Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
In Master My Stories II, the Humanizing Question is “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?” Asking this question is often helpful in turning villains to humans and assuming the best in others. But what if the answer to the Humanizing Question is that this is not a reasonable, rational and decent person; or they are not willing to act reasonable and rational? What is the correct approach to this dilemma?
Thanks for this important question. Let me start with some background material. The goal of asking the humanizing question is two-fold. First, it helps ensure that you won’t jump to a harsh conclusion, kick-start your emotions, debilitate your cognitive-processing ability, and act in harsh (and often stupid) ways. You only gain control of your emotions (and with them your ability to think and act rationally) by assuming that you’re not currently under attack.
When you wonder why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would do what the other person just did, you also invite an element of safety into the conversation. You say to yourself, “I don’t know what caused that behavior, but I don’t think it’s due to stupidity or malice.”
So, first, we ask the humanizing question not merely to humanize the other person, but to remain human ourselves.
Second, by failing to rush to judgment and controlling our emotions, we also make it safe for the other person to talk openly and honestly.
Now it’s important to realize that we don’t give others the benefit of the doubt because they are always innocent. As you pointed out, others aren’t always selfless and noble. They have purposefully avoided an assignment or acted in ways that are harmful or selfish. Now what?
It’s now time to take part in a crucial confrontation. Fortunately, since you haven’t assumed the worst and your emotions are under control, you now discuss the violated expectation in a professional manner. That is, you start by describing the problem: “You agreed that you’d do X, but you did Y. Why is that?”
Many people go astray at this point because they describe the wrong problem. A person fails to live up to a promise, does so purposefully, and then speaks about it in a disrespectful way. There are several problems wrapped up in this single instance—but the person addressing the deviations selects only one—and often the lesser problem. Perhaps it’s the disrespect that has the person concerned, but he or she chooses to deal with the missed deadline and nothing more. So, choose the problem carefully. Pick the one that has you most concerned, not the easy or obvious one. Then describe it calmly and in detail.
From there you diagnose. Was the deviation due to motivation, ability, or both? To motivate you explain the natural consequences associated with the action until the other person agrees to comply in the future. To enable, you jointly brainstorm solutions to the ability barrier.
Of course, each of these steps requires thought and practice. Nevertheless, getting started on the right foot goes a long way toward keeping the conversation professional and in control—and asking the humanizing question goes a long way toward getting started on the right foot no matter who you are dealing with.