Crucial Conversations QA

Repairing a Mentor Relationship


Al Switzler

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Authors,

I recently found out that someone who was a confidante and a friend has been speaking badly about me to our mutual mentor. My relationship with this mentor has been deteriorating rapidly in the past year, and I could never understand what was going on. We all have very public positions in our community, and now, whenever I speak and my mentor is there, she interprets everything I say as a veiled attack. (And then of course, she responds publicly from that mental space.)

I also admit that when I saw the deterioration, I distanced myself from my mentor in hopes that she would see me in a better light because I was respecting her space.

My mentor is someone I care about deeply. Is there any hope of repairing the relationship with her? How?

Hopeful Mentee

A Dear Mentee,

When relationships we care about enormously start to fail or finally collapse, we feel the pain. Sometimes, trying to cope with the situation, we tell ourselves stories that the relationship doesn’t mean that much and we try to shrug it off. We bury our feelings in some deep part of ourselves and hope they wither. They seldom do. They churn and toss and turn and hurt. So how do we take care of these relationships? Whether it’s a mentor, confidante, friend, neighbor, colleague, or family member, what steps can we take?

My first bit of advice, and this may be the toughest step, is to catch and work on the problem early. Why is this tough? First, we don’t want to be too touchy or paranoid. We give the other person the benefit of the doubt. They are our mentor or friend, for Pete’s sake. Also, life is complex and moves fast, and sometimes we just aren’t aware of a problem until the relationship has fractured a bit. Still, fixing anything is easier when we catch it early. So how do we know when we should speak up? There are two key indicators that we can rely on to become more aware of our need to speak up. The first is that the “little voice” in our heads won’t go away. Okay, I can hear you saying, “Switzler, you may hear voices, but I don’t.” Actually, I don’t think I’m an anomaly here. Of course, my little voice sounds way too much like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, but that’s another story. Generally, that voice is sounding off with such comments as, “It’s not fair!” or “How could they?” or “Here they go again,” or “This is going to destroy my career and there’s nothing I can do about it,” etc. When this happens, the first option is to wait a bit. We just observe and get more data, and sometimes we realize that we over-generalized or were wrong because the little voice goes away. Then again, sometimes that little voice doesn’t go away. That is the first indicator that you need to bring up the issue. In your question, you mentioned that this issue has gone on for a year. That can be a big concern.

When the little voice doesn’t go away, we get to the second indicator—we start acting out our concerns. We do that in a number of ways. We show subtle judgmental nonverbals—we give them “the eye,” or our tone of voice betrays us, etc. Or we move to gossiping. There are dozens and dozens of ways that that little voice can leak out and betray us. When you catch yourself acting out your feelings instead of talking them out, pay attention. This is another huge indicator that you need to speak up—now. By paying attention to both of these indicators, you can catch relationship problems early.

My second piece of advice is to remember to master your stories. In this newsletter, we seem to bring this up a lot. Why? I think because clever stories can be so very, very clever. A clever story is what we tell ourselves to justify our own silence or violence and feel good about it. Primarily I’m worried about the stories that keep us from speaking up such as, “They’ll just get upset if I bring that up,” or “They should be apologizing to me; I did nothing wrong,” or “Time will cure this; I’ll just wait for five or six years.” In order to overcome our stories, we need to assault them with questions. The three we teach in Crucial Conversations are

  • Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?
  • Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?
  • What can I do right now to get what I really want for me, for the other person, and for our relationship?

When we address these questions, we start our brains functioning on a higher level and we get more options for taking action that will be mutually beneficial. The answers to these questions help us control our emotions and overcome our unwillingness to speak up.

The last piece of advice is to trust in your relationship and to share your good intentions. The good relationship you’ve had is built on a history of good deeds, good times, and trust. I’ve coached people in personal situations and in business settings hundreds of times to go to the other person and share what they really want. I encourage them to find a safe, private environment and time, and begin with something like this:

“Could we talk about our relationship? It seems like we’ve not been working together as effectively recently as we have been in the past. I very much want to have a good relationship. I may have done some things wrong. I have some observations I’d like to share and questions I’d like to ask. I think it would help if we could talk. Would that be okay?”

