Crucial Conversations QA

How to Avoid Sugarcoating

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

I have found that applying the concepts in Crucial Conversations works well, and that the ability to convey an important crucial message and maintain relationships is very helpful in the work setting; however, I sometimes struggle with the concern that I am “sugarcoating” an inherently tough message. How can I “make it safe” even when the results of the conversation will most likely be negative, such as talking about serious performance issues, letting an employee go, etc.?

Straight Talk

A  Dear Straight Talk,

What a great question! Your question shows you are right on track with trying to achieve the essence of dialogue—absolute candor coupled with absolute respect. Far too many times people go through Crucial Conversations Training and emerge with a dangerous misconception. They believe the point is to be “nice.” And for them, “nice” means understating their point.

We once gave managers a test of their crucial conversations skills. We asked them to imagine a friend handed them a brief passage from the friend’s forthcoming book. We gave them an actual passage to read, then asked them to write their thoughts about the writing, and of their friend’s intention to quit her job and become a full time author. The passage they read was so bad that they were merciless in describing their opinions of it. “Drier than dirt!” or “Pointless” were common characterizations. When asked about the friend’s prospect for improvement, they typically said, “You can’t get there from here. Whoever wrote this has no hope of improving enough to make a career of this!”

Then we asked them to practice giving their feedback to another person in as effective a way as they could. The results were shocking. After writing “Drier than dirt” they would say, “This could use some improvement.” After writing “No hope of a career!” they would say, “It could take a lot of work!” Can you see what’s going on here? They’re making the classic “sucker’s choice.” They fundamentally believe that, if they were completely candid, they would destroy the relationship—or irreparably harm the other person.

The most important challenge Crucial Conversations offers the world is the challenge to find a way to do both—to be both 100% honest and 100% respectful.

Now with that as your goal, there are two things to keep in mind as you measure your crucial conversations progress:

Volatility is not honesty. Some people think that if their affect doesn’t match their message, that they’ve sold out. It could be that you are doing a terrific job—and are not sugarcoating—but that in the past you were more vociferous, loud, and demonstrative. Now you worry that without the added volume, people might mistake your message. If that is the case, worry no more. The show of emotion many people use during their crucial conversations often undermines their message rather than enhances it. It can come across as an attempt to control or manipulate others and distracts from the power of the message itself. That’s not to say the ideal is to be emotionally flat. All I’m suggesting is that excessive emotion is not a measure of candor—it’s crossing a line into something else. You can say it respectfully and somewhat calmly, and have all the power with none of the defensiveness.

The measure of success is not that they like—or even agree with—the message. You ask, “How can I make it safe when the result of the conversation is going to be negative?” That very question demonstrates a misunderstanding of this key point. Dialogue does not mean everyone is happy at the end. It just means they are able to hear you and understand your point of view—and in the end, see how a “reasonable, rational, decent person” might think what you think—even if they disagree. There are times when your conversation might lead someone to revise their view of themselves, their world, etc. and that revision can be painful. They may want to deny the truth of what you share for a period of time in order to forestall the painful revision, but if the conditions for dialogue are present in the conversation, you’ll significantly increase the likelihood that they will eventually get there.

Years ago, I had a crucial conversation with an employee where my message was, “You’re fired.” I sat down with my employee and explained the facts of the situation. He had committed a crime. It was just before the Christmas holidays and I was sick at the thought of how his dismissal would affect his family. I was also in agony over the effect his criminal proceedings would have on him and his family. But the truth was the truth. I laid out the facts and asked him if there was any other reasonable way to interpret them. His shoulders slumped and he confessed to what he had done. I told him I was letting him go as a result of that offense. And then I added, somewhat choked with emotion, “I am sorry. I love your family and I know this will break their hearts. I will help in any way I appropriately can through this.” I then elaborated on some ways I thought I could help. He went to jail. His family suffered. And yet a year after he got out of jail, I was happy to receive a note from him thanking me for how I handled things and reporting on the better direction of his life.

