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Crucial Conversations QA

Responding to Accusations

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I read Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations and have tried to implement the skills in the books, but I still have a hard time dealing with accusations. The problem is that the first instinct when someone accuses you is to restore safety or use contrasting to solve the misunderstanding, but the accuser does not seem to be affected by those actions. Instead, they continue to draw incorrect conclusions about you or something you did. I’m sure a lot of people experience this same issue. What am I missing here and what is the best way to reply to someone who wrongly accuses you?

Struggling with Accusations

A Dear Struggling,

Thank you for raising this important issue. Over the years, we’ve taught a variety of skills in our books and training, but only rarely have we written scripts or shot video examples where the conversation starts with the other person accusing you. Of course, not all accusations are alike. It might feel more like a slight chiding or a gentle reminder. In this rather innocuous case, you can assess the feedback and adjust accordingly.

However, I believe the accusation you have in mind is more akin to a tense, sharply delivered statement that not only accuses you of malfeasance, but feels like an attack. As you fall under a verbal assault—say one that questions your reliability, integrity, or talent—it’s likely you’ll become angry in return. When this happens, your natural response to what feels like a mild physical threat is to move from your “know” to your “go” system and react in a defensive and also stupid way.

If you allow your “go” system to take charge, you will indeed, be less controlled and logical than is optimal for the circumstances and become blinded to most rational thought. In addition, when someone questions your character, it serves as an emotional accelerant. Between the perceived threat to your safety and the apparent attack on your character, you’re now pumping adrenaline, thinking with the most basic part of your brain, and neck deep in a shouting match or worse.

To best respond to an accusation or attack, start by dealing with your own growing anger. Cut it off before the adrenaline slips into your blood stream. Take a deep breath and reinterpret the attack, not as a threat to your safety—unless it actually is, in which case you need to exit—but as a misunderstanding that has caused the other person to become frustrated or maybe even angry with you. This switch helps you turn from being angry—you’ve judged them as bad and wrong and deserving of a good tongue lashing—to becoming curious.

When you become genuinely curious, you reignite your center for logic and reason and turn off your anger response. Now you want to know exactly why the other person drew such a harsh conclusion about you. Instead of an emotional defender, you’re now a relatively calm detective trying to get to the source of the other person’s anger.

The mystery you’re trying to solve is the following: “What exactly did I do that led you to that conclusion?” You’ll have to search for the answer because as soon as others become upset they’re very likely to lead with their conclusions or accusations against your character. It’s now your job to get to the behavior behind the accusation.

You may be tempted to start with a contrasting statement, but you’ll have to be careful not to end up with a correcting statement masked as a contrasting one. For example, “You say I can’t be trusted, but I believe you’re wrong!” (Bad) Or, “I didn’t intend to make you angry. I was just trying to do my job.” (Better, but it still sounds defensive) Instead of starting with a contrasting statement, become a detective. Probe to find out the source of the other person’s anger. For instance, “I’m not sure what I did that led you to conclude I can’t be trusted. Could you tell me exactly where I went wrong?”

Say this with sincerity laced with concern, but remain focused on the science. What were your actual behaviors? By searching for the facts and avoiding the conclusions, it allows the other person to share his or her complete view of the circumstances. This serves two important purposes. The accuser will have time to calm down—the adrenaline doesn’t go away in an instant—and you will learn more about the details of the situation.

In addition, when angry, the other person really wants to make sure he or she has been heard and understood. So, repeat back the details of the description to ensure you have them right. Continue to probe for your action behind the conclusion. Left to their own, many people just move from sharing one conclusion to sharing another. Try something like: “So you think I was selfish? What part of what I did seemed selfish to you?”

As the other person begins to share the details of the precipitating event, avoid the temptation to correct any of their statements of fact until you’ve earned the right to do so. By thoughtfully and carefully listening to his or her ugly and angry conclusions and eventually getting to the underlying facts, you’re now to the point where you can add your views. Take care; this puts you at risk once again. Don’t start with your corrections to his or her facts. Instead, explain how you can see how the other person might have come to his or her conclusion, but you have a different view on the matter. Start by sharing the elements you agree with and then point out how you see certain elements differently. This may be the time when you share your honest intentions: e.g., you weren’t trying to make this person look bad in front of the boss, you were simply trying to lend a hand.

