Crucial Accountability QA

Coworker’s Personal Life

Kerry Patterson

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


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I would like to know how you would handle this situation. I work with two others in a front office, and although I have no formal authority, I do have more responsibility. One of the ladies is constantly talking about the minutia of her life, e.g., what groceries she bought, what she had for dinner, what doctor’s appointments she has, what her sugar and cholesterol levels are . . . She is also recently divorced, and in the process of purchasing a house for the first time. She is constantly (six times this morning) taking or making calls for personal business, and then telling us what her calls are for. She has been asked not to use her cell phone in the office due to distraction, and to just take personal calls during her lunch–so has gone outside the building to use the phone. I have tried a crucial conversation, but met with a defensive reaction.

What can I do?

Frustrated at Work

A Dear Frustrated,

This particular challenge—the other person violating expectations of what you do and don’t do at work—falls into the category of a crucial confrontation. This, as you might guess, we deal with in some detail in the book “Crucial Confrontations.” Let me share a few ideas from that book.

The first issue you face is choosing “What” and “If.” What is the problem you want to deal with, and should you actually bring it up? You stated that you have no authority over this person, but I will assume that the behaviors are troublesome enough that, independent of your formal authority, you want to talk about the issue. You’ve decided the “If”—you know you want to say something.

You’re still left with the “What” question. You’ve identified several different problems and you’ll need to decide which problem you want to confront. You can’t confront all of them at once without confusing the issues and looking like you’re piling it on. You also have to decide how touchy an issue you want to address. For instance, taking personal calls during business isn’t very touchy if there’s a policy in place already. Pointing out that the person is constantly bringing up irrelevant and possibly boring topics—well, that’s not such an easy issue to bring up.

To choose from among all your options, ask yourself what you really want. Which of the issues bugs you the most and do you end up talking about with your friends or loved ones? This is probably what you’ll need to discuss.

Start by asking for permission to discuss an issue that has you concerned. Explain your good intentions. Suggest that you want to work through an issue to both of your satisfaction. (And you have to mean this.) Use Contrasting. Suggest that you’re not trying to boss her around or anything, you simply want to jointly come to a resolution that you’ll both like. Then describe the gap. That is, explain what you’re observing versus what you expected. Describe what she’s doing, focusing on behaviors and leaving out your conclusions. Keep your tone pleasant. Pause and ask if she understands the issue or if she sees it differently.

How you start the confrontation sets the tone for the remainder of the interaction. To help with your tone, assume that your coworker is well intended but unaware and that your feedback might help the two of you work together. If you assume the worst of her, your negative conclusions will come out in your delivery. So start with good intentions, share them, focus on behavior and not conclusions, and then seek her view. All of this goes a long way in reducing defensiveness.

Best of luck and thanks for writing,

Kerry Patterson

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Who Wants to Be Weird?

Kerry Patterson

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


Kerrying On

“He’s here!” someone shouted as I walked across campus. Solomon Asch, the renowned social scientist, was going to give a speech. Excited about the prospect of listening to one of the true pioneers of the field, I skipped class for a chance to hear what he had to say. Ray Price, a fellow doctoral student at Stanford, arranged for a baby-sitter so he could attend. Another student called in late for his lab job. People all around campus and across disciplines dropped whatever they were doing and like groupies hearing about an impromptu sighting of a rock star, they all rushed to hear from the master.

“He’s gotta be around a hundred!” I suggested to Ray.

“What do you think he’s going to talk about?” Ray wondered aloud.

“Surely it has something to do with the line study,” I responded. After all, that famous study was his thing. In the study, he drew three lines of different lengths for his research subjects to see. He then drew a fourth line that was exactly the same length as the second line and asked a group of people seated around a table, “Which line is this fourth most like—one, two, or three?” Obviously it was the same as the second line. Anyone could tell.

But then something really weird happened. The first person suggested that the line in question was the same as the first line. What a moron! Maybe this person had a vision problem. And then the second person said the same. What?! How could two people be that wrong? Of course, the answer to this question is now part of social science history. They were both dupes who worked for Dr. Asch. They purposefully gave the wrong answer to see if they could get a genuine subject to agree with them.

To help nudge the findings, Dr. Asch had a total of eight people (all dupes) give the same wrong answer. Then the ninth person, the only actual subject, would be asked the question. As you might suspect, nearly three-fourths of the subjects gave the same wrong answer. When they were interviewed after the study was completed, all the subjects said that they knew they had given the wrong answer, but they didn’t want to go against the crowd.