He did not like my message. But he heard it. And because he felt safe with me—felt I cared about his interests and cared about him—he was more capable of contemplating what I was sharing with him. That’s the measure of whether we get it right.

Best wishes to you in your ongoing effort to do the same!

Crucial Conversations QA

Dealing with Resentment at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

In our hospital, we have a person who made a grave mistake during surgery. As the manager’s pet, she was not disciplined or reprimanded, but anyone else would have been fired on the spot. The rest of the staff noticed the special treatment given to this individual and are extremely resentful. How do I, as one of those staff members, interact with the offending person without letting my resentment show?

Resentful Coworker

Dear Resentful,

We studied this very problem in our research, Silence Kills, and found that 84 percent of healthcare professionals observe colleagues take dangerous shortcuts when working with patients and yet less than 10 percent speak up about their concerns.

I applaud you for raising your concerns. Nobody wants to work in an atmosphere of resentment that could compromise your paramount concern of patient safety. However, the situation you describe is complicated. There are many parties and probably many perspectives on the same set of facts. Let’s begin by examining your concerns.

1. Ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Think about what you want long-term for yourself, the other person, and for your relationship. This is what I learned from your question:

  • You want fairness and justice. You think your peer is “the manager’s pet,” receives “special treatment,” and perhaps should have been disciplined, reprimanded, or even fired.
  • You want to make sure your team provides patients with the safest, best care possible.
  • You want a positive set of relationships so people don’t feel resentment toward one another.

2. Master your stories. Each of these concerns is based on a set of facts and/or a series of incidents, including the mistake that happened during surgery. But different staff members, and your manager, may interpret these same facts in different ways. All of you are telling yourselves stories about what these facts mean.

Treat your story as a story, not as a fact. Your story should be your best, most honest interpretation of what the facts mean. But also look out for what we call “clever stories”—interpretations that let you off the hook for feeling resentful and letting your feelings show.

Interrogate your story with two questions: a) “Do I really have all the facts I need to be certain my story is true?” and b) “Is there any other story that could fit this same set of facts?” Let’s examine two of the stories you’re telling yourself:

Your story about fairness and justice: What are the facts or incidents that combine to make you tell yourself a story about injustice? How confident are you that your story is true? Here are a few questions to consider:

It sounds as if you are holding your peer accountable for not being disciplined. Shouldn’t that concern be with your manager more than with your peer?

I wonder whether you and your manager are telling yourselves different stories about the “grave mistake.” Your manager may not have witnessed the mistake and that may mean he/she has less information. On the other hand, your manager may have interviewed your colleague as well as others who were there and this information might be both important and confidential.

Your story about patient safety: Any time you have a concern about patient safety you need to deal with it. It’s one of those non-negotiables. However, before you have this crucial conversation, examine your story.

It would be easy to tell yourself the story that your manager is putting friendship above patient safety. That would be a very troubling conclusion. But is it true?

In the old days, errors were often blamed on whoever touched the patient last. Every error was considered “operator error.” Then the pendulum swung toward “system error.” Errors and near misses were seen as caused by faulty processes and procedures rather than individuals. Of course, sensible people demand both capable systems and capable individuals. Neither is sufficient by itself. Do you see how this interplay complicates the stories you and your manager tell about the very same incident?

I don’t have enough information to know whose story is closer to the truth. But I think there is a lot of room for people who value fairness, justice, and patient safety to disagree. Have this conversation with your manager, but don’t assume he or she has bad intentions.

