Crucial Accountability QA

Dealing with a Know-It-All

Dear Authors,

We have a twenty-something nurse on our staff who is a “know-it-all,” which the rest of us with many years of nursing experience find hard to fathom. She is aggressive and disrespectful to her colleagues, saying things such as “You’re not doing that procedure right,” or “That’s not the right way to do that,” or “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

She intimidates and offends her coworkers and sometimes comes across as threatening. She has to “win” the conversation by having the last word.

When management has spoken to her about this “know-it-all” attitude, she expresses great surprise at the way she comes across.

What should a helpful, productive, but crucial conversation with this person sound like?

Dealing with a Know-It-All

Dear Dealing,

What do you do when you have concluded that another person is a “know-it-all,” intimidating, overbearing, aggressive, disrespectful, and/or offensive in the way he or she communicates around seemingly every topic? From offices to neighborhoods to extended and immediate families, this is a familiar challenge to many.

To address this challenge, let me break it down to several questions:

1. What am I doing currently? The most common approach to dealing with someone who is aggressive and abrasive is to cope—that is, to bite your lip, think bad thoughts, and perhaps gossip about them. Avoidance is the epidemic interpersonal problem. When we don’t address the issue, we are giving tacit approval—essentially saying, “This is okay; we’re cool; no problem.” Another approach is to fire back. We get into debate mode. What’s important to note here is that the power of logic will not prevail. Eventually, the victor will be the one with the most will power. There can be friction and sparks; and generally, someone will lose. That person will then cope and try to find clever ways to get even. My advice is to avoid both of these options.

2. What should I be talking about? In Crucial Confrontations we teach how to choose WHAT issue you should address. The key here is to determine whether the issue is a matter of Content, Pattern, or Relationship. If you clarify the issue by determining which of these categories it fits into, you will be more likely to resolve it. In your scenario, your three options look like this:

a. Content. These are the topics you are discussing or debating. It could be about procedures, processes, decisions, etc. You could say, “Could we talk? I noticed yesterday that when we talked about the patient’s IV, you said, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ I didn’t get a chance to share all of what I was thinking. Could we talk about how we can both share our thoughts in a more effective way?” You want to talk about the content if the issue is a clear-cut, first-time problem that needs to be remedied.

b. Pattern. This occurs when you see something happening over and over. The content is only part of the problem—the recurrence is the bigger and more costly issue. Clearly you have a pattern here. You could say, for example, “I’d like to talk to you about how we interact at work. I’ve noticed a pattern that when we are talking, you interrupt me and have to have the last word. I have some observations and would like to see if we could find a way to minimize this pattern.”

c. Relationship. This category focuses on how you work together and includes respect, confidence, and trust. You might begin with the observation of the pattern, and then end with something like, “The way you treat me is beginning to cause me to withdraw and to withhold my opinion. I am starting to avoid you and I feel bad because I would like for us to be able to work together and discuss issues openly to come to the best solution. I’d like to work this out.”
Choosing the right topic will mean that you haven’t bailed out by choosing to address the easy-to-discuss issue over the more complex, but potentially more relevant, issues. Put the right issue on the table and then ask and speak candidly and professionally.

3. Am I making any common errors? Here is a common error or two that people make that can cause complications with this sort of discussion. The first error is to lead with generalizations and emotions—“Look, you know-it-all, I have had it up to here! Why don’t you let others talk once it a while?” Such an outbreak isn’t the most effective way of creating the kind of safe environment needed to work out issues. It also makes it harder for the other person to understand what led you to those conclusions. We can’t lead with emotions and accusations and be helpful. It doesn’t matter if you are yelling or if your contempt is sitting delicately and quietly behind your frozen smile. Start with the facts to make it safe and to make the problem clear for the other person.

Second, if new emotions arise, call for a short time out and restate your real purpose. You want to talk about the issues in ways that are safe and helpful. Sometimes a ten-minute time out can help calm the emotions to re-engage.

4. What do I do once the issue is out on the table and we both understand that it’s a problem? It’s important to come to agreement on how the situation will be handled in the future. Sometimes you need to get agreement that one or both of you will stop doing a certain behavior—like interrupting, getting emotional, or having the last word. Or you’ll need to get agreement that you will start doing something—for example, that when either of you see that behavior real time, you will point it out somehow as a trigger to change the behavior.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Anger Management Issues

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do I help someone who should be fired due to angry outbursts in the workplace, but who does not see the need for anger management?


Dear Curious,

Let’s assume you’ve had the conversation needed to bring up the topic—you stuck to the facts in describing the problem and used your best skills to make sure the other person felt safe. What if the person still doesn’t see the need for help—then what?

You can help motivate others by describing to them the consequences of their current behavior. So, why can losing our tempers be so detrimental to both results and relationships?

