Crucial Accountability QA

How to Fix a Family Feud

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am the eldest of six siblings. We grew up in a judgemental atmosphere and avoided confrontation, so “triangulation” occurs frequently. NO one, parents included, is willing to address the issues, but they are always willing to share it with the person whom they think will help fix it–that would be me. I have tried to stop, but at times of stress I fall into the fix-it mode. In the meantime, we continue to communicate in this dysfunctional manner, afraid to speak the truth, afraid to speak directly, and forever judging without just cause. Where do I start?


Dear Eldest,

Your question is full of places I could start, but I’m going to share a few comments on where YOU could start.

1. Diagnose by asking the “Humanizing Question.” That question is: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” This question can help us be patient and look for possible reasons for why people we care a lot about act in ways that are counterproductive. Sub-questions include: “In what ways might it be more complicated or complex than I see it?” “Have I ever done something like this and if so, what were my reasons?”

In this particular case, it seems like the pattern of avoidance is a family tradition. During the years, what started as not wanting to offend probably stemmed from your family members believing they couldn’t confront each other because they weren’t good at it. Many people avoid or triangulate not because they want to, but because they don’t think they have the skills. Sometimes they don’t think they have the skills to start; but more often, they don’t feel they have the skills to deal with objections or emotions that will surely come out. So they avoid. What does this have to do with your starting point? By diagnosing and asking this question you will be more patient and refrain from attributing bad motives to your family members.

2. Get your motives right. This can be accomplished by asking the question: “What do I really want—for me, for family members, and for my relationships?” Too often people only look for what they want and that frequently can lead to actions that are interpreted as selfish and short-term. “I want to cope; I want to stay in my comfort zone; I want someone else to fix everything.”

Asking all three parts of this question will help your motives become mutual and long-term. In this case, what do you want for you? To not have to carry messages for other people or engage in gossip? What do you want for your family members? To help them rapidly and respectfully solve problems so everyone escapes the consequences that accompany avoidance? And what do you want for your relationship? More communication, less judgment, more sharing, less stress? Get your motives right and then start a conversation.

3. Start with safety. This of course is the hardest part. The key to safely sharing your thoughts is to diagnose and focus your intentions. Let me explore a couple of issues. First is privacy. It may be that you talk privately with your father, then your mother, then your siblings. This may help them feel more comfortable discussing the issue–they won’t feel the need to “perform” for the audience. Feel free to bring this up with your family all at once if it seems like safety is intact.

4. Use “contrasting.” Share what you don’t intend and do intend so you can remove any misconceptions up front. For example, say to your father, “I’d like to share an observation I’ve made about how the family communicates. My intention is not to be critical; what I want to do is try to understand and see if there are some ways we could improve. Would that be okay?” If your father gets defensive, revisit your intentions—what you don’t intend and what you do intend.

5. Lead with an observation and a question. Beginning with conclusions and emotions and destroy safety. Compare the two approaches. Bad start: “Dad, has our family always been judgmental and cowardly?” A better start: “Dad, I’ve noticed that as a family, we have a pattern of avoiding some issues until they create stress. For example, we avoided talking about the proposed Holiday gathering until people were complaining about the arrangements but not talking to Mom about her proposal. And then it exploded. Can we talk about this and how to make things better?”

Of course once you start, you need to continue. For guidance on what to do if the other person side-tracks you, or disagrees, or gets emotional, refer to Crucial Conversations. The steps in the book will walk you through this conversation to the end. I’m confident that if you start off on the right foot, the rest can go smoothly.

Best wishes,


Kerrying On

Kerrying On: And One for Tanya

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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Today I’d like to address a topic I’ve discussed before—teamwork. I’ve recently had an experience that has expanded my view of what makes a healthy team, and I’d like to share it with you. As is typically the case with this column, it all starts with a story.

On December 25th of last year, my daughter Rebecca hugged her two-year-old son Timmy, kissed her husband Bruce, boarded a jumbo jet, and started a journey that forever altered her life. A few months earlier she and her husband had become aware of two orphan girls in Russia (Nika and Tanya—ages seven and five respectively), who, if not soon adopted, would be separated into different orphanages and very likely lost to each other forever.

Rebecca and Bruce decided that they would adopt the girls—just like that. With one quick, selfless decision they chose to triple the size of their brood. Of course, before they could do anything, Rebecca would have to meet the two girls and see if the adoption was even possible—thus the arduous Christmas-day flight to a rather bleak industrial town carved into the harsh plains of southwestern Russia.

