Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
How do I approach someone who seems to think I’m an idiot?
I am the Director of Finance in my organization. I am a CPA. One of my functions is to count votes at our Board meetings. It’s a little more complicated than counting hands–but not much.
The other day, our Executive Director placed in my box a “cheat sheet” of how to count votes. I’ve been doing this for two years so I find her giving me this sheet very rude, demoralizing, and demeaning. This is just an example. She does these sorts of things fairly often. How can I get her to stop?
I Can Count
Dear I Can Count,
I’m pretty torn reading your note. On the one hand I’d feel exactly as you do if someone gave me arithmetic tips after two years of working together. It’s kind of like getting a box of Tic Tacs from your sweetheart for Valentine’s Day–it’s gotta mean something, hasn’t it? On the other hand, I know in my heart that the biggest challenge you’ll face talking to your executive director is the story you’re telling yourself about her actions. You’ve decided it is “rude, demoralizing, and demeaning.” And, to be honest, that’s your problem not hers. To the degree you take offense, you’ll have a very difficult time building safety for your executive director when you have your crucial conversation.
So Master Your Story by asking, “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?” Some possibilities might include:
* She believes I made a mistake recently and she concluded (incorrectly) it was because I didn’t understand the counting policy. This is her way of coaching me without putting me on the spot. How polite!
* She didn’t understand the policy herself. She recently figured it out, wrote a note for her own use and offered me a copy since it fits my responsibilities.
* Or (given that this behavior seems to show up in other ways, too) she tends to be very critical of things in general and doesn’t realize how she comes across as a result.
Your first challenge is to separate how you see her from how you see her behavior. When you feel a sense of regard and civility toward her–and less insulted and victimized by her–you’re ready to talk. How then, do you bring it up? Here are four tips:
1. Start with Safety
Show respect by giving her the benefit of the doubt: “If it’s okay, I’d like to check something out with you. Some things you’ve done now and again have caught me off guard and I’m not sure what you meant by them–could I invite your feedback?”
2. Share the Facts
Describe factually what happened. Don’t add your judgments or accusations. For example, don’t say, “You seem to think I don’t know how to count board votes.” Rather, say, “You put this note about vote-counting in my box.” Add any other relevant experiences as well that help paint the picture you’re trying to lay out.
3. Tentatively Share Your Concern
Again, if you’ve “Mastered Your Story” you’ll be able to do this well. If you still feel hurt and insulted, you won’t. Here’s how it should sound: “After these three experiences, I’m beginning to wonder if you’ve got concerns with my competence.”
4. Invite Dialogue
Now, open yourself up to feedback. Sincerely invite her views and she’ll be much more open to then hearing yours: “I realize I could be taking this wrong. But if there’s feedback I need to get–I’m hungry for it. Or, if you’re just trying to help, I’d like to share some of my views about things that are and aren’t helpful. How do you see things?”
I hope this is useful and wish you the best in this crucial conversation.