Crucial Conversations QA

Dealing with Sour Grapes

Al Switzler

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


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

My 16-year-old daughter survived the grueling tryout process and was made drum major of the marching band. Naturally, she was elated; but then she asked “What am I going to say to the kids who are mad that I got their spot?”

I think it’s a great question. Whenever we succeed at something (i.e. get elected, get the job, get promoted) we need to deal with those who are disappointed that they didn’t. We especially need to be ready for those who come up and say something short and mean, and then turn and walk away. Those are very tough conversations. It would be nice to have a strategy in place to soothe hurt feelings and win support.

Got any ideas?

Dealing with Sour Grapes

A Dear Sour Grapes,
I do have some ideas; perhaps a few of them might approach being good ideas.

First, let me affirm your framing. These situations would qualify as crucial conversations. Often they are about issues that really matter (high stakes), opinions differ (I should have won; not you), and emotions clamor in. To reference a point we’ve made before: “If you don’t talk it out, you act it out.” In these situations, a lot is unclear. To avoid having either party act out their bad feelings, we need a new start that will help both talk about what they are working toward, and how they will work together.

Often when circumstances, relationships, or environments change, how we interact must also change. Whether those changes are the result of an election, a promotion, a move, a new job, a new school, a divorce, a marriage, etc., we need to step up and try to manage our relationships. This is true for whichever side of the change you’re on; the responsibility for dealing with or addressing the issues is owned by both individuals.

Here are a few ideas that might help those who face these challenges to engage in a dialogue.

Consider your own story. Sometimes, what we tell ourselves about the other person or the situation is more made up than real. For example, it would be possible after coming in first in a hard-won competition to assume that the “losers” are upset and will likely retaliate. That could cause you to be defensive in subtle or obvious ways and possibly to overreact to others’ behavior. To avoid jumping to conclusions, ask the humanizing question when you’re concerned: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act the way he or she’s acting?” In other words, give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Such thinking can help you infer good motives and be patient. It sends blood to your brain and increases your options for how you see the other person and for next steps. Start by making sure your current thinking is open to positive possibilities.

Ask to talk about the situation. Whether you’re a “winner” or “loser”—or “new” or “incumbent”—if there is tension, ask the other person for the opportunity to talk. In the situation you mentioned, I’d suggest your daughter call or go talk with the individuals she was competing with and say, “I know the tryout competition was a disappointment to you. It was a tough process. Now that it’s over, we’ll still be together in the band. I want to work well together. I know you probably have some ideas and feelings about that. Can we talk?” Many of these talks will work well, others might not. But your daughter will have started off professionally and caringly. This approach should be initiated by those challenged with new jobs, promotions over peers, etc. Get your stories right and invite the other person to talk—safely and as soon as you can. When we don’t address issues quickly, negative feelings can get rigidified.

Listen as much as you talk. Speaking and listening are best done by turns. That means not interrupting or getting emotional. It means really trying to share and to understand. When you share your point of view, lead with observations (facts) and questions, rather than with conclusions (stories) and emotions. As you listen, look for signs that safety may be at risk. If you or the other person start getting emotional, acknowledge it: “I can see that this issue is really important to you. I’d really like to understand what you mean.” Or, if emotions are too strong on either side, you may need to ask for a short break and then return.

Emphasize Mutual Purpose. When the conversation gets tough, remind each other what your mutual purpose is: You’re trying to figure out what will help you work together well in the future, given the recent change.

And a final word: all changes can be seen as opportunities to clarify how we can work together well. Life comes at us in ways that cause us to maintain the status quo, rely on tradition, or cope with the change. Putting the issues on the table can mean getting through negative feelings to healthier relationships. Not all relationships will be improved, but talking about the issues increases your chance of success.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Communicating Consequences

Dear Crucial Skills,

I was wondering if you could address how to make it safe to discuss something when certain answers really are going to result in very bad consequences?

I understand the need to master my stories, but sometimes the truthful answer is the one with negative consequences. For example: You suspect an employee of having lied on his or her resume. You hope it’s not true, but there is a lot of reason to think it is. How can you make it safe to talk about if the person knows that admitting the truth could get him or her demoted or fired?

Hopeful but Worried

Dear Hopeful,

This question gets at the very foundation of safety. You want the other person to talk openly and honestly about a possible problem, and this requires that he or she feels safe. And yet you fear if he or she does talk openly, it could easily result in a serious negative consequence. How can that be safe?

Let’s look at two elements of safety. First, can a person express his or her opinions without others jumping all over what he or she has to say? Will his or her ideas be listened to in an atmosphere of curiosity? Do others desire to learn, or do they just want to look good or “win”? Will the discussion be propelled along by the merits of each argument, or will power, position, and politics play a bigger role than the facts?

