Crucial Conversations QA

Regaining Work/Life Balance


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,

Work at the office has been piling up! Like a lot of companies in this economy, we have had to lay people off and as a result, my coworkers and I have been asekd to take on more responsibility. I am now working more than 60 hours a week, and I don’t have time for my family. How can I approach management with my concerns without risking my own job? I fear I will be perceived as “not a team player” or a “weak performer.”

Silently Suffering

A Dear Suffering,

I often ask groups “What are some significant issues that you are dealing with poorly or avoiding altogether?” The number one response to this question is a resounding “I have too much on my plate, and I don’t know how to bring it up without sounding like I am whining or I’m not a team player.”

You described your problem in two parts: 1) too much work; and 2) no way to surface the issue. I’m most concerned about your second problem, the inability to speak up with management. Years of experience have taught me that if you don’t talk it out, you act it out. As time wears on, your stress levels rise along with your blood pressure, you develop a bad view of those around you (including the so-called villains at the top), your sense of corporate loyalty decreases, you lose focus at home on personal matters, you have less time for exercise and personal development, and you become increasingly reliant on comfort foods, complaining, and other stress-relieving activities to make sense of your life.

To avoid this downward spiral, you need to identify and overcome the clever stories that you may be using to justify your own silence or violence. This can be accomplished by asking the following questions:

“Am I pretending not to notice my role in this situation?” The role that most people don’t admit to is being passive or silent. Not speaking up is part of the problem. It is a huge problem. So whatever stories you’re telling yourself about why you can’t speak up need to be examined closely.

“Why would reasonable, rational, decent human beings do this?” Clever, pervasive stories about management not listening or only being concerned with finances may have some truth as applied to some individuals. However, these stories are almost never accurate when applied to management in general. In fact, most managers want to hear what will help the organization in terms of quality, cost, customer satisfaction, and employee satisfaction. They are not as villainous as you may think they are.

“What should I do right now to move toward what I really want?” What you want is a good thing—work/life balance. You care a lot about productivity, quality, being a team player, and so on. In addition, you care about your personal well-being as well as your family. First get a firm understanding of what it is that you really want and then prepare to speak up in favor of this goal.

Finally, prepare what you’ll do and say to Make It Safe. Get an appointment with your manager in a setting that is private. Create and practice a permission statement with contrasting, such as “I’d like to talk about an issue that deals with productivity and satisfaction. What I don’t want is this conversation to be seen only as my issue. I’d like to talk about ways that we can discuss resources, job stress, and work/life balance, by looking at it from a company perspective and the employee perspective. Would that be okay?”

Create and practice STATE-ing your path. Lead with the facts—with observations. “During the last three months, I’ve worked 60 hours a week, and as a result my work/life balance has suffered. I also feel like it’s hard to talk about the stress I feel without seeming like I’m not a team player. I’m wondering how you see this issue.”

Find a friend or colleague and really practice. After you’ve prepared, find a friend and practice. He or she can make suggestions for improvements to your script and approach. He or she can react in various ways and you can practice your responses. With a little practice, you’ll be more able and confident to step up to this crucial conversation.

And remember, when you do step up, if it gets too tense or emotional, keep the conditions safe by saying something such as “I didn’t want this to get emotional. I took a risk to bring up a tough topic. I was trying to find ways to deal with a problem that is bigger than me and it’s not going well. I’d like to stop here and think some more about it. Would that be okay?” You can always repeat your purpose and ask for a delay. “Delaying” isn’t “avoiding” if you think about the conversation, prepare some more, and make another attempt. Avoiding and withdrawing occur when you give up and let silence win.

Best wishes in this important conversation.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Eye of the Beholder

Kerry Patterson

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


Kerrying On

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The first time I ever drove a car (my parents’ 1939 Ford sedan) was on a rather dreary morning in the spring of 1952. It was raining, our old green Ford was back-firing every half minute, and I was six years old. Dad had been driving “Old Betsy” (that was the name we had given her) down the rutted dirt road that ran in front of our house when my eleven-year-old brother Bill had talked him into letting him take command of the vehicle. Wanting to do everything my older brother was permitted to do, I started begging for the chance to drive the car with all of the blood-curdling whining a six-year-old can muster. Eventually Dad broke down and yanked me onto his lap for a chance at steering Old Betsy.

