Crucial Conversations QA

What's the Problem?

Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

The following article was first published on July 14, 2004.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

What do you do when you don’t know for sure what the problem is? All you know is that there is a problem between you and another person and it has never been good from the beginning. It isn’t like there is anything major that has happened; it’s just that there is tension in the air and neither of you can open up with the other. Every conversation is guarded and there is a lot of fake smiling and handshaking going on.

How can I get past this behavior and figure out what’s going on when the other person doesn’t seem to want to communicate at all?

Left Wondering

A Dear Wondering,

The key to unlocking this mystery is the condition called “safety.” When I don’t feel safe enough with someone to openly express my concerns or check out some of my fears, I start telling myself stories: “I don’t think she likes me,” or, “I wonder if he’s judging me,” or, “They think I’m stupid.” These are just three of the infinite number of stories, questions, or judgments that I could be coming up with about the other person—or vice versa. These stories create emotions ranging from concern and discomfort to anger and deep frustration. And of course if I don’t talk out or check out these stories, I will act them out in perhaps slight and subtle behaviors that could signal to the other person that I’m “guarded” or “uneasy.” This in turn could set off a new round of stories on his or her part that leads to feelings and actions that confirm I was right in suspecting a problem in the first place.

To put an end to this downward spiral, you need to make it safe for the other person to share concerns he or she might have but be afraid to bring up. Do this in the following ways:

1. Start with Heart. Ask yourself what you really want this relationship to be.

2. Master My Stories. Ask yourself why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would act the way the other person is acting (Hint: maybe he/she is just acting out his or her stories too). Remind yourself that there may be understandable reasons for the behavior.

3. Begin a crucial conversation at the “relationship level” by asking for permission. For example:
“Hey, Sarah, I wonder if I could talk with you about how we’re working together. Would that be alright with you? Is now a good time?”

Then tentatively share your own observations:

“It seems like when you and I get together it feels a bit awkward. I’ve noticed that I have a hard time feeling relaxed and being completely open. I feel somewhat guarded and I’m not even sure why. Have you felt this too, or is it just me?”

4. You may want to share your “Start with Heart” aspiration:

“I would like us to have a working relationship where we both feel comfortable talking with each other and where we can both be open. What kind of relationship makes most sense to you?”

5. Finally, be sure to be open to hearing the other person’s thoughts. Share your concerns in a tone that says “I sincerely want to resolve this issue and want to hear what it is that may be bothering you.” Don’t accuse. Then, use your best listening skills. Do your best to hear everything he or she may be concerned about.
By approaching the situation in this way, you are exploring a mutual purpose, being respectful, and thus building safety. This does not guarantee that you’ll get the outcome you desire, but it dramatically increases the likelihood that the issues will be disclosed and can then be worked out.

Best wishes in all your crucial conversations,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: I Miss Strawberries

Kerry Patterson

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


Kerrying On

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I miss strawberries. Despite the fact that my acquaintance with them started quite by accident, I still miss them. Here’s how it all started. One day when my best friend Bobby Kaiser and I were playing in the woods behind my house, we stumbled onto a small patch of wild strawberries. They didn’t appear all that promising. We had already gobbled down huckleberries and salmon berries and blackberries that day and figured that this modest offering wouldn’t amount to much. We were wrong. The berries were sweet and firm and juicy and delicious beyond description. As we gorged ourselves on the meat of this wild wonder, all other berries hung their heads in shame.

Change in direction, but not topic—Last night I tuned into a TV “make over” program quite by mistake. I thought it was the show where they bawl like babies while making over a deserving family’s home—all the while pitching a full line of Sears appliances. Instead, they made over a human being—a woman to be more precise. I tuned into the part of the program where the plastic surgeon bragged about the results. As he eagerly promoted his work, the show cut to “before” pictures—one of a fairly normal looking woman. The surgeon chided her for having had the nerve to have looked so plain. Then he bragged about the miraculous transformation he and a team of health-care professionals, trainers, silicone experts, and cosmetologists had performed. Apparently they held the belief that looking like Barbie should be the goal of all caring people. They couldn’t have been more pleased with their creation.

The woman they had transformed was an elementary school teacher. When they showed the obligatory segment where her students saw “the new her” for the first time, I was surprised by their reaction. I figured the kids would be startled and maybe even miss their old teacher just a little, but they liked the new one. One small boy said she was “hot.” The word made me flinch. Indoctrinated by dozens of Madison Avenue messages a day, the kids had already learned that only certain faces and bodies were beautiful—and their teacher now had the right ones. How lovely.

