Community QA

Community Q&A: Encouraging Others to Cut Back

Because we receive so many questions from our readers each week, we unfortunately cannot answer every question in the Crucial Skills Newsletter. To help more of our readers with their crucial conversations, confrontations, and behavior change challenges, we’d like to introduce our new Community Q&A column! Each month, we’ll select a reader’s question, post it here on the blog, and invite you to share your advice and ideas. Please share your answers to this reader’s question in the comments below.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my colleagues works ten- to thirteen-hour days, even though her job does not require her to put in that many hours. She is a single, middle-aged woman and also volunteers one evening a week at a food pantry. She complains about how long she stays at work, so I have carefully encouraged her to leave on time.

I kindly told her that there are others who can take care of things and that she owes it to herself to get out of work at a reasonable hour. This is always a lose-lose conversation. She says “I know,” but her behavior does not change and she continues to complain that she “stays so late,” she is “so tired,” and “no one ever thanks me for my help.” When other employees ask me why she stays so late, I tell them I don’t know and suggest they ask her.

How can I help my friend stop playing the victim and see that leaving work on time is actually healthy and reasonable?

Full-time Friend

Update: We have received many helpful responses to Full-time Friend’s question. Thank you to everyone who has responded! Here are a few comments that summarize our readers’ advice. If you would like to read or share more advice, please do so in the comments below:

  • “This is a difficult question to answer because we are missing an essential piece of information: What is her motivation for working so late? . . . Could it be that she is not a fast worker and is concerned about meeting a productivity standard? Could she be worried about her position and wants it known that she is going the extra mile? She has a need that must be identified and fulfilled in a healthier manner.” – Julian Fountain
  • “I see this where I work as well, and also find myself falling into the habit now and then of working extra hours. I am a ‘single middle-aged woman’ – my kids are adults and independent. If I don’t have something scheduled with friends or family it’s very easy to stay at work because there is no one waiting for me at home….a rare occurance because I keep myself pretty busy to avoid this situation, and it’s more likely others complain about my ‘being too busy’.

    Your ‘friend’ may need a regular afterwork get together or activity in addition to her volunteering. I’ve taken on the task of getting we ‘single middle-aged ladies’ together once a month or so after work to share conversation and the feeling of togetherness and ‘family’ that others get at home in the evening – others (married/male) are also included. Give it a try, my guess is she needs her ‘friends from work’ more than she needs to ‘be at work’ but doesn’t know how to ask.” – Linda

  • “What exactly is it that’s bothering you? Is it the fact that she complains about working late, or something else? Whatever it is, I think it’s essential at this point that you address what is bothering you, not her . . . Just remind her that this has been going on for a while with no change. Let her know how it makes you feel, and suggest a brainstorming session regarding how you can help change whatever you or she needs to change to improve the situation.” – Dave
Crucial Accountability QA

Confronting a Coworker's Temper Tantrums

Joseph Grenny 

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I am having a hard time dealing with a coworker/friend. She has a big heart and will do anything to help anyone. The problem is her temper. If something does not go her way or someone does something she does not agree with, she throws a temper tantrum like you have never seen before. She yells and cusses like a sailor and does not care who hears her. She is constantly on the backs of the people who work here and rips into the other managers weekly.

We all really like her and know she gets stressed easily, but we can’t handle her temper tantrums anymore. We have all tried to talk to her about this but nothing seems to sink in. She thinks it is funny and will tell you quickly that it is our fault not hers. Now people and even her friends are shying away from her, and it is getting harder and harder to work with her. How can we get her to stop throwing a fit and still keep a good working relationship and friendship?

Punching Bag

A Dear Punching Bag,

Okay, buckle your seatbelt, because I have a strong dose of feedback for you to hear. Please know that all I want to do is give you a perspective that will help you solve your problem. I don’t want to offend and especially don’t want to “blame the victim.” But one thing I need to do is challenge your “victim story.”

Here goes. Ready?

The biggest problem here is that you and your colleagues are playing the victim when you have actually been enablers. If this has been going on for a long time, if she is truly behaving as abusively as you describe, and you’ve not ratcheted up your response—then you are rewarding her behavior. If you and others are shying away, then you’ve allowed her to bully you. This has to stop if her behavior is going to stop.

You and your colleagues need to take responsibility for announcing and enforcing your own boundary. You have two options. One is to turn this over to HR or her boss immediately. If this is truly an issue of abuse and you either don’t want to or can’t handle what I suggest below, then the way to take responsibility is by asking those who should be handling this to handle it.

If, on the other hand, you think it’s something you and your colleagues can and should attempt to address first, here’s how you might prepare for and hold this crucial conversation.

First, get clear in your mind that these are not “requests” or “suggestions” for her. These are absolute and inviolable boundaries you will hold her to—with associated consequences. Here are some steps to follow:

1. Gain commitment. Meet with your friends. Help them see the role you have all been playing and commit them to holding her firmly accountable.

2. One voice. Meet with her as a group. You may not need everyone to come, but you should invite someone else to meet with her so she isn’t able to minimize the points you make or rationalize her way out. Now, going in with more than one person violates safety so invite as few colleagues as possible but as many as necessary—perhaps two or three.

3. Compassion and courage. Open by explaining the reason for the discussion. Be sure to create safety, but be firm. For example, “I know this may seem kind of dramatic, but it is very important to us. We’re sorry if this seems like we’re ganging up, but since a number of us have been affected, we needed you to hear from more voices. We need you to hear us out about a concern we want to address. If we can’t address it here, we will be meeting with the boss or with HR instead. Our preference is to work it out between us. Can we have your commitment to hear us out without interruption?”

After she agrees, create a bit of safety. “We think this problem is solvable and we want to solve it. We love you and we want to continue working with you, but not under the conditions we’ve been working under. If we can solve this one problem, we hope to work with you for many years. The problem is . . .” Now lay out facts—not generalities—share the pattern, then describe two or three instances of her behavior and the effect on your relationship.

Share natural consequences so she’ll understand why you’re motivated to address this. For example, “To you this may seem like we have thin skin, but you need to know that the three of us have found ourselves shaking in our cubicles when we’ve thought about approaching you with a concern. We feel sick and I even have a hard time sleeping when . . .” Whatever the effects are, share them. Keep it brief so she’ll have a chance to respond, but be clear on how you want to move to action.

For example, “We want your agreement that you will never yell or swear at us again when you are not getting your way. We want you to take an anger management class, and if things improve, we would like to keep this between us. But if there is another infraction in the next month, we will turn this over to the boss or HR. I know that might sound like a threat—and I’m sorry if it does—but it isn’t. It’s just us taking responsibility for our actions. I feel ashamed that we’ve allowed this to go on for so long. That’s our fault, and you’ve gotten the wrong message that we think this is okay. It’s not okay. It must stop.”

I hope I don’t come across as anything but sympathetic with your plight. It’s so easy to let things slide for so long that you get used to them and lose perspective on how things really should be. Trust me, you deserve a different work climate than the one you appear to have. Give it to yourself and your colleagues by holding this crucial conversation.


Crucial Conversations QA

Coping with the Loss of a Loved One

Dear Joseph,

My husband recently passed away, and although I’m sure they don’t mean to hurt me, several of my friends and family members have made insensitive comments about my loss or the way I grieve. For example, people have told me, “It was God’s will,” and, “It’s time to get on with your life.” I know it’s hard to know what to say in this situation and I know they are trying to help, but I don’t know what to say when somebody belittles my pain. How can I respond to seemingly insensitive comments about my husband’s death?

Don’t Make it Worse

Dear Don’t Make it Worse,

I’m so sorry about your husband. I’m especially sorry that the pain you’re feeling has been compounded by others’ actions. I wish I could help with the first problem, but I hope to offer some helpful ideas for solving the second.

I wanted to offer meaningful advice, so I asked our 180,000 newsletter readers to share their perspective. I read through pages and pages of their wise and heartfelt comments, and I’d like to share a summary of the recurring insights, allowing many of our readers’ caring voices to speak to you through direct quotes.

If it’s okay, I’m going to broaden your question to three:

  1. What do people want when they’re grieving?
  2. What don’t they want?
  3. What should you do when people say or do things that don’t help?
  4. 1. What do people want when they’re grieving? They want your heart, not your brain.
    Too many times, we avoid those in pain because we aren’t sure what to say. We think we need soothing poetry laced with wisdom of the ages to spill from our mouths in order to soothe their pain. Don’t wait for inspired words, just make contact, grieve alongside them, and share the moment.

    Here are a few comments from others who have lost a loved one:

    • Don’t avoid the grieving person because you don’t know what to say. “I’m sorry for your loss” is enough. Your mere presence is enough.
    • I don’t remember anyone telling me it was okay to feel sad or lost, or to hate what breast cancer did to my mom’s little body. It would have helped if someone allowed me to grieve.
    • Simply asking how he or she is doing and saying “I care” goes a long way. When my husband died fourteen years ago, it was helpful to me when friends called and left messages to “check in on me.” I would come home from work each night and just listen to the love and concern of dear friends. I felt no need to call back; I just listened.

    When someone I love is going through shock and pain from some precipitating event (like death, job loss, etc.), I put a reminder on my schedule two weeks, two months, and six months out. People often get a flurry of support close to the incident, followed by a long quiet time. I find that going to lunch with them in these intervals allows me to be with them at times when loneliness or self-doubt can be most profound.

    2. What don’t they want? They don’t want judgment, repetition, or assignments.
    We may not realize it, but much of what we do when we try to reassure those who have lost loved ones is self-centered. Years ago, Mel Lerner described a common human motivation called the Just-World Hypothesis. We all want to believe the world is just and fair. If we work hard, eat right, exercise regularly, and do our share of house chores—life will work out. When we pass a traffic accident on the freeway, our belief in a “just world” is at risk for a moment. So somewhat reflexively, we drive slowly by the victim, scouring the scene for any evidence that it couldn’t possibly happen to us. “I bet they were texting while driving,” we might conclude as we notice a young driver. Or, “A sports car—figures. Poor fool.”

    If you’re not careful, you can respond similarly to those who have experienced the death of a loved one. We want their pain to go away so we can reassure ourselves that we can avoid pain as well. So we offer advice on grieving, judgment to help them put their pain “in perspective,” etc. Be careful, because when we feel a need to make these kinds of comments, it’s often more because we want to restore our faith in a “just world” than because we want to soothe our friend’s pain.

    Many reader comments complained of friends who offered judgment or unwanted advice rather than providing a simple connection.

    • My mother passed away last year after a fairly long illness. I struggled to get her the care and attention she needed while still managing my own life and career, so I hated when people I encountered said, “Why don’t you just do . . .?” On several occasions, I thought I was going to come over the table at the next person who authoritatively asked me why I didn’t do this or that to deal with the situation—like I was too stupid to think of the most basic, obvious solutions.
    • When I lost my seven-month-old daughter, I didn’t want any religious speech about how she was in a better place or that God had a plan for her. I just wanted (and still want) people to grieve with me.
    • At my father’s post-funeral luncheon, a friend told my stepmother that she would find herself dating again before long. I could hardly believe the insensitivity of the comment. My stepmother has struggled to forgive this person and realize it was an awkward attempt at helping her remember that in time, the pain will subside and life will take on a more routine feeling again.

    Secondly, people don’t want you to force them to review the facts of the case for the hundredth time. They also might not want to give you an emotional health report. Be aware that asking, “So what happened?” or “How are you?” can put a burden on them.

