Crucial Conversations QA

Roommate Agreements

Dear Al,

My two sons share a four bedroom house with three other students at college. The three other students initially wanted other living accommodations for next year, while my sons wanted to stay. So my boys found two other students to share the house, and nobody wants to share a room. One of the original three roommates did not find other accommodations, and now wants to stay in the house next year. My oldest son is concerned about this crucial conversation—how to tell this student that his spot has been taken. How should he handle this delicate situation?

Concerned Parent

Dear Concerned Parent,

There are a number of issues to address in this situation. I’d like to start by isolating a couple of issues and offer some advice.

The first bit of counsel may be for future interactions. I’d like to address how to clarify things up front so these issues don’t get so confusing and ugly. After your sons and the other students talked and made plans—after they engaged in dialogue and got to an agreement—they needed to “Move to Action.” Specifically, they needed to document who would do what by when. The commitments and next steps would have been clear to both groups. Notice the word document. When issues are complicated, of long duration, or could be interpreted differently by different people (e.g., issues that involve money, contracts, leases, etc.), documenting is a very good idea. Why? Because memory is unsafe. A dull pencil, the old adage goes, is better than a sharp mind.

If the previous agreement is clear, the issue is to get agreement around the new circumstances—which means holding a crucial conversation.

Begin this conversation by making it safe. One of the best ways to do this is to start the discussion with your observations. Describe the Gap clearly, without adding judgments. It might sound something like this: “Last month we all agreed that the three of you would move out and that the two of us would find new roommates. We also decided that none of us wanted to share a room. We have found the new roommates. Now we hear that you want to stay in the house. That would mean sharing rooms. That doesn’t match up with the plans that were made.”

Continue to make it safe by clarifying your intent and making sure the other person understands what you’re trying to say, “I don’t want to come across as not understanding the challenge of finding a new place; I just want to share how I see the agreement and make sure you understand our point of view. Do you see where I’m coming from?”

I think it’s probably a given that if the ex-roommate understands what had been agreed to, then the issue will become, “Yeah, but I tried and now things are different. Come on, give me a break here. We’re friends.” Now a new issue has been born, and finding a solution comes down to being creative with the options. Your sons need to decide what they want ultimately and then communicate that using their best crucial conversations skills. They could give in. They could say that he could stay two weeks while everyone helps him look for a new place. Or they could mention that the relationship is important but should not be tied to a new rooming agreement and that he can’t stay.

Regardless of how they decide to proceed, all this is new data for a new dialogue and safety is still an issue. Often when people see that you are trying to understand their new purpose and help them, and that you are being respectful, options emerge and relationships stay strong. There are no guarantees, but it is certainly the place to start.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Third-Party Responsibility


Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Authors,

From a very early age, my husband was trained to be responsible for more than typical, age-appropriate tasks—house cleaning and food shopping at age ten, providing personal hygiene care for an ill older brother at eighteen, etc. He has continued to demonstrate a greater-than-typical responsibility throughout his adult life. This has extended to providing “reminders” and “corrective suggestions” to our children. They are now adults, and have begun to suggest boundaries and ask that he not remind them. For example, they ask that they be allowed to send or not send birthday cards or thank you notes on their own without his reminding. Their requests have been made respectfully, but he sees their messages as “Mind your own business” and is offended and angry.

Is there a crucial conversation I can have with him before it impacts his relationships, or do these need to be crucial conversations between my husband and our kids?

Interested Bystander

A Dear Bystander,

You ask a very important question. It’s a question that deserves a principle response.

The question is, “When are we responsible to step up to a crucial conversation?”

Unfortunately, most people answer the question in the narrowest terms possible. They tend to think about whether or not the formal boundaries of a role they occupy require them to have this crucial conversation. They tend to frame their decision in these narrow terms because, for some people, crucial conversations are intrinsically unpleasant, they want to find a way to minimize the number of crucial conversations we hold. This is the same reason people avoid going to the dentist. We are so fixated on what will happen if we go that we fail to ask the far more important question: What will happen if we don’t?

