Trainer QA

Aren’t Crucial Conversations skills just good negotiation tactics packaged in a slightly different way?

Emily Hoffman

Emily Hoffman is a Master Trainer and Senior Director of Client Training and Employee Development at VitalSmarts.


QAren’t Crucial Conversations skills just good negotiation tactics packaged in a slightly different way?

AGood question. I think the answer depends on how you are thinking about negotiating. If by negotiating you mean to speak openly and honestly in a way that encourages others to do the same so that you can get all of the meaning into the discussion, then I would agree – we teach skills for negotiating. If however, by negotiating you mean talking to someone to try to get your way, or as much of your way as possible while giving up as little ground as possible, then that is not what we teach.

In “Start With Heart” you learn to recognize what it is you really want for yourself, for the other person, and for the relationship. If your answer to the question “What do I really want?” is to win, to save face, or to keep the peace, then you are going to be negotiating, not dialoguing. If your goal is to learn, produce results, and strengthen relationships, then you are more likely to use the skills to dialogue. I often say that any skill can be used for good or for evil – it is all about your intent.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: For the Rest of Us

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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A few years back, I took a consulting job that landed me in a backwater hotel in the Midwest for several weeks a month. The service was simply horrendous. The room service was so sporadic I dubbed it “the food lottery.” Wake-up calls rarely came on time—if at all. And this was also the only hotel where I repeatedly held the following conversation.

Clerk: I’m sorry Mr. Patterson, but we don’t have a room for you tonight.

Me: But I opted for a “guaranteed” room. I guaranteed to pay for the room no matter what and you guaranteed to hold the room for me no matter what.

Clerk: Yes, Mr. Patterson, I see here on your record that your room is guaranteed.

Me: So, how do you define the word “guaranteed” in this part of the country?

Of course, my snarky remark never did any good. “Guaranteed” meant that the chagrinned clerk sent me to a cheap facility twenty miles away. To make up for my “inconvenience,” the hotel picked up my bill—which meant that my client (who was paying my expenses) got a free room. I got a long trip and a lumpy mattress.

Since the nearest other decent facility was more than a half an hour away, I eventually decided to talk with the hotel manager about my concerns. He politely scheduled a dinner with me and listened patiently as I told him of the place’s many failings. At this point, he politely excused himself from our dinner for a couple of minutes. Two minutes later, the eager manager was back with me sharing a plate of chicken wings.

When I asked the manager where he had gone, he explained that he had to work out the final security arrangements for tomorrow.

“Security arrangements?” I asked.

“Yes,” he explained. “The President of the United States is staying here tomorrow night so I had to touch base with the secret service.”

“You’re having dinner with me the night before the President is coming? Shouldn’t you be spending your time preparing for him?”

“No,” the manager assured me. “The President will be gone after tomorrow, but you’ll continue to be one of our valued guests for months to come.”

It struck me as odd that this manager could be so dead-on when it came to how he treated me over dinner and yet this very same fellow managed a facility that was so amazingly customer unfriendly. Nevertheless, after having dinner with a complaining client, I sensed the manager would ensure that things were about to change.

But then doubts set in. What if the manager verbally abused his staff for how poorly they had treated me, and as a result, I became a target for a whole crew of disgruntled employees? Envisioning a crowd of employees taking turns spitting on my food, I finished with the following request.

“Now, sir I ask that you not mention me by name to others. I’d appreciate changes that improve experiences for everyone—changes that affect policies and systems. In short, work on procedures, not on me.”

“Not to worry,” said the eager hotelier as he left the table. “I’ll be the picture of discretion.”

The next morning my 7:00 A.M. wake-up call came at 6:00 A.M. “Could this be revenge?” I wondered as I lay there rubbing my eyes. Then, removing any doubt, the phone jangled at 6:15, 6:30, 6:45, and 6:50—but not at 7:00. Oh yes, it was revenge.

