Influencer QA

Crucial Applications: The Relative Your Relatives Could Be Like

Our research shows nine out of ten people who are skilled at holding crucial conversations enjoy their family gatherings—despite the unruly behavior of their relatives.

So to kick off the festivities, our award-winning video team presents Holiday Spice: Relatively Speaking . . .

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Follow these four recommendations for talking to unruly relatives about their bad behavior so you can strengthen relationships and enjoy your family gatherings:

Work on me first. How you see your relatives determines how you treat them. To soften judgments, ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do what they’re doing?” For example, do you see your Uncle Fester with a poor driving record as criminally irresponsible or as harried and in need of help?

Make it safe. When confronting bad behavior, first help the other person know you care about his or her interests. For example, if Uncle Fester is coming down with the flu and kissing everyone he greets, begin with, “Uncle Fester, it wouldn’t be a holiday if I didn’t get a hug. I’m glad you’re so affectionate and warm to all of us, but . . . .”

Just the facts. Start with the facts and strip out accusatory, judgmental and inflammatory language. “Uncle Fester, I notice you are sick. And I noticed you’ve been double-dipping your chips in the bowl . . . .”

Tentatively share concerns. Having laid out the facts, tell the person why you’re concerned, but don’t do it as an accusation—share it as an opinion. “My concern is that with all of us in such close proximity, we’re all going to come down with the flu. I know you don’t want that either.”

Invite dialogue. After sharing your concerns, encourage the other person to share his—even if he disagrees with you. One of the best ways to persuade others is to listen to them. “So Uncle Fester, is there a way we can get your warmth and love without getting more than you mean to give? Or am I seeing this wrong?”

Crucial Conversations QA

When Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Kerry Patterson is the author 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.

Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

Can you address nonverbal communication and ways to control sending messages that you do not intend? I often get feedback that it is my tone of voice rather than my message that people are offended by and that my tone is negative and condescending. This is not my intent. How do I get a handle on it?


A  Dear Misunderstood,

We’ve all heard the old adage that ninety percent of communication is nonverbal. While I’m not sure how one actually measures such a squishy thing, there is indeed truth in the notion that our words alone are not our only way of sending messages. Our facial expressions, volume, tone of voice, and body movements combine to send messages as well.

Not only do we communicate with more than words, we also tend to give more credence to others’ nonverbal forms of communication. For instance, your sister opens a present you’ve just given her, frowns, pauses, puts on what appears to be a forced smile, and says robotically, “Thanks, it’s exactly what I wanted.” Then she tosses your present into her growing pile of bounty.

In your view, your sister’s words of appreciation don’t match her tone, delivery, and other body movements and you’re betting this less-controlled (and possibly more-credible) nonverbal message of disappointment is the message you should believe. In your view, she told you a white lie to avoid hurting your feelings. You may be wrong, but when faced with what appear to be incongruent words and actions, we frequently come up with similar conclusions.

Now, back to you. If others tell you that you sound negative and condescending, it’s possibly because your thoughts are negative and condescending. You might actually be thinking bad things about the other person and you can’t hide your feelings well. Some people are actually quite adept at hiding these negative thoughts, putting on an upbeat face, and moving on without coming across as harsh or condescending. But most of us are not all that good at masking the emotions our stories create. We can only solve our problem by changing what we think about others. When we want to discuss issues professionally and calmly, we can’t hold court in our head, find the other person guilty, and expect to act respectfully and cordially toward them.

We learned the simple truism that the body follows the heart when producing a training video some twenty years ago. We were directing a marvelous character actor who was supposed to deliver the line: “You agreed to have the write-up to me by noon. It’s two o’clock. I’ve received nothing as of yet and I was wondering what happened.” The idea behind the script was to simply describe a problem to a coworker and find out what was going on.

When our friend delivered the rather innocuous line to the other actor, he frowned and emphasized the words “AND I’VE RECEIVED NOTHING AS OF YET.” His delivery came off as an accusation and not as a legitimate inquiry. When we asked him why he was so tough on his “coworker,” he explained he didn’t like being let down and the guy deserved harsh treatment. Now take note; he didn’t change the line one bit, but his tone, expression, and nonverbal actions were aligned with his negative conclusion about the other actor. He thought the guy represented someone who was guilty and treated him as such.

So, for the second take, we told him neither to frown nor to emphasize “NOTHING AS OF YET.” He smiled this time. He also leaned in—nose to nose—and spoke so slowly and deliberately that it came across as a threat. The other actor actually blinked nervously and backed up as if being attacked.

No matter how many times we told him to stop doing something nonverbal and threatening, he’d come up with a new nonverbal cue that implied “you’re an untrustworthy moron” without changing a word from the original script.

Finally, in desperation we told him the other fellow was a good friend who was normally quite reliable and that he was curious as to why he had failed to deliver on his promise. When given this background he delivered the lines perfectly. His new feeling, based on new assumptions, led to new and congruent behavior. Ergo, if you want to repair your nonverbal behavior, alter the conclusion you’ve drawn before you say a word.

