Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have a very direct and, you could say, brash way of talking. I have been told I talk like a New Yorker but I work in Salt Lake City where the atmosphere is very different. What I don’t understand is that we have a lot of New York transplants in my office that talk just like I do and don’t get in trouble for it. Why do I get in trouble for it and they don’t? I am to the point I don’t dare say anything for the fear I will offend somebody.
What can I do to resolve this issue?
Sassy in Salt Lake
Thanks for your intriguing question. Your willingness to admit to your own “brash way of talking” along with your desire to find out why you differ from your colleagues is refreshing. Most people would chalk up the difference in how you are treated to company politics or worse. Your willingness to probe your own style is the first step to improvement.
I can’t give you specific feedback as to why you get into trouble because I haven’t seen you in action, but if you’ll allow me to make a few guesses about what’s going on, I can offer suggestions.
First, you are very unlikely to be speaking with the exact same tone, words, and delivery as the New York transplants who don’t get in trouble. Of course, small changes in delivery can make huge differences in the overall impact. Either that, or your colleagues get in trouble behind closed doors. I’d bet it’s probably a little of both.
The more important thing to consider is exactly what you are saying and how you are saying it. Until you identify and alter your style, you’ll offend others and toggle between violence and silence. You speak brashly, others become offended, you get in trouble, you clam up until you can’t stand it any longer, and then you lash out again.
Now, let’s look at how to break the cycle.
When you suggest that you’re “direct” and “brash,” I’m guessing you tend to share straight feedback with others—negative feedback many would not be willing to share. You believe this makes you more honest, and thus, in some ways, a better person. After all, you’re speaking your mind directly to the person while others don’t have the integrity to say what they’re thinking and instead may speak ill of their coworkers behind their backs.
I don’t know if this is the story you’re telling yourself, but this is how many people justify their “brashness.” It’s also a story that is fed by two inaccurate assumptions. One, that you have to share harsh feedback in order to be honest; and two, your conclusions are feedback the other person needs to hear.
For instance, someone fails to deliver on a promise, you conclude she is unreliable, and you let her know rather abruptly that she is unreliable. After all, she has caused you grief. However, since you’ve attacked her character in an insulting tone, she becomes upset and stomps off to HR or the boss or both. But, hey, at least you were honest.
To break this unhealthy cycle, don’t make such harsh conclusions in the first place. Others disappoint you, but who knows why? Perhaps they had a different priority? Maybe they simply forgot? Maybe they actually didn’t care about causing you grief, but you don’t know which scenario you face. Why prepare yourself for the worst scenario? When you draw the worst possible conclusion, you become angry which leads to blunt words delivered with an undertone of disgust. Instead, assume the best. It’s your job to find out what actually happened, not to share your worst conclusion.
Next, as you talk to others, start with the facts. Share the details—not the conclusion. “You said you’d pick me up at noon, noon came and went and you never came. I was wondering what happened.” These are the facts—the behaviors you observed. This simple statement followed by a diagnostic question starts you out on the right foot.
In summary, stick to your value of honestly sharing feedback. That’s the good part of what you’re doing. However, alter your harsh conclusions (assume the best of others) and then share the facts. End with a genuine question of inquiry. From here you will get to the root of the problem and firmly and fairly hold others accountable. However, if you allow yourself to draw conclusions, become angry, and then lead with an attack—the spotlight will turn on you. The other person’s actions will be soon forgotten as the world turns to watch the angry person who routinely speaks brashly and out of control. You don’t want to be that person.
The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations