Crucial Conversations QA

Challenging Your Stories

Dear Crucial Skills,

I often run into a brick wall when trying to have a crucial conversation with workaholics. It seems as if they will work with you only if it increases their power or they can exercise control over you. What can I do to get some cooperation?

Frustrated coworker

Dear Frustrated,

Thank you for your question. It is one that is almost universal, although not perhaps in the way you may think. While many people may work with “workaholics,” the ubiquity of your question is in fact that we all carry around negative stories in our head about people we interact with. In my opinion, the universal problem you are facing is not centered on the person you work with but rather the stories you have told yourself about this person.

Allow me to explain. Your workaholic is trying to “increase power” and “exercise control.” These behaviors aren’t actually behaviors. That’s right; these are in fact stories.

When you encounter problems with a person, you must first step back and separate the facts from the stories. I suggest asking three questions to help you challenge the stories you are telling yourself:

1. What are the specific behaviors that this person is in engaged in that are causing problems? Sometimes it can be difficult to be specific enough, especially when we are holding on to our story tightly. You can use a litmus test of sorts by asking yourself, “If someone gave me that feedback, would I know exactly what to do differently?” If the answer to the question is “no” then you are still operating at the level of stories and need to dig deeper to the specific behaviors.

2. Has your story distorted the way you view that person’s actions? One of the insidious things about stories is that they begin to act as filters. For example, if I believe someone is incompetent, I will naturally start to watch for that person to make a mistake. And when he does, I seize on it, file it away, and use it as evidence that my story was correct. What I don’t do is open myself to the possibility that we all make mistakes and perhaps this person is a competent person who occasionally makes a mistake.

3. How has your story influenced your actions toward that person? It is important to recognize that when we have a story about someone, regardless of whether the story is accurate, that story will always shape the way we feel about the person and our feelings will always direct our actions toward that person. Notice that the question is not “Does my story influence my actions?” but rather “How has my story influenced my actions?” It may be that, through your actions, you are provoking or intensifying the very behavior you find distasteful.

Finally, let me assure you that there are people who are compulsive about work. There are people who constantly seek to exercise control or increase their own power. These people are difficult to work with. But, before you can address the problem, you need to know exactly what the problem is. Charles Kettering said, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” So, I invite you to think about the specific behaviors you want to address before attempting to solve the problem.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

How We Evaluate Training

Kerry Patterson

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

After initiating a crucial conversation effort, how do you evaluate outcome of the effort? What objective outcome assessment do you utilize?


A Dear Curious,

Over the years, we’ve used a variety of methods to assess the effectiveness of Crucial Conversations Training. Our most rigorous methods involve most of the research and statistical tools science can provide. Prior to the training course, we measure trainees’ knowledge with a paper-and-pencil test. With five possible responses, each answer averages 20 percent, or what you’d expect from chance. After the training however, almost everyone gets a perfect score. The thesis here is simple: if trainees don’t understand the concepts, they won’t be able to put them into practice.

Next, we measure people in action. We give trainees a problem situation and ask them to resolve the issue in a role play. We tape the interaction and then have experts code the presence or absence of ten different skills. Before the training, subjects typically earn a couple of points, after the training they average around 9.5. Now we’ve seen that they can actually do what they’ve studied.

But we’re still not through. Just because people understand the new skills and can demonstrate them on demand, do they actually want to do what they’ve been taught? After all, you just might teach something people find hokey or even risky to put into action. So, we ask people if and where they’ll use the skills at home and at work. The vast majority report that they want to put the skills into action. They see how the skills will help them solve problems and achieve key personal, family, and business objectives.

Finally, we see if participants actually practice the skills at work. Peers evaluate one another before and after the training. Now we’re no longer relying on self-report data, nor are we judging people under test conditions. We’re measuring people on the job, and we’re gathering the data from their coworkers. When the training is implemented well, participants show remarkable improvements in their crucial conversations skills at work.

And there’s still more to measure. In three different studies we’ve asked university researchers to explore the relationship between improvements in crucial skills and key corporate measures such as costs, productivity, and profitability. After all, companies implement Crucial Conversations Training as a means to solve corporate problems and increase overall corporate health, not simply as a means to enhance communication skills. In one study, we found that an increase in candid, honest, and crucial communication yielded and increase in productivity of 93 percent and also reduced customer-care expenses by $20 million, among other bottom-line results.

Now, at the less formal level, we’ve received hundreds of letters and e-mails reporting the immediate and beneficial effects of using crucial conversations skills at home and at work. For instance, one woman held a conversation with her mother that helped heal years of separation and recrimination. Another student talked with a boss about a leadership tactic that was driving him nuts—it ended up solving the problem and strengthening their relationship. The list of success stories is long and varied.

I suppose I enjoy the anecdotal evidence as much as the scientific body of knowledge we’ve built. These one-of-a-kind incidents shore up our numbers with poignant and memorable stories that often pull at our heart strings. Of course, when your goal is to convince a skeptical audience that learning crucial conversations skills can lead to changes in behavior that in turn lead to changes in key corporate indicators, we fall back on two decades of research that demonstrate that the training works.

Best Wishes,

Editor’s note: The measurement tools mentioned above are used during custom client interventions. The resources are not made available to the public.