Crucial Conversations QA

Derailing the Domineering


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’m currently taking Crucial Conversations Training at work. It has helped me both at home and at work by giving me the confidence to take quite a few bulls by the horns.

I’m wondering how to begin a crucial conversation with someone who can completely dominate every interaction. This person can talk for 45 minutes straight, then in the last 15 minutes ask what’s on your mind and expect you to get through it all. Any suggestions?

Run On Sentence

A Dear Run On Sentence,

Do I have suggestions? Oh yes.

You’re raising a classic question–and one all of us should handle better. The broader question you’re asking is, “What if the problem is not a specific problem, but something that happens when we talk about problems?”

We’ve all got our list of “secondary” complaints: annoyances that occur when we are trying to work with others that don’t rise to the level of a crisis, but that tax our ability to get things done. For example, your boss repeatedly takes phone calls during your precious one-on-one time. Or a vendor requires five calls from you before responding. Or your spouse is always running 30 minutes late.

The problem with these secondary complaints is that they never seem to rise to the level of “crucial” because you can function even with these challenges. But after a while these annoyances are kind of like jogging with 10-pound weights on your ankles. You may still get the job done, but it’s a whole lot harder and a lot less fun.

So, here are some suggestions for taking care of these secondary concerns:

1. Talk about them separately. Don’ t wait until you’re in the middle of a conversation about next year’s budget and you’re irritated because you colleague is doing all the talking. Give this issue the separate attention and focus it deserves, and do it when you’re in a respectful state of mind.

2. Master your story. You described the problem as your colleague “dominating every interaction.” That language sounds as though you are making him out to be the source of the problem. I wonder if in describing your interactions if he might say, “She’s pretty timid.”

Think about the problem as a shared one between the two of you and not one he is solely responsible for creating. If you fail to do this, you’re likely to come across as blaming when you bring it up, and he’s likely to feel defensive.

3. Make it safe. The best way to make it safe is to take responsibility. Be sure not to present the issue as his problem, but as yours too. For example, you could say:

“Before we get started with our discussion, there’s something I want to figure out with you. Would that be okay?”

“I’ve noticed over the past few months that when we meet, I’m not participating as much as I’d like. Typically I only weigh-in with my issues during the last 15 minutes or so of the conversation. I think part of the problem is that it takes me longer to form my opinion, or perhaps I’m processing more. You tend to think more quickly and speak pretty energetically, and between the two of us, I’m not getting into the conversation as much as I’d like. I’m wondering if you could let me know what I can do to participate more in the conversation so I can walk away feeling like I’ve accomplished what I need. Can we talk about that?”

Now, I don’t know that this is a perfect approach, but what I’m doing is attempting to make it safe by avoiding blame. I’d encourage you to frame the problem clearly with the purpose you’ve got in mind. Raise the sticky issue by taking a lot of responsibility for it and invite him to share responsibility for the solution.

4. Finally, agree on ground rules. Agree on some cues you can give him when you need to slow down the conversation so you can weigh in, or when you want to have a chance to speak first to set the agenda, etc. Try to agree on one or two things you’ll both do, then conclude by asking if you could check in with him after your next couple of meetings.

The real key to success here will be your attitude toward your colleague. If you can get your frustration and blame toward him out of your system before you approach the issue, you’ll probably do just fine.

Congratulations on your success in the training and keep up the great work!

Best wishes,

Joseph Grenny

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: What Do You REALLY Want?

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Kerrying On

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This article was first published on November 16, 2005.

I once held a party at my house where one of the guests was a social anthropologist. I fussed the whole evening—wondering if he was examining our home and drawing unflattering conclusions about our values based on the visible artifacts.

“Hmm . . . look at the size of that refrigerator. Hmm . . . more CDs than books.”

I bet there are a couple of things about my home that he’d have a hard time understanding. For example, the potted plants leading up to our front door are shabby, disheveled, and imbalanced, whereas the carpets inside are so clean you could perform surgery on them. Why is that?

How my plants got so raggedy and my carpets so clean is the subject of today’s Kerrying On. It all started some twenty years ago while I was observing an executive give a speech. It was a tough time in the company and she was explaining in an all-hands meeting why they were cutting back on the budget. She argued that everyone was going to have to sacrifice. Everyone was going to have to tighten their belts. You know the drill.

When the executive eventually called for questions, there was a long pause. Finally, a fellow standing in the back raised his hand. His comments shook the room. “If money is so tight,” the fellow remarked, “then why are you building a second office across town for yourself? And I hear that it’s costing tens of thousands of dollars. How can you justify that?”

