Dear Crucial Skills,
I work in a close office. One of my colleagues uses Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations “techniques” as manipulation tools. We all have read the books and subscribe to your newsletter to keep up. We usually have an open relationship, but when it comes to what this colleague perceives as “moving up” or impressing VPs, he becomes the used car salesman type. Other people see him as shady at times, but it seems that the “higher ups” miss this attribute even when it’s brought forth. I feel this behavior is harming our team, and when we bring the issue up with him, he says we are not seeing things right (meaning his way). We have had one-on-one and group meetings with him, but nothing seems to work.
When we first designed Crucial Conversations training, we took care to point out that nothing we teach matches the best practices of the top performers we studied if the people attempting the new skills don’t first “Start with Heart.” This principle suggests that participants have to have their motives correctly aligned or they’ll use the skills inappropriately. They must start every conversation wanting to do what’s best for all parties. Otherwise the skills can easily become perverse tools in the hands of the selfish.
We chose to put this principle at the beginning of the training because we too had seen individuals attend some form of training only to return and make matters worse for their colleagues and coworkers. For instance, people learn how to manage a meeting and then verbally assault colleagues who have had the temerity to fail to follow an agenda. Or they see something go wrong and taunt their peers in a sing-song voice with: “You’re having a side conversation and that’s counterproductive.” Instead of solving problems, these sophomoric and forceful techniques typically create new problems as training participants use whatever they’ve learned to torture their coworkers or to serve their own pleasure.
In addition to asking people to start by examining their own motives, we anchor the training to the central principle of making it safe for everyone involved—and then we teach a half dozen safety skills. It is this safety net that encourages people to openly and honestly share their opinions, no matter how different or touchy. This helps people feed the pool of available meaning so they’ll be able to make the best choices and then act on them with unity and conviction.
So here’s the big question: How can people who want to do what’s best for everyone and who desire to create a safe environment end up acting in ways that are seen as shady, slick, forceful, or ingenuous?
At first glance, I have to admit that my fear is that this person has historically acted in inappropriate ways and now that he is bringing new and healthier behaviors into an interaction, people choose to interpret these as shady too. If this is the case, nothing this person does will ever be viewed as honest until people decide to give him a break.
For example, I once watched a leader move over time from a violent style to almost always staying in dialogue, but his direct reports waited months “for the other shoe to drop.” They were convinced that whenever he was professional and nice, he was “just acting.” This particular leader had to be transferred because he never regained his direct reports’ trust—despite a rather remarkable change in his behavior.
If the “shady” person you described is mostly behaving in healthy ways, but your past relationship is making you suspicious, then give him a break and don’t interpret every behavior in a negative way.
On the other hand, if the “shady” and “used car salesman” description you offered reflect an unchanged heart and are accompanied by a whole set of inappropriate behaviors, then deal with these specific behaviors. Say, for example, your coworker promises to support you in a meeting, and then when things turn sour in the meeting, he doesn’t say a word to support you. To you, this is shady. Talk to him about saying one thing and then doing another. That is what you observed. If your coworker maintains a friendly demeanor but pushes for his way until everyone finally gives in, talk about this. Stop him in the moment if necessary and focus on the behavior. Stick with the facts and stay away from stark labels (i.e., “used car salesman”) which the other person can simply deny.
If you can’t put your finger on any specific behaviors, then you’ll just have to find a way to live with whatever vague thing the person is doing that appears shady or wrong to you. If you can’t tell the other person exactly what he’s doing that’s bugging you, he can’t fix it.