This particular compliance study has been shared in every introductory psych class ever since. It laid the groundwork for a whole series of conformity studies, including the famous Milgram studies.

Wanting to hear the latest word about these fascinating conformity studies, we sat in a crowded classroom eagerly waiting for Dr. Asch to appear. Ray and I were in the front row. Eventually, Dr. Asch was escorted to the front of the room. He was indeed old and as it turned out, he wanted to set the record straight. He tottered to the front of the room, paused to steady himself, and then spoke but one word.


We sat there in silence as Dr. Asch waited for the dramatic pause to work its effect. Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes, he explained. “When I conducted the original studies, I wasn’t studying conformity, I was studying independence. I was interested in the one in four subjects who spoke their minds even when confronted with eight other people who disagreed with them. I was interested in those who had the guts to stand up and speak their mind in the face of adversity. And yet to this day my work is known as the first in a long series of ‘conformity’ studies.”

That was really all the esteemed scholar had to say that fall morning in 1977, and to be honest, it didn’t have much of an effect on me. Who cares if the research topic is independence or conformity? To-MAY-to, to-MAW-to; half-empty, half-full—it’s all the same.

Of course, how this transformation from independence to conformity took place is easy to understand. Implying that humans are easily turned into sniveling yes-men and yes-women is far more interesting that focusing on a handful of independent cusses. Suggesting that humans are like lemming and would willing plunge with the masses off a cliff just because everyone else is doing it—now that’s interesting.

In a nutshell, conformity is fascinating; independence—not so much. So Asch returned to Stanford in 1977 to set the record straight. He wanted the next generation of researchers to study the less fascinating folks, the independent ones. And true to form, I didn’t care.

Years later I found myself conducting a series of one-on-one interviews with employees who worked for a company that was in a lot of trouble. Profits were down, quality was failing, customer satisfaction was plummeting, and if things continued, they’d all be out of work. As I talked with people, most complained about a poor work ethic. Nobody said anything to anyone, but they hated the fact that so many people got away with not doing much. They were about to lose their jobs, but nobody had the courage to speak up.

And then I ran into someone who frequently spoke up. Maybe he was one of those guys Dr. Asch was so interested in. To start things off, he looked weird. His socks didn’t match, his hair was out of control, and he bore an untamed and spaced out expression. This social deviate quickly pointed out to me that he was surrounded by a bunch of slackers and losers and that he was constantly prodding them to get back to work. His reminders often resulted in screaming matches, but according to him, he was the only person with any integrity.

And now for the bad news. While it was true that this offbeat fellow was speaking his mind when others weren’t, he was really bad at it. In fact, he had no discernable social skills at all. He was a low self-monitor—one of those people who don’t care if they fit into a social niche and who often speak their minds in a way that offends others.

I didn’t know what to think. I did have a question though. If you’re the kind of person who speaks up after eight people share a different and obviously wrong opinion, do you have to be a low self-monitoring weirdo with an ax to grind? Which brings me to Solomon’s original question: Who were the 25 percent who had the courage to disagree, and what made them tick? And if you’re going to be the kind of person who speaks out against the vocal majority, do you have to wear mismatched socks and sit at the lunch table by yourself for the rest of your life?

Now let me put this issue in perspective. I ask this question because the cost of not being able to speak up in the presence of opposing views can be horrendous. Let’s jump to the present. Last week at the World Business Forum, Tom Peters suggested that companies are too old and stodgy and vulnerable to new ideas that are coming at us at a breakneck pace. He’s been saying this for years. In his words, we need to nurture and promote the “weird.” My thoughts turned to the wild guy with the mismatched socks. Although he didn’t say it in so many words, Dr. Peters also wants to hear from the 25 percent who have the courage to speak when others toe the party line. Dr. Asch would have wanted to kiss Tom Peters.

Tom got it right. Speaking up means a whole lot to most companies. Colin Powell, who spoke later that day, said that anyone who didn’t have the courage to disagree with the boss when he or she thinks the boss is wrong doesn’t deserve to be a leader. This statement was followed by thunderous applause.

Let’s put this all in Solomon Asch’s language. What does it take to say, “I think it’s the second line, not the first one”? Now, let’s put this in my words. Can a person whose socks actually match and who often takes the road more traveled speak up and be heard and encourage others to do the same? Or are the 25 percent who muster the courage to say “I disagree” to a whole crowd the “weird” people that Tom Peters lauds and the rest of the world makes fun of and ostracizes? Because if it’s true that the vocal few are mostly geeks, I’ll clam up and stick with the majority thank you very much.