Because you’ve taken care to sort out the facts, thoughtfully listen, allow the anger to subside, and tactfully share your view, you’re finally ready to engage in honest dialogue. But know this process takes time and patience. Left to your own proclivities, you may want to fight back. This will fuel the fires of anger and is likely to confirm the other person’s existing poor conclusions about you. Become a concerned detective, not a defender.

All the best,
Kerry

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

42 thoughts on “Responding to Accusations”

  1. I thought there was a good video example about this in Crucial Conversations training in Lesson 9, Ask For Others’ Paths. In the video, Melinda accuses Rick of submarining her in the meeting by asking a question during Melinda’s presentation. Rick uses his AMP skills to help dig into the problem. Maybe you could make this available to the readers of this newsletter. Like Kerry says, it is about being curious rather than defensive. Easier said that done, sometimes.

  2. Responding to Accusations: I agree with your advice but believe there is another point that needs to be discussed. The writer was verbally attacked, accused of doing or not doing something, by a co-worker and doesn’t understand why the co-worker is attacking them. Could the verbal accusation be due to the writer’s competence and the attacker’s lack of competence concerning the work they are doing?

    I am competent and understand I will most likely be verbally belittled in the meeting and in front of our supervisor when I demonstrate my competence. Demonstrating my competence inadvertently and simultaneously also demonstrates my co-workers’ lack of competence. The co-workers who are competent and have high self-esteem don’t have a problem when my competence is demonstrated. I have found out that the only co-workers who will verbally attack another co-worker are those co-workers who are incompetent and have low self-esteem.

    It sounds like the writer is competent and the complaining co-worker is not competent.

    1. I agree with your direction here and I am in this situation with a peer. I have tried to get a better understanding ;to nylon receive a response of ” When I am ready I will tell you what you did. It has been over a week .
      I do want to know so I can make the changes I need to lead our overall team back to a productive direction.

      This person is extremely protected as he is a close close friend of one of the senior management team. She will cover up for him regularly when he has exploded at staff and made direct hurtful or statement that cast questions on the persons credibility. This one reason I am look for was to address this.

      1. You can always “double bind” the person by saying something like, “When you have a date for completing the (Task), let me know and I will let the rest of the team know when to expect to receive it.” Another approach is paradox the situation by saying, “I am wondering what you help you need in completing the (task).”

      2. If you have someone in senior or executive management doing this. The biggest problem you have isn’t the peer that is constantly blowing up, it’s senior management. I would actually be looking for another job, if I were you. This is an unworkable situation when senior / executive management won’t do their job and be professional at the same time. This is a really bad omen, because if this happens, there are other things going on in the company you have no clue about. It’s nothing more than a form of corruption that’s been there for a very long period of time. The only way for you to deal with this other person that is laying down insults and being rude. Is if the senior manager(s) that protect him were to be fired and that nobody would save his tush when he got out of line. Then you could go after him if you want but not until senior management is out of the picture. Otherwise, you’ll be fired if you do speak out or even try to understand but asking for clarification. Lodging a complaint with human resources could very well get you fired, too. Until then, you’ll be walking on eggshells.

        Personally and professionally, when I run into management like this, I find a new job and don’t look back.

  3. Responding to accusations is probably one of the most challenging situations people encounter. You did an excellent job of describing the emotional reactions for both parties, and it is the emotional reaction that keeps us from responding well. Excellent description for how to proceed.

  4. I have not had the pleasure of attending Crucial Confrontations but this article captures the essence of what I learnded in Crucial Conversations and addresses the scenario perfectly in my view. It would seem the approach described works equally well in domestic situations.

  5. Your comments brought to mind an incident that occurred several years ago that illustrates the veracity of some of the principles presented in your books and trainings. If it will be helpful to others, please feel free to share it.