Most of the time, when the details are put on the table, when questions get answered, when past actions are explained, when issues become clear, when intentions are shared, there are options for moving forward that lead to relationship repairs and, in fact, relationships that are stronger.

Of course, there are exceptions, but most of the time improvements occur when you honestly and respectfully address a problem.

This last statement leads to my last comment. Time and silence heal almost nothing. Both are given too much credit. What leads to improvement is safe, caring dialogue. I hope you’ll prepare yourself, find the time and place, and then ask your mentor to talk with you about improving your relationship—a relationship that clearly you care about a lot.

Best wishes,
Al Switzler

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: When "No" Doesn't Always Mean "No"

Kerrying On

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This past week I’ve spent every single evening in the hospital visiting my mother-in-law who recently broke her hip. For me a hospital is a scary place to visit—dredging up childhood images of needle pokings, haunting screeches, and indelicate probings of all kinds. My company’s recent research into the dangers of hospital professionals passing on diseases to their patients hasn’t exactly increased my comfort level in buildings sporting red crosses.

With these most recent trips to the hospital, I soon learned that my fears are well founded. Despite the loving attention that caring professionals gave to my mother-in-law, I found myself disturbed by what could easily be described as a “cry-wolf culture.” Attached to my mother-in-law were several devices that measured everything from her oxygen level to her heart rate to her medicine intake. Each device had an alarm, each alarm sounded regularly, and nobody but the patients and their family members seemed to give them a moment’s notice.

Eventually I mentioned to my mother-in-law’s respiratory therapist that nobody seemed to be too worried about all the warning beeps and clicks, and he immediately went off about how the stupid alarms were always going off every time a patient moved in the slightest. When he was at work he would wait as long as he could stand the warning alarm, hoping the device would finally reset itself or something—and this was when he was assigned to the intensive care unit. Obviously, most of the time the alarm sounds mean nothing, so after the machines cry wolf for a few minutes, people treat them as background noise.

Outside my mother-in-law’s hospital room you can find still another device that nobody cares about all that much. It’s a plastic pump bottle filled with antiseptic. A sign next to each door clearly states that employees are supposed to use the antiseptic—both entering and exiting the room. This way they won’t be passing diseases from patient to patient.

I’ve watched for hours on end as healthcare employees walked by the bottle without giving it so much as a glance. Occasionally someone would pump the bottle and rub his or her hands together for a second or two. The preferred method seems to be to treat the bottle as a religious icon. People just pat the top of it as if mere contact passes on some mystical healing power. Nobody applied the antiseptic and rubbed it in for the required fifteen seconds. Nobody.

Setting up rules and regulations that aren’t actually followed creates a culture of unpredictability and cynicism. When it comes to healthcare, patients lose faith. They figure that if granny is going to be safe, they’d better take matters into their own hands. And they do. When it comes to our granny, we have someone on watch most of the time.

Healthcare isn’t the villain here. All organizations can and routinely do make the same mistakes. Families do it all the time. Not ten minutes ago I watched as a mother threatened to abandon her toddler at the market as a way of getting her to follow. Would she really leave a three-year-old all by herself just to teach her a lesson? Of course not—and the kid knew it. Mom cried wolf and the toddler continued playing until mom eventually took her by the arm and pulled her back to the cart. It turns out the pulling was the actual alarm the kid paid attention to. Everything else didn’t matter.

Healthy organizations, including families, have certain admonitions that are religiously followed. For instance, you can read a whole host of parenting books that suggest that in successful families, “no means no.” It’s important to have a baseline you can trust. Now, before you run off and become a flaming authoritarian who always says and means “no,” I think this approach deserves an explanation—and this, by the way, is my personal interpretation. I don’t know what others have to say on the matter.