So, our natural and unchecked tendency is to minimize our sense of responsibility for holding crucial conversations by demanding evidence that we are squarely, completely, and personally responsible to speak up. We make this decision emotionally rather than rationally or ethically.

So I love your question. And here’s my answer.

The principle that I think should govern our answer to the responsibility question is, “Is the situation affecting results that are important to you?” Period.

Now, dear readers, don’t misunderstand. When I suggest that this question should govern our decision to speak up, I don’t necessarily mean that this dictates to whom you should speak.

For example, if I witness illegal activity in my organization and the senior manager who should be dealing with it is not, then my crucial conversation would not necessarily be with the offender. It might more likely be with the senior manager, or with HR, etc. By saying this I simply want to illustrate that the decision to speak up and the decision about what conversation to hold are two separate decisions.

Now that I’ve circled above your question, let me swoop in and make a couple of points.

I believe your crucial conversation should be with your husband. You obviously care deeply about the quality of his relationship with his children. You care about this relationship both for your children and for him. You want him to be appreciated, loved, doted on—like all fathers ought to be. And in your view, his behavior is getting in the way of this result—something you care a lot about.

So you should speak up. And you should speak up to him. Here are a few suggestions for that conversation.

First, make it extraordinarily safe. Tell him you want to discuss something that you think is very important to him. There’s a pattern you’ve noticed emerging with the kids that you believe is keeping him from having the relationship you know is very important to him. Honor him for his love and concern for them and make it crystal clear that your goal is not to criticize but to demonstrate loyalty and support for his values.

Second, hold the right conversation. Keep the focus on the emerging pattern, not on any specific instance (like recent birthday card reminders, etc.). If he asks for examples of the issue, share them. But remind him these are just specific instances of an ongoing pattern—and that the pattern is the key issue.

Third, clearly describe consequences. Take time before opening up the conversation to identify two or three consequences he already knows about that are directly related to his behavior. Identify consequences that he probably doesn’t realize are related. For example, are his children making less contact with him? When they visit, do they spend more time talking to you than to him? Or are they, in fact, doing less of what he wants them to do than they ordinarily would? Your goal in this conversation will be to help this wonderful man see how his own behavior is keeping him from things that are important to him. If you do this in an atmosphere of safety, nothing will be more motivating to change than this connection.

Do your homework, be sure your examples will be clear and compelling, hold the conversation at a quiet, focused time when you can do it in a loving way, and I’m very confident he’ll respond.

Finally, realize that habits of a lifetime don’t change with one conversation. Be sure to end the conversation with a more robust plan about how you can make this an ongoing conversation and provide coaching and support for him.

Good luck. He’s lucky to have you.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Reunion

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 thinking about Valentine’s Day gifts, I’m reminded of a lesson I learned a few years ago. This particular lesson didn’t come at Cupid’s prompting, but it was heartfelt, and served as an important reminder about the gifts of love that count the most.

Almost three years ago I attended my forty-year high school reunion in Bellingham, Washington. Since my parents and I moved to Arizona right after I graduated, I’d only been back to my childhood stomping grounds twice during the previous four decades. Consequently, what for most of my classmates was a run-of-the-mill reunion took on epic proportions to me. It would be a chance to learn what all of those wonderful kids I had grown up with ended up doing with their lives.

Now, when most people attend a reunion, they want to show off. You know, brag a little, puff up their career a little, maybe even make their kids sound normal. But this was our forty-year reunion, so that ship had sailed. Avoiding humiliation seemed a more reasonable goal. Besides, in light of my long absence, I flew back to Puget Sound with a still different purpose in mind. I wanted to thank all the kids who had been such good friends. I wanted to thank Ed Biery for driving me around when he could drive and I couldn’t. So I did. I wanted to thank Curt Gurner for sticking up for me one day in the seventh grade when a ninth-grade bully was pushing me around and Curt “intervened” in my behalf. I thanked him profusely.