This, of course, is what we now teach in Crucial Conversations. As part of the notion “work on me first,” we suggest you inventory the conclusions you’ve drawn about others before you speak to them. If you think others are purposely causing you grief, you’re likely to open your discussion with an accusatory comment. You might even choose tactful words, but your overall demeanor and tone will be accusatory if you’ve already held court and found the other person guilty.

So, when talking with someone who has let you down, start by asking yourself why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would do what he or she just did. Remain curious. Don’t pass judgment before you’ve gathered all the facts. Then, set aside a time to talk in private. Start the conversation with the hint of a smile. You’re not angry; you’re curious. You don’t feel superior; you simply want to surface and discuss the facts. In short, manage your nonverbal behavior by managing your conclusions. See if “fixing your heart” helps to fix your delivery.


Crucial Conversations QA

Approaching a Hard-to-Please Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a problem at work involving a boss who is never satisfied. Our branch has the highest ratings possible and yet our annual letter from the boss always says, “I know we have the potential to be good.” This wording sounds as if we are not good now, despite having the highest possible ratings. How can I show my boss that a more positive approach would improve employee morale and help productivity?

Discounted Employee

Dear Discounted,

What a frustrating situation: the glass seems to be full, but your leader describes it as half empty. This is a perfect opportunity to use the Crucial Conversations skills: master my stories and explore others’ paths. You receive an ambiguous and disappointing message from your manager. You see his or her story, but you don’t know the facts behind it. In addition, you draw conclusions and tell yourself a story about your manager.

The key to solving this issue is to learn what your manager is really trying to say—and to make sure you interpret the message accurately. Let’s imagine his or her motives and then explore solutions.

The annual letter may be more ceremonial than informational. Your leader may send similar letters to every branch every year. In this case, the letter isn’t meant to be taken personally. Instead, it’s meant to convey your manager’s overall philosophy: that your company has great potential to do good work.

Before you talk to your manager, touch base with a coworker from another branch to make sure you’re not overreacting. If you find out the letter is just ceremonial, then put it in perspective. It may not be worth a conversation.

Your ratings may not tell the whole story. There may be other metrics, such as overtime, staffing levels, market penetration, profitability, and the like, that aren’t captured in the ratings but that still matter to your leader. If this is the case, then your team needs to track these other metrics and work to improve them.

This is a conversation you and your peers need to have with your manager. Here is a possible starting point: “Your letter made me wonder whether our number-one rating isn’t really telling the whole story. You said we had the ‘potential to be good.’ Are there measurements of our work that aren’t reflected in the ratings—aspects we need to improve on in order to be ‘good’?”

Your manager may fear complacency. Even the best individuals and teams need to continually improve or they’ll be left behind. Some leaders are afraid too much praise will cause people to become content with their current level of performance and slow their continuous improvement efforts. If this is the case, then your team needs to have clear and visible stretch goals so your manager can recognize your progress while acknowledging your achievements.

This is another conversation you and your peers will want to have with your manager. A starting point might be, “As you know, our branch is ranked number one. Yet, your letter didn’t exactly celebrate our achievement. You said we ‘had the potential to be good.’ I want to check in with you to see if you think we’re becoming complacent or if there is some other problem I’m not aware of.”

Overall, it sounds as if you have two tasks: First, to make sure you and your leader agree on how the branch is performing. That’s the focus of the suggestions above. Your second task is to help increase the motivation, morale, and productivity in the branch. Here are a few suggestions.

Manage the data stream. Make sure your leader and your team monitor the same dashboard. Work with your manager to determine a few metrics that create a balanced snapshot of the branch’s performance. Set challenging improvement goals and then update your progress daily, weekly, or at least monthly. Frequently seeing this feedback and progress will reduce any gaps between how your leader and your team judge the branch’s performance.

Increase opportunities for feedback. An annual letter should be one piece of feedback among many. Additionally, this feedback should come from a variety of sources beyond your immediate manager. Consider the variety of internal and external customers your branch supports and then create forums for getting their feedback. Listen for the good, the bad, and the ugly. When possible, include your leader in these information-gathering sessions so he or she can hear about your performance from those who are most affected by it.

Create personal experiences. A letter isn’t nearly as impactful or motivating as face-to-face dialogue. Find ways to visit internal and external customers. Invite leaders—your manager and others—to visit your branch. Encourage these leaders to share their views on how your branch can achieve broader business goals, where your performance is on track, and how you can improve.

Share mission moments. Take time to relate incidents that tie the branch’s work to its mission. One story per meeting is plenty. These stories should be timely and involve everyone. These stories of actual incidents will prove far more motivating than any yearly letter could ever be.

I hope these suggestions help you get started. Please don’t have the crucial conversation with your manager until you’ve first checked your perspective with a few trusted peers. Focusing on an annual letter your manager sees as nothing more than symbolism might get you labeled as a complainer or as overly needy.