This was one of those fearful and awkward moments we’ve all experienced. Everyone quickly sucked in their breath as they waited for the executive to blow a gasket and then humiliate the person who asked the question. After all, the guy had just called the big boss a hypocrite in front of the whole company. Surely he would now pay. And sure enough, the boss did turn a shade of dark red while the muscles in her face tightened.

But then the executive seemed to catch herself. She took a deep breath, relaxed, smiled and thanked the person for the question. She explained what was going on and why, said she was unaware of the actual budget, but if it was indeed that high she would make sure that it wasn’t in excess. This conversation continued until everyone seemed satisfied with what was going on and the meeting ended on a positive note.

As we walked back to her office, I asked the executive how she was able to keep from losing her temper. She explained that at first she was upset. The question did come across as a cheap-shot. But then she said something that I’ve never forgotten. She explained, “As I was becoming angry, I asked myself what I really wanted. Did I want to humiliate this guy in front of the crowd? My emotions cried for this, but it’s not what I really wanted. I really wanted everyone to buy into the notion that times were indeed tough and that we needed to be financially responsible. If there were rumors floating around that had to be answered before people would believe the message, then I needed to hear them. The truth is, I needed him to ask the very question he asked. So I thanked him and I meant it. It was the best thing that could have happened.”

When you’re in the middle of an argument or heated discussion, “What do I really want?” turns out to be one of the most important questions you can ask yourself. As your emotions kick in you might just move from wanting to make the best choice to wanting something else altogether. Is humiliating the other person or winning the argument at any cost really your desire? Are you going to let your most immature and perverse wishes set your priorities for you? Or are you going to be mature enough to return to your original and healthy goals? Because if you still want to make the best choice, then maybe fighting for the second or third best option just so you can win isn’t the smartest strategy. And causing the other person pain—that should never be on your to-do list.

With this lesson in mind, let’s return to my home and see if we can help the social anthropologist understand how my flowers got so tattered while the carpet became so clean. Is this disparity evidence that I’m an obsessive compulsive with traces of schizophrenia? Or is something else going on?

Here’s the answer. When my mother passed away three years ago, Dad moved in with us. He’s a wonderful fellow, always upbeat and always trying to help out despite the fact that he’s eighty-seven and mostly deaf and blind. That first spring, just after he moved in, I started to fill the various flower pots and planters out front with the perennials I’d purchased. Dad shuffled up next to me, gloves in hand and ready to help.

It turned out to be a tough job—including him that is. He can’t really see, so when I asked him to water after I put the plants in the soil, he frequently harmed the delicate flowers. Either he knocked off the blooms with the hose or he flushed away the soil with too much water pressure. He then hinted that watering the plants would now be his daily job. When I suggested that I could do it, he looked disappointed and said that he really wanted to pitch in.

It’s not easy growing old. Giving away your life’s possessions as you move from house to apartment to a single room can’t be fun. Watching your body give out one part at a time must be frightening. And now, as he stood there with hose nozzle in hand, Dad wanted to hold onto being a productive member of society. He wanted a job. He wanted to contribute. He wanted to help.

At first I told him not to worry about watering, I’d do it. I’d spent hundreds of dollars on bedding plants and took pride in my flower beds and pots. He’d just ruin them. Every summer people would come to the front door and the first words out of their mouths would be a compliment about our lovely flowers. My wife and oldest son watched what was going on and each sidled up next to me and suggested that I couldn’t let Dad help with the flowers. It would be a disaster.

As I talked with Dad, he continued to plead his case. He’d be really careful and watering would give him something to do. We had been struggling with how to fill his days.

And then it hit me—the words of the executive echoed in my head. What did I really want? Obviously I wanted Dad to be happy. But then again, I wanted the plants to look good. Maybe I could find another job for him—one that wouldn’t involve killing my flowers; but I couldn’t find anything. After all, he’s mostly deaf and blind. So I decided right then and there: Dad would water. He mattered the most. I wanted him to be happy. That’s what I really wanted.

The carpets soon fell into his domain as well. As summer turned to fall and Dad moved from outside to inside, he took over the vacuuming chores. Nobody is more meticulous than he. He goes over each carpet segment from five different directions. A job that would normally take thirty minutes now takes three hours. First he sucks up the dirt. Then, for the next two and a half hours he sucks up the color. I think he may even be altering electrons in their paths. One day our living room may go nuclear.

