Crucial Accountability QA

Protecting Your Children

Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, was recently published.


Crucial ConfrontationsQ Dear Crucial Skills,

My in-laws live six hours away, but frequently visit and stay at my home. They have a wonderful relationship with my three young children, but I’m worried because they bring their dog, and in the last year, the dog has started nipping at my kids. Although my husband and I told them in no uncertain terms that the dog is not to be near the children, we found out that my father-in-law sneaks the dog out when we’re not looking. This rule was ignored and the dog recently bit the hand of my oldest child and drew blood.

We recently visited family, and because the dog was around multiple children, I told the mothers that the dog bites and everyone was beyond angry that my father-in-law kept letting the dog out. He knows how we feel, yet refuses to put the safety of his own grandchildren over the coddling of his dog! It has created an extremely tense environment and is affecting our relationships. We have tried asking nicely, stating directly, and are on the verge of an ultimatum. What should we do now?

Mother Lion

A  Dear Mother,

In a situation where we are weighing Dad’s convenience and preference against the safety of children, it’s time for a crucial confrontation. You said you tried “asking nicely” and “stating directly” but your father-in-law continues to sneak the dog out when you are not looking. Your father-in-law is likely seeing this conflict in terms of his “sweet little dog that wouldn’t hurt a fly” and is “practically a member of the family” against some “nervous Nelly” moms who are over-protective. He thinks his little allowance in letting the dog out to play with the kids is a minor infraction that doesn’t matter all that much.

He is obviously discounting your collective wishes and ignoring your fears; he is minimizing the importance of your concerns. The way you motivate others to give your concerns more weight is by helping them understand the consequences that could result from a given course of action. Natural consequences are those that will naturally result without any imposition on your part. In this case, even a misplaced nip from a small dog could result in blindness to a child or life-long scarring.

Imposed consequences are consequences you enforce if others do not comply with your requests. Such a consequence is that you will call animal control. However, I don’t recommend using this consequence. It’s best to talk about natural consequences first.

Talking through the consequences should motivate Dad to consider your concerns. If you don’t get compliance with natural consequences, then carefully consider whether to move to imposed consequences. Damaging the relationship is a real possibility. However, when dealing with danger to your children, Dad’s compliance with your standards may be more important to you than sparing his feelings.

I will assume you shared consequences in your earlier conversations. If Dad still misbehaves, what do you do next?

Verbal persuasion has failed to change Dad’s behavior; the children’s safety is paramount. It’s time to impose consequences. Be respectful! Emphasize that you want to continue the relationship with Dad but not the dog. Begin by factually reviewing how you arrived at this point. Try something like this:

“Dad, we’ve talked to you several times about our concerns with having your dog around your grandchildren. Yet the dog continues to get out, and last time you visited, he bit Jeremy’s hand. Dad, we want you to visit. Your visits with us and our visits to your place are very important to us, but to make them work we have to arrange for the dog to go to a kennel or find a dog sitter. We can help arrange one here or you can find one near your home, but we will not let the dog come to our home or visit your home if the dog is there.”

Use contrasting to prevent misunderstandings. “We don’t want you to shorten your visits or make them less frequent. We love you and your visits. We do want you to make other arrangements so the dog is not present during our visit.”

Listen to your father-in-law’s feelings and concerns, then brainstorm workable solutions. Don’t jeopardize your children’s safety with an unrealistic compromise.

Now, follow through. Be prepared to pack up if the dog is there when you arrive at Dad’s. Be prepared to not let the dog in your house if he accompanies Dad on a visit. Reaffirm your love for Dad and your resolve to protect your children, even if the cost is Dad’s hurt feelings.


Crucial Conversations QA

What Happened? A Boss On a Spending Spree

Dear Joseph,

First, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer my question. I think you were right on target with every single remark you made. I believe I originally read the situation wrong and judged incorrectly, and you gave me a much needed wake-up call!

I have talked this through with my boss and now have a much greater understanding of his vision and strategy for the company. He also understands why I think the way I do, and wants to better explain his decisions to the management team. We agreed that expenditures in excess of a certain amount will be brought before the management team for discussion before a final decision is made.

I believe that while we may have different opinions, it will still help us gain understanding and trust with one another if we can talk through our concerns and offer suggestions. Holding this conversation has strengthened our relationship and improved our ability to manage the company effectively.

I really look forward to the Crucial Skills Newsletter each week. You do an excellent job!

Many thanks,
Following the Money

Editor’s Note: This letter was received in response to a question Joseph Grenny answered in the December 29, 2010 Crucial Skills Newsletter titled, “A Boss On a Spending Spree.” If you would like to share similar feedback about the authors’ advice, please e-mail us at

Crucial Conversations QA

Holding Your Ground

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been with my company for five years and consistently receive “exceeds expectations” ratings on my performance reviews. I recently found out that a newly hired business partner is planning to take over my office. There are a handful of open offices in our area that he could take without interrupting another employee, and this individual will not be in the office on a daily basis. I have worked very hard to get where I am and do not feel it’s right for a new employee to make me move.

