Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
The director of the agency I work for has decided (after three years) to call us in every month or so to discuss what’s going on in our departments and the agency in general. I’ve had two of these conversations with her. What it turns out to be is, “You’re doing a great job” (no details), then focusing on a “problem.” She tells me what she sees as a problem, tells me what agency policy is, and vaguely tells me how to handle it. She never asks my side of the problem, never asks how I currently handle the issue (exactly the way she says it should be handled!), and leaves me feeling unsupported and on the outside. I’ve been coming up with some ideas for these conversations such as asking her to define certain words she uses to describe me and find out if she means them positively or negatively–it’s often difficult to tell since she has a perpetual negative look on her face and in her tone.
Anxious and Confused
I’m glad you asked this particular question because it brings up an issue that we’ve explored in some depth. The challenge in this case is: Which problem or problems do you deal with, and how do you start the conversation?
1. Which problem?
This is a classic case of one set of circumstances serving up a variety of problems–all related, and yet distinct and different. Let’s look at the array you mention in your description.
-It’s been three years without feedback.
– Your boss’s choice of words is vague, often leaving you wondering exactly what she’s talking about–with both your problems and successes.
– You’re not sure how she defines certain terms.
– Her tone and look are perpetually negative.
– She fails to involve you in problem solving, providing only her view.
– At the end of the conversation you don’t feel supported.
– She doesn’t recognize that you’re currently solving problems in the way she suggests.
In addition to the issues you allude to in your question, you may also have doubts about her motive (I know I would). Is she trying to help you? Or is she following a recent mandate, using the time to exert her influence, doing her best to show off in your presence, etc.?
As you try to choose from this rather long and varied list, ask yourself: What bothers you the most? What do you complain about when you go home at night? In short, what do you really want? This last question helps you select from the various options (you can’t discuss all of the issues in one sitting).
My guess is that while it may help clarify matters if your boss defines her terms, this is a far less important issue than several others you mentioned and wouldn’t be the best place to start. The fact that she fails to ask for your input and doesn’t recognize your current skills sounds far more important and both problems may be contributing to your feeling unsupported. Clarifying her words might help a little and would certainly be easier to discuss, but isn’t likely to get you what you want.
So, think about the various issues, talk about the component parts with a friend, ask yourself what you really want, and then reduce the problem to a single sentence–forcing yourself to get at the core issue.
2. How do you start the conversation?
Choosing what to talk about is only the beginning. Now you have to talk. Before you open your mouth, keep a good thought. Don’t enter the conversation feeling angry, smug, or superior. Most of us aren’t good enough actors to hide our underlying emotions. If you hold court in your head and find your boss guilty, the verdict will come out in your tone of voice and choice of words. Your nasty conclusions will make your boss defensive and put you at risk. Make it safe for both yourself and your boss by assuming that she’s simply unaware of the problem and doing her best. Then start by asking for permission–after all, this is your boss. For example: “I’m wondering if we can take a few minutes to talk about the new feedback process.”
When you’ve got permission, start by describing the problem. Don’t start with your conclusions or feelings. Both are controversial and typically cause others to become defensive. Start with the facts. For example: “In our last discussion you pointed out a problem and then made a suggestion on how to solve it. The last two times you’ve offered suggestions, I was already doing exactly what you proposed. It left me wondering if you have an accurate view of what I do and how I do it.” Then pause and wait for your boss’s response.
Now, a lot more will follow as the conversation unfolds, but this forum doesn’t allow for a complete handling of the confrontation. For now, let’s assume that you want to start off on the right foot and to do so you have to do two things well: select the right problem and then describe it in a way that makes it safe for the other person. Do these two things well and you’ll be heading down the right path in a way that will likely lead to a healthy confrontation.
Good luck and may all your conversations be effective ones.