    I had been tasked by our CFO with obtaining vital year-end bonus figures from the managers of three of our companies. The managers responded in their usual styles – thorough and prompt (two) – haphazard and last-minute (one). On this occasion, however, the last-minute manager was so late that he did not get the promised information to me before a managers’ meeting the afternoon prior to the day of the company Christmas party. The CFO was new to the company and, when he learned during a break that the bonus checks for that company had not only not yet been prepared but the required information had not even been received, he publicly dressed me down for my incompetency and he and the manager missed a portion of the balance of the meeting while they met and pieced together the necessary information.

    The employees who were exposed to the dressing down were aware of my repeated attempts to obtain the required information as well as the offending manager’s style. Astonished by the CFO’s lack of professionalism and lack of comprehension in the matter, I decided to withhold comment until emotions on both sides subsided.

    Mid morning the following day, I asked the CFO if I could have a word with him regarding the bonus check incident – to which he consented. I said hat I could understand how it may have appeared that I had not acted responsibly. I reminded him that the information from two of the three managers had been received in a timely manner, shared with him my numerous reminders to the offending manager as well as the broken promises of compliance, and expressed my delight that even with the last-minute debacle the day prior it was the earliest that we had ever completed the bonus checks. He called in the Controller and asked if the bonus checks had ever been prepared this late. The Controller, with a look of total astonishment, said that, thanks to my efforts, this was the earliest that they had ever been prepared.

    Without apologizing, the CFO said that he wanted me to make sure that information necessary to prepare future bonus checks was received and that the checks were prepared well ahead of time. I said that the only way I could guarantee that would be for him to authorize me to go around the offending manager and solicit the information directly from the supervisors who report to him and submit my own figures for what I thought the supervisors should be given – and that I thought such authorization would not be advisable as it would undermine the manager’s authority. He told me to make the request of the offending manager each year and then circumvent him if the information was not promptly provided – which is what I did.

    When I opened my bonus check, it had been reduced to 20% of the original amount – on the direct order (I later learned) of the CFO. The CFO and the manager are no longer in our employ.

    1. I am sorry that we were cheated out of your 20%. I would not tell anyone, because it will teach others NOT to speak the truth, and doesn’t enhance your reputation. Let them think that you got a double bonus. One way to look at this is to realize that those two rats don’t work with you anymore, and that others know they will be held accountable.

    2. What a judgement, punishing, unprofessional jerk that CFO was, espeically after you ensured that he looked good in spite of him publiclly dressing you down. Glad that they fired him. I work in HR and too often see people jump down someone’s throat before investigationg what went wrong.

  6. I like what you said and is a effective approach if I could overcome the “GO system” or the “Automatic Defense System” responses that happen in less then a second but thinking responses do not kick-in that fast. Therefore how do you regulate the “GO system” and get to the thinking system? How much practice does it take to get to the thinking system as you said “This switch helps you turn from being angry—you’ve judged them as bad and wrong and deserving of a good tongue lashing—to becoming curious.”?

  7. I find it helpful to clarify the intention of the “attacker” before beginning to problem solve. I find that this helps to model professional behavior and helps the “attacker” to assume responsibility for their actions/reactions. Remaining in the “I” for my statement, I would say something like, “I am feeling attacked right now. I do not want to misinterpret your intentions, so I am checking in with you to see if my perception is accurate.” This response does two things. It gives me an opportunity to validate my own reaction to the accusation. It also gives the other person an opportunity to step back from their attack without losing “the fight.” Most of the time the other party claims that it was not their intention and a crucial conversation regarding the real items of concern can occur. I believe the methods described in the article are effective for the one incident, but have less success in changing a habitual attacker’s communication style.

  8. Kerry: My husband and I are are still savoring the wonderful piece you wrote called Wild Mushrooms. Thank you for such a relevant story — it applies to raising teenagers, managing employees and is a beautifully written story. Happy New Year to you and everyone at Vital Smarts!

  9. Another excellent article as always. I particularly like the ‘”know” to your “go”‘ analogy. My concern is in the use of the “I” statements for two reasons. First, in my experience, this seems to solidify the accuser’s perception that their behavior is acceptable or at least tolerable and that the accused is conceding to the accusation. Neither which detracts from the intensity of the situation. This stance also minimizes the responsibility on the accuser to avoid such behavior in the future with the same person or others. Something that needs to be impressed upon post haste.