    • During my wife’s long illness, we coached friends not to ask “How are you?” as a standard greeting. This forces the patient to choose between “I’m fine, how are you?” and a discussion of the medical treatments. It’s better that friends provide a positive change by simply stating, “How nice to see you!”
    • I recommend you offer condolences and say, “I’ve been thinking about you and/or praying for you.” A simple, “I don’t know what to say” or a hug is far better than a question that I have to respond to such as, “How are you?”

    Finally, don’t give them an assignment. When we’re at a loss for what to say we often end with, “If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.” If you really want to do something, think. Stop and think about everything you know about their life. Where do they live? What little chores do they have to do to make it through a day? What extra tasks will now fall on them because of the loss? Empathize as best you can until you find some proactive task you can do to communicate real compassion. It won’t matter if it’s the perfect idea; it just matters that you take initiative rather than assign them to involve you. They rarely will, so the offer rings hollow.

    After my neighbor lost a loved one his wonderful friend showed up to mow his lawn for the next three months. Did the man want his lawn mowed? I don’t know. I do know that he felt more love from that empathic gesture than if his neighbor had said, “What can I do?”

    Here’s a comment from one of our readers:

    • I so appreciated those who just did things for me and didn’t ask me to “give them a call if I needed something.” Most of the time, I couldn’t think of what I needed or didn’t have the energy to make the call to ask.

    3. What should you do when people say or do things that don’t help?
    Our readers gave great advice about dealing with insensitive comments that came down to three wise suggestions:

    First, be proactive. When you know you’re feeling very sensitive, tell people what you do and don’t want. One wise father avoided a whole lot of hurt feelings by just making it safe to grieve and feel differently—and encouraging his kids to let each other know what worked for them.

    • When my mother passed away, my father made it very clear that each family member would come to terms with our mother’s passing in different ways and times. He went on to say that “Grieving is a process and not an event. Each person had a different relationship with Mom and all of you have a different relationship with each other. We may say things without thinking them through, so please be sensitive and know there may be misunderstandings. Everyone needs to be patient with each other because we really don’t know what the other person is truly thinking.”

    The most common piece of advice was to Master Your Story. Realize as you grieve that even those who make annoying comments are trying to deal with real emotions—yours or theirs. Let them be imperfect.

    • I don’t hold much store by what people said. Honestly, it’s only words and it’s often a sign that people feel awkward. It’s silly clinging onto words when none of it matters. Dying is part of life and none of us have the answers for doing it gracefully, we just have to get through it the best we can.
    • When others are insensitive, don’t take it personally. Try to understand that they don’t mean any harm. They just don’t know what to do. Make this the new story you tell yourself.

    Finally, if you need to give others boundaries in what they say, do it quickly before you build up too much resentment. It’s perfectly fine to politely, but firmly, let people know what you don’t want.

    • When faced with insensitive comments, perhaps you could respond, “We all wish circumstances had not led to this end. I am not focusing on how my husband died, but that he is now gone. Your comments on how and why he died do not change the fact that I have lost my husband and my world has changed.”
    • My mother died recently. While we weren’t particularly close, I loved her very much and miss her dearly. Every time this subject came up in a conversation with my boss, she would say, “I know you weren’t very close to your mom . . .” It was time for a crucial conversation, so I asked to meet with her. I expressed to her how much I appreciated her support through my bereavement. I then asked her if I could request something of her that would be very important to my healing process. I said, “Could you please not mention that I wasn’t very close to my mom. I know you mean well, but it makes me feel bad and right now I want to focus on the good parts of our relationship.” It was a great lesson for both of us.

    Thank you for raising this question. The pain you feel right now is universal. You’ve given all of us a gift by sharing the question at this tender time by letting us think about ways to offer greater and more useful love and support during one of life’s most poignant experiences.

    We compiled many of our readers’ wonderful and helpful comments and would like to share them with you. Please visit us on Facebook to download our free e-book, How to Talk About the Loss of a Loved One: Dos and Don’ts of Comforting Others.

    With love,