Prior to this rite-of-passage event, I had watched my dad drive hundreds of times and had always noticed that the steering wheel jerked left and right quite a bit—even when Dad was trying to steer a straight path. This, of course, was due to the never-ending trail of potholes that threw the wheels left or right—requiring Dad to steer back toward the center.

As a young observer, I had misinterpreted the constant movement of the steering wheel. It had appeared to me that driving consisted of purposefully jerking the wheel from left to right and then back again until you eventually came to a stop. It was if the car’s power came from yanking the wheel back and forth. Consequently, that spring day over a half century ago when I was given my first shot at steering a car, I immediately started whipping the steering wheel left and right like a mad man. This unexpected driving technique caught Dad completely by surprise, and before he could wrestle the steering wheel away from me I had driven poor Old Betsy, along with the three Patterson boys, into the deep ditch that ran alongside 25th Street.

Dad never knew that I had jerked the steering wheel because I thought that was the correct way to drive. Instead, he told everyone that we had hit a pothole and that I had “overcorrected”—a logical, but wrong, conclusion. It was the first time I’d heard the word overcorrect. It seemed like a good story, and I stuck to it, but was intrigued by the idea that someone could correct a situation too much.

The idea really hit home when I had children of my own and began the delicate task of directing my offspring’s behavior. I soon learned that when it came to disciplining children, one method didn’t suit all of them equally well. With one child, a stern scolding seemed to do the trick. With another, a mere raised eyebrow set the child back on course. While I firmly believe that the punishment should fit the offense, it didn’t take long for me to learn as a young parent that discipline (to paraphrase Margaret Wolfe Hungerford), is in the eye of the beholder.

I realized that it was possible not only to overcorrect, but by an extension of the same logic, undercorrect. Not by putting too much or too little heft into your steering, but by putting the same heft into very different vehicles—some returning to course quite readily, some remaining off course, and some jumping at the mere touch to the wheel and then veering off in the opposite direction and causing a whole new set of problems.

Later in life, as I began my consulting career (where the topic of discipline was never far from any leader’s lips), I learned that when it comes to meting out discipline or offering up criticism, we tend to take a fairly egalitarian approach. This is particularly true with formal discipline where we’re required by both policy and law to hand out the same discipline for the same offense. After all, when examining the steps you have taken, HR and legal authorities take a close look at the actual punishment and as they look at the punishment, equity rules. You can’t be seen as playing favorites.

The irony, as I have been suggesting, is that the true punishment never resides in the punitive action itself, but only in the reaction of the person being punished. This being the case, formal punishment—even when handed out evenly—can be far from equitable. Some laugh in the face of being given a formal written reprimand, while others feel crushed and start circulating their resumes after receiving nothing more than a word of strong advice from a respected authority.

I recently became aware of this problem with varying degrees of sensitivity to criticism when chatting with a neighbor who is clearly his company’s top performer. He’s a high-output, brilliant, one-of-a-kind contributor. A couple of days ago his boss mentioned to him that although the ideas he presented in a meeting were dead on, he had been a bit forceful and caused others to become resistant. My friend, his boss told him, needed to find a way to be more tentative in his approach.

Knowing my friend, his boss was probably right. But, the well-intended words had been taken as harsh criticism. My friend was now fretting over what he had been told and was actually thinking about finding a job elsewhere. I’m sure his boss would be mortified at the prospect. I’m sure his boss would also argue that he had only casually mentioned the problem and that my neighbor was “oversensitive.”

But there’s gold to be mined here. As I look back over my own consulting career, it’s now clear to me that many of the top performers I worked with didn’t require much criticism or direction. They were hard working, committed, and talented performers—and when they did get moderately rebuked, it tended to be too much. Their steering mechanisms were highly sensitive. Bringing up a challenge in a casual, friendly way was likely to lead to an immediate effort to course-correct. Working this same criticism into a formal performance review discussion could easily have been overkill.

Consequently, you need to take care when coaching others. This doesn’t mean that you don’t hold them accountable, but that you make an effort not to over- or under-steer them. How do you know when you’re steering too much or too little? Start by testing the steering mechanism. Begin with low-key, subtle advice. Observe how others react to your simple suggestions. If they look alarmed at the mere mention of a problem and then do far too much to put the problem to rest, you know you don’t have to provide much formal coaching in the future. Informal suggestions and friendly reminders will work just fine.

