Crucial Conversations QA

Talking to a Needy Customer

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I own a furniture consignment shop. We have a new customer who is seventy-five years old, very lonely, and needy. He constantly comes in the shop or calls to talk about how he used to be a Hollywood star and a millionaire, or to tell us about each of his seven marriages.

I don’t know how to tell him we are busy, but we have each heard his story three or four times and it’s starting to make us all feel uncomfortable. How can I tell my needy customer that I don’t have time to talk without offending him?

At a Loss

A Dear Loss,

Thanks for the question and for your genuine concern for a person in need. Let me start by suggesting that this situation calls for a tactful discussion instead of a full-blown crucial conversation where you jointly brainstorm a solution.

You’re right in worrying about hurting the fellow’s feelings. He’s a human being and like all of us, he deserves to be treated with respect. Obviously, you don’t want to bluntly tell him to stop talking so much or repeating himself so frequently. And while it’s true that he may be lonely and is looking for simple conversation, even companionship, it’s not the responsibility of a shop owner to meet those needs (more on this later).

The kind thing to do is to pull the gentleman aside and set your ground rules. Explain that you appreciate his business and enjoy the conversation, yet you face a challenge. The shop requires your careful attention and does not allow you to carry on long conversations, enjoyable or otherwise. So you’re asking him to conduct his future business quickly—without lengthy discussions—so you can fulfill your responsibilities as a shop owner. Then thank him for his cooperation.

All of this should be done pleasantly, with a slight smile, and with genuine compassion for another person. You’re not opening the conversation up for debate, nor are you asking for suggestions. You’re professionally and politely defining the boundaries of your relationship.

Now, having said this, let me return to the issue of a lonely gentleman who appears to be looking for more than a simple purchase. Let me write, not just to you, but to all of us—myself included.

Not long ago, I was taking a brisk walk when I passed near an older fellow, a complete stranger, walking the other way. He signaled me to stop and when I did he chatted me up for a full five minutes. I was in a hurry to get back to work, but the gentleman seemed oblivious to the fact that I was trying to exit the conversation at every turn. Later that same day, I stood in line to buy a handful of groceries while an elderly woman in front of me wrote out and recorded a check—seemingly in slow motion—while casually chatting with the clerk. I almost climbed out of my skin.

At the end of the day, my mind turned to the intersection of two factors. One, my own lack of patience, and two, a growing number of elderly people who are likely to tax my ability to slow down and smell their roses. As I thought of these two events, I remembered the fact that as baby boomers age (and I’m one of them), they’ll put a massive burden on the healthcare system—leading to a huge shortage of healthcare professionals. I also recalled reading that, in 1950, for every person over 65 there were twelve people of working age, but in 2050, that number will drop to three—burdening social security. I was aware of both the medical and financial burden that will accompany the gray wave. We hear about those issues nearly every day. What I hadn’t thought about was the need for love, kindness, a gentle word, and yes—time—from those who will have so much of it on their hands.

The awkward situation at your shop provides evidence that there will come a clash between those who are frantically running about their daily tasks—stretched to do the job of two people—and those who will want to slowly write out a check, go on casual walks, and talk with shop owners about the old days.

And while it’s true that the shop owner can’t always meet the needs of aging customers, it is equally true that the rest of society will have to come to grips with living alongside a growing number of seniors who are finding their senior years more lonely than golden. As our life paces and interests come in conflict, we’ll continually face the question: What do I really want here?

I wrote earlier about my father who had largely gone blind, working on my pride and joy—the flowers in front of our house. Dad really wanted to contribute to the effort and eagerly put on his gloves every time I watered, mulched, or planted. Because dad couldn’t see all that well, he often damaged or even killed flowers every time he lent a hand. This bothered me until one day I asked: “What do I really want?” I decided I wanted my dad to work alongside me more than I wanted perfect flowers. We’ll be faced with the same question in years to come as more and more elderly people will ask for our time and attention at a stage in our lives when our free time will, if anything, be growing scarcer.

Hopefully, as we ask the question of what we want for ourselves and for others, we’ll find both the desire and the methods to spend time with those who have given us so much. Perhaps outside the shop someone will talk with your needy customer about the good old days. Maybe a neighbor will bring by a fresh-made loaf of bread, and then sit and chat for a while—doubling the gift. Perhaps his son will call with a short item of business, and then lengthen the conversation to cover whatever Dad wants to discuss. Perhaps all of us will learn to find ways to stop and smell the roses.


Crucial Conversations QA

Confronting a Child's Drug Abuse

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

I have just confirmed that my daughter is using drugs and I am beside myself with worry. I have always been very frank when I talked to her about drug use and I fear that because I made her feel safe to talk to me about it, I may have also made her feel like I condone the use of drugs. She confides in me because she feels like she can tell me anything and I don’t want to lose this relationship.

How can I express concern for my daughter’s behavior and drug use without damaging our relationship and losing her trust?

Worried Mother

A Dear Mother,

Good for you!