It turns out there’s hope. Not everyone who speaks up is weird. I learned this encouraging fact a few years back when I left the wild guy with the mismatched socks and started studying influence masters. These were people who were picked by their peers as the most influential people in the company. We followed employees who had been identified by as many as seventy people as those people were most likely to listen to. We watched them on the phone, in meetings, and in the heat of a debate. We didn’t learn all that much until we found ourselves in a real-life Asch experiment.

People were sitting quietly in a meeting when the big boss made a really stupid suggestion. “What do you think?” the boss asked, and everyone sat there mum—except for the influence master. He opened his mouth and spoke his mind. Better still, he spoke in a way that didn’t insult or cause offense. Others quickly chimed in and the issue got resolved in a healthy way.

The fact that a skilled and influential person spoke up was quite heartening because until this point I had seen only two kinds of outspoken folks. The geek I referred to earlier and normal people who had become so upset that they could stand it no longer and moved from silence to violence. They spoke up alright, but were either out of control or angry or both. And then we discovered the influence masters. Unlike many of the 25 percent who speak out against the majority or the authority, they don’t act whacked-out or toggle from silence to violence. Influence masters deal in healthy dialogue.

Here are four things they do that make it safe to speak out against the majority. First, they don’t become righteously indignant and call everyone else idiots. Instead, they maintain a more humble stance. They say something like: “Hmm, I guess I see things differently—and in this case I’m the only one.” Two, they often ask for permission to speak their opinions. “Would it be okay if I shared a different view?” Three, they speak in tentative language, leaving room for disagreement. “I wonder if this is what’s going on here.” Four, and most important, setting all of their other ways aside, they always find a way to say something that indicates they disagree. They say something. They speak up.

And guess what happens when one person finds a way to say that the emperor has no new clothes? The same thing that happened when Asch himself inserted one person to disagree with the majority before the actual research subject was polled. The subjects now expressed their honest views far more frequently because they were no longer alone. One candid, forthright, and skilled person makes it safe for everyone. One person strengthens the entire team, family, or organization.

Many contemporary scholars are calling for people to muster the courage to speak up—particularly when they hold a strong but different view and they’re facing a great deal of social pressure or formal authority. Solomon Asch was interested in studying people who did just that. Our findings have been that many of the people who strike out against the masses do so in a way that doesn’t make it safe for others to follow. They’re either low self-monitors who don’t care if they fit anywhere or they’re angry people who can no longer sit in silence. Nobody wants to be like either. Weird and angry don’t work.

But there’s a group out there among the 25 percent who speak with skill—and in so doing limit the risk to themselves and to others. They aren’t as much courageous as they are able to speak with both confidence and skill. They’re masters of crucial conversations. Learn what these folks do, teach it to others, and the number of people who will comfortably speak their minds (no matter how different) will grow from a small minority to a point where virtually everyone feels empowered to express his or her views. And when this happens, just think of what the world will be like. Not everyone’s socks will match, but we’ll hear a lot of new views—and that can only make things better.

Crucial Conversations QA

Confronting Suspicions with a Spouse

Dear Crucial Skills,

My wife asked a friend of ours to help her with a home improvement project. Since then there have been other similar types of projects and he is now coming over to the house on a regular basis. In some worrisome ways their friendship seems too close. I have not found them in a compromising situation—yet—but it feels like she has moved her affection from me to him. And truthfully, I worry that inappropriate things are happening.

How do I confront her on this? Do I need to have proof solid enough for court before I confront her? This is tough, and I have to do something soon. I should have done it already, but until I picked up your Crucial Confrontations book a couple of weeks ago, I was at a loss for any answers that were not complete ambushes.

I am stuck still on how to apply your principles with her. She tends to shut people down when they disagree with her. I know if she did this with me at this point I would completely lose it, and resort to all the things that you folks say not to do, regardless of the consequences to the relationship or our marriage. I don’t want that to happen.

Please Help!

Home Improvement

Dear Home Improvement,

I can’t imagine a bigger burden than the one you’re carrying. I’m so sorry for your predicament and hope I can offer something of use to you.

As I’ve done before with questions like this, I’ve collaborated with one of the Marriage & Family counselors I respect most in the world—my father. Here are our thoughts.