In contrast, if others smile at a gentle rebuke and tease you in return, you know you can speak more directly without causing offense. In some cases, individuals will appear almost impervious to your criticisms. With these folks you may have to provide more direct feedback and coaching than you yourself would ever want or demand.

So, when you’re about to try to steer another person in a new direction, test the wheel before you give it a big yank. Otherwise, count on a few interpersonal wrecks.

Crucial Conversations QA

Requesting Performance Feedback

Dear Crucial Skills,

Recently, my teenage daughter got her first “real” job as a dog washer at a pet store. She has been deliriously happy with the job and has worked very conscientiously at it (as far as I can tell). However, last weekend, she was reprimanded by her manager. A customer complained about two dogs she had washed saying they had never looked so terrible. The manager told her she needed to do better and take her job more seriously.

My daughter was very upset. She says she has no idea how she could improve because nobody looks over the dogs after she finishes washing them to give her feedback.

After giving her a hug and telling her that first jobs are about learning, I suggested she find a way to talk to the manager and ask for help in doing the job better. Of course, at 17, this sounds just IMPOSSIBLE. All she wants to do now is avoid the manager. However, I’d like to help her figure out a way to address this and learn—not just for this job, but for her life in general. Any advice?


Dear Mom,

Let’s begin with the principle of stewardship. It is the duty of anyone who is responsible for another person’s performance to give frequent and specific feedback. And likewise, every person who reports to a manager has the right to receive regular and frequent feedback regarding their performance.

This is a good starting point for your daughter. She should understand that requesting feedback from her boss is neither unusual nor out-of-bounds. In fact, making the request for feedback is being both reasonable and responsible. She has no reason to be embarrassed or apologetic—even if she is a teenager making this request from an adult.

So, how should she begin? Though not always necessary, asking for permission to discuss her request will demonstrate respect for her boss. For example: “Excuse me, Mrs. Taylor, could I talk to you about my job? Is now a good time?” If it’s not a good time, ask the manager when a good time would be and set an appointment. If this is a good time, suggest a place to talk where you won’t have an audience and then continue.

Share your good intentions. Your daughter should begin by disclosing her motive and aspiration or, in other words, by sharing her good intentions. This simple skill not only sets the agenda for the crucial conversation, it also creates mutual purpose and helps make it safe for both parties. She should simply share what she really wants regarding her work. Have her try something like: “Mrs. Taylor, I love working here at Pet Groomers and I want to do the best job I can possibly do. I want you to be pleased with my work and I want our customers to be happy with how I serve them.” This statement certainly identifies a purpose the boss cares about—quality customer service.

Ask for specific feedback. Next, your daughter should ask for what she wants, which is feedback from her boss. Now, remember her boss gave her feedback earlier about “taking her job more seriously.” The problem with that feedback is that it is not only useless, it is also punitive. What is she supposed to do, starting tomorrow morning, to “take her job more seriously”? How will that solve the customer’s complaint? When your daughter makes her request, she should specify what would help her most. “Would you share with me specifically what you see me as doing well, and what things I should work on improving?”

Listen. Next, she should listen well to understand what she should change or modify. If any of the boss’s comments are vague or fall into the category of conclusions or accusations, your daughter should ask for clarification and examples. “When you say I should be more serious about my job, what would you want me to do differently? What should I stop doing? What should I start doing?”

Follow up. Often, a boss will give generalized feedback because he or she has no direct experience with the employee’s work. Your daughter might ask: “Would you be willing to watch me wash the next three dogs or come look them over when I’m done so I know exactly what I can improve?”

As she works to incorporate helpful feedback, she should invite the boss to evaluate her washing job for the next several days—allowing her to easily analyze and adjust. This helps assure that her efforts to improve are paying off and that the boss will see improvement.

To build your daughter’s ability to do well and boost her confidence, I would recommend role playing. Play with the script. Find the words that are comfortable and natural. Practice responding to the different directions the conversation might realistically take.

Utilizing these skills and approach will help your daughter be more successful in her first job. However, when polished, these skills will also become lifelong skills that will help her in her future career and relationships.

All the best,