3. Start with the facts, then tentatively share your story. Take the time to prepare for this conversation. Try writing it out as a script and then review it to make sure you:

  • Avoid accusations or any “hot” words or phrases.
  • Begin with your good intentions—what it is you really want. Explain that this conversation is about patient safety. That is your mutual purpose.
  • Start with the facts. These facts include the incidents you are fairly sure you and your manager will agree on. This is your common ground.
  • Tentatively tell your story. Draw the pattern these facts are forming for you. But remember, your manager may see the facts—and almost certainly sees the pattern—differently than you do. Be careful to be respectful of your manager’s story.
  • Stop so that your manager can share his or her perspective. Understand that some of the facts your manager has are likely to be confidential.

I also encourage you to review our latest study, The Silent Treatment, at or register for The Silent Treatment learning series to learn how to solve critical communication breakdowns and avoid dangerous mistakes in the hospital.


Crucial Conversations QA

Don't Pass the Buck

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

When one of my managers comes to me with a problem that involves another department, I have taken the stance that he or she should work it out with the other party. If they cannot work it out on their own, I offer to sit down with both of them. However, I know at least one manager who thinks I should intervene on his behalf and probably sees me as passing the buck. Do I need to explain the value of resolving the issue independent of my judgment, or am I passing the buck too soon?

Carry Your Own Water

A  Dear Carry,

First, let me tell you that, in principle, I think you’re doing exactly what a leader should do. In most organizations, leaders enable their employees’ weakness at holding crucial conversations by allowing them to escalate far too many issues. The measure of a high-accountability organization is NOT—as most leaders think—the quality of downward (boss-to-direct report) conversations that get held, but the quantity of horizontal (peer-to-peer) conversations that get held. Building a culture where people are both willing and able to address crucial issues is the essence of a high performance team.

Now let me play devil’s advocate.

There are times when it is your job to hold a crucial conversation on your employee’s behalf. Here are two I can think of:

When the solution requires resources or authority unavailable to the employee. For example, if a colleague chronically fails to perform and key contributors to the problem are policies, new software, overtime approvals, or other things the employee cannot address, it may be wise for you to at least participate in the conversation—and possibly lead it.

However, I encourage you to use a policy I learned from Tom O’Dea, a colleague at Sprint—he called it Mutually Agreed Escalation—that is, both parties have to discuss the decision to escalate, and cooperate in doing so. This will help you assure the employee has dealt with any elements of the concerns he or she should deal with at his or her own level and only involves you in those issues you should uniquely address.

When it is a “relationship” conversation. In our book, Crucial Confrontations, we describe three levels of conversations you need to have:

• Content: An immediate problem that is generally occurring for the first time.
• Pattern: A problem that is becoming chronic.
• Relationship: A more fundamental challenge dealing with competence, trust, or respect—and generally calling for a change in relationship if a solution cannot be developed.

One of the best practices I’ve seen leaders use is to teach this concept to employees and help them understand that it is their responsibility to deal with content and pattern problems. The first time something happens, they should address it at their level. If—after receiving assurances it will not happen again—it happens again, they should address the pattern. However, if they have candidly addressed the problem at those two levels and do not see appropriate change, then they should escalate the problem. However, in the healthiest of situations, they should also notify the other person(s) when they have the pattern conversation that if the solution does not work, they will need to escalate to find some other answer. That lets the other party understand all of the consequences of noncompliance—hopefully adding motivation to follow through—and avoids the accusation that they are simply pulling a power play when they later escalate the problem to you.

For example, let’s say I have a colleague who is supposed to fill out patient reports before the end of his shift to ensure we have safe handoffs. I notice that on occasion, he fails to do so, so I have a crucial conversation with him. Things are good for a couple of weeks, then it begins again. So I raise the issue of the pattern and check to see if a larger solution is needed. At the end of this conversation I add, “Great, it sounds like we have something that works—but if we can’t reach a solution on our own, I think we should talk about this with our managers. Do you feel the same way? Or is there something else I should do if this doesn’t work?” This statement puts the responsibility where it belongs—on the other person—lets the other person know what can be done at your level before escalating, and helps him or her see your point of view in needing to escalate after this attempt.

Good luck in your wise effort to create a culture of candid and crucial conversations.