Nika and Tanya practically jumped out of their skin when they first met Rebecca—such was their excitement after living in an orphanage for over a year without so much as a single visitor or prospective parent ever stopping to see them. Nika had learned three English words—”I love you”—while Tanya, the shyer of the two, primarily communicated by staring at Rebecca through large, twinkly brown eyes. Both showed off their ability to perform summersaults, sing Russian folk songs, and daringly leap off chairs as they desperately auditioned for the role of daughter.

At one point, anxious to “become part of a loving family,” Nika suggested (through her interpreter): “If you become our mommy, we’ll wash the dishes every day.”

With these sweet words, Rebecca’s heart nearly broke. Right then and there she started the mountain of paperwork that would eventually culminate in two frightened little Russian girls flying to America to start a new life—forever grafted onto the Patterson and Westenscow family trees.

I met Nika and Tanya four months later when the two rail-thin waifs finally arrived in America. They had been playing with their new cousins in our backyard when Nika rushed up to me and gestured that she was thirsty. I had bought cans of apple juice for just such an occasion and offered her one. Nika punched in the flip-top and darted her tongue into the oval opening to test the suspicious liquid. Approving of the juice with a quick smile she then asked for a second can for her little sister. Tanya was playing nearby with a doll and didn’t appear thirsty, but Nika asked anyway.

Seven months have passed since that day we first met and this pattern hasn’t changed a bit. By now Nika can speak English, so with each gift I give to her or with each item of food or drink I offer her, she firmly states in heavily accented English, “And one for Tanya.” I’m pretty sure that after the expression “I love you,” these were the first English words Nika learned.

When my daughter Rebecca initially talked with the girls’ caseworker, the Russian social servant explained that the two girls had been raised by a single mother who eventually turned them over to her parents. Two years later, the aging grandparents turned the girls in to an orphanage. That was about all we knew of their childhood.

And then we learned more.

Last week as Rebecca showed Nika how their new ten-speed blender works, she casually asked Nika if her grandparents had owned a similar appliance. Nika stared at her mother, blinked slowly as she thought about what to say, and then answered, “No, we didn’t have a blender. We didn’t have electric lights. We didn’t have running water. The toilet was outside and in the winter when it was cold—and since we didn’t own pajamas—we would wet the bed rather than risk freezing to death.”

Along with this frank explanation Nika offered the following heart-breaking addendum. “We were also hungry all the time. Babushka didn’t have enough food so she didn’t feed us very much or very often. I went door to door and begged from the neighbors who also didn’t have enough food. Sometimes they would give me a bit of cabbage or a piece of carrot and I would run home and share it with Tanya.”

Eventually the neighbors could stand it no longer. Watching the two little girls slowly starve was more than they could bear so they turned the children in to the authorities who immediately placed them in a hospital where nutritionists stuffed them full of calories for two weeks before they were finally allowed to be placed in an orphanage.

So there it was. At age five Nika had become the breadwinner. At age five she had become the adult in her tragic little community. Now, three years later, when surrounded by a greater number of caring adults than she had probably ever imagined, she still played the role of caretaker. Whenever she’s given anything, she sets her jaw and firmly states, “And one for Tanya.”

After seven months of living the high life in America, Nika has learned to embrace the carefree lifestyle of most pampered American children. She gleefully plays “kick the can” with the neighborhood kids and seems to have given herself to the adoring care of her new parents. But there’s still a part of her that shows that she’s a tough-as-nails survivor. Sometimes Nika plays a little rougher than her new friends would like. As the former oldest child in a three- to eight-year-old orphanage, she can also be a bit bossy. And to nobody’s surprise, Nika is not always interested in the fairy wings, princess shoes, and other frivolities her new friends gush over. But that’s understandable. Once you’ve begged door to door only to rush home with a scrap of food for your baby sister, it’s hard to get excited over Barbie’s latest fashion accessory. Once you’ve been thirty, it’s hard to be eight again.

I’ve learned a great deal from Nika.

Twenty years ago I worked on several consulting projects where I helped senior leaders as they tried to transform their existing organizations—typically filled with competing turfs and self-serving silos—into more collaborative team environments. As I interviewed hundreds of employees who had been placed in newly formed teams, I would always begin with the same question: “What do you look for in a teammate?” Most explained, “Someone to watch my back.”

These words transformed into action in several different ways. “I don’t always have good days,” barked a seasoned dock worker, “And I’d like to know that my teammates would pitch in once in a while—you know, give me a hand. Of course, I’d do the same for them.” “I want someone who carries his or her fair share of the work—including the crummy jobs,” explained a machine operator.

