Crucial Conversations QA

Will the Leader Interfere?

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,

We are planning a communications workshop with our senior team this winter. Our president is wondering if he should take part in the training. What will the impact be if he does not? He is completely supporting this initiative, but he is thinking his presence may “shut down” some folks and limit their learning. What do you think?

Curious About the Effects of Power

A Dear Curious,

Normally we use this forum to answer questions about how to hold specific crucial conversations and crucial confrontations. However, since we’ve been fielding this particular question about how to deal with power differences in training groups for almost two-and-a-half decades, I’ll break from tradition and address it.

When bosses sit next to their direct reports in a training session and the training topic deals with how to speak your mind in a way that is heard, the presence of an authority figure can indeed have a chilling effect on the training. Within these groups participants often seem more reluctant to answer questions, and often remain stiff throughout the training. It’s common for participants to refuse to deal with problems that in any way touch on how they relate to their boss—after all, their boss is in the room. And while the purpose of training isn’t to sit around and talk about the bosses, it is important that participants feel safe to apply the skills they are learning to every domain of their lives.

In some cases, participants are so comfortable with their boss that they are able to speak about anything in his or her presence. When this is true, having leaders in the room provides a genuine benefit because they can encourage people to use the new skills and the entire team is able to work through real issues—often dealing with problems that had previously been undiscussable. When this happens, the training experience serves the purposes of both skill building and team building.

So here’s what I typically recommend. If the primary purpose of the training is to learn the material and build skills, I suggest that the boss not attend the entire workshop. Instead, ask the leader to help kick off the training by sitting in on the first few minutes and explaining that he or she has gone through the material, supports it, and is doing his or her best to improve. Then the boss can wish everyone good luck and gracefully exit. He or she may also return at the end of the training to discuss what people will be doing in order to excel in the application of their newly learned skills.

If the purpose of the training is to help build a stronger team—with emphasis on how the leader and team members relate—then by all means have the boss attend the training right along with his or her direct reports. Be prepared to deal with problems of deference to authority. If necessary, talk openly about the fact that people appear to be holding back. Make sure you talk with the leader in advance, coaching him or her on the importance of being open to learning. Teach the leader to respond to potentially sensitive feedback with genuine curiosity rather than defensiveness ( “That’s interesting, tell me more”).

Within a mixed group, expect that if the boss does make it safe to talk about issues, at some point in the training people may want to stop and talk about problems that had previously been undiscussable. Build time for this into the training. An open discussion of real issues provides a wonderful context for applying the skills participants have been learning. You also get the added benefit of solving actual long-standing problems. Carefully facilitate the discussion to make sure that people remain on their best behavior.

If you can’t decide if the training is intended more for building skills or for building teams, build skills. The material is hard enough to learn without any added stress. Thank the boss for being willing to attend the full training with his or her direct reports, involve him or her at key times, and if you’d like to enjoy the benefits of team building, conduct an application session with the entire team after the training has been completed.

Whatever method you choose, good luck with your training, and thanks for the insightful question.


Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Power of a Story

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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In September of 1970, I found myself in Yorktown, Virginia where 320 other recent college grads and I would be shaped into the Coast Guard’s latest version of officers and (according to the brochure) gentlemen. To be honest, I was scared to death about being shaped into anything. I had been warned that highly muscled, sadistic instructors would do their best to humiliate, degrade, defile, and otherwise turn me into a whimpering shell of a human being. After all, what better way to prepare young people for their first leadership jobs?

That first evening, when I met one of the officers who would actually be training us, I drew a completely different conclusion about our upcoming training. Larry Peterson, the officer on duty the night we arrived, invited me and a couple of other greenies over to his dining table where we ate fried chicken, told jokes, and talked about our dreams and aspirations. Larry even pulled out a photo of his wife and tiny children. I still remember how cute his kids were. They had button noses.

That evening as I settled into my quarters, Cleo Theopolis, a fellow officer candidate from Brooklyn, enthusiastically chatted about what we would soon be experiencing. Obviously the warnings both of us had been given had been wrong. We weren’t going to be insulted, threatened, and abused—this was Coast Guard training, not Marine training. Our experience would be more like scout camp—only with real guns and boats. As I dozed off that evening I envisioned myself standing on the prow of a Coast Guard cutter shouting smart-sounding nautical orders while tanned young men hoisted sails and shouted, “Aye-aye Captain!”

The next morning as my classmates and I meandered out to a place that looked very much like a parking lot covered with blood stains, I was surprised to see that Larry—the charming fellow who had shared fried chicken with me the night before—was now coming at me at a dead run. So startled was I by his approach that I actually looked over my shoulder to see if someone nearby was drowning. What else could fill him with such a sense of urgency? Only, as Larry drew closer, I noticed that he looked as if he was feeling more anger, maybe event hate, than urgency.

