Crucial Accountability QA

Lending Money

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do I ask my former sister-in-law for money that she owes me?

My former sister-in-law is a high powered attorney in NY. Her son and my son are the same age and are good friends. I suggested to her they attend camp together for the summer and she asked that I go ahead and register both boys and also pay the registration fee, which I did. She said she would follow up with payment. A month later she still had not reimbursed me, so I sent her an e-mail reminding her. Still no response.

We are not very close and I have never really felt that she respected me. How do I confront her without getting hostile?

Repo Woman

Dear Repo Woman,

Your last two sentences say it all. It was appropriate for you to include all that you did in that final brief paragraph. You first disclose that you believe she doesn’t respect you. Then you add that your challenge is to confront without hostility. My first point is that these two issues are inextricably connected. You will be hostile to the degree that you a) believe she doesn’t respect you; b) believe her disrespect of you actually means something about you; and c) use a & b to assemble a story that has her avoiding repaying you because she is intentionally trying to stick it to you.

In other words, your hostility will be driven by the story you’re telling yourself about her and her behavior and not by the behavior itself.

You first must work on your story. Some options you have are to find a way to tell a story that:

• Has her feeling some degree of respect for you. (Hint: what are three pieces of evidence an objective outsider would give you to demonstrate that she holds you in some level of esteem? For example, she allows/encourages her son to spend significant amounts of time with your son.)

• Makes you less dependent on her feelings about you. (Hint: Why does it matter that she doesn’t totally respect you? Who cares? What stories do you tell about yourself that make you suspect she shouldn’t respect you? Are these stories true?)

• Explains why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would not have repaid you. (Hint: it’s a small amount and she’s forgetful; you’ve done something to bug her in the past and this is her way of needling you; she’s strapped for cash living her lavish, lawyerly lifestyle; etc.)

What I’m suggesting is that you provoke, assault, soften, and challenge your story about her, about your relationship, and about what’s going on. At the end of the day the only way you can avoid being hostile is to stop feeling hostile. And the only way to stop feeling hostile is to master your story.

Now, how do you hold this conversation? Person to person. You have now exceeded the utility of e-mail and will only get into trouble by taking this next step electronically. Call her up.

Now that you’ve got her on the phone (or in person), hold the right conversation. This is a pattern issue. Talk about the pattern, not the money. Describe the gap between what you expected and what you are getting in a way that illustrates the pattern of neglect. As you “describe the gap” be sure to create safety–don’t attribute bad motive–and affirm your basic respect for her:

“Two months ago you asked me to sign your son up with mine for summer camp. I was so glad you agreed because your son and mine have such a special relationship. At that time you asked me to cover the deposit and promised to pay me back soon. After a month lapsed and I didn’t get the deposit from you I sent an e-mail. When I covered the deposit, I expected you’d pay it back soon so I wouldn’t have to ask because I don’t want to have the burden of nagging. What’s up?”

Hopefully you can see in this sample script my attempt to show respect, clarify my concern, and open up the right conversation–not just one about the money, but one about a pattern of her not keeping the commitment and pushing the problem onto you.

You may also want to build a little more safety by demonstrating that you are not attributing bad motive about her failure to repay:

“When you didn’t respond I wondered if maybe you didn’t get my e-mail. Or perhaps you’re short on cash in the short term. If there are any issues I’m happy to try to work this out in some reasonable way. What’s up?”

When you demonstrate your willingness to attribute good motive, or to show understanding for challenges the other person faces, you aren’t letting her off the hook. You’re simply making it safe for her to open up about what she’s facing. Then with full information about what’s going on, you can agree on a solution that suits you both.

Good luck!


Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Applications: Dealing with Harassment

If you’re experiencing racial slurs, enduring sexual harassment, or are a daily witness to other degrading behaviors at work, don’t settle, sue, or quit. Fix the silly but commonly held belief that your only choice is between taking it and quitting. Joseph Grenny offers three helpful steps for dealing with the problem. He suggests adopting a “three strikes and you’re out” approach:

1. Strike One: On the first offense, speak up immediately and ask the other person to commit to stop. Don’t be subtle-–be direct. Make it private and make it polite.

