Crucial Accountability QA

Financial Family Feuds


Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I come from a close family. We’ve all had decent jobs and live comfortable lifestyles. However, since my brother lost his job a few years ago, he and his wife chose to sell their home and keep their toys (expensive vehicles, camper, etc). They now live in my mom’s rental and his new job does not provide a steady income.

Over the years we have given them plenty of financial advice; however, they’ve ignored most of it. They have used up their entire nest egg, live on credit cards, and are now sitting in huge debt. To help, my parents hand them cash or let them slide on rent.

The hardest part is they continue to attend every family event no matter the cost. As a family, we feel trapped—we wonder if we should stop doing nice activities so they won’t spend money they don’t have. But then we feel resentful because we wonder why we should go without when we’ve saved and worked hard.

Do we continue to let them tag along? Or, are we just enabling their behavior? Or, is this even any of our business? Do we downsize our activities to accommodate their bad financial management?

Sometimes the crucial part is knowing IF you should have the conversation! And if we should talk to them, what should we talk about?

Family Feud

A Dear Family Feud,

Let me first share a crucial principle to follow when trying to positively influence family members.

When you have a sibling caught in self-destructive behavior, the biggest danger you face is slipping from conversing to controlling. Before you do anything, you must Start with Heart. Strip yourself of any motive to “fix” your brother—or even your parents. When you can clearly see how people are either messing up their lives or enabling others to do the same, it’s easy to confidently believe you know what needs to be done and that by talking about it you’ll influence change. Talking isn’t the same as influence.

The one source of influence that will provoke others to change is personal motivation—an individual’s innate, intrinsic reason for doing things. One of the deepest personal motives we all possess is the motivation to control our own lives. We respond immediately and viscerally to any attempt by others to take control away from us. In many ways, we are control freaks.

So, to positively influence your brother, never cross the line from conversing to controlling. You can tell you’re crossing that line when you feel frustrated, when you lose your temper, when you nag, or when you manipulate. These actions will only provoke your brother’s need for control in a way that makes it less likely he’ll change. Oddly enough, when people have to choose between stopping a bad behavior that is ruining their life and demonstrating to manipulative friends that they are in control of their life—they often choose the latter.

Now for a word of comfort. The world is perfectly designed to help people become personally motivated to stop self-destructive behaviors. It does this by punishing them. You take drugs—you’ll eventually end up in a gutter. You spend foolishly—you’ll end up hungry. One of the primary reasons people continue self-destructive habits is because well-intended friends interrupt their learning by removing negative consequences. These friends don’t realize the tremendous damage they do by standing between people and the world’s powerful educational consequences.

So, one of the best ways to positively influence your brother is to not stand in the way of his learning. Don’t worry about speeding up change; just remove things that slow it down. Like your parents.

Now, everything above also applies to your attempts to influence your parents. Be sure you don’t move from conversing to controlling their actions to help your brother. You can’t change your parents. But you can get out of the way of the negative consequences they will naturally experience over time for their poor judgment with your brother.

So, here’s the tactical advice. You need to do three things. Two of them are conversations and one of them is a decision.

1. Have a crucial conversation with your parents. Express support of their ultimate judgment about what they should do as parents, but likewise, express your concern that the unintended consequences are far worse than the short-term pain they are relieving. Do not become self-righteous or panic if they don’t agree with you. Simply share your perspective, then promise to stay out of their business. However, offer your assistance should they want to talk about a different approach someday. You can be both honest and respectful of their agency.

2. Have a pattern conversation with your brother. You’ve already had the “content” conversation (financial management advice). Now it’s time to have a conversation about the pattern of dependency on your parents and others. Assure him that you see him as an adult and have no desire to meddle in his affairs. Your goal in the conversation is to point out a pattern he may not have noticed. You may offer to change the cost of family activities if that would help him—but only do so with his consent or you’ll have crossed the line to controlling. End this conversation with an invitation to offer counsel and coaching if he ever wants it. Then promise to stay out of his business so long as he doesn’t invite you in. Your new obligation is to let life do the teaching until he’s ready for your support.

3. Decide how to organize your life so you can be happy. Now that you’ve discharged your ethical responsibility to your loved ones, set up boundaries so you can live a pleasant life. That may mean doing activities without your extended family so you won’t feel resentful or tempted to limit your brother’s spending by manipulating the agenda. Excuse yourself from conversations where you’ll be tempted to intervene or offer judgments. Be sure you aren’t using these boundaries as a way to punish him—withholding friendship until he “changes.” That, once again, would be a control tactic. Express your love, but do so from a distance that keeps you happy and not feeling emotionally entangled.

I know from personal experience that the greatest test of our emotional maturity is in our efforts to be a positive influence on errant family members. And yet, I also know that, done right, these sacred relationships give us the most ennobling opportunity to change the world for the better.

I wish you all the best as you influence your family for good.


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.