I also wanted to tell the wives of several of my close buddies a few of the fond memories I had of their spouses—stories they probably hadn’t heard. For instance, I met Lex Kalagis’s wife and told her of the time Lex ran for Fairhaven Junior High School President against the most popular kid in school. The kid who everyone expected to win walking away gave a humdrum speech full of hollow promises, after which everyone vigorously applauded his popularity. Then Lex stood up and quietly announced that he was there to represent the average kid. He was the people’s candidate. Lex started slowly and built to a crescendo of pumping fists and shouted anthems. As one, the student body arose and applauded their candidate. I still remember the look on the popular kid’s face as he was knocked down by a wave of proletariat payback. Lex won in a landslide. His wife loved the story.

I told Jim Zuanich’s wife of how one day he ran naked as a jaybird through a couple of dozen campsites back to our tent because Craig Hayes and I had mischievously taken his clothes from the public shower. Jim didn’t get angry. In fact, he had laughed heartily as he ran through the rough, in the buff. He wasn’t just a friend; he was the best kind of friend. He cheerfully put up with the immaturity with which we boys were so amply endowed.

For three hours I pushed my way through the crowd—reconnecting, thanking, and telling stories. But something was missing. As the night progressed, I kept asking everyone I ran into about the classmate who I was certain would have lived the most interesting life. I’ll call her Mary. I met her for the first time in the seventh grade. In the fall of 1958, several very different grade school classes had merged into one seventh-grade class. Mary had come from a school where the kids were way more intellectually advanced than the pathetically ignorant alumni of Larrabee Elementary, my school. Mary and her former classmates were into algebra and Latin. My classmates and I were fascinated by small shiny objects.

As luck would have it, Mary sat behind me in our seventh-grade homeroom class and for reasons I’ll never understand, stole my heart. Naturally, I was from the wrong side of the tracks. My dad worked for a few dimes over minimum wage; hers was a prominent lawyer. Our house had an ugly hole in the side yard where my brother and I had started to dig a pool but, of course, we never had the money to build one. Her three-story mansion had a tennis court next to an atrium. I had never heard the word atrium.

Every school day during our homeroom class I would turn around and stare into Mary’s deep brown eyes. Not constantly, of course, just enough to be creepy. She was too refined to be rude to me. I’m relatively certain that she felt sorry for me or was possibly even a little repulsed, but she never failed to be genuinely kind. I was a nervous little twit and not everyone found it in their heart to treat me with the dignity that Mary always showed me.

Mary was also a model student. Starting that first day of junior high school and for the next six years she meticulously prepared herself to head east to one of those big-named colleges I had only heard about in movies. For six years she earned top scores in her classes. I, in contrast, played around until the week before college commenced when I hastily applied to a junior college in Idaho. She went to one of the “Seven Sisters.”

Perhaps the most profound difference between the two of us lay in our social conscience. Mary was a model citizen. You could routinely find her in the hallways showing a new student around or talking to a lonely kid or rolling bandages. I, on the other hand, mostly leaned up against the hallway wall, bit off the ends of a black licorice whip (turning it into a pea-shooter), and shot small pieces of chewed-off licorice onto the angora sweaters of any girl who made the mistake of walking within range.

In short, Mary was rich, smart, and kind. I was poor, dim-witted, and . . . well, I was a teenage boy. And yet, despite being separated by a social chasm of monumental proportions, Mary was always nice to me. In return, I gave her the very best I had to offer. I never fired a wad of licorice at her.

But nobody at the reunion could tell me where Mary was, or what had happened to her. I found this hard to believe. Of course I wouldn’t know about Mary; I had been gone for forty years. But the people who had never left town didn’t know anything either. How could the most conspicuous person in our class, from the most prominent family in town, have disappeared? Consequently, when I stepped up to the display of photos of the classmates of ’64 who had already died, I was sure I’d find Mary’s picture.

