Crucial Accountability QA

When Others Refuse to Communicate

Dear Crucial Skills,
I have attended Crucial Conversations Training and try to practice the skills, but it’s difficult when the person I am trying to communicate with doesn’t “play along.” For example, when I try to ask how he or she is feeling or why he or she feels a certain way, I receive a response such as, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t want to talk about this.” This ends the conversation and I feel stifled and defeated.

What do I do?

Playing Along

Dear Playing Along,

It is very frustrating when you want to talk something out with someone and the only response you get is, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t want to talk about this,” or worse, an icy-cold stare laced with a fake smile. I hear you. I’ve been there.

So what should you do when the other person won’t play along?

I think you have an advantage—you’re motivated and able because you’ve gone through the training and practiced your skills. Good job.

Whether it’s at work or at home, you feel the need to hold a crucial conversation and the other person won’t talk to you. He or she won’t engage and won’t “play along.” What I hope to provide here are tips that might give you some additional options for reaching dialogue with a stubborn companion.

1. Start with heart. I suggest you Start with Heart and ask yourself, “What nonverbal messages am I sending?” Sometimes we have behaviors—subtle or overt—that demonstrate our purpose or intent more loudly than our words. A common pattern is to start a conversation very pleasantly and nicely but then quickly let our emotions escalate as we press for the solution we want. Or sometimes before we even open our mouths, we enter a conversation with our eyes and gestures signaling, “I have held court in my head and found you guilty; let’s talk.” When that happens, other people don’t want to play. These kinds of patterns cause people to disengage from the conversation.

Here’s a personal example. Years ago, my third daughter found every excuse to avoid talking with me. She was fourteen years old and all I got was a cold shoulder. Finally, I asked her why she was acting that way around me, and in a tender moment, she opened up. She shared with me that no matter what I asked her—whether it was about school, friends, or something else entirely—I always, always got around to discussing just two topics, her grades and her messy room.

Sometimes, we are so good at debating that the other person prefers to disengage or stonewall rather than argue. Make sure you get your emotions in control before you open your mouth. Make sure you build Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect before you begin and work to maintain both throughout the conversation. The other person needs to know you have a mutual purpose rather than a selfish or opposing one.

2. Choose CPR. We often find that people choose the wrong topic to discuss. When having a crucial conversation, we tend to choose simple over complex; recent over distant; and easy over hard. In reality, we need to discuss the right issue instead of the most convenient one. We use the acronym CPR to help you determine what the right issue really is. C stands for content and deals with the immediate incident or concern. P stands for pattern and references the fact that the immediate incident has actually occurred more than once and probably frequently enough to make you upset. R stands for relationship and is a conversation you hold when you realize that the pattern is so pervasive and unwanted that it is now affecting your thoughts, feelings, and interactions with that person.

You need to hold a conversation not about the content, but about the pattern you’re experiencing—the way in which you two talk, or don’t talk. You need to explain the pattern you’ve noticed and how it’s affecting your relationship. I can see the conversation going like this: “Bob, every once in a while, I feel the need to talk about an issue here at work. The last two times I have tried to talk to you, you said, ‘I don’t know,’ and ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ I know having conversations about issues like budget or deadlines can be tough. I don’t want to make it tough. I want to be able to talk about these issues so we can work together in the most effective way. Why do you think it’s difficult for us to have these talks? What’s going on?”

If the person still refuses to talk, I’d ask, “Will you please think about it? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I do want to deal with some of these issues so we can work well together. Can we schedule a time tomorrow to meet and talk about our working relationship?”

3. Explore natural consequences. In Crucial Accountability, we teach the difference between imposed and natural consequences. So far, I’ve only introduced the natural consequences of being unable to communicate. Helping people understand what will happen naturally if you don’t deal with the issues is an educational step that motivates them to comply. For example, you could explain how the lack of talking about issues is affecting colleagues, deadlines, budgets, and customers. If your colleague still won’t comply, then you’d impose a consequence. In this case, you’d probably ask someone else to help or communicate the situation to your boss and ask her to convene a meeting.

4. Use your skills; keep your cool. When you have situations like the one you’ve described, it’s easy to slip into less than helpful behaviors. Make sure you avoid gossiping about the other person, getting angry and flying off the handle, or withholding information or avoiding the other person.

What you do when it matters most will determine the results you achieve, the relationships you build, and how you feel about yourself when you look in the mirror. Inviting people to dialogue, being persistent and patient, and maintaining your professionalism will eventually pay big dividends.

While I believe you can make progress and there is great potential in your relationship, I will close by saying that not all conversations work. You can’t always get into them and you can’t always get the things you want out of them. However, crucial conversations skills improve your chances of getting results and building and preserving valuable relationships.

Best wishes,

Community QA

Community Q&A: Overcoming Cultural Differences with Crucial Conversations

To help more of our readers with their crucial conversations, confrontations, and behavior change challenges, we recently introduced the Community Q&A column! Please share your answers to this reader’s question in the comments below.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

What can we do as a company to optimize our cross-cultural performance? As a multi-national corporation, our employees live in different countries and time zones, have different cultural backgrounds, and speak different languages. The situation is further complicated because we usually don’t have the luxury of face-to-face contact.

Can you share tips and examples for using Crucial Conversations to handle cultural differences?

Cultural Balancing Act

Influencer QA

Motivating Others to Take Action

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have two employees who are categorized as management yet they do not have any direct reports nor do their job descriptions indicate any responsibilities specific to management. Because it is a large company, I am unable to modify the job classification.