I think in healthy families, there are different kinds of “no”s and everyone understands the meaning of each. For instance, my granddaughter climbs on my lap and asks me to read a book I’ve read to her about a hundred times before, right in the middle of a telecast of the all-important New Zealand dart tossing semi-finals. I tell her no. She looks up with an innocent smile and says, “Please?” I read her the book.

Now, lest you call me a wimp, I want to make it clear that I didn’t chicken out or sell out. I came to my senses. I looked at my sweet granddaughter and realized that my original “no” was a bad idea and that it was okay to change my mind. That particular “no” didn’t mean “no.” It meant, “I don’t think so, but you have my permission to persuade me otherwise.”

But I also have a no that means “no.” In my case, a vein stands out in my forehead and my kids realize that their newly invented game of bouncing a baseball off my new sports car is coming to a halt or there’s going to be hell to pay. My wife has a far better tool. She raises her right eyebrow—and only her right eyebrow—and everyone knows that whatever she has just mandated and they have been so foolish as to ignore will now be followed to a tee. That’s her “no means no” sign. It’s subtle, nonviolent, and works like a charm.

Now, before I return to the hospital where no means “your guess is as good as mine,” let’s explore the other end of the continuum. This is the place where “no” does in fact mean “no,” but it’s based on some bureaucratic rule or policy. Such rules are created every time somebody does something costly or dangerous and then, instead of agreeing that the action was a one-off and will never happen again, or that it happens rarely and should be handled by the nearest leader, the powers that be pass a restrictive regulation that ties the hands of every single employee—often unnecessarily. We completely restrict the good and loyal rather than hold the oddball violator accountable.

For example, I once worked alongside thousands of dedicated volunteers who, among other things, drove cars owned by the company they served. Occasionally one of the eager volunteers would back up a company car and bump into a stump or something, costing the company a few hundred dollars in repairs. Finally, one of the big bosses came up with the perfect bureaucratic solution. The company now requires one volunteer to stand outside the car and wave his or her hands in helpful ways to guide the car so as not to back into a stump.

Guess what? Back-up accidents dropped. After all, these are eager volunteers. Guess what also happened? The people who are now standing outside waving their arms—sometimes in a snow storm—feel cold, and wet, and stupid. They think bad thoughts about the leaders who make them do such ridiculous things.

So, on the one hand we have important rules such as wash your hands before you clean a patient’s dressing. These are rules that we all agree make sense to follow all of the time. These are the rules that literally have life or death consequences. On the other hand, you have rules such as “stand outside and give directions to your colleague in an empty parking lot even though there isn’t anyone or anything behind you for a country mile.” These are rules that we all agree make no sense to follow at all, and potentially end up wasting time and resources.

The takeaway here is simple. Routinely examine your family or company rules, regulations, and policies. Which ones need to be followed religiously? There should be few if any. If you have any such important strictures, make sure people follow them all the time or you create a culture of wolf-crying alarmists and raging cynics.

Also realize that many rules are made to have exceptions. Develop respectful and clear ways of communicating your degree of seriousness.

Finally, look closely for rules that were made up out of anger because somebody once did something stupid and now there’s a very restrictive policy in place that needs to be rescinded. Rescind these mindless constraints or count on a continued disrespect for authority.

Oh yes, one last thing. Should you visit my mother-in-law in the hospital, use the antiseptic just outside the door—or my wife will give you the evil eyebrow. And you don’t want that.

Crucial Conversations QA

Time Management

Dear Crucial Skills,

The department that I work in has recently hired a new manager. He sent out his first big change this week. He has decided that everyone in my position should now work 8:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. as our standard working hours. For the last fifteen years people in the department have been able to choose their standard working hours between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. We are salaried employees and have not been expected to follow a clock, but rather to get results. If an issue arises that requires us to stay late we do.

The manager feels that we should be able to be reached between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. if needed. We already have some people in the department at that time—but he wants us all on this schedule.

Many in my department have children, so this is a major change to them. Some will have to find new day care, some can’t keep their current position due to the change, and everyone feels a benefit was taken away. In addition, some of our customers come in at 7:00 a.m., and this new change would make us less likely to be here for them.

