Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I work as an RN and Clinic Coordinator in an Occupational Health clinic. Recently, we had a terroristic threat from a patient and the security guards were called to stand by while the patient had his office visit.
While he was standing by, one security guard and I discovered that he’d worked with my father on our local police force forty-two years ago. When he found out who I was, the security guard started recounting—in front of my clinic staff—how terrible my father was for leaving my mom, my sister, and me (he fooled around on my Mom while they were married so she divorced him), that they thought he was not “right in the head,” and that he had a problem running away from responsibility.
While I agree with him on all counts, I was pretty stunned that he kept on with all of this in front of two of my medical assistants and am wondering how best to deal with this. We will need to rely on his presence for future visits with this abusive patient, so I don’t want to alienate him. But he needs to hear how that affected me—my staff was very embarrassed also. How do I approach this type of conversation?
Too Much Information
Dear Too Much:
As I read this question, I kept looking for the theme or themes that would represent typical concerns that many people face. There is good news here. I think everyone has had experiences of this sort. What do you do when someone acts in ways that embarrass you and others in public? It could be that someone shares facts about your past that shouldn’t be shared in public, uses language that is sexist or racist, tells an offensive joke or story, or tells a story about him- or herself that is indelicate or too revealing.
I’ll address this issue by working through some of the principles we teach in “Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior.”
The first principle is to Choose WHAT and IF. To help you choose what issue to talk about, we teach the acronym CPR: Content, Pattern, and Relationship. The issue at hand here is not a pattern–it’s the first time this has occurred. It has not become a relationship issue at this point. This is good news–you’re facing a content issue, so you should only talk about this particular incident. The next step is to determine IF you should speak up. Very often, if you don’t speak up you will act out your feelings by gossiping, frowning, showing angst, withdrawing, etc. It sounds like it would be hard to not act out these feelings, so choose to speak up.
Once you’ve clarified the issue and chosen to speak up, you need to move to the next step: Master My Stories. You want to avoid oversimplifying or vilifying. Ask yourself: “Why might a reasonable, rational, decent person do this? Could it be that he was not aware of what he was doing? Have I ever been oblivious to something I did? Have I ever worn a bit of lunch in my front teeth for half a day and not realized it? Could there be reasons that I’m not aware of?” There are two upsides to giving him the benefit of the doubt: 1) you don’t get all upset and angry and 2) you don’t rush in with accusations and emotions–the most common problem that people succumb to in beginning a crucial confrontation.
If you have a clear issue to discuss and your emotions and stories are in control, move the next step: Describe the Gap.
A gap is the difference between what you expected and what you observed. Clearly you don’t expect someone to talk in public the way this person did, so you are ready to open your mouth and talk to him. What do you need to remember?
First, if you haven’t prejudged him and chosen to be angry, then you have made it safe because your facial expressions, tone of voice, and words send the message, “I have an observation and a question, not an accusation and a guilt trip waiting for you.”
Second find a time and private place to talk that is convenient and safe. Then describe the gap. It might sound something like this. “Last week when you came to our clinic you recounted details about my father and personal life in front of the staff. I believe that details like that should be discussed in private. I was surprised and embarrassed that those details were shared so publicly. Can we talk about this?”
When you get off on the right foot, there is enough safety and clarity and good intention that the confrontations tend to go well.
So here’s the good news. It’s a clear, one-time issue that you can typically solve by bringing it up in safe environment. By not letting it become a pattern that affects your relationship, you will most likely maintain a good working relationship with this man and he will more than likely not repeat a behavior that he was not aware of or that he didn’t realize was so impactful.