People who blow off anger at work in unhealthy ways are often unaware of exactly how they affect others. They’re also often unaware of how their outbursts are affecting their own reputations. I once lived next door to a fellow who would wake my wife and me up on Saturday morning when he was yelling at his family members. When I asked him about his routine tirades, he told me he was genetically doomed. He explained in great detail how his lineage was laced with angry people and that he had no control of his temper. But not to worry, his wife and children didn’t mind his outbursts. I was going to ask him if that was why his wife had recently called the police during one of his tantrums, but thought better of it.

So let’s set the record straight on this matter. People do mind. They mind a lot. They mind way more than the angry person ever realizes. In fact, when leaders or coworkers only rarely lose their tempers, no matter how infrequently, it almost always becomes their defining characteristic. When we’ve interviewed people about colleagues who have anger issues (no matter how rare), they’ve defined their occasionally angry workmates not by their technical brilliance or administrative wizardry, but by their anger. “He’s a guy who blows off steam and nobody likes him.” Or “She’s got a real temper. I’d never want to work for her.” When you ask how often the person loses control, colleagues may answer “Almost never,” but it doesn’t matter. It’s still the person’s defining feature.

Why is that?

With the rare but random outburst of anger, the effect can be long lasting. Coworkers never know when the next tirade is coming, so they’re nervous that this or the next discussion will end in a tongue lashing. This taints every interaction. Despite the fact that the other person’s nasty behaviors only rarely see the light of day, almost every interaction can be bad for those around them.

Of course, the person with anger issues can be completely unaware of what’s going on. When people who have been known to become verbally abusive work hard to control their tempers and know that they aren’t going to blow a gasket, they’re perfectly fine with the interaction that unfolds. They’re having a pleasant enough time and have no idea that others are secretly worried and may even be suffering.

This behavior—on both sides of the interaction—decreases safety in conversations. Important information gets lost and relationships get damaged. The cost of either is too great to let slide.

So, what’s a person to do? Remember that our emotions aren’t thrust upon us. We create them with our own thoughts and, believe it or not, we do have control over our thoughts.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Asking Permission


Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Authors,

I note that one of the principles you advocate in starting crucial conversations is to ask permission to discuss the issue. I could imagine that some people would simply say “no” to this request, wanting to avoid confrontation or possible discipline. Certainly teenagers often respond this way when asked to talk.

So is it wise to ask permission when you know you must talk? Is it disingenuous to ask when “no” isn’t an option? Is it better in these situations to simply state up front that you need to talk?

Gotta Talk

A Dear Gotta Talk,

You raise a very important point.

The principle here is to create safety. The “skill” is asking permission. The skill may not always be applicable—but the principle should always be honored.

Asking permission builds safety by showing respect. People naturally place a high value on their autonomy. When we attempt force them into a conversation, they often resist our attempts even though the content of the conversation we want to have may be in their best interest. For example, when a boss starts to offer “constructive criticism” to a direct report without consent, it can roll off his or her back and may have little effect. When the boss takes the time to explain why he or she would like to give the feedback and why the feedback will support a mutual purpose, the employee can then choose to listen and will be much more likely to reflect on what is said.

Now, let’s take a different case. It isn’t “constructive criticism” you want to discuss. In fact, it’s embezzlement. You’re the boss, and you must talk to the suspected employee. In cases like this, should you ask permission to create safety? Of course not. That would be disingenuous. Pretending to give the other person a choice is dishonest and, therefore, violates the basic premise of healthy dialogue. So the question is, how can you create safety when the conversation is not optional?

Here are a couple of suggestions:

First, you can show respect by showing flexibility in when or where you hold the crucial conversation. Let’s say, for example, you are deeply concerned about the behavior of your child. You intend to have a conversation, but want to show respect in approaching the child. You might say, “Honey, I’ve got some concerns I’d like to discuss with you. Is now a good time or should we talk later this evening?” Surrendering a little bit of control over the conversation to the other person can be a signal that you respect his or her needs. As a result, he or she may feel less of a need to defend him- or herself, and will be more likely to be open to your comments.

Let’s say you have a crucial conversation that must be held here and now—for moral, ethical, or legal reasons. Even in this circumstance there are ways to create a modicum of safety. One way is to explain your need to confront now before launching in to the confrontation. Another is to express regret for your need to put this person in a highly uncomfortable situation. For example, in confronting a shoplifter you might say, “Ma’am, I need to speak with you right now. I’m sorry to have to do this, but I am a store detective and I believe you placed some of our products in your stroller.”

Now, let’s be realistic—no matter how graceful you are in forcing this conversation on someone, he or she is not going to be thrilled. But remember, our goal in creating safety is not necessarily to make the conversation “fun”—it’s to remove as much defensiveness as possible from it. You’d be surprised how just small adjustments in how you launch into a required crucial conversation can dampen defensiveness and improve the conversation.

Thanks for giving us an opportunity to provide a more nuanced explanation of how to create safety when entering a crucial conversation.

Best wishes,