The bottom line is that this has caused a huge morale issue in the group. We now feel that the manager cannot be trusted and that our opinions do not count.

I want to be able to do my job and not alienate my new manager; however, most of my department is completely against him now.

Any advice for me and my coworkers?

Time Change

Dear Time Change,

If you want influence with your new boss, the best way to get it is with your ears.

The first thing a new boss worries about is establishing respect with his or her people. If right out of the chute your boss gets signals that the group disagrees with his first big decision, he will feel unsafe and unsupported, and will likely get entrenched in his position.

Dean Rusk once said, “The best way to influence others is with your ears, by listening.”

Here’s what I suggest you do.

1. Explore the purposes behind the policy. Make an appointment with your new boss at a time that is relaxed and convenient for him. Let him know that the new decision is creating some discomfort for you and others, but that you realize you’re probably just thinking about your own interests and that you want to be sure you understand all that’s behind this decision. Then listen! Ask lots of questions. Explore all the reasons this plan makes perfect sense. If you do this well, you’ll come to appreciate how a reasonable, rational, and decent person could advocate such a policy—even if you disagree with it.

One of the signs that you and your colleagues need to go on a listening campaign is the story you’re telling yourselves about your manager. You commented that “We now feel that he cannot be trusted and that our opinions do not count.” This is not your manager’s problem, this is yours. A boss making a decision to improve customer service does not automatically mean he is untrustworthy. The fact that he makes a decision you don’t like does not mean your opinions don’t count. I suspect that if you listen deeply to your manager, you’ll find he’s got legitimate reasons for what he’s done. You may also find that his failure to involve you more in the decision has legitimate reasons. Have you ever avoided involving someone whom you were confident would be hostile and judgmental?

2. Commit to seek Mutual Purpose. Next, ask your boss if he is open to other approaches that fully satisfy his and your customers’ needs but still preserve the flexibility you and your team have come to value and need. Don’t propose a new solution before getting his commitment to some dialogue. This is an important step. If you launch into solutions without letting him “Commit to Seek Mutual Purpose,” you may be talking to a closed door. Simply ask, “May I have your support in taking this list of objectives back to our team and seeing if we can accomplish all of them while maintaining some schedule flexibility?”

Here’s a warning. When you ask this question, your boss is likely to begin adding things to the list. Let him. When he knows that he is making a commitment, he will begin to think of interests or needs that he might not have been conscious of before. For example, he may say, “You know, now that we’re talking about this I realize that this is also about me having access to the people I need when I need them. I’m here 8:00-5:00 and don’t want to have a bigger hassle in connecting with people.” Let him do this. If this is what is motivating the policy he announced, then you’d better deal with it.

3. Make it motivating. If he seems reluctant to allow for other policy solutions, you’ll need to drop back a few steps and make it motivating. This is a tricky part of a Crucial Conversation. You must help him see the natural consequences of proceeding with the plan you disagree with—but do so in a way that is not threatening.

You might say, for example, “Having worked here a while I have some thoughts about likely downsides to moving ahead as planned. I’d be willing to share those with you if you would like to hear them. If not, then I’ll do my best to help make the current plans work.” This kind of a statement helps him see your opposition not as disloyalty, but as a deeper kind of loyalty. If he gives you permission to continue, you can then talk about why this will affect morale, turnover, customer service, etc. Be sure not to stack the deck in favor of your position. Where there are “upsides” to the policy, acknowledge them. Where there are downsides to your preferred approach, point those out, too. Honest dialogue is much more persuasive than manipulative monologue.

4. Involve others. If your boss agrees to look at other options, ask for some time to involve others. This is a great opportunity to build safety for your boss as well as to help others see the positive and legitimate intentions behind the current policy change. Engage them in developing solutions that satisfy all interests and consider including some of them in presenting your best thinking to the boss.

If you handle this right, this crucial conversation can actually increase your influence with your boss. Not only will you contribute to solving the immediate problem, you’ll be off to a great start in creating a healthy working relationship.

Best of luck,