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Crucial Accountability QA

Using CPR to Save Relationships

Dear Crucial Skills,

I just read Crucial Accountability and realized the issue I need to confront someone about has already happened enough times to affect our relationship, but I have not had the earlier confrontations regarding content and pattern. How do I begin the confrontation at the stage where the issue is now affecting the relationship, but the prior confrontations did not occur?

Late Confrontations

Dear Late Confrontations,

In the book, we use the acronym CPR (Content, Pattern, Relationship) to identify what issue you need to address. We used to chuckle that with CPR you could breathe life into a failing relationship. I think this is still true.

Now for a little background before I get to your specific question.

The essential principle for using CPR is to address the right issue. We’ve written before in this newsletter that you can talk yourself blue in the face about the wrong issue and not make any progress. So what is the problem? When deciding what issue to address, people often choose simple instead of complex, incident instead of pattern, or easy instead of hard, and so on. When the real issue is not addressed, the problem is unresolved and festers or explodes.

Your concern about where to begin with a relationship issue is spot on. Relationship issues happen in a couple of ways. First, as you note, we sometimes don’t speak up at the content level (the first time) and we don’t speak up when it has become a pattern. A training participant once helped me define these terms by noting that the first time is an incident, the second may be a coincidence, and the third (or more) is a pattern. So by ignoring or delaying, when we are finally motivated to speak up, we have a relationship problem. For example, someone who works for you is twenty minutes late to work: content (an incident). He has been late three times this week: pattern. The consequences are probably more severe. If you haven’t spoken up to this point, the issue will invariably become a trust issue: relationship.

Now to address your question specifically:

Point 1. There are benefits of addressing gaps or issues early at the content level. The consequences to everyone involved are probably less severe. The emotions are more controlled. And, by bringing up an issue early on, you show that your motives are to understand and help solve the problem, not to play “gotcha” or to engage a guilt trip.

Point 2. If you have not spoken up to this point, you need to address the real issue—how his pattern of tardiness is causing you to not trust that when he makes a commitment he will keep it. That is the right issue and that’s what you should start with. You don’t have to go through all the CPR steps.

A bit of advice here: Remember STATE skills when you do speak up. Begin with the facts. For example: “We reviewed the fact that you start work at 8:00 a.m. and you have been at least twenty minutes late the last three days.” Now tentatively share your story, “I’m beginning to wonder if I can trust you to come to work on time and to keep the commitments you make.” In summary, start at the level you need to address the real issue.

Point 3. Some issues start at the relationship level and that’s where you need to start. Issues such as abuse, theft, safety, and dishonesty affect relationships right from the beginning. That is the issue you should bring up. Do so in a safe way. Describe the gap and then diagnose. Don’t immediately threaten imposed consequences. Don’t become part of the problem by screaming or belittling. But take action. Behaviors that are abusive, unsafe, unethical, or illegal have immediate, potentially severe consequences to many other people. Handling them professionally and quickly is not only very symbolic, but is also necessary because of the potential consequences to others.

Best Wishes,
Al Switzler


Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

One thought on “Using CPR to Save Relationships”

  1. This makes me interested to know what do you do when you are on the receiving end of situation where a crucial conversation did not take place… meaning the person who had a grievance took escallated action witout holding a conversation about an incident, pattern or relationship… basically just left a “Dear John” letter and disappeared. Assuming you still have means to contact them, how can you get that person re-engaged to even begin a crucial conversation to restore the relationship if they already lost that much trust?

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