Crucial Conversations QA

Abusive Friend


Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Authors,

I desperately need guidance with a crucial conversation.

I have a long-time friend who has a lot of “ups and downs” in her life. I’m the shoulder that she cries on and the sounding board when she’s angry with her husband. Unfortunately, she also likes to verbally attack me about once every three to four months, often for things over which I have no control. She thinks that everyone is out to get her, to the point of almost being paranoid. It seems she feels “safe” enough in our relationship to unload her fury on me. I’ve attempted to talk to her after past attacks, and have asked her to talk to me before blowing up, hoping to diffuse the situation. She claims that she’s “just being honest” and claims that I’m too sensitive. Nothing changes and the attacks continue.

With the last blow up, I had to put boundaries in place. I firmly told her that I would not tolerate her erratic behavior and that friends do not treat each other like that. That was about two months ago and we haven’t spoken since. I feel like I’ve abandoned her, but had to do something to protect myself. I feel there should either be closure or a conversation to open up the possibility of the relationship being reestablished. My pride is nudging me to keep quiet, but my heart is saying that I should be the person to clear the air. Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Dumped On

A Dear Dumped On,

I’m impressed that your heart inclines you to be humble and caring. Not a bad heart. In fact, it’s evidence of a wonderful one.

I have three pieces of advice for you—I’m hoping at least two out of three are useful.

My first advice is a shot in the dark that may be totally without merit. But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer it. My first advice is that you examine your “story” about your relationship with your friend. Whenever I hear myself or others offering extreme characterizations of the causes of a relationship problem, I smell a “Clever Story”—one that is used to justify or cover the person’s own contribution to the problem. In your letter you make statements like “She thinks that everyone is out to get her” and “she also likes to verbally attack me.” These make your friend out to be a pretty out-of-control villain. While you characterize yourself as having taken reasonable steps to set some boundaries which she writes off as indicating you’re “too sensitive.”

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. You may be precisely accurate in describing the causes of your current predicament. As a friend who has no view into what really happened, I am just encouraging you to see if any of your behavior has also contributed. From your story, it sounds as though you have not. And that is sometimes a warning sign that your story is keeping you from working on your own role in the issue.

My second piece of advice is that you clarify what you really want. You have known this woman for a long time, and her behavior has been quite consistent. While you may be able to influence her behavior a bit (I’ll get to that in the third piece of advice), she is not likely to change her basic habits. If becoming suspicious and punishing is part of who she is, then you must ask yourself if you’re willing to accept this as the price of having an ongoing relationship. Most people are almost blind to their own motives when having a crucial conversation. We think we want to mend fences when what we really want is to give the other person a chance to admit that he or she was wrong when we stopped talking. We think we want to renew the relationship, but what we really want is for the other person to transform into our ideal friend. How can you tell what you really want? By honestly considering what is likely to disappoint you in or after this conversation. If the other person failing to own up to his or her mistakes or failing to change would be disappointing, then your motive is not to restore the relationship. Be sure before opening your mouth that you know why you’re opening it. Then choose accordingly whether or not to engage in dialogue.

Finally, let’s imagine you’ve elected to speak to her. Let’s say you’ve decided you would like a relationship, but only on the terms that she stop abusing you. Then your big challenge in making it safe will be to communicate this term as a natural consequence and not as a threat. How she hears this boundary will make all the difference in the world. Here’s an example of how not to do it:

“I’d like to reconnect with you but only if you’re going to stop dumping on me when you get stressed out. If that happens again I won’t spend time with you anymore.”

Notice the phrasing here? Here you’re telling her if she does A then you’ll do B. It sounds like tit for tat. This will cause her to feel threatened and manipulated. Instead, help her see how your withdrawal is a natural consequence of her behavior. For example:

“In the past when you’ve raised your voice to me and told me you thought I was disloyal, I found myself feeling less interested in our relationship. I noticed I was less inclined to make contact with you as it seemed like it might just put me in another unpleasant situation.

“I want you to know I very much want our friendship to continue. But even more important is me taking care of myself by not putting myself in circumstances like that again. I would like your commitment that when you’re frustrated with me it won’t come out in those ways again. If you can’t commit to that, or that seems unreasonable, then I need to decide if I am willing to risk that happening again. And I think I won’t.”

As you lay out these consequences for her, I’d encourage you to solicit feedback as well about how you might be contributing to the problem. “Work on Me First” is a great way to create safety and gather important information that puts you in control of your life.