First, examine your story. You need to do this for three reasons: 1) to ensure you don’t overreact to the situation; 2) to open yourself up to dialogue rather than delivering an “ambush” as you so aptly put it; 3) to prepare yourself to hold the crucial confrontation in a healthy way. The “story” you’re telling yourself (which, of course, is possibly true, possibly false, and possibly somewhere in between) is that your wife has inappropriate feelings for this friend. You’re also telling yourself that she may be acting on those feelings. To get control of this story and help yourself see it as story rather than fact, take out a piece of paper and make two columns. Label one “Facts” and the other “Stories.” Under the “Stories” column write out all the feelings, thoughts, judgments, and conclusions that are spinning in your head and gut right now about the situation. Then under “Facts” write down all the objective, observable information that supports your story.

Now comes the tough part. Write down any facts that *don’t* support your story. Work hard on this. The challenge here is that once our fears cause us to embrace a story, we tend to ignore information that would refute it. We are not encouraging you to take this step in order to wash away your concerns—only to help you judge more accurately what might be happening. So be sure to do this step thoroughly.

Now, with this information in front of you, you can decide whether or not to speak up. As you look objectively at this separation of fact and story, you may, for example, notice you have very few facts. Or that you have ignored some significant contradictory facts. Perhaps you are telling yourself a story that is not supported by the whole body of facts. If so, this is your issue to deal with. A more likely outcome is that you’ll realize that there is some cause for concern, but not as much as you had earlier thought. If so, you need to speak up—but you’ll do so with less accusation and certainty. Your goal will be to share concerns and gather more information. Finally, you may look at your worksheet and realize you have a legitimate and acute issue and your story looks pretty solid.

Now it’s time to speak up. No sugarcoating—but an attempt to talk in a way that leads to the best possible outcome. You must accomplish a few things in the first sixty seconds of this most Crucial Confrontation:

Make it safe. Tell your wife you have something tough to discuss. Assure her of your love for her and your desire to have a wonderful, loving, and safe relationship with her. And yet something is in the way of that right now. Tell her you realize you could be telling yourself stories, but that you also believe there is legitimate cause to wonder. Then ask for permission. Ask her to commit to hear you out before responding. Then allow her to take a timeout if she needs to before she responds. If she has a tendency to get defensive, respect that challenge and give her leeway to work through her defensiveness.

Share facts first. Once she commits to hearing you out, share only the facts first. Describe the behaviors you’ve seen from her or the friend that cause you concern. Be careful not to mix your story up with the facts. For example, you might say, “In the past we would talk a lot with each other during the evenings. In the past month we talk very little. That’s also the period of time in which you and Clifton have been working a great deal.” Notice the difference between this and “Since you’ve been spending time with Clifton you don’t talk with me anymore.” The first is fact. The second has a story (a judgment that time with Clifton has caused you to stop talking to me). Strip out any inflammatory, judgmental, or emotional language as you share the facts.

Tentatively share your conclusion. If you’ve done your mastered your stories well, by the time you finish sharing your facts your wife will understand why you are concerned even without you sharing your story. But share it anyway. And do it tentatively. After all, since you haven’t seen them doing inappropriate things, all you have is a story right now, not final facts. Say something like, “As I’ve thought about speaking with you I’ve tried to ask myself if this was just me being jealous. And perhaps that’s some of it. But as I consider all of these observations I think it’s reasonable for me to be concerned. Can you see why I might be? And is there something I should or shouldn’t be worried about here?

Invite dialogue. Now you need to hear her out. Let her respond. If she becomes defensive, reassure her of your intentions. If she tries to turn the tables on you and make this out to be your problem, once again, restore safety—then remind her of the facts you’ve laid out and keep the focus on those. Ask her to help you understand what is and isn’t going on. Reassure her that your goal is not to accuse or attack her. Your goal is to not let anything get in the way of a spontaneous and loving relationship with her. Make it safe. Ask sincere and inviting questions. Encourage her to share her feelings. If there are things you’ve been doing wrong that have driven her away, own up to them. This is not just about her; this is about you, too.

Once you get the issue in the open and establish a solution-focused conversation, come to agreement about ground rules–behaviors you both agree are appropriate and inappropriate in your relationships with others.

You have our sincere best wishes that this conversation will lead to a healthier and happier life for both of you.


Joseph Grenny
Dr. Guy Grenny