I get upset every time I think about this situation because I do not want to get pushed around, but I fear I will become emotional and rude if I speak up. I feel completely insulted that someone would think their title allows them to kick another employee out of their office. Can you give me some advice on how to approach the situation calmly, yet effectively?

Not looking to move

Dear Not looking,

I can tell you’re frustrated because you feel like your options are limited. You can bite your lip and take it, and then move and lose. Or, you can speak up, blow up, and then move and lose. As I try to explore these and other options, I acknowledge that I don’t know all the facts, so I’m basing my advice on my experience with similar issues.

My approach to addressing this challenge is rooted in a poem that comes from Mathematics Theory. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but the poem has a great point:

“What one does is only one of many things one might have done;
to appreciate the thing selected one must know the things rejected.”

Realizing I could have the facts wrong—and hoping you’ll forgive me if I do—I think there are a couple of good lessons we can learn from exploring your situation from several perspectives.

Action: You don’t speak up. If you’re like most people, you can’t keep your emotions and your words inside. Or, as we say in Crucial Accountability, “If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.” So you sprinkle a negative comment here or there when talking with your friends and that leaks out as gossip. You find yourself frowning at and avoiding the new business partner. Probable outcome: you move and your reputation is hurt because of the gossip and your bad attitude.

Action: You speak up with emotion. Forget about the namby-pamby courteous stuff. This is about what’s right and what’s just. You storm into your boss’ office and tell him or her all the good reasons you should stay and make the case that the new person should take a different office—all in one breath, no pauses, with fervor. If you take this approach, there are several possible outcomes:

1. Your boss listens and says, “Oh, I thought you knew the new partner has a son with disabilities in the facility across the parking lot. I thought it would be nice if he could see him when his son had recess or outings.” (A challenge that occurred at VitalSmarts a few years ago.) Probable outcome: You move, your reputation is a bit tarnished, and you feel guilty. You have a new problem, this time with your boss.

2. Your boss listens and says, “Are you finished? Look, I didn’t want to do it, but corporate policy requires that a business partner must have a window that is over sixty square feet in size. Yours is the only office that qualifies. What can I tell you? It’s policy.” (By the way, this policy is real in some organizations—you can’t make up stuff like this.) At least now you know what the real problem is and you can tackle the real issue if you choose to do so. Probable outcome: You move, you feel frustrated about red tape and bureaucracy, and your reputation is likely a bit tarnished. When people blow up only a little, other people start looking for this behavior a lot.

3. The boss says, “Whoa, don’t badmouth the new business partner; he doesn’t even know I’m moving him to your office. I made the decision; and it’s final. Now quit your whining.” Probable outcome: You move and it’s pretty clear what your boss thinks and you have another challenge to deal with—relationship and trust issues with your boss.

While some of these outcomes might occur no matter how skilled your approach, I know with 100 percent certainty that you’ll feel better about yourself and you’ll make it safe to have future tough conversations if you start this one in a positive way. This leads me to your third possible action.

Action: You speak up with candor and courtesy. You look at this situation, ask the humanizing question—”Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?”—overcome your fears, practice in private with a friend, then set an appointment with your boss and explain the situation.

It could sound something like this: “Jan, I read your e-mail saying the new business partner is moving into my office and I am moving to office 2C. I’m wondering how that decision was made and if it’s final. I think there are several reasons for me to stay in that office and have the new business partner take a different office. Can we talk?”

Your boss responds: “Oh, I didn’t know it was an issue. If you like, stay where you are.”

For an instant, you hesitate. You have eleven good reasons you should stay put and she’s not asking for them, but you swallow all of them and say thanks. You realize you assumed you knew the reasons for the office change—this caused you to get upset and potentially rude. However, you prepared and practiced, spoke up, and found that there wasn’t really a reason. Probable outcome: you stay in your office and you maintain your reputation.

Of course, there are other variations of these three actions—don’t speak up, speak up with emotion, speak up with candor and courtesy—but this is the point I want to reinforce: when facing a crucial conversation, we have three options:

1. We can avoid the issue, but our feelings generally leak out as gossip and we don’t get the results we want.

2. We can attack and unleash pent-up frustration and demands, but even if we get what we want in the short term, our actions almost always tarnish our reputation.

3. We can address the issue with candor and courtesy and fill the pool of shared meaning with information from all sides of the issue. When we engage in dialogue, we are likely to get the best result—even if it isn’t always the one we wanted—and we are likely to maintain our good reputation and strong relationships.

I hope my advice will help you hold the right conversation to achieve the right result.