It turns out that the proud father of button-nosed kids wasn’t about to save a life; he was about to lay into me like a wolverine on a bunny. Sensing that I was soon to be severely punished for doing something that I didn’t know was wrong, I tried to figure out what military-like thing I should be doing. Finally I did what I had seen in every John Wayne war movie: I saluted the guy.

Big mistake. It turns out in the Coast Guard you don’t salute if you’re not in uniform, and even then you only salute if you’re “under cover”—which is code for wearing a hat. Since I was still in my civvies, Larry cum Freddy Krueger decided that I needed to be properly motivated to not salute when my head was bare by having me do push-ups until I, and several people around me, wished we were dead.

From this point on, conditions only worsened. Mostly we marched in formation in the sweltering heat of Virginia until there was a sign that we had marched long enough. Here was the sign: We would march until one person actually passed out from heat exhaustion. Kerplunk the body would sound as it hit the cement. Klankity klank an M1 rifle would clatter as it crashed to the ground.

Fortunately, the unconscious trainee never lay there very long. Soon, white-clad medical trainees would schlep the unconscious officer candidate to the infirmary while the rest of us “took a break” by lying on our backs with our arms and legs extended skyward and flailing wildly—doing our best to imitate a dying cockroach. Apparently this whimsical bit of play acting would help prepare us for many of the important leadership challenges we would soon face.

Finally, four hours into the nightmare, we took a break. After right-flanking and left-flanking our away around the base until we had reached our destination next to a large brick building, the other thirty members of my platoon and I stood in line and waited for a chance to receive “free government inoculations.” Ah, the perks just never stopped coming.

As I stood there wondering if maybe I had made a poor choice in signing up with this lot of nautical sadists, I heard a familiar sound.


Apparently the guy standing behind me was trying to get my attention. Should I turn around and talk to him? Heck no. It was probably another trap. If I turned around it was a pretty good bet that one of Satan’s henchmen would shout, “Mr. Patterson! Don’t you know that turning your head while standing in line is a violation of the Geneva Convention and is punishable by death?!”

So I didn’t move a muscle. A minute passed and I heard another “Pssst!” Then another and another. Eventually I noticed that the hissing had a thick Brooklyn accent. It had to be Cleo Theopolis, the guy from the evening before—the guy who had chatted with me about how fun the training was going to be. He wanted to say something to me.

I couldn’t ignore my new friend, so I threw caution to the wind and craned my head in his direction. Officer Candidate Theopolis looked horrible. He was a good forty pounds overweight so the torture we had just endured had almost done him in. His face was ashen gray, his entire body quivered, and he sported underarm sweat marks that reached the top of his socks. Then Cleo muttered something I couldn’t quite hear so I turned completely around and asked him to repeat himself.

With a twinkle in his eye and a Brooklyn accent you could cut with a knife, Cleo said, “Da jam-ba-ree is ova.”

Those words caught me so by surprise that I laughed out loud. It cost me another fifty push-ups, but I laughed out loud. The jamboree was most certainly over. Our dreams of passing fanciful summer evenings listening to officers tell salty tales of the fun-filled times that lay ahead had been utterly crushed. This wasn’t going to be scout camp with boats; it was going to be hell on earth.

I first told this story to a group of land-locked automobile executives a decade later. These captains of industry were noodling over the recent decline in automobile sales. It was the early 1980s and prognosticators still weren’t sure if the recent loss of customers to Japanese competitors had simply been an anomaly and the good old days would soon return, or if the sad decay in market share was a sign of imminent disaster.

This was a real question at the time because for the previous two decades automobile manufactures had enjoyed the luxury of selling just about anything they could weld together. “If we build it, they will buy it!” had been the motto. Now consumers seemed so concerned about quality that they were willing to buy foreign-made products to get what they wanted. But was this a passing fad or was it sign of things to come?

Believing that business was indeed going to get worse unless American quality and productivity improved, I told the group of auto executives this Coast Guard story—just to get to the punch line—“Da jam-ba-ree is ova!” As far as Detroit was concerned, the wonderful bygone days of “If you build it, they will buy it” were indeed over. American manufacturers were in for an extended battle and it was imperative that these executives and everyone who worked for them understood their challenge. Sure enough, it wasn’t long until the earthy phrase, “Da jam-ba-ree is ova” became the new watch cry. The four-word epigram transformed into a rallying call. We now had a springboard for launching change.

This silly expression worked because the story had worked. Which brings me to the point of today’s Kerrying On. I decided to tell this Coast Guard tale because several people have e-mailed me recently, commenting on the power of the stories I had included in my last two articles. Each contained a fairly detailed story, a metaphor, and a brief message. Several readers pointed out that it was the story that made the whole thing work.

I mention this because stories don’t get much attention in today’s world of management education, and they should. Terse expressions, bulleted lists, and Powerpoint slides, while brief and to the point, can never carry the punch of a well-told story. Stories are not only more believable than stark statements of opinion or fact but they also provide insight into the story teller’s character. Told well, stories provide both the intellectual and emotional Velcro required to help us connect to the other person as a living, breathing, vulnerable—and ultimately likeable—human being.