However, once staff members recovered from the initial onslaught from their manager, I was given the royal treatment. Chicken wings that came in a stack of ten for everyone else came in a bundle of fifteen for me. A member of the kitchen staff always called me to see if the room service was to my satisfaction. All of my meals were accompanied by a free dessert. (I refuse to think about what they did with my food.) And here’s where it gets really weird. Housekeeping personnel—not just the front desk clerks who read my name on my credit card—greeted me by name. To create such a widespread reaction, the manager must have posted my photo in the employee break room.

Unfortunately, there was no improvement for anyone else. Instead of a system wide program for improving the overall customer experience, the manager had instituted a program for improving Kerry Patterson’s customer experience. He essentially created “Mr. Patterson’s Customer-Service Program.”

I was recently reminded of this experience while watching a perky consumer advocate on the nightly news. The advocate heard about Eleanor—a little old lady who had been charged three times for her cable installation. Despite several complaints, the evil company had refused to correct her bill until the spunky advocate (and his TV crew) showed up at their front desk. They immediately fixed the bill and even threw in a year’s worth of expensive subscription channels for free!

Of course, all the advocate really did was shame the cable company into creating “Eleanor’s Customer Service Program.” They didn’t fix the system or the culture or anything that would avert the problem for others.

As the week rolled on, the same consumer advocate struck a blow against poor customer treatment of all kinds—forcing a local gas station to create “Tim’s Safety Program,” a restaurant to create “Maria’s Food-Quality Program,” and a car rental company to invent “Bertha’s Cost-Assurance Program.” All of these one-off solutions were touted as great successes by the news team while (I’m willing to bet) the affected companies continued to supply the rest of their customers with six chicken wings and nary a wake-up call. Why? Because, as near as I could tell, nobody ever fixed the systems that allowed, and often encouraged, the problems to arise in the first place.

Now, I realize my musings are nit-picky when it comes to chicken wings, but when these types of one-off solutions are applied to grave circumstances, it can lead to grave results. Consider the time I interviewed a group of healthcare specialists who complained about a physician who rarely followed medical protocol, putting his surgery patients at risk. They referred to him as “Dr. Death.” The rather cynical medical team went so far as to ensure that friends and family never checked into surgery when “Dr. Death” was on duty. In short, they designed a safety program for each of their acquaintances and let the chips fall where they may with strangers. As was the case with the hotel manager and the consumer advocate, they dealt with the instance, not with the systems.

Now don’t get me wrong. When you face problems, you need to fix them. But here’s my point. You also need to ask if the steps you’re taking do nothing more than fix the incident while allowing similar problems to continue unfettered.

The solution to these idiosyncratic and highly myopic reactions is actually rather simple. When you see a chronic problem, deal with all the potential sources that are leading to the wrong behaviors. Note the plural. Look not for the root cause, but for the root causes. With large problems, you can bet several forces are leading to the inappropriate behavior. This requires you to turn to systems, methods, equipment, and policies—as well as the effect of opinion leaders and the formal reward system.

So there you have it. Do us all a favor. The next time you become aware of a problem, don’t merely fix it for Eleanor or Tim or Maria. Instead, make changes in your underlying systems and methods. Fix the problem for the rest of us.

Crucial Accountability QA

Family Dysfunction at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

I joined my family business seven years ago. We have since grown the firm by 200 percent. Despite our success, I’ve had several struggles with my sister, who has a history of either showing up late or not showing up at all. I have talked to her, but she doesn’t feel the need to be accountable to us. In addition, her role and responsibilities are not clearly defined, so it’s hard to hold her accountable.

When I confront my parents about her performance, they throw up their hands and say, “Well, you know what she’s like.” It seems they want to work as little as possible and are willing to hand off all responsibility. This is fine, but I do not want my sister as my partner. I’m scared that even if I can hold her accountable, she will continue to collect a paycheck while putting in minimal effort.

How can I create a contract that holds her accountable and potentially eliminates her if she takes advantage of the situation? I feel this is the only solution. If her heart was really in it, she’d put in as much effort as I do.