I thought my first-grade teacher was beautiful as well. I can remember the day I was most struck by her beauty. Tammy Ray Black had just completed an assignment for the very first time. She was the kid nobody liked. Learning came hard to her and, as is often the case with children who struggle, she was constantly misbehaving and whining and causing her classmates grief. Finishing anything was a breakthrough for her and our teacher, Miss McDonald, didn’t miss this chance to reward her efforts.

At first I couldn’t believe that Miss McDonald was praising Tammy Ray for something as common as completing a coloring assignment. And then I got it. She was trying to help my classmate, a child who sorely needed help. It was a lovely thing to do. At that moment I thought that Miss McDonald was as beautiful a person I had ever seen. Curiously enough, she didn’t look a bit like Barbie. Of course, Barbie hadn’t been invented yet, so how was I to know what was beautiful and what wasn’t?

Back to the wild strawberries—“So you liked the strawberries,” my grandfather remarked as I told him about the ones we had eaten. “They aren’t just tasty,” he went on to explain, they’re also honest.” I didn’t catch his drift, so he quickly clarified his point. “You see, most fruits and berries employ trickery. They hide their seeds. You bite into a luscious cherry and learn that it has a rock-hard pit inside. Peaches are genuine liars—certain varieties possess a pit that is almost impossible to remove. And avocadoes, well you’ve seen them. They’re the biggest liars of all. The strawberry, in contrast, wears its seeds on the outside. I like that. It’s straight-forward and honest.”

As the make-over show continued its love affair with plastic, it finally broke for a series of commercials. The first one proclaimed that love is a beautiful thing and if you really love someone you’ll buy her a large, glittery and expensive diamond. Truth be known, if you don’t go into debt up to your eyebrows purchasing a diamond, how could you ever profess your love? Okay, the ad didn’t actually say this last part, but it was clearly implied.

Tiring of the TV ads I thumbed through a weekly news magazine where I learned that the only way to really get to know somebody is by the watch they wear. The writers of this particular promotional piece made this unabashed claim in a glossy, full-page spread. It seemed so sincere. Ah yes, it was all becoming clear to me. Expensive watches and diamonds are the true measure of deep feelings and lasting character. How could I have been so blind?

Leap to a still different time and place—The summer before I started junior high school, I entered the workforce for the first time. Each morning I would wait on the corner just north of my home where a berry bus would pick me up at seven a.m. sharp. It would then haul me and my twelve-year-old buddies into the country where we picked—you guessed it—strawberries. The honest fruit.

As it turns out, strawberries are also the user-unfriendly fruit. They offer no relief from the blazing sun as they lay low to the dirt, demanding that you either stoop or crawl if you want to harvest them. Now, these commercial strawberries weren’t anything like the wild ones Bobby and I had discovered. They had been transformed through the miracle of horticulture into larger and prettier berries. But at a cost. One bite and I learned that they weren’t nearly as sweet or flavorful as their wild ancestors. But that was okay with me because I was getting paid by the flat—twelve full boxes earned fifty cents. Bigger berries filled the boxes faster.

“Just look at her!” the plastic surgeon exclaimed as the make-over program continued. Everyone appeared so happy. Her family and friends cheered. Her team of experts cheered. They had completely eradicated the plain person and replaced her with a genuine beauty—a firmer and “rounder-in-the-right-places” beauty. Behold Barbie. The crowd roared. I doubt that when DNA was first discovered the celebration was as boisterous and heart-felt as this one.

Back to the farm—In my fifth summer of picking strawberries I was selected along with two other kids to harvest a new, experimental field. The small patch sported the latest variety of strawberry. The new breed was huge and deep red and beautiful. Horticulture experts had outdone themselves. And here was the really good news. Because they were so large, I could fill a box in half the time.

For a dream-like two hours in 1962 I filled each flat in fifteen minutes, not the half hour the other smaller berries took. I loved those new berries. Of course, as I bit into one I discovered the rest of the story. It was neither firm nor juicy. It was pithy. And not only wasn’t it sweet, it was actually bitter. Worst of all, gone was the taste of strawberry. Imagine that—a strawberry that didn’t taste like a strawberry. Of course, those berries that I picked that summer day over forty years ago are the same huge, deep red, tasteless berries you can buy at the grocery store today.

