Crucial Accountability QA

How to Stop the Gossip Chain

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,

A colleague recently informed me that a relatively new member of our team has made disparaging comments to her about my job skills and work style.

My colleague was torn about letting me know because, even though she felt I should be aware of what is being said about me in my absence, she knew I would want to have a crucial conversation with our new team member. She also knew this would likely mean that the team member would realize the source of my information even if I did not divulge it. My colleague doesn’t want to experience backlash from informing me, but realizes this may be inevitable.

I’ve not yet decided whether to have this conversation with the new team member, but I notice myself withdrawing in my interactions with him—and I know he’s noticed my changed demeanor toward him.

What is the best way to present indirect or hearsay facts in a crucial conversation?

Second Hand News

A Dear Second Hand News,
Yes, you’re in a quandary. When people give you information that changes how you see others, but swear you to secrecy, they’re essentially saying, “I’m about to tell you something that will make you feel bad but I want you to promise me you won’t do anything healthy about it. Okay?”

I’ve been in this predicament, too. As a result, I’ve developed a few personal codes I try to abide by.

Don’t listen if you can’t act. I adopted an ethic years ago that I always use to warn people away who want to pass along information about another person. When I can see the conversation is headed in a gossip direction, I politely stop them and say: “Please do not put anything in my head that you expect me to not act on. I will not carry around a conclusion about another person without sharing it with them.” This helps people understand that speaking implies taking responsibility.

Separate the problems and address both. You’re right to worry that the team member will demand to know who shared this information with you. Even if you didn’t make this agreement with your colleague in advance, it sounds like you still put her on notice that you are likely to approach your teammate. So you are within your rights to hold the crucial conversation. I suggest you hold a crucial conversation first with the woman who passed along the criticism, and second with your team member. Here’s how I suggest you proceed:

  • Give advance warning and a chance to take responsibility. Let your colleague know that you will be having a conversation with your team member. Suggest to her that she preempt your “surprise” by letting him know in advance that she gave you a heads up about his concerns. For example, she could say to him, “I told her you had some concerns about her competence and approach—I knew she’d want to know this. I think she’d like to talk to you to understand your concerns.” This won’t be easy for your colleague, but she may find it preferable to the tension that will result if you blow her cover for her.
  • Approach him and acknowledge HIS right to feel insulted. When you approach your team member, begin by acknowledging any complaint he has about people talking behind his back. Rather than wait for him to ask, “Who said that?” let him know that this is not the way you wanted to receive feedback either, and that you can understand if he wants to know who said this. If, however, you don’t have permission to disclose the names, simply encourage him to make his best guess and approach them directly as well—then shift the conversation to his concerns.
  • Discuss his issue first. Next, focus on the content issue—the fact that you have heard he has concerns with your competence or approach. DO NOT address the “talking behind my back” issue first. Be humble. Don’t frame the conversation—even implicitly—as “Shame on you for talking behind my back” but rather as “If I have failed you in some way, I really want to understand it. Or if my skills are coming up short—I am desperate for that feedback. Nothing makes me more worried than believing that I might have an inaccurate view of myself and that I am failing to address weaknesses.” This disarming approach makes it harder for him to tell a villain story about you (although not impossible) and will make it harder for him to justify badmouthing you in the future.
  • Discuss the process second. Only after you’ve explored any concerns he has with you can you productively hold him accountable for the indirect way this feedback came to you. Ask for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do. Promise him the same yourself. If you’ve humbly solicited feedback in the previous step, you’ll have the moral authority and safety needed to hold him accountable for his bad behavior.

You’ve got 80,000 friends reading this newsletter who all wish you the best as you approach this issue. But more importantly, these tips will hopefully help you and others better manage this kind of situation in the future.

Best wishes,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Sky's the Limit

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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Today’s story starts with my eighth-grade report card. It contained five C’s and one B. Mom took one look at my grades and gave me one of her famous “You’re-grounded-for-a-week!” looks. Now don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t upset with the C’s. I was typically a C student. It was the B in math that got her goat. I had always earned an A in math. My math scores were her only hope for bragging rights and she wasn’t about to let them drop without a fight.

“How do you explain this B?” Mom asked in an accusatory tone.

Not knowing what to say, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. “Miss Needlebom, my math teacher, is mean. When I don’t understand something I’m afraid to ask her for help because if you raise your hand she bites your head off.”

Anxious to right the wrong, Mom set an appointment to meet the very next day with the principal, Mr. Howard. I shuddered at the thought of my mother talking with the one man who was privy to my every action at school. Nothing good could come from such an encounter.