Absentee Sister

Dear Absentee Sister,

First, congratulations on your success. Clearly you’ve got a lot to offer in your position.

With that said, you may think this issue is with your sister, but I’d suggest she’s not the first person you need to have a crucial conversation with—she’s the third. The first crucial conversation you need to have is with yourself.

Long before addressing your sister, be clear about the choice you’re making in a family business. As you know, a family business marries workplace dysfunction with family dysfunction. To be an effective leader, take responsibility for your choice to be in this kind of emotionally complex situation and decide what you are and aren’t willing to live with as the leader of this family-owned company. Ask yourself, “What are my requirements to make the job both doable and enjoyable?” “What boundaries do I want my parents and sister to honor?”

The bottom line is this: If there is nothing that would cause you to walk away, then you’re a prisoner not a leader. Prisoners blame their captors for their misery. Leaders look to themselves. So begin by deciding what you will and won’t accept. Then stick with your resolution.

As you sort through this, you may well admit to yourself that there are no conditions under which you would ever leave. Perhaps the financial benefits are too attractive. Perhaps you doubt your ability to be successful elsewhere. Perhaps you don’t want to disappoint your parents. Whatever the reasons, you may find that even if your parents undermine your leadership and enable your sister’s poor performance, you’d still stick around. If that’s so, take responsibility for your choice. When your parents and your sister act as they do, realize that you have chosen to live with this. Don’t blame them for being who they’ve always been.

If, however, there are conditions under which you would leave, be clear about those as well, then prepare yourself mentally, strategically, and otherwise to enforce them. Prepare a “walk away” strategy by clarifying how you would actually make the break. Think it through to gain the emotional and psychological independence you need to approach the next conversation maturely. If you don’t take this step, you’ll feel a need to control your parents or sister to eliminate the threat to your security. Prepare to walk away and you’ll make staying a healthier option.

Having clarified the boundaries you require, your next crucial conversation is with your parents. Lay out what you are trying to accomplish with the company and the degrees of freedom you’ll need to meet your goals. If the performance issue with your sister is truly a critical success factor, then you need to lay out the various contingencies that might emerge as you deal with her. See if they are willing to let you do what needs to be done. Will they honor your decision to reduce her pay? Narrow her responsibilities? How about if she is terminated? It may be they will accept some of these, but not all. In that case, decide if you are willing to live with that—and, once again, make your choice.

Having made these agreements, be willing to step up to a crucial confrontation with your parents if they equivocate. If you are willing and able to do that, you can move to the third conversation.

Finally, approach your sister. If there is bad blood, jealousy, or past resentment, you’ll have a hard time creating safety. To rebuild respect and trust, acknowledge some of your own inappropriate behavior in the past. Make sure your motives are truly pure—that none of this is about being right or winning. You have to be beyond reproach and be willing to let idiosyncrasies slide, while putting real performance issues front and center.

When you’ve established safety and ensured she trusts your motives, engage her in a conversation about expectations and consequences. Ask her what role she’d like in the company. Describe to her your view of what’s working and not working today. Ask her to share what she sees differently. Share with her the natural consequences of her current action—on the company, on customers, on other employees, on the culture, etc. Then frankly and clearly lay out your expectations. If appropriate, you may even ask her whether there are alternative roles she could take that would give her greater flexibility while still allowing you to keep high performance standards in critical positions. But at the end of the day, be sure you’re doing what’s right for the company as well.

Be ready to hold her accountable. If she slips, you need to do what you’ve asked your parents for permission to do. Realize that in so doing, she may blame you or become alienated from you. If so, refuse to fuel her villain story by becoming petty, cold or vindictive. Treat her with exactly the same respect and dignity you would treat any employee who is underperforming. Be kind, pleasant, and firm.

And if and when holiday dinners are more strained because you’re mixing family and business, swallow hard and take responsibility for your decision to take the bad with the good!

Best wishes,