Crucial Conversations QA

Strong Language at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a fairly new team member working for me who is in an executive position, several years my junior, and cannot have a conversation or talk to a group without using multiple curse words. He is a really nice guy and seemingly oblivious to his speech patterns.

His cursing is offensive to me and embarrassing to some others who hear him. I truly want the best for this guy and feel that his corporate image is affected by this habit.

Could you please assist in structuring a crucial conversation with him that would alert him to his error and, at the same time, preserve the good working relationship we share?

Offended but not wanting to be offensive

Dear Offended,

This problem, while commonly experienced, often goes unattended. Here’s why: Even though most people aren’t exactly wild about others’ coarse language, they figure that it’s better to put up with the words than it is to confront and possibly offend the other person. And, if you’re the only one who addresses the problem, you may come off as holier-than-thou. Worse still, perhaps you have no right to dictate how others speak in the first place.

Actually, you do have every right to express your view on the matter. Your bosses, the HR manuals, and even parts of the law support your right to speak out against obscenities. When someone walks into the HR director’s office and says “The person I share a cubical with drops the F-bomb four times a minute,” the HR director isn’t going to ask the person to ignore the issue. Cursing in almost any form is no longer considered acceptable at work. And since we’re blessed with a language that sports hundreds of thousands of words, asking coworkers to drop a handful of offensive expressions isn’t exactly asking too much.

Now, kudos to you for wanting to deal with the problem yourself. Turning the crucial confrontation over to the boss or HR, while totally acceptable, might be bit over the top. You should be able to handle it quite easily. This is a problem where the person is likely to be unaware that his choice of words is offending you, and merely mentioning the issue will probably be enough to bring it to a halt. You could chat about how his unfortunate choice of words is hurting his reputation or possibly even harming his career, but once again, it’s probably overkill.

To keep the conversation in proportion, ask if it would be okay to discuss a small issue that is bothering you. Start with a statement of mutual purpose. You’d like to maintain a working relationship that works for both of you. Follow this with contrasting by explaining that the issue that has you concerned isn’t a big deal, but you’d like to deal with it so it doesn’t continue. Then simply explain that you find some of the words he uses offensive and you’d rather he stop using them in your presence. You don’t have to define or state the words—he’s very likely to know what words you’re talking about and that will be that. If he asks for clarity, then suggest that you’d rather not be exposed to traditional obscenities and profanities while at work.

I’ve had this exact conversation twice before. On both occasions I received a phone call from a client who had complained that a person who worked for me (and who they had hired to conduct a training session) had cursed during the training he or she was leading. In both cases the trainer had purposefully sprinkled an occasional profanity into his discussion as a way of “fitting in.” It backfired both times. I followed the script I’ve just given you and the trainer was immediately repentant, apologized profusely, and that was the end of that.

I point this out because I think, if anything, a simple mentioning of the issue will be slightly embarrassing to the other person and you’ll want to soften the impact as much as possible. With this spirit in mind, don’t back off your stance, but do take care not to suggest that he is wrong or insensitive, merely that you’d rather not be exposed to that language at work. Focusing on your wishes rather than his foibles will help keep the conversation more listener friendly.

Good luck and good for you for wanting to step up to the issue.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: You May Never Have to Leave Your Parents' Basement Again

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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Last week I had a freak bike accident. I was madly peddling away when suddenly my bike fell to the ground and I banged my left shoulder—dislocating two ribs. Now, what made this particular bike accident a freak bike accident was the fact that the whole incident took place with my stationary bike. I know, you’re thinking, “How could anybody crash a stationary bike?” It turns out it’s actually quite easy. My left shoelace was untied and it eventually got all wrapped up in the left peddle. When I tried to get off the bike my left foot was trapped so close to the base of the heavy bike that my highly unbalanced weight then pulled the whole contraption down on top of me.

As I lay alone in my basement exercise room trapped under a surprisingly heavy piece of equipment, I shouted words that have become familiar to all of us: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Sure enough, my wife was taking a shower at the time. Anyway, as I lay there writhing in pain my thoughts turned to advice I had been given as a boy. Never swim alone. Who would have thought that this would apply to a stationary bike?

Eventually I was able to crawl out from underneath the treacherous exercise equipment—but not until I had given the image of dying alone a fair amount of thought. I mulled over this rather macabre topic because (1) I was trapped and had nothing else to do, and (2) recently I’ve been reading a lot about people who lead solitary lives and who are possibly going to die alone. These people I’ve been reading about must lead solitary lives—because they spend most of their waking hours and virtually all of their free time tethered to a computer where they wander around in cyberspace in a place called “Second Life.”