Mom returned from the appointment with an odd looking smile on her face. Perhaps the conference hadn’t gone so poorly after all. Maybe Mr. Howard admitted to the fact that Miss Needlebom was an inept and cruel teacher and I was now off the hook. I could only hope.

Mom was the first to speak. “It turns out Miss Needlebom suffers from the effects of polio. She’s always in pain. That’s why she’s often grumpy.”

Just my luck, I finally get the goods on one of Fairhaven Junior High School’s finest purveyors of emotional abuse and she has a story that trumps my complaint.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Mom continued. “Mr. Howard said he’d speak to Miss Needlebom about being more responsive to your questions and I’m sure that’ll help. But there’s more,” Mom continued. “As I was leaving Mr. Howard’s office he made a comment that caught me by surprise.”

What could he have said? Was it the fact that Jim Zuanich and I had broken into the gym during lunch and used the ropes as Tarzan swings? Was it that I had taken Bobby Kaiser’s metal-shop project and thrown it into the forge and then feverishly cranked the billows until Bobby’s hand-made tin cup melted into a lump of misshapen metal? Was it that . . .

“Mr. Howard said that you should be getting straight A’s,” Mom explained. “He checked into the achievement tests you’ve taken over the years and he thinks you’re potentially one of the best students in the school.”

“You’re kidding,” I said in honest disbelief.

“No, those were his exact words. ‘He should be getting straight A’s.'”

And with those six words my life changed forever. According to an official educator who had looked into my “test scores” (whatever that meant) I was able to earn good grades. More than that, I was expected to do so. Note, Mr. Howard not only talked of my potential, but he also proffered up advice. He suggested to my mom that I wouldn’t earn those A’s if I continued to leave my books in my locker. In fact, he recommended that I sit down at home for two hours every evening and study. As you might imagine, going from doing not a lick of homework to completing two full hours a night dramatically changed my grades, my self-image, and eventually my life.

I’m not the only one who has suffered from the effects of anemic expectations. Just yesterday I overheard a young neighbor boy announce to his friends that he “didn’t do math.” He made this sad pronouncement as if he had something to brag about. The night before, at a family gathering, an in-law told me that he was born with a bad temper and there was nothing he could do about it. It was in his genes. He also bragged to me that he had told an employee at work that she “wasn’t paid to think.” He thought it was funny. I saw it differently. With each of these crippling pronouncements, I heard a thousand doors slam shut.

I point out the power of expectations (to both inspire and repress) at a time in history when I’m not sure we could expect less from our students—and in many cases, from our employees. Granted, you can always find overworked employees and overscheduled students, but by and large, we expect precious little of both. In a nationwide employee survey, more than three-fourths of those polled suggested that they did not do one ounce of work more than what was required to keep them from getting fired. To suggest that they’re underachieving is a gross understatement.

At school it’s often no better. Every year I teach second-year graduate students a course that requires them to write papers that include both creative writing and critical thought. Many complain that it’s the first paper of that nature they’ve been required to write in their entire college experience. Until that point many of them have attended classes, memorized material, and taken tests where they mostly filled in bubble-boxes. In addition, many attended large classes where they hid quietly among the crowd and said very little. As a result, during years of an expensive college education, a growing number of students get away with making neither verbal nor written arguments—all because we expect so little of them.

Low expectations take their toll in every aspect of our lives. Consider the fact that for decades girls scored lower than boys in math. For years we knew that these differences stemmed from the fact that teachers expected boys to do well whereas they often tolerated girl’s poor performance. In one study even female teachers who swore that they expected the same of both genders were captured on film consoling girls with low scores, (“That’s okay. Don’t worry.”) whereas they chastised or encouraged boys who scored as poorly (“Come on, you can do better.”) Thousands of girls suffered with lower math scores because, on average, educators expected less of them.

Consider the impact expectations have on mastering a musical instrument. Last month I attended two very different recitals. One was of a granddaughter who played the violin. Her recital was made up of twenty students who cutely hacked away, goofed up, and then tried again. It was charming. You could tell that the teacher’s emphasis was on making the students feel good about themselves. I found this strange in light of the fact that they made so many errors. Three days later I attended a piano recital given by children of the same age. However, in this case each child was required to perform the piece perfectly for three lessons in a row. Next, each had to give ten performances in front of family members or small groups. Only then could they take part in the recital.

After this kind of careful preparation, each piano performance had been a bit of a wonder. The children not only hit the notes, but added a level of creative expression that I never expected. The recital wasn’t merely charming, it was amazing. In the end these kids felt good about themselves—and for the right reason. Their teacher expected excellence, coached excellence, and each performed excellently. All of this, of course, was based on the expectation that the kids, if trained correctly, could perform to a high standard.