People need to know that if they do open up, their thoughts will be treated with respect and genuine curiosity. We all make better decisions when the pool of shared meaning is filled with a complete array of thoughts, feelings, opinions, and theories. Each opinion must be given a fair hearing. Each must stand up to honest and careful scrutiny. Facts must rule over politics. This type of safety helps people make the best decisions and lies at the heart of many of the skills we cover in the book Crucial Conversations.

But there’s another element of safety that gets to the heart of your question: “But what if honesty leads to severe negative consequences?”

The safest world is one where individuals are held accountable for the consequences of their own actions. While an individual may shrink in the face of criticism, and it may be easier in the short run to avoid paying the consequences, it is always better for the individual as well as the society at large if people are connected to the consequences of their own behavior. People can’t learn and organizations can’t progress if the feedback loop connecting behavior to outcome is in any way blocked or tainted.

Allowing individuals to face difficult consequences can be hard. For example, as much as a parent might desire to celebrate a child’s honesty for having the courage to admit to his or her wrong actions by glossing over the actions themselves—such misplaced mercy not only keeps the individual from learning and growing, but insults honesty itself. You don’t need offer others a “free ticket” in order to protect them or make their life easier, when what you’re really doing is making the situation easier for yourself while potentially harming them in the long run.

I broached this very topic last month in a conversation with the renowned psychologist Albert Bandura at his office at Stanford University. At the time I was trying to understand how Mimi Silbert, known for helping criminals turn their lives around, had been able to create a culture where ex-felons “ratted on each other.” At her facility in San Francisco, if you observe someone doing something against the rules or the law, you turn him or her in—on the spot. This flies in the face of the unwritten rule to never rat on a buddy—so how has she been able to successfully turn this norm on its ear?

“It’s because she’s not asking them to rat on each other,” explained Bandura. “It’s because she’s asking them to care enough about the other person to hold him or her accountable. When you love others, you don’t turn a blind eye to their mistakes. You provide the other person an opportunity to learn and grow.”

Now, this isn’t a lesson in spin or semantics, it’s a philosophical stance. First, you make it safe for others by listening to what they have to say. Second, you create the ultimate safety net by being consistent in connecting behavior to consequences, thus allowing both the individual and the organization to progress unhindered. In the case of people who have lied on their resume, better to learn from the experience than to be rewarded for a behavior that will not serve them over the long run. Yes, bringing the truth under the harsh light of day could hurt in the short run, but isn’t that how we develop character in the first place? By doing what’s right—even when it’s hard to do?

Good luck on what could be a true test of character,

Crucial Conversations QA

Tired of Complaints

Ron McMillan

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Authors,

How do I handle a constant complainer? I have an employee who has worked for the company for thirty years. She’s a great employee but is always complaining—mainly about all the recent changes. I believe she feels she can say anything because she’s worked for the company so long. How do I tactfully tell her how much she complains without losing her as an employee?

Tired of Complaints

A Dear Tired of Complaints,

Constant complaining can be such a drag—a drag on morale, a drag on attempts to problem solve, and a drag on good working relationships.

How do you confront a constant complainer without damaging your working relationship? Let’s start with what you don’t do:

Don’t focus on Attitude: “You’re always so negative.”
Don’t focus on Character: “You have a rotten attitude.”

Rather, factually describe the behavior pattern you’re observing and how it differs from your expectations—describe the gap between the two. For example, “Hi Joanne, can I talk to you about something? In last week’s meeting I announced a new schedule and you said, ‘This schedule stinks! Who came up with it, a bunch of first graders?’ The week before that, when I talked about the new inventory system, you said you liked the old way just fine and that this would just make everyone’s lives harder…”

After giving several behaviorally specific examples, compare these examples with your expectations. For example, “When you have a specific concern, I would rather have you talk it over with me, and then we can figure it out together, instead of you criticizing the change and the people who are making it.”

Then ask a diagnostic question to understand what the other person is thinking. For example, “What’s going on? Help me understand.”

Your challenge now becomes to listen—not to push your point or argue. Don’t get sucked into discussing a single incident; focus on the pattern of complaining. Are these episodes symptoms of a deeper problem? Is there a relationship problem? Is this person just resistant to trying new ways of doing her work?

The most likely direction this confrontation will take is that you will explore the consequences of your employee’s behavior with her. Understanding consequences helps individuals to see and understand the bigger picture and recognize how their behavior affects others. Exploring consequences could help motivate your employee to change the way she addresses issues. An example might be, “I’ve noticed when you criticize a new procedure, others on the team are less likely to cooperate. That makes it a lot more difficult to get things done.”

The types of consequences to explore might include consequences to fellow team members, to you, to other stakeholders, as well as to the task to be performed.

If you see defensiveness on your employee’s part, make it safe for her by sharing your good intention. For example: “I’m not trying to pick on you or make your life more difficult. I’m just trying to build a strong team and get things done in the most effective way possible.”

This approach does not guarantee any specific outcome. However, this approach can be the means of raising a tough subject while minimizing defensiveness and helping another understand the consequences of his or her behavior and perhaps be motivated to change.

Best of luck,