I had been aware that people can spend far too much time playing video games, but this cyber addiction was something completely new to me. In “Second Life” and similar sites, people log into simulated communities where they create a pixilated image of themselves (usually looking like Brad Pitt or Katie Holmes). Then their electronic persona meanders around countless landscapes and conducts simulated conversations with other pixilated friends. People build homes, operate businesses, read “news” about the cyber community, and even spend real money to buy fake dollars which they use to purchase such things as brand name sports clothes. Only they don’t get to wear the actual clothing. The nifty new outfit doesn’t arrive via FEDEX after which they put it on and use it in a vigorous game of tennis. Their character, or “avatar,” gets to wear the clothing. That’s right; these other-world aficionados actually buy clothing for their avatar.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like playing games as much as the next person. My only problem with this is that I have pictured in my mind a person who sits in his or her parents’ wood-paneled basement, mouse-clicking his or her way around a simulated world and rarely coming up for air. This scares me. It scares me because a rapidly growing number of people are finding new, creative, and often expensive ways to be uncoupled from their social world. First came Chinese food delivered to your door. You didn’t have to leave home any more. Then it was the video game. It was fun staying home. Next came text messaging. Okay, you talked, but not really. Now people can live their whole lives online in a Second Life, free from the complexities of actual face-to-face human interaction.

“Why care?” you ask. Because if humans don’t routinely meet, talk, and otherwise interact with members of their own species, their social skills take a dive and so does society as a whole. It’s hard to run a country where people break into a sweat when they think about something as simple as disagreeing with a friend or asking someone on a date. And believe me, as more and more people spend less and less time in normal human interaction, the fear of holding normal conversations only escalates.

As proof of this, college students are now offered lessons on how to talk with people and eventually do something as risky as ask another person on a date. They hold these classes because many of the students don’t lay claim to even the most basic of social skills. Why? Because they spend far more time in their version of the second life than they do in the first life. They write code, study alone, surf the net, study alone, write more code, and so forth.

These same students will graduate one day and take jobs. While working in these jobs they will need to be able to present their views, disagree, offer suggestions, and yes, even go toe-to-toe with an authority figure. They’ll need to do all this and more if they expect their ideas to be heard. And guess what—they desperately need to be heard. No society can afford to invest hundreds of millions of dollars educating the best and brightest of its citizens only to have their ideas remain unspoken because talking to others frightens them. And if you spend whole portions of your life on a computer, talking becomes frightening. Confronting feels downright impossible.

Do you need more evidence of a decaying social ability? There is a growing industry out there that focuses on helping people split up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. These new “breakup services” do the dirty work for you. Some announce the split on a TV show; another entrepreneur will drop your significant other with a phone call. For those interested in a softer touch you can hire DumpMonkey and you’re soon-to-be-ex will receive a 16-inch stuffed monkey along with a certificate that announces the end of the relationship. How cute . . . not.

Neil Sedaka was right; breaking up is hard to do. Nevertheless, turning the job over to someone else is just short of despicable. It’s bad enough getting dropped by a potential life mate, but learning about it from a third party merely adds insult to injury. And once again, why is this industry growing in the first place? Because people don’t want to hold an awkward conversation. With folks who are intimidated by normal discussion topics, the thought of breaking up is more than they can bear. So to ease their own pain, they double their partner’s pain.

Of course, gamers, cyberspace geeks, and frightened lovers aren’t the only ones at risk here. Every child of today’s highly-programmed, fast-paced generation may receive less experience in routine socializing than his or her own parents did. As soccer moms shuttle today’s kids from one lesson to the next, you have to wonder what’s happening to their interpersonal skills. Time that used to be spent playing with friends is now spent receiving instruction or practicing music, dance, and sports techniques. Consequently, many don’t spend near as much time hanging out with their peers, playing games, telling stories, negotiating deals, and otherwise informally interacting as did their own parents. Their tennis backhand may be improving, but their ability to work through differences with a colleague can’t be. Combine this explosion of programmed learning with programmed computer games and TV programs in general and you’re left postulating that human interactions skills may be on the decline.

So, what’s a person to do? First, to borrow from the tennis vernacular, don’t run around your backhand. As you stare into the face of a potentially difficult or awkward conversation, don’t avoid it. Prepare for it. Make the art of conversation a subject you study and improve—not one you avoid.

Second, increase the number of conversations you have on a daily basis. For some of you, that means you’ll need to climb out of the basement and go out to a coffee shop. Set aside your avatar and chat up real people. For others, it means stepping away from your computer screen at work and walking around the place for say five minutes twice a day where you can chat informally with your coworkers. At home, let the media work for you. As you watch TV with your friends or loved ones, talk about what’s going on. I, for example, learned long ago that my own children preferred to go to the drive-in movie with me over going to a regular movie because a car afforded the privacy to talk, shout, make fun of, critique, and otherwise use the movie as a springboard for conversation.

Third, as parents, spend as much time grooming your children’s social skills as you spend on improving their ability to play a minuet on the piano or successfully complete a triple Lutz at the ice rink. Spend time with them laughing, pretending, telling stories, and simply chewing the fat. Play games that afford time to giggle and discuss whatever silly subject comes to mind. Demonstrate how to tease, negotiate, and win and lose gracefully. Finally, drop some of the programmed learning that’s bound to make your kids too uptight in the first place and allow your children to play informally with children their own age. Encourage them to play board games where they talk and negotiate and kid around.