2. Strike Two: Don’t confront the same problem twice. The first time you confront it, you’re asking for a commitment to stop. If after making the commitment, the person continues, you now have to confront the new problem-–the person’s failure to keep the commitment. This is a bigger problem than the repeated behavior. Privately, politely, and immediately point out the failure. Ask why it happened, and attempt to get a commitment to change. Let the person know that if he or she breaks this commitment you will lose confidence that talking is sufficient. Tell the person that you plan to explore other options for correcting this situation.

3. Strike Three: Know your options. If the bad behavior happens again, it’s time to escalate. You’ve tried to talk things out without success. Report the behavior to HR, or use other channels to prosecute your rights. Be clear on HR, legal, and other policies you have working in your favor in case the behavior happens again.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Dealing with Deference

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Kerrying On

In my last article, I suggested that employees frequently defer to their boss’s suggestions even if they disagree with an idea or, worse still, if they think the idea is positively moronic. Employees withhold their objections to these ridiculous ideas for obvious reasons. They want to be polite. They try their best to be nice. And then, of course, there’s the ever-popular reason: they want to continue making their house payments.

To show how this insane transformation might happen, let me share a personal experience. In this example, the big boss in the corner office of the company I was working for at the time called and asked if it would be okay if he took home the wood scraps lying outside the carpenters’ shop. Winter was coming on and he wanted to use the scraps for fireplace kindling.

Two hours later I received a phone call from the boss’s wife thanking me for the lovely wood that was just delivered to her home. How did loose scrap transmute into lovely wood? As the big boss’s request traveled down the chain of command to the employees who were supposed to pick up the scrap, the tentative request was first distorted into a dumb idea and then transformed into a command. At the insistence of their immediate supervisor, employees measured the boss’s fireplace, and instead of sending over the discarded scrap wood, cut expensive oak planks to size, banded the wood, and transported it to the boss’s home. That winter the boss burned over two thousand dollars worth of lumber.

As you might suspect, the people who actually cut up the expensive planks complained that the boss was misusing resources and bad-mouthed him behind his back. The boss had no idea any of this was going on. He had merely asked if he could pick up the scrap and was thrilled with the wood.

My partners and I observe deference to authority in virtually every company we study, people continue to complain about it, and it comes up big in almost every corporate survey we administer.

With this in mind, here are four cues to help you recognize deference, as well as some dos and don’ts for dealing with it.

1. A Pause Should Give You Pause. You’ve just shared an idea with a direct report who thinks it’s sort of stupid, but he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings or get canned. So he thinks, “Hmm, how can I let the boss know that I’m not all that keen on this idea?” He pauses to think of exactly what to say. Of course, his brain is moving at light speed as he conjures a script that’ll save his hide, so it’s not as if there’s a five minute break in the flow. Nevertheless, there is a two-second pause as your nervous direct report searches for just the right words.

DO: Now, if you’re a caring, sensitive, high self-monitor, you immediately recognize the pause as a warning sign. You think to yourself, “Oh oh, there’s a pause. This brief gap in the conversation actually means something. My bet is that he’s thinking of a way to let me down gently.”

DON’T: On the other hand, if you’re like most people, you desperately want your idea to be implemented, so you’re not looking for signs of disapproval. You’re looking to make your argument quickly, articulately, and with as much enthusiasm as possible. So you completely miss the two-second pause and don’t back off one iota.

2. Faint Praise Should Hit You Like a Truck. Immediately following the brief pause the other person chokes out a response. Since he’s worried about the horrific things that might happen to him if he disagrees with you, he agrees with your whacked-out suggestions—but oh-so woefully. He comes back with something like: “I don’t know,” (he pauses once again while looking distressed) “I guess your idea might maybe work. Perhaps.” This, of course, is code for: “Are you nuts? Your idea will crash like a Zamboni at the Daytona 500.”

DO: Once again the savvy individual would read the concern reflected in the new and added pause and pay special attention to the tentative language the frightened subordinate chose (“might,” “maybe,” “perhaps”). This tepid statement of approval is obviously bogus and means that the other person is afraid to speak his opposing views. Of course the most obvious hint that the person has serious doubts is reflected in his halted delivery and pathetic look of distress.

