach by asking questions instead of directing. I get the same comments about her new approach as her old approach, even from new employees.

Any suggestions as to how else this can be addressed?


At Wit’s End

A Dear Wit’s End,

You’re dealing with a situation similar to those that other people face regularly in different settings. The problem–there’s a pattern going on that keeps you stuck and you can’t seem to get out of it–even when you deal with the pattern. Coworkers can’t seem to get a colleague to deliver when promised; parents can’t get their son or daughter to take out the trash on Monday morning in time for the pickup–and this has been going on for five years; a salesperson over-promises and makes exaggerated claims to get the sale, even though production and marketing have repeatedly told him or her to stop. You feel you’re knocking your head against a wall–it’s painful and the wall isn’t moving.

So what do you do? Do you push harder? Persevere, cope, do workarounds, give up?

Before I offer a suggestion or two, let me pause to praise you for your perceptions and your efforts. It takes courage and patience and caring to stick in there like you have. Way to go.

Now for some suggestions:

First, as you look at your challenge, think about getting meaning in the pool. You’ve done a great job. You’ve put your meaning in the pool. You’ve had others put their data in the pool. Yet the person doesn’t get it–no change or improvement is visible. Perhaps you should change the kind of data you’re sharing. Sometimes when we put our meaning in the pool, using our best skills, the other person doesn’t get it or believe it.

Now, I’m not going to repeat all the skills you’ll need to use, but the key skill to remember is to start with the facts. These are most often observations. This approach often works well because facts are verifiable, less controversial, and safer. Sometimes the approach can be made more effective by adding anonymous survey data. It’s one thing for this supervisor to hear from you and her colleagues; it’s often more effective to see data that comes from 360-degree feedback. The data is anonymous, it comes from multiple sources, and it is data–it is seen less as opinion.

During the last twenty years, I’ve had the experience that helping different groups of people see where they’re skilled and where they need to make improvements is best done with feedback data. These groups include management, highly technical individuals, attorneys, physicians, accountants, and more. When the other person agrees to participate in a survey feedback process, there is often enough mutual purpose (both of you want the same thing and the other person is willing to improve) that the action steps that follow lead to progress–progress that can be measured. The general principle here is that meaning in the pool, surrounded by mutual purpose and mutual respect, can lead to action. Survey feedback can help the meaning in the pool move from perceived opinion to more solid data or facts.

Second, think of the acronym CPR. There are three levels of discussion you can have in a crucial conversation: Content (talk about the issue the first time it’s a problem); Pattern (when the issue keeps coming up, discuss the pattern, not just one instance); and Relationship (when the recurring issue is affecting the way you interact or work together, discuss the impact it’s having on your relationship). It sounds to me like there are some significant relationship issues here. Are you beginning to not trust that the person can manage this group well? Are you thinking that this person’s condescending and controlling style is affecting morale, productivity, and customer satisfaction? You need to tell the supervisor this and help her understand what it means to you, to coworkers, and to customers. Outline the positive consequences that will happen if she makes improvements, and the negative consequences that will happen if she doesn’t.

Finally, you need to move to action by determining who does what by when, and how you’ll follow up. I would venture a guess that if the person is unwilling or unable to make improvements, and unwilling to participant in a survey feedback process, that you should begin progressive discipline. This will help the supervisor realize why it is important to improve. The status quo should be unacceptable. The reason it is called progressive discipline is that you provide enormous clarity and feedback and provide the person with time and resources to improve. If the other person doesn’t improve, he or she should leave—the negative impact on relationships inside and outside the team and company is too severe not to act. It’s not easy, but it is essential.

Best wishes,