    It’s always desirable for all parties to leave the situation with their heads held high but there are also workplace harassment, libel, slander and other laws that come into effect with these behaviors. Taking the high road is one thing. At the same time, removing behaviors that can ultimately jeopardize the company’s finances and reputation cannot be forgotten either.

  10. This brought to mind a quote I recently read from Byron Katie:
    Defence is the first act of war…. thought that was apropos

  11. This article really helped me. I am dealing with the same issue. In my church group a woman at the table I feel wrongly accused me and it made me very upset so I didn’t trust myself to address this at all at the time. So now the next time I see her I know how to start. I will actively listen with curiousity and concern then to safely recap what I heard, see how she came to her conclusions and tell how I see it differently.

  12. Great article. I might add that sharing the elements you agree with should go a little further. Say you’re sorry! I often find that in these types of conversations, I can always find something I could have done better in retrospect. Most of the times, I could have communicated some piece of information better which led, at least in part, to the misunderstanding in the first place. “I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner that the figures were in.” Oftentimes, once you apologize, you can even give your reasoning without it sounding like an excuse. ” I didn’t realize that you were working on that part of the project or I would have gotten them to you sooner.” Once I apologize for any actions I committed or didn’t commit, I find it easier to calmly but firmly assert the areas I have no fault in. A sincere apology also almost immediately takes the wind out of the sails of the person who attributed some malicious intent on your part or misunderstood your intentions.

  13. Another good article and thoughts. I want to simply point out that every one has their own map of the world. In other words, they see reality through their perceptions that are often guided by a whole set of understandings and expectations. For this reason, I think that it is helpful to point out that I may have “gone wrong” from their perception. And stating my “intentions” is always helpful to clarify misunderstandings.

  14. Help. I’ve been accepted into a executive leadership program where one of the instructors has attacked my character or competency on three occasions. She said that I didn’t follow directions when she asked we students to move. I am left eye blind and had accommodated myself by sitting left center as I always do, and realized that when the other 20 students moved I would be sitting next to someone new so I didn’t. It is inappropriate in adult education to control how the students learn or where they sit. Also, it seems to me that if she had a problem with my behavior, she should have talked to me openly, honestly and directly instead of complaining to the Senior Executive HR director. She said that I was domineering and “seized being scribe at an exercise” when the scribe is a passive role. She said didn’t listen to others, but I had repeatedly excused myself for asking so many questions because I had to take myself out of the conversation to write down the notes. She said I was a eh trainer when I am an outstanding one, as was recently independently verified at the training exercise. And yes I has lots of weaknesses but these are not them, and I know when I am being messed over. It seems to me that her conduct will continue unless I do something. Please advise. Thanks in advance.

  15. Great article. I do tend to go into correction and restating my intentions which are usually what is attacked. I like the curious mode. Thinking of answering the latest attack and shifting sands, blame game with “That is one way of looking at it. I’m curious as to what led you to that conclusion?”

    I am dealing with someone with a strong need for control who is playing shifting goalposts, the blame game, etc. Maybe just saying nothing is the best response?

  16. The United States justice system is screwed up. They will believe anything that a false accuser says and nothing else just to make a “real” case that looks good. This idea of freedom and real justice that some believe is false in itself.

  17. Hi! I just happened to stop by and saw this article. This is just perfect. ‘Cause I’m really having a tough time conversing with a girl at school. It is really hard to talk to her using logic, because she’s always in a defensive (or rather combative) mode waiting to attack the things/opinions of what I’m about to say. Also she keep on pushing on her ideals even though it is clearly wrong. It’s just really tiring. This person is like that to everyone else.

    Btw, It is a really awesome topic! It helps me a lot! Thanks Mr. Patterson.

  18. If you could help please ….. I was recently forced to hand my notice for a company but I asked at the time if I could have all statements that we’re made against me this was 3 months ago I have not received any but one of the other people involved has !! Am I entitled to see them
    Regards MARK

  19. All the above are good to exercise in case of strangers but does not work with my wife. Unfortunately I am a bad person who my main job is to destroy her in every word, action, body language, just name it or even think about it.
    I was hoping to find a solution in your topic but I am back to square one.

