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