I mentioned the importance of setting high expectations to a colleague of mine last week and he quickly jumped in with the notion that children need to be affirmed at school and at home. He then went into a long description of why telling kids that they’re terrific is important to their psychic development. When I asked him for details, he insisted that the affirmation needed to be about each child’s general worth as a human being—sort of in a Mr. Rogers way. “And then when the child does something wrong,” he explained, “you tell them ‘it’s not like them’ to do that.”

Here’s where it can get tricky. It turns out that if you tell kids that they’re good—in a general sense—they routinely discount your feedback. They know that they just had a bad thought or just did a bad thing and don’t buy into your wide-sweeping praise. The same can be true for telling them that bad behavior is not like them. They may have plenty of evidence that the behavior is indeed quite like them. In either case, when you give non-specific praise you’re unlikely to increase young people’s self-esteem and may be doing damage to your own credibility. At least, that’s the risk you take.

The point here is that when setting high expectations, focus on specific behaviors or skills rather than offering generic affirmation or setting nonspecific expectations. Then, of course, build in the elements of deliberate practice and helpful coaching and the expectations soon become reality.

Of one thing I am certain. I wouldn’t have become a better student if my mother hadn’t talked to Mr. Howard. He helped me change my expectations with six simple words—”You should be getting straight A’s.” So, as the new year begins, give yourself and others the perfect gift. Help people raise their expectations. Maybe six simple words won’t turn your life around, but I do expect that if you make it a practice to set higher standards, and then help people achieve them, well, the sky’s the limit. Or maybe it isn’t.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Mend Relationships after Years of Silence

Dear Crucial Skills,

After ten years of not speaking, I made the crucial call to my sister-in-law.

Even though I wrote down what I wanted to say, my voice still cracked when I said, “I need to level with you about something and I feel bad about doing it so late. I had concerns and never expressed them. I should have been candid with you, but I wasn’t.”

She said, “You know, it has been ten years. Why did you stop talking to me?” She went on to say that I had driven the family apart.

I gave her the reason behind my actions and said, “What can I do now to get what I really want for our families and for us? I am not here to win. My goal is to get a long-term, healthy family relationship.”

We both agree this won’t be easy. I feel good that this initial conversation is over but what are my next steps?

Happy 10th Anniversary

Dear 10th Anniversary,

What a marvelous accomplishment! To overcome the inertia of ten years of silence, and to risk rejection and judgment in order to heal and repair relationships is heroic. I love your courageous and thoughtful approach. You used all of the principles, skills, and critical questions we advocate in Crucial Conversations to break through the barrier of silence between you and your sister-in-law. Now, after having taken this wonderful first step, you ask, “What is my next step?”

When we see the need for a crucial conversation we stop, think through the situation, and identify the principles and skills that will guide us successfully through the interaction. Then we gratefully put the skills back in our toolbox and return to our hectic routine with our “business-as-usual” approach. Many don’t realize that every principle and skill can not only be used to help you through a crucial conversation, but these powerful tools can also be used to heal or salvage a crucial relationship. So the answer to your question is that after having your initial crucial conversation, the best way to repair your relationship with your sister-in-law is to have more crucial conversations.

Having gotten off to such a great beginning, continue using your skills and principles. In the initial conversation you established a mutual purpose of achieving “a long-term, healthy family relationship.” Build on that. Appeal to that mutual purpose when you take initiative and suggest activities that will accomplish that goal. For example, you might say, “To help build a long-term, healthy relationship between our families I’d like to suggest we get our spouses and children and have a picnic together some Saturday. What do you think?” Mutual purpose is the foundation of safe relationships.

In addition to building mutual purpose, build the condition of mutual respect into every interaction. Realize that you’ve taken time to think through your approach to building a relationship with your sister-in-law; she probably has not. You might have caught her by surprise and occasionally she might lash out or express her hurt in a disrespectful way. Stay true to your purpose by being unconditionally respectful. This can be done by letting her experience your resolve. Or, when necessary, be quick to apologize for the lost time and reiterate your good intent. You must also have the courage and consideration to listen to her feelings without judgment or rebuttal as she sorts things out.

Finally, in all your dialogue with her, remember to ask, mirror, paraphrase and prime as you see ways these skills can invite her to share her experience and meaning with you.

Having begun the healing process of re-establishing a crucial relationship, you may need to reach out and include others beyond your sister-in-law; perhaps you’ll need to have crucial conversations with her spouse, children, or your parents.

I applaud your courageous and wonderful first step and encourage you to press forward in your work of healing. I am confident your hard efforts will be worth it in the end, as you achieve the relationship you now desire.