Of course, having the vacuum scream for hours on end drives us nuts. Nowadays we schedule ourselves to be out of the house whenever Dad vacuums. Once again, we could have told him no, but when we asked what we really wanted, Dad won the vacuuming job.

My guess is that the cultural anthropologist wouldn’t be able to explain why our plants look so bad while the carpets look so good. He’d have to know two important facts: One, when caught in an argument of competing priorities, I’ve learned to step back from the fray and ask what I really want. Two, I love my dad. The combined effect of these two seemingly unrelated facts is actually quite wonderful.

Dad is flourishing and that’s all that really matters.

Crucial Conversations QA

Encouraging Relationships of Respect


Al Switzler

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I’d like to know more about how to improve mutual respect. Currently, my immediate boss does not respect the group he supervises. He manages in a paternalistic manner. The staff is not informed or is misinformed about pertinent information concerning the department. Our opinions are generally ignored and we do not contribute to virtually any departmental decisions. He is a self-admitted control freak. His management style encourages apathy and everyone races to leave work early. I define respect as treating others the way you would want to be treated. One of our facility mottos is that lack of respect leads to poor patient care. We do not practice what we preach. How should we develop mutual respect?


A Dear Stumped,

Your question is very complex—it’s hard to know where to start. Let me try to unravel a couple of issues, tell a couple of stories, and offer some advice.

Treat this as a “we” problem. As a team, ask, “What can ‘we’ do to be more effective?” Here’s a story. One corporate cafeteria was so overrun with in-fighting, bickering, and gossiping that a film crew from the local news showed up. The employees couldn’t hide the contention and disrespect for even one day and the embarrassing antics were broadcast on the evening news. This is when I was invited to help. What was my approach? I facilitated a meeting where the team created some ground rules—three or four behaviors that everyone is capable of doing and can commit to uphold. Too often, teams do not clearly identify the behaviors that would make them effective. Ground rules clarify what team members need to do habitually and voluntarily to contribute to an effective team. The ground rules our unruly lunchers opted for included statements like: “When you make a mess, clean it up or acknowledge it.” “When you use a tool, put it back where it belongs—clean.” And, “When we have disagreements, we will talk to the other person quickly, privately, and professionally.” As you create your list, remember that “respect” is a descriptor and a value, not a behavior.

Coach each other. Now that everyone knows and has committed to what is expected, hold each other accountable when infractions occur. When someone fails to do the behavior, rapidly, privately, and professionally say, “We committed to putting our tools back clean. I noticed you left the toaster out and it was not clean. What happened?” Make it safe to openly address incidents like tardiness, anger, or sloppiness, etc.

If at this point, you’re thinking, “You don’t know my boss. He wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t approve it, and wouldn’t live up to it.” Then keep in mind that these steps are a good opening point, but if they still don’t work, here are some additional options.

Diagnose differently. Often when working with someone who prefers to have a lot of control, others interpret their style as a “lack of respect” and react with behaviors that create consequences. Those consequences may be bad feelings, minimal effort, leaving early, or “poor patient care.” When this occurs, try different diagnoses. Ask yourself why the boss is controlling. Could it be that he has had bad experiences in the past when he tried to involve others more? Could it be that he is actually protecting your team from another source of control? Perhaps your team’s performance is lacking and this is the only way he can see to meet standards. My point is to start by focusing on the boss’s needs and see if these needs can be met in ways that won’t compromise respect. Ask the boss what areas he is most concerned about and then address those issues with your team. Focus on management needs. Focus on manager-staff interactions. Focus on processes and results—not just respect.

Focus on respect. Before focusing on respect, first get your motive right. What do you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship? If you enter a dialogue with a potentially selfish or short-term motive (and people can read your motive) then the two of you will engage in verbal games rather than dialogue—like debate or pretending. But if your motive really is aligned with learning and sharing, then you will reach dialogue. Second, create safety with a private conversation—even bosses want to save face and will act differently in front of an audience. Third, contrast what you are not trying to do with what you are trying to accomplish. And lastly, specifically state what you observe and ask if you could talk together. This point about being specific is vital. In your question, you shared many more conclusions than you did specific behaviors. Be careful to choose one specific action such as an example of where your boss didn’t inform or misinformed the team, or did and didn’t respond. Then say, “I’ve noticed this& and I expected this . The reason I’m bringing this up is that I’d like to improve how I and our team interact with you. Can we talk?”

Your issue is a tough one. The key is to try several options that allow you to evaluate our own actions and continue to be proud of your behaviors.

Best wishes,