Best of luck!

Crucial Conversations QA

Abusive Boss

Kerry Patterson

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Authors,

I had a manager who was very belligerent. He would brush off physical aggression as “just playing” and verbal aggression as “just joking.” I found myself getting either physically injured or mentally trashed in every confrontation. I told him that I found his actions unnecessary, rude, and hurtful. He just came back with “just playing,” “just joking,” “it was no big deal,” “just having some fun,” “baaahrrrely touched you,” etc. I felt it was always a crucial conversation or confrontation, but he didn’t and so he felt no need to stop.

I did go to HR, but when HR asked him if he did these things he just said things like, “That guy’s a whiner,” “I wouldn’t hurt a flea,” and, “I did nothing abusive”—without ever giving a yes or no answer to their questions. Consequently, the person in HR erroneously assumed his answers meant “no,” and he made no effort to correct the wrong assumptions. I had heard HR tended to side with management whenever there was doubt, but in this case it looks like they didn’t even want to remove the doubt. This manager’s last words to me before I transferred to another area were “I’LL FIX YOU!!” as he pointed his finger at me.

I’d appreciate any advice or suggestions you can give me because other than just avoiding the guy, I still don’t know what else to do.


A Dear Abused,

Let’s assume that you’ve done your best to talk with the manager, it hasn’t yielded much, and you still want to take it to HR. Now what?

This problem, if not handled well, ends up falling into the “he said, she said” category. When this occurs, it’s hard to know who to believe. The abusive pattern won’t go away until you document the manager’s actual behaviors. You’re going to have to provide hard evidence, much as you would for a court of law. When you suggest that you walk away from interactions either “physically injured” or “mentally trashed” because he is “rude and hurtful,” people listening to you are left wondering, “Yes, but exactly what did he do?” You’re sharing your conclusion, but what were the manager’s actual behaviors?

Without a clear understanding of his words and behaviors (subtle and otherwise), it’s hard to know what’s actually going on. Are you just hypersensitive or is he really an abusive individual? If he is at fault, why haven’t others complained? In these cases, HR is left with an employee saying X and a manager saying Y, and they end up backing the manager. Why? Because they’re looking for a trend (what are others saying?) and they don’t see one. And since the company is betting on the manager in many ways, leaders have to provide support when a manager is accused by one individual and only in a vague way.

The next time you’re abused, write the details of what the manager did and said. Capture the exact words. Describe the delivery. If he put his face within two inches of your face and then thumped you on the forehead, include this. These are the “abusive” behaviors. If he raised his voice or actually threatened you, include this as well.

Imagine that you’re writing a screenplay and actors are going to have to play out the scene, based on what you’ve written. You’ll need the complete script along with the directions for how to deliver it. When you capture the exact words, tone, and feel, then others can see that your manager actually is quite abusive and the HR experts will now have a more scientific starting place. Not only will your story of “abuse” be much more believable, but whoever meets with the abusive manager will be able to give him specific feedback along with advice as to what will be permissible in the future.

To further strengthen your case, look for corroborating witnesses. If others view the abusive interaction, ask them if it felt abusive to them. This will help you get a feel for your degree of sensitivity. If others say that it looked okay to them, then maybe you are the one who needs to rethink the relationship. If they agree (“Are you kidding? That was a horrible way to treat you!”) then ask them for their support. Write down your description of what occurred, give the witnesses a copy and see if they agree with your summary. If so, ask if they’d be willing to discuss the incident with HR. Now you have more than one person supporting your claim.

Learn how to support your conclusions with careful descriptions of the other person’s actual behaviors—whether talking directly to the person in a crucial confrontation or sharing your plight with HR. Stick to the facts—what you saw and heard. Curb your emotional response, drop out your inflammatory language, and simply share your view of what the other person did. In the long run, science always wins out over emotional allegations.

Good luck in your quest for fair treatment,

Crucial Conversations QA

Confronting Medical Mistakes


Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

Working as a respiratory therapist, I frequently notice common, yet avoidable, mistakes that can cause major issues if not resolved.

One of our daily tasks as a Respiratory Team is to check the oxygen of all patients in our areas of the hospital. Frequently, I find problems.