No, Mary’s picture wasn’t posted along with the thirty-eight graduation photos of the deceased. Three had been killed in Vietnam, two had tragically taken their own lives, and the rest had fallen prey to natural causes.

Learning for the first time which of my childhood buddies had died by staring at their bright-eyed high-school photos struck my psyche a mighty blow. And just when I thought I couldn’t feel any lower, the loud-mouth emcee who had sporadically been making announcements about cars with their lights on sprinkled with bald jokes and the occasional Viagra reference stood up and explained that we would now pause for a moment of silence to honor those who had passed on. And then, as if we were all players in a Fellini movie, a kilted bagpiper marched into the center of the hall and played “Amazing Grace.” Now I was really feeling morose.

I was in this state, at the very bottom of my emotional spectrum, when a classmate finally offered up a scrap of information about sweet Mary. He had run into her in the local bookstore some twenty years earlier. She had been dressed in tattered hippy attire (this would have been a full decade after the movement), carrying a tiny baby in a sling. And then he kicked me in the gut with the news that Mary and child had hitchhiked across the country. I had to sit down as I tortured over the image of her, babe in arms, hitchhiking across the country. What had happened to her?

I know, it’s easy to come back with, “Hey, just because Mary didn’t end up the President or a corporate lawyer is no reason to be alarmed.” But a thirty-eight-year-old woman had hitchhiked 3,000 miles with a tiny baby. How could this tale ever be given a healthy spin? And it only grew worse. I learned from the very last person I talked to at the reunion that Mary was now living across the country in a one-room shack with no electricity. Mary. Sweet, kind, hope-of-America Mary.

My mind swirled as I tried to process the image of the finest girl I had known staring numbly into a kerosene lantern. At first I cursed the horrendous toll that had been paid by my generation—the first to be invited straight out of high school into a country-wide drug movement. Worse still, Mary had been lured east to one of those schools that made fun of everything she had held dear. I pictured smooth-tongued professors assaulting her like wolves in sheep-skin clothing—inviting her to turn her back on “The Man.” I imagined a classmate dropping LSD or some other hallucinogenic substance into her drink. Surely one or all of these things had combined forces to drag Mary down such a profoundly different path—one where she begged her way across America with a baby.

Next I wanted to help. I know, maybe Mary is fine, but all I could see was an image of her sitting alone in a shack and I wasn’t picturing Henry David Thoreau. But what could I do? What should I do? I hated feeling helpless. I wanted to board a plane or write a check or punch somebody. I wanted to do something. Of course, I didn’t have a clue what I should do.

Eventually an idea came to me. Why not return to my original plan? I wanted to thank the people who had been such good friends and role models. So, I’d write Mary a letter. Nothing fancy. No need to talk about her last forty years or mine. Just a brief explanation of how I had vowed to thank people who had been kind to me in my youth and she sat pretty high on that list. Since I hadn’t run into her in person, I’d drop her a line. I did just that.

After I mailed that letter to Mary, I was still feeling a bit tender around the edges. Usually when I’m feeling down I work hard to make things better or I at least turn the experience into a metaphorical teaching tool. Not today. Mary deserves better than to be reduced to an object lesson.

Instead I’ll end by saying that for once I probably did just the right thing—not too much, not too little. After a lengthy separation from my childhood friends, I sincerely thanked my buddies, including Mary, for their many kindnesses. Now I’ve honored Mary for not treating me as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, despite the fact that I was, in every sense of the words, from the wrong side of the tracks.

And while these small acts of appreciation were not offered as gifts tucked in heart-shaped boxes and wrapped with a red ribbon, they were certainly gifts of love. Happy Valentine’s Day sweet Mary. Happy Valentine’s Day to you all.