Nevertheless, you’ll probably never find a story-telling class taught in an MBA program, and leaders will continue to give speeches and pep talks that are bereft of the very details that would make their points both believable and interesting. Parents can also make better use of stories. For instance, preaching to your teenager about the evils of smoking is likely to be far less effective than telling the story about the time you visited the local cancer ward and watched a woman puff on a cigarette through a hole in her neck.

Some people have an intuitive sense for the power of stories. I’ll never forget the time I watched an executive fall under verbal attack in an all-hands meeting as an employee accused him of cutting and running. The senior leader had just announced that he would be taking an extended leave at a time when the company was in financial trouble. When the employees questioned the leader’s loyalty, rather than becoming defensive or shrugging off the accusation, the leader shared that he too was worried about the company’s stability. Then he broke from a hundred years of corporate tradition and talked human being to human being. He explained that he was also concerned that he and his son had been drifting apart. Consequently he had decided to take time away from work to travel with his boy as a way of reconnecting before it was too late.

Instead of giving the buttoned-down, corporate version of the importance of finding work/life balance, he told a highly personal and enlightening story. By the end everyone understood exactly why he had made his choice and nobody questioned his loyalty.

Stories can do that.

Crucial Conversations QA

Needing More than Safety

Dear Joseph,

It seems to me that in your material an assumption is made that the parties we are trying to work through a crucial conversation with have, at the bottom of it all, the same basic need to simply feel safe and be understood. However, how do we handle situations when we determine that the other party actually does have a different agenda—that it is their intention to harm or use us?

Real World

Dear Real World,

You raise a great question. I’ve been asked many times if our fundamental assumption is that people have good motives and that if they are just made to feel safe, crucial conversations will improve.

Let me correct this notion. I think our basic assumption is that other people are kind of like you and me—a mixture of good and bad motives. We assume they are human—given to generosity and pettiness, mercy and revenge.

With that said, what should you do if you’ve concluded the other person has purely selfish motives? How can you talk to someone who either doesn’t care about your interests or is intent on damaging you in some way?

I’m going to bypass the obvious discussion I should have about first taking steps to secure your own safety. I will also bypass comments on legal issues you should study before having this kind of conversation. Be sure to follow any necessary HR policies as you do it. If you can safely hold a conversation with the other person, here are some ideas to help you do so.

First, ask for the other person’s consent to engage in a crucial conversation. If you fail to take this step, you are likely to be talking to his or her back as he or she pulls away from what might sound like a verbal attack. Realize as you enter this conversation that it’s unlikely that this person see him or herself as having bad motives. Most people feel fully justified in their motives, so your feedback—if it is correct—is going to be an attempt to pierce their protective shell of self-justification. Give them a reason to engage, and ask for their commitment to participate.

Second, demonstrate appropriate tentativeness in your conclusions. You can never really know another person’s intentions—you can only infer them from your experience. So do not make the mistake of telling them what their intentions are in absolute terms as though you know their heart. Be honest in how you describe your concerns by acknowledging that these are conclusions you have drawn.

Putting these first two steps together, you might say something like the following:

“Could I talk with you for a minute about something I’m concerned about? I’ve drawn some conclusions that bother me a great deal. They are causing me to want to end or redefine my relationship with you. I’d like to tell you why I’ve concluded this and would encourage you to challenge my conclusions—because I realize I could be wrong. May I talk with you about it?”

If you gain the other person’s consent to the conversation, your third step is to lay out the facts. Strip out any judgmental and accusatory language—just share the facts. For example:

“When you have been on duty, inventory shrinkage has just about doubled. This spike began when we hired you and has continued ever since. Each time I’ve spoken with you about it there has been a drop for a week or so, and then it has risen to the previous level again. Five of your colleagues have reported that people you appear familiar with frequent our stores at times when staffing is the lowest. When I’ve spoken with you you’ve said you have no idea why the numbers look the way they do.”

Now, state your conclusion. Again, do so tentatively, and encourage the other person to engage in the conversation.

“I find it hard to think of any other reasonable conclusion I can draw than that you are stealing or abetting theft. If I’m wrong about this then I’m deeply sorry to suggest it. But I hope you can see how the evidence makes it hard to conclude otherwise. Unless you can help me find a reasonable alternative conclusion, I intend to both dismiss you and pursue legal recourse. What am I missing here?”

My last suggestion is that you not mistake openness to new information with weakness. We are not encouraging the other person to challenge our conclusion because we are looking for a way out of being firm. We are also not trying to demonstrate a lack of confidence in our conclusion. We are simply leaving room for dialogue. If at the conclusion of the conversation the other person has offered no new information that satisfies your mind, you should restate your conclusion and the next steps you’ll take that follow from it (e.g., formal discipline, etc.).

Thank you for asking a very important question. I wish you the best in handling these most challenging of crucial conversations.