Good for you for thinking about both sides of the parenting problem you have to solve. You’re not just worried about expressing disapproval of a self-destructive choice. You’re also worried about ensuring your daughter feels safe maintaining dialogue with you. And in my estimation, doing these two things is the heart of parenting.

Now to answer your question, let me make a huge assumption. The fact that you’re worried you sent a message of tacit approval of drug abuse makes me suspect you probably have. I assume this worry is fed as you review past interactions with her and find it hard to recall a consistent pattern of clear expressions of disapproval. With that said, don’t give yourself an “F” on being a positive influence, as your own personal decision to not abuse drugs is an important force for good. However, clear influence has to go beyond silent disapproval.

I know you asked how to “talk,” but I’m going to broaden the issue to the larger topic of influence. Here’s the picture we, as parents and guardians of our children, need to have: there are six powerful sources of influence that shape our children’s (and our own) choices. And most of them line up in support of experimentation with harmful substances. For example:

Personal Motivation: Kids are told it feels good. Experimentation is pitched in morally appealing packaging—as a way to experience life, demonstrate independence, be your own person, learn about new options, etc.

Personal Ability: Information about options, dosages, delivery methods, etc. is widely available.

Social Motivation and Ability: Powerful peer influences can encourage participation and shame those who don’t engage. Kids mentor each other in new ways to get high, ways to get money to get high, and ways to avoid detection. The messages kids get from peers through Facebook, YouTube, movies, television, and other media tend to be pro- not anti-drug abuse.

Structural Motivation: Costs for drugs have declined over the years in a perverse version of Moore’s law, the drug high gets stronger as the prices get lower.

Structural Ability: At school, kids are probably never more than five minutes away from access to illicit drugs or alcohol.

I’ve only scratched the surface in describing how the various methods of influence shape the world your daughter inhabits far more than they did when you and I were walking school halls. I share all of this as a backdrop to a resounding answer to your question. Kids today need much more than a passively disapproving parent in order to avoid succumbing to an overwhelmingly potent influence strategy to engage in harmful behavior—they need parents who are aware of how all six sources of influence are affecting their children, and who take action to offer their children an environment that supports positive choices.

With that said, a conversation is a good place to begin. It could very well begin with, “Sweetheart, I worry that I’ve been derelict in a very important responsibility. I want to begin remedying that now. . .”

You then need to confront her with the information you have about her drug use. Do so factually. Do not use judgmental language, lay out the case that convinces you there’s a problem. For example, a horrified parent might be tempted to say, “Don’t you dare lie to me, I know you’ve been using. You’ve already been sneaking out with friends and lying to me about what you’re doing.”

The “facts first” version would sound more like, “When you asked me to bring your cell phone to you at school, a text came through. It was from Denise. She said, ‘Does your Mom have any more oxy? I need some.'” Resist the temptation to embellish or exaggerate the information you have. Simply lay out the facts then share your conclusion: “Sweetheart, it’s clear to me you have used drugs.”

At this point, you need to reassure her she is safe discussing this with you. After you lay out such embarrassing and sensitive facts, most teens will worry that your motive is to judge or punish them. Let her know that’s not the case. For example, you could tell her, “I am not bringing this up because I am angry at you or to try to embarrass you. I love you, and I want to help you make choices that will make you happy. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

Your goal is dialogue. Only through a healthy dialogue can you influence her heart and mind rather than just her behavior. But similarly, you won’t influence her heart and mind if at some point in the dialogue you don’t make a strong and clear statement of disapproval—not of her personally, but of this choice.

A few years ago, we worked with the White House on the campaign, Parents. The Anti Drug. We conducted research and created a list of Crucial Conversations tips for speaking up to your kids about drug abuse. These tips can help you in this very crucial conversation with your daughter. I encourage you to check them out.

I am thrilled to know that you have carefully established trust with your daughter that enables her to talk to you. Just make sure you haven’t done so in a way that diminishes your ability to have her listen to you. That would not be dialogue, but monologue. Find a way to get your voice into the dialogue while still preserving the wonderful safety you’ve so effectively created.

Best wishes,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Mr. Lockhart's Do-Over

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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The following article was first published on October 19, 2005.

This story begins in the spring of 1954, not long after my eighth birthday. At this time in my life, two important events happened over the same weekend—Mother’s Day and the appearance of a traveling carnival. Both required money. Lots of money. Fortunately, after months of squirreling away most of my weekly 50-cent allowance, I was able to set aside six whole dollars—two dollars to buy my mom a pair of Mother’s Day earrings she had pointed out at a local jewelry store, two dollars for an unlimited ride pass at the carnival, and two dollars for food and bus fare.

When the appointed day finally arrived, I leaped off the bus and set straight off to buy Mom’s earrings. I was on a mission: first secure the earrings, and then go have fun. Unfortunately, as I approached the jewelry store I also drew closer to the carnival and its joyous and tempting sounds. To me, the rumble of the rides and the squeals from the children were the modern-day version of Ulysses’ sirens. Since I had neither a ship’s mast nor men to tie me to it, I eventually gave in to the irresistible clamor. I decided to put off buying the Mother’s Day earrings and go straight for the home of the Loopty-Loop. This was my first mistake.

