Crucial Conversations QA

Facing a Crucial Conversation?

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Crucial Accountability QA

Confronting a Monopolizing Coworker

Al Switzler is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Al Switzler is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.

InfluencerQ Dear Crucial Skills,

I work with an individual who does not appear to realize she monopolizes every conversation and meeting she is in by giving excessively long and repetitive explanations and background information when discussing an issue. Several of us have discussed this and simply do not know how to approach her without hurting feelings and potentially destroying good working relationships. We think this is a crucial conversation we need to have with an expert on crucial conversations.

Simply Do Not Know How

A  Dear Simply,

I noted your request to have an expert respond to your question. Since Kerry, Ron, and Joseph are unavailable, I hope you will settle for me.

Your question actually has a fairly straightforward answer. But first, let me start by backtracking a bit.

In chapter one of Crucial Confrontations, we teach a concept called “CPR.” CPR stands for content, pattern, and relationship, and helps you define the type of problem you are facing. The first time a problem comes up, talk about the content, or what just happened. The next time the problem occurs, talk pattern—what has happened over time. If the problem continues, talk about the relationship—what effect the problem has on your relationship.

We ask people to focus on what kind of crucial conversation or crucial confrontation they need to have based on the finding that people often talk about the wrong issue. You can talk about the wrong thing until you’re blue in the face and get no resolution. Unfortunately, people often choose easy conversations over hard ones, simple issues over complex problems, or one instance over a pattern of bad habits. As people take the easy way out, they don’t solve the problem because their discussion never addresses the real issue.

So with that introduction, let me suggest that you have a content discussion. Note that your colleague seems to be unaware of the problem and that neither you nor anyone else has previously brought it up. A content discussion is one of the most straightforward conversations you can have. The process we teach in Crucial Confrontations offers step-by-step suggestions.

1. Choose what and if. You have several indicators that you need to hold this discussion. The main indicator is that you have been concerned about the situation for a while but your conversations have been about her instead of with her. As I suggested, have a conversation with her about content and maybe include a small discussion about the pattern.
2. Make it safe. You need to get your head right before you open your mouth. You need to have a private conversation with your colleague. You need to show in your face and in your tone of voice that you are bringing this up to help—that you have not pre-judged her or oversimplified the concern.
3. Describe the gap. Begin by explaining what you observe versus what you expect. For example, “I noticed you came in today at 8:20 a.m.; working hours start at 8:00 a.m. What happened?”

Granted, it is more difficult to discuss more complex behaviors like the ones you’ve described. Your conversation might begin this way: “Could I talk to you a moment? I noticed in our last meeting that only ten minutes were allotted to several of the agenda items. I also noted that we took about twenty minutes on two of the issues. This made the meeting run over by half an hour. From my perspective, you either gave background information we already knew or went into more detail than we needed—pushing us way over time. I’ve seen this pattern in every meeting this month. My goal is to make sure we all spend our time well. I’d like to talk about this with you.”

Now there are many ways to start this conversation; while my suggestion may not be perfect for you, I’m confident that if you follow these steps and begin with a script, good things can happen.

Your colleague might thank you for your honesty and ask for your advice. Or, she might get upset and be forthright about her feelings. If she gets upset, reaffirm your purpose and the fact that you value your relationship and want to continue to work well with her. She might get upset and go to silence. If she goes to silence, restore safety by reassuring her of your intent to strengthen your relationship.

In conclusion, when faced with this kind of crucial confrontation, focus on the issue using CPR, make it safe for your colleague to speak up, and step up to the conversation honestly and respectfully.

Best wishes,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Breaking Habits

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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Since the dawn of humanity, philosophers, scientists, and puppeteers alike have been asking the same penetrating questions: Do we have free will? Do we actually make choices on our own, or is our behavior determined by powerful forces from our environment such as nagging parents, our outlook calendar, or the snarling pit bull next door?

During my first year of college I came to the conclusion that by the time I was aware that much (if not all) of what I did was, indeed, a function of my upbringing and surroundings, it was too late for me to undo the effects. The die had been cast. My language, my actions, my very methods of reasoning—all had been shaped before I realized what was going on.

So, I came up with a plan. In order to regain control of my will, I would act in ways that were opposite to my proclivities. Surely, this would put me back in charge. Ah, but this thought too had been shaped by my life’s experiences and was therefore hardly a choice, so I’d do the exact opposite. I’d follow my natural desires. Wait a minute, this couldn’t be right . . . and thus I swirled down an infinite loop of circular thinking until I eventually stumbled on a philosophy of my liking: gluttonism. I’d think about other (more important) issues over a chocolate milkshake.

And so I plodded along unfettered by concerns over free will/determinism until one fateful day—the day my wife and I bought our first home. Along with the automatic dishwasher and two-car garage, our home came equipped with, of all things, a test of my free will. The test was cleverly disguised as a redwood deck, but it was a test nevertheless and I couldn’t easily escape it.

Here’s how the free-will test worked. The first time I walked out on the second-story deck to take in the view, I leaned over the railing, looked down on our new lawn, and spit. I was thirty-four years old and hadn’t spit in more than fifteen years. My wife certainly had never seen me spit. And my kids, well, the whole idea of their father propelling germ-laden loogies into space was beyond the pale.