  20. One’s character defends one’s reputation. However, working for the Department of the Navy I was taught that one denies accusations, or the accusations stand. For example “Grizzly Bear Mom” you stole the money from the snack bar.” One must deny this, because “silence is considered to be compliance”. You don’t have to deny it immediately, and I would recommend writing a draft, sleeping on it, and thinking things over for 24 hours before responding to them when one is emotional, but I would deny it. And yes, people attack when they feel threatened by your character, compentence, taking money or power from their programs, that your girlfriend is prettier than theirs, etc. Best to you.

  21. It is frightening when your friends mum accuses you, saying, “I will keep these messages and will be showing school and your mother.” I haven’t even posted any messages. I only said, “Hi” and her name.

  22. What to do if you ask your boss,,,who is making an accusation that you are being rude to staff,,,refused to tell you the circumstances,,,,,company he even called me from the home office and talked to me about the same thing,,,i asked for specifics and was refused, I then a couple week later was sent a letter from hr,.telling me any futhur incidents would result in discplinary action,,,,what further incidents? Am I being off base by thinking this is harrasment,, if not what recourse would be appropriate?

  23. i was working at the hotel, the guest accuses me that i take 3 dollars of on the desk and he claim this money one week after this no make sense , my supervisor send me home because the guest no found him 3 dollars , te guest lost him 3 dollars and i lost my job .
    what should i do to go back to work
    thankyou

  24. I am a nurse in a hospital. I was falsely accused of saying something purportedly “vicious” to 2 house cleaning employees according to our unit’s nurse educator. I work overnight night shifts.

    We could not locate a housekeeper to clean two patient rooms and had no number or way to reach the housekeeping manager. I left a left a message on the housekeeper manager’s phone and explained we could not reach the housekeeper on duty, that it had been an hour and a half with no return call, that we could not be locate her anywhere in the hospital, and that I had to make at least 20-30 phone calls because of the matter. It wasn’t the first time this has happened. The housekeeping manager never returned my call. I wrote up an incident report on it. I was the RN in charge on that shift that night.

    As I said, an hour and a half later, without a return call from the housekeeping manager, a housekeeper just appeared on the unit. All she said was, “I am sorry I missed your call” with no explanation as to why. I did not question her, but simply and politely told the girl what we needed cleaned.

    The next morning, this same housekeeper, along with another who I had never seen before, showed up on the unit to clean a room. I was commenting to no particular person at the time, just remarking in a joking way that it had been a bad night and that if that tornado would have hit and wiped our building out last night, I would not have known it because we were that busy! I was looking in their direction, but the comment was not directed at them, just in general. In no way could that have been described as a “vicious” comment. They claimed I said I had blamed people that hadn’t done anything wrong. This didn’t make any sense. The only way they would have known anything about who was named in the incident report I wrote would have had to have come from their boss. If he had shared the info therein, that would be inappropriate. Only the housekeeper at fault should have been informed, not everybody in that department.

    After I left, these two housekeepers must have gone to the nurse educator to complain about me. Instead of the nurse educator talking to me about it first, she went directly to the nurse manager about it. I was then called in to talk to the nurse manager about it the next day. I told her I did not say anything out of the way to them and told her what I said. (Just having to go talk to the boss is scary to begin with!) She also asked me if I was frustrated with the unit’s supply problems and told me the nurse educator was upset with me. I did not understand this. (I had informed the nurse educator the day before about a supply issues and scanner but did not know she was upset with me.) I told her that we did not have the right oxygen masks on our supply par that we needed in a near-code situation a few days before that, but that we had TWO bins of oxygen masks we do NOT use or need and that I had told the nurse educator about it. I had simply been matter of fact with the nurse educator about it. I also informed the nurse manager that the supply replenishment scanner still did not work either. And yes, it is frustrating I told her. The nurse manager told me she did not want me to be frustrated. I told her I did not want to be frustrated either. The nurse manager doubted me that the resupply scanner still did not work, so we both went in together to check it, and lo and behold, it still did NOT work, much to her dismay. It has not been functional for months and months. All these were things the nurse educator is responsible for.