I made my second mistake when I arrived at the carnival itself. Instead of going directly to the ticket booth and buying an unlimited ride pass, I wandered into the midway where a hoard of carnies tried to convince me to win Kewpie dolls, pinwheels, and the like. At first, I resisted the invitation to play the games. They weren’t in my budget and besides, who wanted any of that cheap junk?

And then I came across a booth that awarded winners a small cage containing a parakeet. I had never seen such magnificent birds. They weren’t just green and blue; they were fluorescent green and blue. And according to the nice carnie with the missing front teeth who worked the booth, you could teach the exotic creatures to talk. Plus the fellow had a “MOM” tattoo on his right bicep. It was fate. It was kismet. It was a sign.

“I would like one of the parakeets far more than the earrings,” the “MOM” tattoo whispered to me.

Hesitantly, I loosened my grip on my six dollars as I sized up the challenge in front of me. All I had to do to win the most extraordinary prize ever offered by a man with a pack of Lucky Strikes trapped under his right T-shirt sleeve was throw a dime and land it on a plate—a huge plate no less. And there were dozens of plates. So I took a deep breath and cashed in one of my dollars for ten dimes. I could practically see the smile on Mom’s face.

The first dime hit right on a plate—oh boy, oh boy, oh boy—but then it bounced off. But then it almost landed on another plate. This was going to be a breeze. Of course, it wasn’t one bit easy. After bouncing six dimes and winning nothing, I started having second thoughts. But then the fellow with the whispering tattoo told me not to worry. “You’re bound to win soon!” he promised. “Honest.”

And so went the two dollars I had set aside for food and return bus fare. But all wasn’t lost, I reasoned. If I won a bird soon, I would no longer need the two dollars I’d set aside for the earrings and I’d be back on budget. The next twenty dimes bounced pretty much like the first twenty. They would hit one plate, glance off another—and almost win me a bird. Almost.

As I clutched my last two dollars, I was tempted to walk straight to the jewelry store before it was too late, but then as I turned to exit from over my shoulder I heard one of the parakeets chirp, “Pretty bird!” In retrospect I believe the exclamation did indeed sound like “Pretty bird!” but only if spoken through missing teeth. In any case, I cashed in for twenty more chances to win the best present any kid had ever given his mom for Mother’s Day!

The three-mile walk home was a dismal one. I hadn’t eaten anything, I didn’t get to ride anything, I had no money, no earrings, no bird, and worst of all, boy, was I going to get a lecture!

As I trudged down the dirt road that led home, my next-door neighbor, George Lockhart, drove up in his milk truck. George arose every day at the crack of dawn and delivered milk to the front doors of various families around town. He was now on his way home. Normally I would have been thrilled to hitch a ride with George—you know, ride up front with a guy wearing a cool milkman uniform; maybe he’d even give me a fudgesicle. But not this day. I had just suffered the great parakeet debacle of 1954.

As I told Mr. Lockhart about my failed attempt to win my mother a bird, I explained how I had lost my entire six dollars to a game that looked ever so easy but was probably impossible to win. George nodded knowingly but didn’t say a word. Eventually, when we arrived at his house, Mr. Lockhart turned to me and said, “I’ve done you a good turn by giving you a ride home, would you do something for me? I’ve just had a new load of wood delivered and I need some of it chopped into kindling.” Then he handed me an ax.

Things were looking up. I wouldn’t have to go home and face the music—at least not right away—plus, I’d get to swing an ax. Now, before you go all safety-conscious on me, let me remind you that this was in 1954. Back then, eight-year-old boys went to the carnival unescorted, walked long distances alone, and yes, they even swung the occasional ax. Well, I did anyway.

After a couple of hours of fevered chopping, Mr. Lockhart reappeared, gave my stack of kindling a nod of approval, and said it was getting dark so I should go home. As I turned down the path that led to what would certainly be a stinging lecture, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked around and there stood Mr. Lockhart. In his right hand he was holding six one-dollar bills. “This is for the work you did,” George explained. Then he handed me the money, turned on his heel, and walked away.

Six dollars! It was a miracle! It was exactly what I had lost! I could hardly wait to get home and tell Mom what had happened.

When I returned to town the next morning, I made a beeline to the jewelry store and bought the earrings Mom wanted. (She wore them on special occasions for over fifty years.) When I made my way over to the carnival, I didn’t let myself walk within a half-block of the parakeets. I knew I’d be too weak to resist the temptation. Instead, I bought a wad of cotton candy, purchased an unlimited ride pass, and spun myself into oblivion.

I learned several lessons that day, but I think the most interesting one is about influence. When someone you know does something really stupid and your natural inclination is to lay on a lecture and lay it on thick—think about George. He knew better than to smugly point out my obvious poor choices. Before launching into the traditional diatribe laced with “what were you thinking?” and “hard-earned money,” he correctly assessed the situation. He realized my intentions had been pure and that I had most certainly learned my lesson, so instead of lecturing me or preventing me from trying again, he gave me a second chance. What a wonderful idea. He gave me a do-over.

Sometimes it’s just what the milkman ordered.