Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have been in two situations which completely took me by surprise where a person in leadership unloaded on me and berated me for something I didn’t do. Both times, the leader did not even pause long enough to let me explain my side. Receiving this unproductive criticism from an individual in a leadership role was a huge shock and left me speechless.
I have not been able to set the record straight or even discuss the issue because the leader declared disinterest. From my perspective, this is not true leadership. What can I do if I’m the recipient of feedback that’s unproductive and even mean-spirited?
Dazed and Confused
Dear Dazed and Confused,
What a tough situation. To have someone in power mistakenly blame the wrong person is not that unusual; to do it in a disrespectful way and then not make an attempt to understand the complete story is deplorable. Blame, accusations, and finger-pointing are hurtful—even more so when they are false.
It might be helpful to think of your situation as an issue of two conversations and two different moments in time. The first conversation is about the issue you are being blamed for (the what); the second conversation is about the way the issue is being handled (the how). The first time period to consider is the moment the blame is being laid on you; the second time period is after the incident.
Conversation about “What”
The first conversation is about setting the record straight. The best time to conduct your crucial conversation with the disrespectful leader is in the moment it happens. If the leader makes the accusation and then moves on to the next topic or admittedly cuts you off and doesn’t want to hear from you, then your best option is to pick another time to initiate the crucial conversation.
If you decide to choose another time to have your crucial conversation, make sure you don’t have an audience. Privacy will help make it safe and will eliminate the temptation to posture for others. To be respectful you might ask for permission. You could say “I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes. Is now a good time?” Perhaps the leader would respond “What’s this about?”
Now you share your good intention and establish mutual purpose. “I want to make sure you have all the facts about topic X so the problem can be solved in the most effective way.” If the leader doesn’t want to hear it and says “I have all the facts I need,” you might want to share a consequence related to a purpose the leader cares about. “My concern is that, without all of the facts, a big mistake is being made that will hurt our efforts to…” In this way, you respectfully motivate the leader to hear you out. Don’t start with a counter-punch, or a cross-examination. Don’t be defensive or go on the attack. Rather, begin with a statement of your good intentions, preferably in a way that establishes mutual purpose. By revealing that your intention is to help, not hurt, you reduce the notion that you are picking a fight or trying to quarrel. When you establish mutual purpose, the leader will see that it is in his or her best interest to hear you out. You might try saying something like this: “Before we continue, I want to make sure that we have all the facts on the table so we can solve this problem in the most effective way.”
Next share the facts. Be direct, specific, and respectful. Don’t apologize for the facts and don’t exaggerate them or their impact (a technique often used in an argument). You might contrast the facts with what was said. Never impute motive or assume you know why others did what they did. If clarifying the facts requires that you share your interpretation or perspective, be tentative. Don’t dress up your opinion as a fact. You might say “It seems to me that…” or “From the facts, I’ve concluded…” or “Others could see this differently, but in my opinion…” By separating the facts from your opinion you clarify what is true, how you see things, and you invite people to reveal their interpretation based on the facts not conjecture. This reduces arguments and makes discussions more objective.
Conversation about “How”
The second conversation is about how your leader handled the situation. It’s basically a conversation about respect and requires you to exercise good judgment. In most cases, bad behavior must be confronted or it will continue. Generally, my advice is to confront disrespect and not let it pass unaddressed. But here’s where the good judgment comes in. Perhaps on a specific issue, getting the solution you want matters more to you than the way you’re being treated. In unusual situations, you might decide to wave off the bad behavior and get on with your victory. You have to consider all of the factors and decide whether to confront the boss immediately while others are present, or re-engage later in private. The advantage of confronting bad behavior in the moment is that it helps set norms and expectations for what is allowed and what is out of bounds. This can be critical to building an effective team. The downside is that an audience makes it more difficult for the leader to save face. Your good judgment is required to pick the appropriate time.
So when you’re selecting the time that serves your purposes, how do you begin? You start with heart. If you aggressively drill into the leader like a prosecutor in a murder case, I guarantee the conversation will not go well. Ask yourself “What do I really want? What results do I want? What relationship do I want with this leader when this conversation is over?” Do you want to humiliate the leader? Teach the leader a lesson? Scold the leader? Or do you want the leader to treat you with respect and have a good working relationship? If it’s the latter, focus on this result as you confront the leader. This becomes the motive that will drive what you do and how you do it.
Begin the crucial conversation with your leader by factually describing the leader’s behavior. Don’t accuse or label, just state the facts. “In our meeting last Friday, you called me a yellow-bellied sap sucker and said the loss of the client was my fault.” Then share your interpretation of what happened. “I felt insulted, disrespected, and falsely accused.” Invite the leader to explain or clarify the behavior. “Was that your intention?” Now listen. Based on the leader’s response, you might clarify expectations and get a commitment, or agree to disagree about what constitutes respect, or even escalate the problem and involve others in the crucial conversation.
Of course these skills and this approach are not a substitute for a realistic assessment of your situation, nor do they take the place of your responsibility to exercise good judgment and decide the best course to take. However, I’m convinced that these skills, used in this way, will increase the likelihood of your success and are much better than settling into silence or allowing your strong emotions to cause a reaction that is hurtful to others and the results you care about. I’m hopeful that doing these things will help turn your confusion into clarity and resolve.
Best of luck,