Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
In my day job, I am a consultant. However, in the evenings I train with a very knowledgeable and inspiring martial arts instructor. I have never learned as much or been as happy working with someone.
However, his business management habits do not set him up for success. He doesn’t maintain his website; his school has several names and logos that change from reference to reference; and he doesn’t record when or if people pay him. There is evidence he and his family sometimes run out of money before the end of the month.
While he is friendly and open, I feel like our life experiences and difference in age (he’s my senior by twenty years) mean that he would take my attempt to help as butting in. I am also certain his way of doing things made sense once upon a time. How can I help him while remaining respectful of his experience?
Many crucial conversations are complicated by differences in age or social status—direct report to boss, child to parent, student to teacher, and junior to senior. These differences are complicated by our expectations as to what is appropriate communication and what is not, and frequently those expectations are not clearly defined.
In your situation, it sounds like there is a clear teacher/student relationship, but for you to assume the role of teaching your teacher is awkward. Furthermore, it seems that to you, the twenty-year difference in age creates unclear expectations.
The essential condition to create in your crucial conversation is Mutual Respect. From your description of the relationship, I can see that a great deal of respect already exists. Build on that respect and create new expectations by using a few simple skills.
Begin by asking for his permission to discuss a personal situation. You might say, “Sensei, may I talk with you about an important issue that doesn’t have anything to do with my training?” Asking for permission alerts your teacher that the topic you wish to discuss is outside your normal interactions. If he agrees to talk or wants to know the subject, introduce the topic of your conversation. “I’ve been blessed by your gifts to me and I want you to continue to give them to others. I have some ideas I’d like to share with you that will help the business side of your enterprise. May I discuss that with you?”
If he declines, contrast to share your good intentions. “I don’t want to presume to tell you how to run your business. That isn’t my place. I do want to share some ideas that will reduce your worries and help your business succeed into the future.”
If he says “no,” do not continue, but look for opportunities to talk this over in the future, after he has thought about your words.
If he expresses interest in your invitation, begin by using your STATE skills.
Share your facts. Factually describe what you have seen. For example, “I’ve noticed you receive payment from your students, but do not record when you receive them or when the payments are due.”
Tell your story. Tell him what you are assuming as a result. “I’m wondering if the business side of your work gets less attention and that maybe better tracking would give you more income.”
Ask for his point-of-view. “Am I seeing this correctly? Do you see it differently?”
Talk tentatively. Be clear that your purpose is not to challenge your friend. You are not trying to hurt, humiliate, or judge. Your purpose is to create enough Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose to make it safe for your teacher to consider your ideas.
Encourage testing. Your questions, “Am I seeing this correctly?” and “Do you see it differently?” test your stories and your perceptions. Perhaps you are missing something. You want to create mutual understanding, not convince or compel. Be open. Listen well and entertain the possibility that your view is not the whole truth.
Using these simple skills with the intent to help, not hurt, increases the likelihood that your teacher will hear you out and won’t be offended. If not during this single conversation, then over time as you respectfully and consistently communicate that you are trying to help him.
All the best,