    The next day, I thought I should contact the nurse educator to find out why she was upset with me. She made a generalization about me stating that “I ALWAYS” was “COMPLAINING” about supply issues, which is not true and not a fair statement. I was trying to help our unit function better. I was simply INFORMING her. It was actually SHE that voiced her OWN frustration loudly using the “F” word about another totally unrelated equipment problem that I had nothing to do with and was not asking her about. Her level and expression of frustration over that clearly surpassed any level of frustration I had with the oxygen masks or the scanner still not working and I did remind her of that. She didn’t get it, so I had to ask her how her frustration was okay, but mine was not, and that I was NOT the one that used the “F” bomb or any curse words, but rather she was. She did not comment on that, but went on to continue about the housekeepers accusation.

    This nurse educator referred to me as “vicious” in what I said to the housekeepers, all based on THEIR word, she herself having never witnessed it nor checked my side of the story first. This all was very hurtful because the accusation was NOT true, and the worst part was her calling me “vicious”! That is a very strong, painful word. I was hurt deeply by this because it was grossly untrue, uncalled for, and questioned my integrity and reliability without giving me ANY benefit of the doubt.

    I cried all the way home and all the rest of day and was very depressed the next day. I do not want to go back to have to face the educator, the manager, or other nurses for fear that they all may have heard about it and have been gossiping about me.

    I am and have historically been a good, reliable, dependable, timely, hard-working (older) employee (age 55; others are 20-early 30’s) with only 1 incident of sick time off in the past 4 years when I really was sick, and no interpersonal incidents at all during that time.

    I am also afraid my reputation and character may have been ruined (as in slander) if other employees overheard the educator talking to me on the phone because she addressed me by name during the conversation. (I could not get an in-person time to talk with her.) I do NOT think it is appropriate for another employee at any level, but especially at manager level, to ever use profanity. It is inappropriate if her phone conversation with me was overheard by other employees. It is also hypocritical for her to express her frustration but others are not allowed. Informing her of needed supplies and the scanner not working is her job, and should NOT be considered a “complaint” but rather a help to the unit which affects patient care. She told me to just “deal with it” and deal with the housekeepers not showing up to do their job. So the take-away I got is to just put-up and shut-up. Wow! That really will help patient care! Yet they claim to give the best health care around. And continually are on us to strive for excellence. When we do, this is what we get. She apparently does not want to deal with the problems even though it is her job. I do not think this is the attitude a healthcare business ought to have.

    If it continues, I will not be able to work under so much stress and duress. They would be losing a decent employee. I have over 30 years of nursing experience.

    Can anyone tell my what dynamics are at play here and what I can do about it? Please. Thank you.

  25. I attended a crucial conversations workshop for just this reason. I was accused of bullying by the person who was actually bullying me. For more than a decade a colleague had singled me out and behaved to wards me in an unacceptable and unprofessional manner. The list of what she has done is endless. Initially I tried to ask what I had done to upset her, not only did she refuse to say she became physically aggressive, deliberately crossing corridors to ‘bump’ into me. I should mention that she is much taller and sturdily built that I. I tried to employ all the methods I’d been taught to no avail, and I did desperately want to deal with this with honesty and an open mind and heart.
    Despite repeated requests to resolve the issue my manager consistently kept this ‘in the department’. Eventually I was unable to face going into work and my doctor diagnosed me with work related stress and depression. At about this time my Manger retired. I requested that HR get involved and I have nothing but praise for how they managed the situation. Although they have been unable to get to the bottom of her (even to them) paranoid accusations which are not only unsubstantiated but completely contradicted by our individual personnel records, the fact that they listened to me, accepted my feelings and recognised my attempts to resolve the situation saved my sanity. I still work alongside this person and am still subject to her behaviour: the difference is that now she is aware that others consider her perception of me to be unfounded and her response to that perception unacceptable. Her behaviour has been ameliorated and I am once again enjoying the job I love.
    My point is that sometimes there is nothing you can do personally to change things. Not everyone is a ‘decent reasonable person’ who is capable of seeing the other person’s point of view/side of the equation. But we shouldn’t give up because most people, in every segment of the hierarchy, are decent and reasonable. Somewhere there is someone who will listen and I will never again make the mistake of accepting that ‘nothing can be done’ even if it means taking my courage in both hands and going straight to the top.

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