Healthy families and personal relationships are built of such stuff—people caring for each other—thinking of others, watching out for loved ones and coworkers, and even taking lumps for each other.

I’ve experienced this type of treatment firsthand. For instance, I once designed and tested a training course under the most pressure-filled circumstances imaginable. Nobody was the least bit interested in attending the training I had been commissioned to design. Each new group I trained would grudgingly file into a training room, sit stoically in their seats, and hardly move a muscle. A federal judge had mandated the training, and now I (an outsider) was delivering it to hostile audiences while internal training specialists sat in the back row and ridiculed everything I did. And all of this took place while I fought a flu virus that had so weakened my system that I frequently had to lean against the wall for support in order to continue with the training.

One evening as I lay on the floor working at a computer keyboard to produce the next day’s version of the training (I was too nauseated to sit up), I heard a knock on my hotel room door. I literally crawled over to the door to open it, and in burst David, my business partner. He had heard of my plight and instead of calling to ask if I needed help, had boarded a plane and flown to California, and now he was ready to take over the training assignment. I was to go home and get better while he stood before the angry audiences and took a beating. And that’s exactly what he did. For the next three days David took my beating and he never once asked for anything in return.

So what do these experiences teach us about teamwork? What should you look for in a teammate, or business partner—maybe even a life partner? One thing’s for certain, you should definitely seek someone like David—a person who stands beside you through thick and thin. And now that I’ve met Nika, I have an additional recommendation. Find someone like Nika. When others are carping about their workload or bickering over a bigger piece of the pie, seek a teammate who steps up and demands, “And one for Tanya.”

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations via E-mail?


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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I was excited to work with my new boss initially because I thought he would have good interpersonal skills and would be good at managing people. However, it has now been over a year and a half since our last altercation—which is still not resolved. Now most of our communication happens through e-mail and formal memos.

When relations degrade to the point where the primary mode of communication is e-mail, how can I move toward verbal dialogue and build trust? It is obvious that neither my supervisor nor I trust one another. I have tried to move toward repairing our relationship but have not received any positive feedback from my attempts. My supervisor is extremely defensive.

The interesting thing here is that an e-mail was the straw that broke the camel’s back and yet that’s the form of communication we have resorted to.

Writer’s Block

A Dear Writer,
At work as well as at home, it’s often our most important relationships that are also our toughest. By any measure, our relationship with our boss is our single most important relationship in the workplace.

When you struggle to maintain a positive relationship with your boss, many other things also suffer, including the quality of your work and your work life, as well as your appraisals, job assignments, rewards and opportunities.

I usually avoid advocating absolute rules, but I’ve got one for you. Never hold a crucial conversation via e-mail—ever! You can use e-mail to inform, gather information, and schedule. But when a conversation involves high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions you must hold it in person.

When you hold a conversation via e-mail, you immediately lose half of the most important information you need to succeed—the other person’s non-verbals (facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice). If you cannot actually get together, then with the greatest of reluctance hold the conversation over the phone, but know that you will have to work extra hard to clarify what is said and what is meant. For example: “I notice you paused after my comment. Is that because you have concerns about my idea?”

Now, let’s move from method to content. This conversation should not be about business problems or personnel. You need to have a conversation about your relationship with each other. I would encourage you to set an appointment when you can talk one on one without interruption.

When you begin, don’t resort to accusations or blame; rather, start with the facts. Factually state the behaviors you have observed without imputing motives. For example: “It’s been five weeks since you and I have spoken. Our only communication is through e-mail.” You’ve now begun the conversation and minimized your boss’s defensiveness.

Next, tell your story. What do these facts mean to you? “I believe this has led to misunderstandings and is negatively affecting my work. I also think not talking is a symptom of our working relationship.” This will allow your boss to clearly see what conclusions you are drawing from the facts you have stated. Your boss’s understanding of your view is deepening.

This would be a good time to make it safer for your boss by sharing your good intentions and your aspirations. “I’m not trying to find fault or lay blame. I would just like to figure out how we can have a good working relationship that helps me do my best work and makes your job easier.”

Now that you’ve laid this foundation for the crucial conversation and made it safer for your boss to share, invite him into the conversation with a question. “Do you see it differently? I would like to understand how you see our relationship.”

This approach could open up a conversation that allows you to safely compare both views and create more effective expectations going forward. Trust will only build as you consistently keep commitments, help each other self-correct through candid problem solving, and prove to each other that you can work together in a new way.

I wish you all the best and assure you the effort will be worth it!