There are two specific instances that come to mind. Both times I entered the room to find the patient’s oxygen saturation low. I immediately turned up the oxygen only to find that the poor saturation was due to employee error. One patient’s tubing was sitting on the floor, left there from when he had gotten up to walk laps. The other patient’s tubing was plugged into the air outlet in the wall, so the patient was getting only room air, not oxygen. The outlets are clearly marked—oxygen is green and air is yellow.

Both instances could have been prevented had the nurses paid better attention. I didn’t confront the nurse taking care of either patient because I felt like my emotions would have caused me to say something I would have regretted later. Had I not done oxygen rounds at that time, I wonder how long it would have taken someone else to notice that there was a problem.

How can I appropriately confront people I work with without causing an uncomfortable situation? I believe my patients deserve better care.


A Dear Unplugged,

First of all, let me acknowledge you for even asking this question. OurSilence Kills study of healthcare organizations across the U.S. found that 84 percent of healthcare workers regularly see things like you’ve described. And yet fewer than one in ten speak up about it.

And here’s the first point I’d like to make: the biggest reason people don’t speak up is that they believe it is not their job to do so. This belief is a critical problem we must solve in healthcare if we are ever to make significant improvements in patient safety and quality of care. Why? Because our research shows that the best healthcare is delivered in organizations where anyone can speak up to anyone who would benefit from feedback. So, thank you for recognizing that you have a responsibility to speak up about the problems in your hospital.

Let me share with you four pieces of advice that might make speaking to your colleague easier:

First, master your story. You were self-aware enough to realize that speaking up when you were angry or offended may not have been productive. Now it’s important you realize that your upset emotions were something you produced. You were not angry because coworkers made obvious mistakes. You were angry because of the story you told yourself about why they made those mistakes. You may have quickly judged, for example, that they did it because they were stupid, or lazy, or thoughtless, or all three. This is a common thing we do when others let us down—we leap to judgments and conclusions that escalate our emotions and make us less effective at confronting problems.

The first thing you need to do before speaking up is try to see how areasonable, rational, and decent person could have made such a mistake. You may, for example, consider that the nurse may have been distracted or called away while trying to reconnect the tube, or he or she may not have been trained sufficiently, etc. Does this kind of mental redirection mean you’ll tolerate the mistake? No! It just means you’ll approach the others involved as reasonable people who deserve understanding and civility. If you approach them as anything less than this, they are likely to respond defensively and you’ll be ineffective.

Second, create safety. Contrary to popular belief, the person you are about to approach is not destined to become defensive. Most people believe thatanyone who is confronted about a mistake will become defensive. This is largely incorrect. People don’t become defensive because of what you’re saying to them; they become defensive because of why they think you are saying it. The problem is not the feedback. The problem is the lack of safety. Help others feel safe by assuring them of your positive intentions and of your respect for them—in a truthful and appropriate way.

For example, you might start with a show of respect by asking permission before offering feedback: “I know I’m not a boss here or anything, but I noticed something with one of your patients that I think you might want to know about. May I tell you about it?” Then reassure them of your intentions and respect, “I’m sure I miss things now and again and I hope you’d return the favor if you ever notice. I also don’t want to be presumptuous or act like I’m perfect at everything. But I noticed that . . .”

Next, share the facts. Many people make mistakes in giving feedback by mixing their judgments or conclusions with facts. This is because they may, without even realizing it, have mixed motives. They want to give helpful feedback. But they also want to express irritation and punish the other person for creating the problem to begin with. Strip away that motive entirely and focus on the facts.

Here’s what not to say: “You were a bit careless in reattaching the patient’s oxygen tube. You should know that the green is oxygen and the yellow is regular air.” Instead, try, “When I was making oxygen rounds I noticed two of your patients whose oxygen levels were low. I became concerned and found that one of them had detached oxygen tubing and the other’s tubing was connected to the yellow air outlet rather than the green oxygen outlet.”

Finally, invite dialogue. If you’ve gotten your emotions in check by checking your story, started with safety, and then shared the facts, odds are the other person will be listening reasonably well at this point. The final thing I’ll advise you to do is end with a question that encourages open dialogue. For example, “Can we talk about what might have happened?”

Obviously a great deal might go right or wrong from this point forward, but if you continue to approach things in a safe and respectful way, while being honest in sharing your opinions, you are likely to have a positive impact. And if you encourage more people to do the same, you’ll be well on your way to having a positive impact on quality of care in your hospital.

Best of Luck,