Putting it all together—It’s the beginning of a new year and if you’re like many of us, you’ve vowed to exercise more. I know I have. So far I’m doing pretty well. But let me be clear about one thing. I’m exercising and, yes, trying to lose weight, for my health. I want more energy. I don’t want to drop dead from a heart attack. With me, thinning down is not so much a looks thing as a health thing. That’s because I pretty much like who I am and I’m glad that my wife and children seem perfectly satisfied as well. Like a strawberry, I mostly wear my seeds on the outside. I know I look like a cross between Tom Cruise and Danny DeVito—only without the Tom Cruise part. And you know what? I don’t give a hoot.

I don’t believe it when ads and TV programs tell me I need to transform myself into someone else’s view of how I need to appear. I never want my wife or children to feel that they too are somehow unfinished until someone makes them over into the word’s view of the perfect prototype. I love them just the way they are. I love them for who they are. And like the wild strawberry, I love them for what’s inside. I know this sounds corny. It is corny. I don’t care. Maybe I’m not thinking clearly because, when I look out the window of my office and see big-lipped, silicon enhanced, be-diamonded, sculpted, and curiously look-alike “beauties” jog by, I have an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. I miss strawberries.

Crucial Conversations QA

Not Sorry

Dear Crucial Skills,

What if you know you blew it in a crucial conversation, know you should go back and clean up the mess, but you don’t want to? What if you are too angry/hurt to say you’re sorry without feeling like a hypocrite for saying it because how you really feel is angry and hurt—and that’s what you’d really like to express?

Not Sorry

Dear Not Sorry,

I love honest people. Thanks for the disarming genuineness of your question.

I’ve got a couple of thoughts that I hope are helpful to you. The first may help change the “story” that is causing you to feel angry/hurt. The second is a modest suggestion that can sometimes help you improve a crucial conversation even when you do feel upset. Here goes.

First, my personal experience is that the more invested I am in convincing myself that my feelings of anger or hurt are “right,” the more likely it is that I am wrong. Here’s a trivial example of the important point I’m trying to make. Perhaps you’ve been in the situation I was in the other day. I was attempting to merge into the right hand lane so I could make it to a freeway on-ramp. There was a car in my blind spot that honked to let me know of his existence when I began to make the merge. I quickly steered back into my lane and slowed down to get behind him. But he slowed down, too—just enough that he was still in my blind spot. So I attempted to accelerate. He accelerated and stayed in the same spot. So I tried slowing again. Finally, he punched his accelerator, roared past me and flashed me a one-finger salute as he sped away.

Now, here’s the interesting part. Can you imagine what was going on in my head when he drove off? Without conscious effort on my part, I immediately began describing to myself all the things I had done to try to be considerate of this goon. In addition, I created an image of him in my mind that was wonderfully despicable. Trust me, it went way beyond “goon.” Why did I do that? Why did I care so much that I had to both find a way to make myself out as innocent and cast him as a creep? I’d never see him again. He was gone. And yet for more of the ride to a distant city than I’d like to admit, he was still on my mind. I was vigorously shaping a story about him and me and what had happened.

Then it all changed. At one point many miles later I changed my story. The new one acknowledged my fault—and even helped explain some of the dingbat’s behavior as a reaction to my own. Here it is: “I’ll bet he thinks I was trying to cut him off, then was slowing down and speeding up in sync with him just to spite him.” In an instant I felt embarrassed rather than self-righteous. When my story changed, my emotions did, too.
So, here’s comment number one. Master your story. If you’re feeling angry or hurt, it could be that you are so invested in being right and not admitting fault that you are exaggerating the other person’s weaknesses while covering up or minimizing your own.

Second suggestion: Sometimes even after examining and revising your story, you still feel hurt or upset. But you don’t want to feel that way. You want the relationship to be better. You want things to improve—but you don’t want to fake good feelings in order to get there. If this is the case, you’re in luck. If your motives are right, you can actually build safety and open up a crucial conversation even though you’re still upset. Rather than pretending to have good feelings, you can show your positive intentions by sharing your desire for good feelings. For example:

“You know, I left our last conversation kind of upset. And I haven’t been able to resolve it in my mind since we talked. I really don’t want to feel this way. I’d like to have good and positive feelings between us, and wonder if we could talk about what happened as a way of figuring things out. I’m hoping not just to tell you what’s not working for me, but to find out what I’m doing that’s not working for you.”

Can you see how this might work? People can feel okay about you having less than positive feelings toward them so long as they know you are committed enough to the relationship to want to get back to those feelings.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. The emotional honesty I read in your question makes me optimistic that you’ll know how to make use of these ideas.

Warm regards,