I would like to delegate increased responsibility to their role, but there is also an issue of trust. These two employees do not have the desire to grow as leaders. They are content with working their eight hours a day and going home. As much as I try to help them develop, they just aren’t interested.

Do you have any suggestions for motivating or developing managers?

Motivated Manager

Dear Motivated,

Thanks for describing an interesting influence challenge that many managers face. Organizations ask managers to develop their people, and the workload makes it important for people to take on larger roles, but some employees seem comfortably stuck in their status quo.

Or maybe you’re a mom or dad whose son or daughter is comfortably stuck in the status quo—or whatever you call their basement bedroom. You want your child to launch a career, but he or she doesn’t seem interested in doing what it takes.

How do you get a person who is comfortably stuck to take action?

Avoid the fundamental attribution error. When people are stuck, we have a strong tendency to blame their personal motivation. More often than not, we describe them as lacking character, willpower, grit, or determination. This bias is so strong that psychologists call it the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” However, when a person is stuck—even comfortably stuck—there is usually a lot more going on than simple laziness.

I’m not saying the employees you described aren’t lacking personal motivation. I think you described their poor initiative quite well; however, there is a good chance that personal motivation is not their only problem—it’s just the most obvious one.

Diagnose all six sources. When people are stuck, it’s usually because all Six Sources of Influence are working in combination to hold them fast. Their world is perfectly organized to create the behavior (or lack of behavior) you are currently seeing. Here are the questions we use to diagnose obstacles in all six sources:

Personal Motivation. Left in a room by themselves, would they want to take on greater responsibilities? Would they enjoy it, find it meaningful, and aspire to it as an important part of their identity? Would they take pride in it, or see it as a moral imperative? Ideas for action:

  • Invite choice. As part of the performance-management process, ask each employee to prepare a two- to three-year plan. Ask them to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) your organization and your department face. Then have them anticipate how they see your department and their jobs changing in order to take advantage of these SWOTs. Finally, have them describe what they would like to be doing in two or three years and what they need to do now in order to prepare themselves.
  • Try small steps. Identify the crucial moments when it would be most helpful for your employees to step up to greater responsibilities. Think of times, places, and circumstances when you could really use their help in a particular way for a short period of time. It will be most effective if you can include them in finding these crucial moments. People are more trusting when they discover crucial moments for themselves. Then ask for their help during these brief and occasional crucial moments.

Personal Ability. Left in a room by themselves would they have all the skills they need to feel confident taking on greater responsibilities? Do they already have the right knowledge, skill sets, experiences, training, and strength? Ideas for action:

  • Training that focuses on critical dependencies. Ask your reluctant employees to identify skill sets that are new, are becoming more important, or are in short supply. These skills would make a person indispensable. If they aren’t quick to identify these skills, work with them to identify the people in your organization who could help and ask your employees to interview them.
  • Training that fills in missing skills. Suppose your reluctant employees did accept a greater role, what parts of an expanded job would they find most difficult, tedious, or noxious? How could you skill them up so they’d be confident, efficient, and effective in these areas? We often say, “If it’s taking too much will, add some more skill!” Maybe an ounce of skill will yield another pound of motivation.

Social Motivation. Are the right people encouraging them to take on greater responsibilities? Do the peers they respect, the managers they look up to, and their family members encourage or discourage them from stepping up? Ideas for action:

  • Get them some feedback. Do they know how others see them? Most of us want to believe we are doing our fair share. Motivate change by using a 360-degree feedback tool to get feedback from their peers and customers. Make it clear that the feedback is for development—not evaluation—purposes and make sure you have solutions for whatever negative feedback they receive. Otherwise, this kind of feedback can be more demoralizing than motivating.
  • Connect them with a greater purpose. Get them involved in field trips where they meet with their internal or external customers. Make the connection as personal as possible. Have them report to your team on what they learned and on how your team can improve.

Social Ability. If your employees take on greater responsibilities, are the people around them ready to lend a hand? Do they have mentors, trainers, and peers who can give advice and step in to help? Ideas for action:

  • Make them coaches. Sometimes people step up when they become responsible for someone else’s success. Consider assigning them to work with another person in your group.

Structural Motivation. Does your organization provide incentives such as performance reviews, pay, promotions, and perks that could motivate these employees to take on greater responsibilities? Your employees’ job descriptions don’t include management activities so it’s hard to use the formal reward system, but there may be other routes to explore. Ideas for action:

  • Recognize incremental improvements. Try small assignments, projects that can be completed within a week, and then give your honest, heartfelt appreciation when they complete them. Then gradually increase the number, size, duration, and importance of these projects. Continue to show your appreciation as you deem appropriate.

Structural Ability. Is there a way to use the environment, data, tools, cues, or systems to make it easier and more convenient for these people to take on greater responsibilities? Ideas for action:

  • Discover and remove obstacles. Ask yourself (or your reluctant employees), “If you wanted to take on a few additional responsibilities, what are the biggest obstacles you would face?” One good guess would be time. If nothing else about their jobs changed, they would have to work longer, harder days. How could you change that? What could you take off their plates so they would have more time for higher-value work? Showing your flexibility may encourage them to become more flexible as well.

I hope these ideas help you generate more strategies tailored to your exact situation. Notice all these ideas involve an investment of time, energy, and thought on your part. It would be easier to write off the employees as unmotivated slugs, but that would mean abdicating your own responsibilities as a manager. It would also be a very costly write-off, since they are likely to remain on your payroll.

Whether you’re dealing with reluctant employees or a child who is still living in your basement, never lose faith! When you marshal the power of all Six Sources of Influence, you can truly change anything.