DON’T: Unfortunately, you’re so hyped on the sheer genius of your idea that you’re paying no heed to tentative language, pregnant pauses, or expressions of distress. Subtlety is lost on you. In fact, in order for you to pick up on the vibe that your direct report wants to express a concern, he will have to fire off a flare, grab you head with both his hands, stare you in the face, and shout: “Listen up, I have real concerns here! Do you hear me? Real concerns!” After all, you’re excited about your idea and are looking for people to agree with you. Consequently, you read any ambiguous clues as signs of approval.

3. Actual Words of Concern Should Be a Signal to Probe, Not to Defend. As the conversation continues, you take your subordinate’s lukewarm response as genuine acceptance and are now moving in for the close. You’re actually trying to set a follow-up time. At this point your direct report realizes that his subtle hints have gone unnoticed by the social moron he’s dealing with and that he’s going to have to say something clear, forceful, and out loud. So he says: “Actually, I’m a bit worried about your plan. I can see that you’re really excited about this idea and that you’ve given it a lot of thought, but I’m wondering if . . .”

DO: Note your subordinate’s clever words. He’s acknowledged your excitement, given you credit for thinking about your plan, and only tentatively shared his opposing views. It’s a textbook response tailored to catch your attention without making you defensive. The savvy person would read these well-spoken words as a clue to probe for more detail. After all, the person in a position of less authority has taken a risk and needs to be rewarded. At this point it makes sense to stop and thank him for his candor and seek more information.

DON’T: Unfortunately, if you’re like most of us, by this point in the conversation you’re completely committed to your idea and aren’t interested in hearing objections—no matter how well stated—so you don’t listen. Instead, you move from being enthusiastic to being argumentative. And no matter your words, what you’re really saying is that you’ve made your mind up and if the other person doesn’t agree with you you’ll keep serving up arguments until he eventually crumbles. And, oh yes—did you forget to mention—you are the boss, right?

4. Fear Should Cause You to Look at Yourself, Not to Increase Your Attack. As you step up your debate tactics, the other person starts to look frightened. His eyes are darting wildly as he looks for an exit, sweat may be forming on his forehead, and he’s preparing for a full frontal attack. And why wouldn’t he be preparing for an assault? He has this really bad idea he has to contend with, his boss is turning up the heat, and he doesn’t know what to say or do.

Once again, savvy individuals take one look at the fear in the other person’s eyes and realize that they have probably done something to create this unfavorable reaction. They also understand that it now falls on them to restore safety to the conversation. They’re in a position of power, they’ve probably caused the fear (even if they’ve been on their best behavior), and they’ll have to fix it.

DO: To restore safety (and simultaneously kill mindless deference) a skilled person would say something like: “I don’t want to force my view on you. I was just spit balling with this idea. What I really want is to come up with an idea that serves us all well. My guess is that my existing plan might cause problems with your team’s quality process and I’d love to hear any objections you might have.”

Notice how these words help restore safety by establishing mutual purpose, softening your position, inviting differing opinions, and playing devil’s advocate. This doesn’t come naturally. In fact, it requires a great deal of genetic undoing. You must fight thousands of years of programming that propels humans to increase their attack at the first sign of fear. If you want to nip deference in the bud, you have to find a way to create safety. It may look and feel unnatural to make it safe in the face of fear, but it’s exactly the right thing to do and smart people do it all the time.

In Summary

When it comes to deference to authority, take the lead from the best. Assume that as you enter every high-stakes conversation with a subordinate there’s a good chance you’ll be offered up a hefty load of deference unless you take care to create safety. And since others are likely to feel nervous about disagreeing with you directly and openly, you’ll have to pay close attention to subtle signs.

First, watch for each pause as if it were your best friend. Hesitancy will be your first warning signal. If a pause is followed by a visible drop in confidence and half-hearted support, assume that others have differing views but are holding back. Invite their opposing views. Explain that you want to hear all sides. Play devil’s advocate.

If the other person finally musters the courage to tentatively suggest an opposing view, embrace the information, don’t attack it. You can make your points later on in the discussion. For now, encourage others to clarify their opinions. Value criticism—it’s your best tool for continuous improvement. Thank the other person for his or her candor and ask for more details.

Finally, if you see fear in others’ eyes, take this as a cue not to step up your debate tactics, but as a cue to step out of the conversation and restore safety. Fight your deep-seated drive to pound your point home. Instead, establish mutual purpose. Share your good intentions. Make it safe for others to speak openly and honestly.

And then come to work in my company—as my boss. I’d love to report to a person who actually does stuff like this.