Who knows, if you play your cards right, one day your kids will be able to ask someone out on a date without breaking out in hives and they won’t feel the need to hang out in your basement where they skulk around in a cyber world. Best of all, when the stakes are high at work or in their personal relationships, they’ll be able to express their opinions in a way that is at once effective and sensitive. Won’t that be nice?

Crucial Conversations QA

Employee Temper Tantrum

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I am a relatively new hospital manager. I inherited a team that is severely challenged when it comes to communication, attitude, and accountability. Recently, one of my nurses threw what I would call “an adult temper tantrum” after receiving her assignment. She threw down her reports and complained loudly and inappropriately in front of both the day and night shift nurses. She also walked out of my daily briefing before I was finished—in front of the rest of the team. I attempted to fix her assignment for her, as her objections were not unreasonable, but her behavior certainly was. She verbalized that she would keep the assignment as it was but had a very bad attitude for several hours.

I’m working hard on my “story” because I feel very disrespected and embarrassed by her behavior. Since she was so emotional I chose not to confront her at the time. But I’m thinking I need to speak up now. Since she can be quite volatile, can you give me some advice? I’m worried she’s influencing her teammates against me.

Committed to Following Up

A Dear Committed,
First of all, congratulations on your promotion. It sounds like you’ve had the job long enough to realize management isn’t all golf and long lunches. The resort doesn’t always resemble the brochure, does it?

You’ve done a couple of things right already. First of all, you were wise to respond to the content of her concern in order to demonstrate that you cared about her problem. You were wise to not confront her in front of her peers, or to do so when her emotions were very strong. Had you done so, it would have been difficult for her to hear you, and your influence would have diminished significantly.

Second, offering to make appropriate adjustments to the assignment—so long as you weren’t selling out by doing so—is a good way of creating safety. It shows that you care about her interests and sets a foundation of mutual purpose.

But from there, I think you missed a big opportunity by not raising your concerns with her behavior at the same time you offered to respond to her complaints. The ideal moment to hold someone accountable is the moment they are least likely to misunderstand your intentions. And that moment was probably when you genuinely and sincerely attempted to listen to her issue.

With that said, all is not lost. But you must address this issue soon before you run the risk of seeming like you’re dredging up old issues—or worse, before it happens again and you feel even more upset when you talk with her.

So do it soon. Do it privately. Do it at a time she agrees to and which is convenient for her. All of these situational factors will help her feel more safe.

Begin by reminding her of the reason she should know she is safe with you. Point out what you’ve done to address her frustrations, and reiterate that you will always be accommodating to personal needs when you can do so without being unfair to the rest of the team.

With that said, now it’s time to raise your concern. And this is the tricky part. You’ve got two things you’ve got to do to turn this into a healthy Crucial Confrontation.

First, frame the issue positively. Ensure that she knows your intent is to address a problem and not to beat her up. For example, “I’d like to talk to you about something that happened when you were frustrated with the assignment I gave you. In doing so, I want you to know it will always be okay for you to tell me things don’t work for you. What I’d like to address is how you did it. Because that was unacceptable. May I describe my concern?”

With her consent, you must now describe her behavior but not your judgments. When we’re upset with others, we often make veiled attempts to punish them by describing their behavior in inflammatory ways. For example, it will not work to say, “You were hostile and insulting when you got your assignment.” Carefully plan out how you’ll describe her behavior, and carefully replace all the “hot words” with descriptive rather than judgmental language. For example, you might say, “After you read your assignment you said in a loud voice, ‘No way.’ You then put a stack of reports you were holding down on the desk abruptly enough that they made a noticeable noise. And finally, you referred to me as a ‘Snot-nosed kid’ who you said would not tell you what to do.”

It’s vital in maintaining safety that these words be spoken in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. They will carry far more weight in the conversation if you don’t hurl them. Let the words do their own work. If they are true, your nurse will hear them better without your added force.

Next, you need to tell her why this doesn’t work for you. For example, “I’ve got two problems with what happened. First, it was done publicly. This affects morale in our team and encourages insubordination. That doesn’t work for me. Second, it was accusatory. It seemed like you were turning this into a personal attack on me. You didn’t need to. I will listen to your concerns when you have them. But this kind of behavior makes it harder for me to respond in a supportive way.”

Now you need to ask for her point of view. See if she remembers it differently or disagrees with your judgment of what happened. Once you’ve worked through your points of view, you must end by asking for her commitment to behave differently in the future.

Finally, if you think there is a chance this behavior will be an ongoing problem, you should ask for a chance to follow up and check in with her on two fronts: a) does she feel she’s getting support from you? and b) are you satisfied that she is supporting you? Agree on a specific date and then follow up.

Good luck in your new responsibilities. The way you address this very crucial issue will set a pattern for how you’ll be as a manager. Do it well, and you’ll have a long career of success ahead of you.