Before the spit hit the ground my wife pronounced me a filthy beast, and my seven- and nine-year-old daughters squealed in disgust. Normally the three of them saw it as their job to ridicule me for burping aloud or drinking milk straight from the container. Now that we owned a deck, their job had expanded. Because from that moment on, every single time I leaned against the deck’s rail, it pushed my spit button. It was creepy. I couldn’t not spit. When it came to the deck, I was little more than a loogie-marionette, jerked into action at the mere sight of an open space below me.

As a child growing up in Puget Sound I had lived around docks where, like all of my childhood friends, I spit every time I looked over the edge. It’s what boys did. Children, I’m told, often push their food off their high-chair tray, not solely as a means of rebellion, but as a method for learning depth perception. Perhaps my hard-wired act of spitting as I approached a railing was an extension of this mechanism.

In an effort to re-captain my spit reflex I tried personal pep talks. I’d approach my backyard deck and think, “Don’t spit, don’t spit! You can do it!” But then I’d get distracted (“Oh, a pretty butterfly!”), lean against the rail, and—patoohee—I might as well have been a cowpoke leaning over a spittoon.

“Dad spit three times,” my daughters would tell my wife when she returned from the market.

I mention this problem of reflexively jumping into inappropriate actions not because I want to enter the free-will/determinism debate, but because it’s highly relevant to something I do care a great deal about—improving one’s interpersonal skills. Here’s how the two topics relate. Much of our daily social interaction is tightly scripted. We engage in the same conversations so frequently that they become rote. In fact, if pressed, not only could we say what needs to be said without really thinking about it, we could act out both parts.

The good news is that these patterned responses free up our brains to muse about other things. The bad news is, once we start into a script, it’s hard to change what we do and say. We follow the script much like a well-worn and familiar path—actually, more like a steel railway.

For example, one evening my wife asked me to request fry sauce (a local product) when I ordered our food at a hamburger joint. I entered the queue, waited my turn, and then the clerk started into the counter script.

“May I help you?”

“Why yes,” I replied—and off we went. I didn’t merely know what I was going to say, I knew what the clerk was going to say. He was going to ask me if I wanted fries and a drink and when I said yes, he was going to ask: “Large?”

Of course, once I switched into auto pilot, I flew through the interaction without much thought and, you guessed it, I didn’t ask for fry sauce. I was never going to ask for the fry sauce because the interaction was programmed from the beginning. I started into the counter script, and once I did, I fogged over, coasted along, and stopped making decisions.

This particular issue becomes important to people who have decided to improve their ability to communicate with friends and coworkers. For instance, many individuals who attend our Crucial Conversations Training return to work feeling excited about the prospect of using their new skills. However, despite their enthusiasm, they often don’t think to bring what they’ve learned into play when called upon to do so. When a conversation starts to heat up (at the very moment when they should be thinking: “Cool, this is a time to try out some stuff I learned!”) they get sucked into an old script. Only after the conversation has ended do they realize they missed a good chance to behave differently. At the beginning of the conversation, just before they think to try out their new skills, the dominos of habit begin to fall and—clink, clink, clink—routine behaviors tumble down one after another until, once again, they’ve messed up the entire interaction.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. There are ways to bring cognition—and with it, the hope for change—into highly routine interactions if only you can remind yourself to do so. For those of you who have found it hard to change your conversation style, here are a few hints for breaking the bonds of pre-programmed scripts.

Put up a Sign. This was the ultimate solution to my redwood deck challenge. I posted a sign (on the rail itself) that simply stated “Don’t Spit.” I would read it just before I hit my spit button and I eventually broke the habit. When it comes to learning interpersonal skills, trainees often post pictures of the model they’re following right in their office. This visual cue reminds them of the new way of dealing with high-stakes issues at a time and place when they need the reminder.

Set Aside a Time. With certain behaviors or skill sets, it’s best to set aside a block of time where you can practice what you’ve just learned. For instance, when it comes to holding a crucial conversation, devote an hour a week during which you seek out high-stakes discussions. Then, as opinions vary and emotions start to run strong, you’ll be on guard to bring your newest and best skills into play—avoiding the pitfalls of rote scripts.

Get Cues from a Friend. When I become too forceful, pig-headed—and then maybe a tad punishing—my wife calls me on it. If my bad behavior is aimed at her, she says something to the effect of, “You’re doing it again.” She does this in a pleasant way; I stop, take a breath, and then try to get back on my best behavior. In public when she spots the same nasty habits (only I’m applying them to others) she gives me a look that serves the same function. You can contract with a colleague at work to do the same thing. In short, as you head down the highway of interpersonal disaster, trusted friends hold up a stop sign and you backtrack to the right route.

Apologize and Start Over. Sometimes we miss the cue that says we need to bring newer and better skills into play, but we don’t miss the fact that we’re now careening down a dangerous road because we’ve obviously made a wrong turn (i.e., followed our old scripts). When this happens, rather than keep on truckin’ because you’re already well underway, stop, apologize, and start over. With this practice in your arsenal, you don’t have to be perfect, just willing to try again.

Well, it’s time for me to head to lunch with a friend. He wants to go to this Thai restaurant up the street, but I’m a bit apprehensive. It’s not the spicy food that has me worried. It’s the building. You see, the place has this deck . . . with a railing.